Review of Meirsheimer and Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, published in The Political Quarterly, 2008

John J. Meirsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, London: Allen Lane, 2007, 484 pp, £25, ISBN 978-1-846-14007-5

Many readers will have caught the trail of The Israel Lobby, the expansion of Meirsheimer and Walt’s controversial London Review of Books article – published here in 2006 after the Stateside Atlantic Monthly refused in 2005 to print the article that it had first commissioned in 2002. Theirs was an important political intervention, an argument that US foreign policy towards Israel had been shifted radically from what American national interests require, and that this distortion was due to the activities of the coalition of pro-Israeli lobbying interests at work in US politics. The article was all the more effective because of the authors’ academic credibility, mainstream politics and careful argument. It earned them the accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’, and indeed abuse, that all critics of Israel in the USA expect, but the authors have not been deterred from publishing this much more comprehensive restatement.

The Israel Lobby is an authoritative work. It argues from the conventional Realist assumption that national interests should dictate foreign policy to the effect that US policies serve what Israeli leaders want, in ways that often ‘jeopardize US national security’ and, indeed, even damage Israel’s own best interests. Extremely methodically, carefully and cogently, Meirsheimer and Walt build their case as to how the lobby operates, guides the policy process, and dominates public discourse. They demonstrate its (malign) influence on US policy not only towards the Palestinians, but on Iraq, Syria, Iran and during the Second Lebanon War, taking their stories up to 2007. Although this reviewer is not an Israel, Middle East or US foreign policy specialist, I do not recall reading a more judicious survey of the range of major Middle East issues and the interaction of Israeli and US policies. The authors have researched scrupulously, documenting their arguments at every stage (there are over 100 pages of notes and references); their writing is a model of economy and indeed of balance, since at every stage they are careful to present the arguments of Israeli advocates and US policy-makers before patiently demolishing them. While in a work of this size critics are bound to find points to argue with, it seems unlikely that those who share its main assumption – that US policy should reflect American interests – will be able to seriously damage its critique, which will stand for some time as the standard work on its subjects. One area of particular importance is the meticulous account of the links between the Israel lobby and the neoconservatives in and around the Bush administration. If there is an analytical issue on which Meirsheimer and Walt’s argument can be questioned on its own terms, it must be about where the balance of influence has lain during the Bush years. Israeli advocates have functioned greatly (although not exclusively: they have always maintained wider links) as adjuncts of and contributors to the neocon consensus. One would welcome the authors’ turning their attention directly to the latter, since despite all the attention the neocon lobby have gained, an equally comprehensive critique of it has still to be written.

The Israel Lobby should also be evaluated, however, as a political intervention. Its authors are realistic about the scale of the task they face. Although the bonding of the lobby with the neocons is seen as a major source of its recent ‘successes’ (since these include the Iraq and Lebanon wars the inverted commas are obligatory), Meirsheimer and Walt are under no illusions that Bush’s demise will seriously change the lobby’s influence. All the major Democratic as well as Republican contenders in 2008 are in its thrall to a greater or lesser extent, and the organisations within the lobby are clearly very reflexive and adaptable. Although former presidents Carter and Bush Senior showed some independence from Israel, the prospects of a US president being elected who will ‘treat Israel as a normal state’, remove its large subsidies, work towards a just settlement with the Palestinians and pursue negotiated settlements with Syria and Iran – all of which the authors plausibly claim are what the US national interest really requires – are slim. In the end the authors’ hopes for reorientation in the USA rest on developments which, however important in themselves, remain modest in scope at the time of writing: the development of critical scholarly and journalistic discourse and of more enlightened voices within the Jewish and pro-Israeli communities themselves. The Israel Lobby will contribute to these developments and, given its very accessible writing, deserves to be widely taken up on course lists and by a wider public, but the shift in US policy that Meirsheimer and Walt wish to see will not occur without dramatic external events which wake up the US electorate (whose underlying attitudes are far more critical of Israel than those of the political class) to the extent of policy failure.

Indeed, although Meirsheimer and Walt’s Realist assumptions and mainstream politics take them a long way, they are ultimately inadequate. Their otherwise impressive critique of the ‘dwindling moral case’ for the US‘s uncritical support of Israel fudges the justification for the state’s foundation. This, they argue, was ‘an appropriate response’ to the suffering of the Jews in Europe and the ‘long record of crimes’ against them: ‘This history provides a strong moral case for supporting Israel‘s founding and continued existence.’ (p. 92) Since they comprehensive demonstrate – from impeccable Israeli sources – that the foundation of the state was always recognised as necessarily involving the removal of the majority of the Palestinian Arab population, the sufferings of European Jews did not provide a sufficient moral case for Israel‘s foundation. Since the Israeli state was consolidated in 1948 by murderous expulsion, which Meirsheimer and Walt call ‘ethnic cleansing’ but which could equally be called ‘genocide’ in terms of the UN Convention adopted later the same year (and on this question I do claim particular expertise, as the author of two books on genocide), this is a perverse argument. Israel‘s continued existence may of course justified by the facts of settlement by subsequent generations and the protection of its people from violence, but these are different arguments. The authors also do not fully acknowledge the wider debate (increasingly questioning the two-state solution) which is taking place about how Palestinians and Israelis can coexist in the twenty-first century in the area of Mandate Palestine.

Finally, Meirsheimer and Walt’s argument that Israel should be treated merely as a ‘normal state’ begs the question of how to recognise that animal, and whether on any plausible definition Israel can claim to be one. Are ‘normal states’ based on ‘ethnic cleansing’ or genocide? (Well, actually, too many states are.) Do ‘normal states’ maintain decades-long occupations of neighbouring lands, allow their inhabitants only ‘bantustans’, develop nuclear weapons in defiance of international law, and urge the sole superpower into repeated wars against their neighbours? There is a strong case that Israel should be treated as a ‘rogue’ rather than ‘normal’ polity. Moreover there is another unexamined assumption: that the USA itself is, or at least could be, a ‘normal state’ and a rational promoter of international order and morality. Here too much of the evidence has long been pointing the other way. The USA has enormous power in the Middle East but the assumption that it possesses the key to the conflict is increasingly doubtful.

Martin Shaw
University of Sussex

1 thought on “Review of Meirsheimer and Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, published in The Political Quarterly, 2008”

  1. i have another question. why USa can afford such war with iran for money, russia can afford war with chechnya for same reasons? but israel cant fight for its own life?

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