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London Review of Books Hosts NYC Debate on “The Israel Lobby”

By Jane Adas, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 13.01.07

THE LONDON REVIEW of Books (LRB) hosted a Sept. 28 debate on “The Israel Lobby: Does it have too much influence on U.S. foreign policy?” in New York City’s Great Hall of Cooper Union. Panelists included Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, co-author with Steven Walt of the controversial article on the Israel lobby that appeared in the LRB’s March 2006 issue (and reprinted in the “Other Voices” supplement to the May/June 2006 Washington Report). Supporting the article’s thesis that the Israel lobby has undue influence on U.S. policy in the Middle East were Professors Tony Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at New York University (see p. 22 of this issue), and Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute.
Taking issue with the Mearsheimer-Walt article were former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, and Dennis Ross, who was President Bill Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator. Indyk was formerly research director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel’s behemoth Washington, DC lobby, and served as President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser on Arab-Israeli Issues. Ross directed Near East and South Asian affairs for the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan and is a foreign affairs analyst for Fox News. Both men are fellows at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the AIPAC-spinoff think tank.
Moderator Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, opened the debate by asking if the Walt/Mearsheimer article is anti-Semitic. All three critics argued that it was. Ben-Ami said that because the article focuses on a single cause, it scapegoats Jews as manipulating innocent U.S. administrations. Ross and Indyk criticized the article’s definition of the lobby—as “loosely organized groups working assiduously for Israel”—for being so broad as to suggest a cabal and dual loyalty among American Jews. Indyk said it would have been better had “AIPAC, Likudniks and Christian Zionists” been substituted for “lobby,” while Ross pointed out that some of the biggest critics of the “peace process” were neoconservatives.
Mearsheimer countered that he and Walt made it clear that there are divisions within the lobby, that not all Jews support the lobby, and added that they never mentioned dual loyalty because it is perfectly acceptable for people to have multiple loyalties. According to Judt, the reaction to anyone writing about Israel is not “what is the truth?” but an accusation of anti-Semitism, which abruptly ends the conversation. There are hundreds of lobbies that seek to influence policy, Judt pointed out, but this is the only one that actively tries to silence criticism. Khalidi agreed, saying that with issues like gun control and abortion there are two obvious sides, but when it comes to Israel, only one side is presented in Congress and the media.
The Israel lobby is the only one that actively tries to silence criticism.
Indyk and Ross took exception to the LRB article’s suggestion that the Israel lobby was responsible for taking the U.S. to war in Iraq. Indyk acknowledged that some neoconservatives were definitely pro-war, but weren’t all Jewish. He accused the authors of being biased for not considering the roles of the president and vice president, the oil lobby and the Arab states. He and Ben-Ami pointed out that Israelis view Iran as a bigger threat than Iraq. Mearsheimer responded that Israel views Iran, Iraq and Syria all as threats and assumed they would be handled sequentially.
In addressing the question of AIPAC’s effect on U.S. policy, Indyk conceded that it has at times constrained the U.S. in ways that have been counterproductive, such as refusing to deal with the PLO prior to Oslo and pushing for the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which split the U.S. from its European allies. Khalidi cited as another example legislation labeling Hamas a terrorist organization. Ben-Ami agreed, but said the obstacle is not the lobby, but elected leaders: Olmert and Bush.
In response to Slaughter’s question about the extent of AIPAC’s power, Ben-Ami posited that lobbies succeed only if they go along with an administration’s policy. As an example of an AIPAC failure, he mentioned the first President Bush standing up to the lobby over the issue of loan guarantees. Mearsheimer replied that Bush, Sr. eventually caved in on the loan guarantees.
Ross: “Yes, but we imposed conditions.”
Mearsheimer: “Yet settlements continued to expand, even more under Labor governments.”
Ben-Ami: “Many U.S. leaders thought in order to be able to influence Israeli policy, opposing settlements was too great a political price.”
Indyk: “You can’t stop the settlements. Israeli administrations are hostage to the settlements.”
Judt replied that the issue is not whether the U.S. can make a country do its bidding, but how it takes a position to show displeasure. The U.S., he said, is capable of exerting enormous pressure, as it did on the European Union regarding the International Court of Justice. But it fails to pressure Israel, he stated, citing as an example that, although many Americans were critical of Israel’s invasion into Lebanon, the U.S. delayed calling for a cease-fire. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s comment that Israel’s Lebanon war represented “the birth pangs of a new Middle East” was, according to Judt, profoundly disastrous for the U.S. because it was seen as simultaneously complicit and weak.
Judt thinks it not possible to have a public conversation in the U.S. about whether American and Israeli interests converge. For many American Jews, he said, criticism of Israel is somehow un-American, anti-Semitic and irrational. In his closing remarks, Khalidi charged the U.S. with applying its values selectively. We are for democracies, he noted, but not Hamas in Palestine; all men are equal, but Palestinians less so than Israelis; we have supported self-determination for Israel since the 1947 U.N. partition resolution, but not for Palestine.
What if Women Ruled?
Lilly Rivlin, president of Meretz USA, moderated a Sept. 21 conversation in New York between Palestinian Lily Habash and Israeli Galia Golan. The title was taken from Rivlin’s mentor, former Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY): “What if Women Ruled? Would it make a difference?” What, Rivlin inquired, has been the experience of women involved in negotiations and peace activism?
Habash participated in the Permanent Status Negotiations with Israel and was a member of the Palestinian Technical Support Unit in economic negotiations. During the Paris Protocol negotiations, she said she cried because of the disparity between weak, stateless Palestinians and the strong Israeli state. Palestinians assumed that negotiations would lead to a viable, independent state, Habash said, but came to realize that, with no control over their borders or resources, they could do no better than limited self-rule.
Now, after the second intifada, Israel’s re-occupation of the West Bank, its siege of Gaza and boycott of the Hamas government, Habash said she sees no solution. Palestinians are being ethnically cleansed and driven to be beggars, she said, noting that, as a civil servant, she has received no salary for seven months. How do you build up civil society in a constructive way, she asked, when there is no food on the table, youths are arrested and shot, checkpoints are everywhere and Gaza is bombed daily? In these circumstances peace activists are greeted with scepticism. Habash said she would like to see a trial period to relax a while, build a better economic life and give the new Hamas government a chance.
Although Meretz USA strongly supports the Geneva accords, Habash criticized the proposal for failing to include a clear recognition of Israel’s moral and ethical responsibility and offering no compensation for Palestinian suffering. Both are necessary for reconciliation and building a sustainable relationship—not, Habash specified, with American Jews, but with Israelis who live there.
Professor Golan, a co-founder of Peace Now and a founder-leader of Bat Shalom, suggested that women perceive “security” differently than men. For the latter, it’s about weapons and force, she elaborated, but for women it is about preventing human suffering. Golan described the Geneva accords as “a male document” and agreed with Habash that certain elements were missing: human rights, a grass roots approach dealing with peoples’ grief and hope, and acknowledgment that Israel’s glory is Palestine’s nakba, or catastrophe.
Golan said she supports international action leading to immediate, serious negotiations about permanent status issues because “we have had enough of processes.” In the wake of the summer war the time may be right, she added, because for the first time Israel has agreed to an international force, which could be a model for a future Israeli/Palestinian border, and the war demonstrated that unilateralism has no future. Golan considers the Arab League Initiative as something Israel could accept, because it promises an end to the conflict and normal relations between all Arab states and Israel. Less acceptable to Israel are its calls for the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders and solving the refugee problem according to U.N. Resolution 194. Golan suggested the former could be dealt with through land swaps, and noted that the text of the latter includes “by an agreed-upon solution,” meaning Israel would have a say. She concluded that the Arab League Initiative makes no demands on Israel that it could not meet.
Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.