Book Review: The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy February 24, 2015 23:00

By John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, 484 pp. 

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Reviewed by Paul Findley

Abraham Lincoln ducked when religion surfaced during his successful campaign for Congress in 1846. Asked about a controversial Mormon village nearby, he responded with a story: “This reminds me of the farmer who confronted a tree trunk in the center of a field he was plowing. It was too green to burn, too twisted to split, and too heavy to haul away. What did he do? He plowed around it.”

Lincoln knew religion was a touchy issue, so he plowed around it. In contrast, John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard, distinguished professors in distinguished universities, plow straight into the most politically sensitive religious issue of this era—the phenomenal, harmful influence of a foreign religious state, Israel, in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy.

The volume they have co-authored, The Israel Lobby, is a comprehensive study of the staggering damage to U.S. national interest by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other pro-Israel advocacy groups. In it, they set a new standard of political bravery by proposing that further U.S. aid be conditioned on Israel withdrawing from Arab territory seized in June 1967 and on its “willingness to conform its policies to American interests.” During the past 40 years, no president or serious presidential candidate of either party has hinted—on or off the record—that even minor conditions should be put on aid to Israel. In my close experience in the thicket of Middle East politics during those years, I could count on the fingers of one hand the candidates for any office that daring. The professors are brave pioneers.

Unlike Lincoln in 1846, neither Mearsheimer nor Walt was or is a candidate for public office, but they wrote this book with their eyes wide open, fully warned by recent events that any major document presenting criticism of Israel will stir passions strong enough to threaten any career, academic or otherwise. A year earlier, their study paper on the same theme as their book, first rejected by the Atlantic Monthly magazine, was published by theLondon Review of Books. Widely circulated through the Internet, and reprinted by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, it prompted both caresses and cuffs. The latter even included reckless charges of anti-Semitism from Zionists like Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz who seem to think only with their glands when Israel is criticized.

Instead of retreating to the relative obscurity of thick ivy, Mearsheimer and Walt stood their ground without flinching, answered their critics, defended their analysis and conclusions, and spent most of the next year expanding the study paper’s theme into a book that deserves the attention of every thoughtful citizen.

A few of its gems:

“Pressure from Israel and the lobby was not the only factor behind the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was a crucial element.

“...the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it has long been so supportive of Israel.

“...bin Laden and his deputies clearly see the issue of Palestine as central to their agenda...

“Israel’s ability to defy the United States—and even to get Washington to allow its preferred approach to dealing with the Palestinians—offers a classical illustration of interest group politics at work...

“Backing Israel against the Palestinians makes winning the war on terror harder, not easier.

“...Israel’s l.36 million non-Jews are de facto treated as second-class citizens.

“Smearing critics of Israel or the lobby with the charge of anti-Semitism works to marginalize them in the public arena.”

The book details the terrible human and monetary cost to the American people of permitting Israel, through its U.S. lobby, to manipulate U.S. Middle East policy. The intrepid pair shuns ambiguity and reaches firm conclusions on almost every topic. They demolish the extensive mythology about Israel in 355 pages of easy-read text, buttressed by 106 pages of small-font reference notes. The language is plain and devoid of confrontational prose. The authors take care to assure the reader that they do not consider the lobby a part of a cabal or conspiracy, but their book is a veritable bombshell that should arouse the sleepiest citizen to political action.

Especially impressive is the book’s examination of the Israel lobby’s crucial role in the build-up for the U.S. assault on Iraq and its pressures for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. While the rest of the world protested strongly, lobby activity prompted Congress and the Bush administration to support and publicly endorse Israel’s bloody, destructive invasion of Lebanon in 2006. The text shows that oil interests played no significant role at any stage in the buildup for the war against Iraq. The authors lament U.S. failure to stop or even moderate Israel’s long years of brutal and humiliating treatment of Palestinians, a record that the authors find largely responsible for anti-American sentiment worldwide, especially among Muslims.

For me, the book is gratifying déjà vu, bringing memories from 22 years ago when my book, They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby, plowed virgin territory similar to that visited by Mearsheimer and Walt. Zionist critics frequently demanded the right to share platforms with me—and usually succeeded. I was frequently called anti-Semitic and, after a campus lecture, a young man loudly identified me as “the new Adolf Hitler.” Still, my book enjoyed wide and generally favorable reviews, and its sales now top 300,000. I hope the professors’ volume will reach a much larger audience.

For 40 years, our government has pursued an Israel-centric foreign policy. The path is littered with many of thousands of needless deaths and maimed lives, not to mention the squandering of more than a trillion dollars from the U.S. Treasury. Perhaps the greatest casualty is America’s reputation. Once revered worldwide, America is now reviled.

The authors write: “The situation, which has no equal in American history, is due primarily to the activities of the Israel lobby.” Because of the lobby’s skill in influencing public discourse, the American people, for the most part, remain unaware that these calamities could have been avoided if our government had refused to subordinate its own interests to those of Israel.

Mearsheimer and Walt summon our citizens to action. I believe their book will go far in helping America retrace its steps to the high ground of moral leadership where it belongs.

Paul Findley, a member of Congress (R-IL) from 1961-83, has written three books on Middle East affairs, including They Dare to Speak Out, for seven weeks a Washington Post bestseller. Published by Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press, it is available from the AET Book Club. The author resides in Jacksonville, IL.