Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
John Mersheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy offers a brilliant account of US economic and military support to Israel, writes Richard Kuper. Its flaws lie not in an alleged anti-semitism, but in overstating the influence of the lobby over a US administration that is out of step on a broad range of foreign policy issues.
This book arose out of a long article, originally commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly in 2002, developed in close consultation with Atlantic’s editors and delivered in January 2005 – only to be rejected. Published in the London Review of Books in March 2006 it immediately provoked a firestorm of criticism: here were renowned academics giving credence to what many critics saw as at best a misguided thesis, at worst an openly anti-semitic one.
What is the book saying? Centrally, that US policy in the Middle East runs counter to its ‘national interest’, arising neither from strategic nor moral concerns. It can be understood only as the result of the power of the Israel lobby, ‘a loose coalition of individuals and groups that seeks to influence American foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that will benefit Israel’ (page viii).
Many, on both left and right, eager to explain apparent unstinting US support for Israel have embraced the argument.
There is reason to be cautious, even before reading a single word. The authors are not bleeding-heart liberals but highly respected, hardnosed bruisers, hawkish members of what is known as the neo-realist school of international relations (IR): a state-centric approach which focuses on states as rational, self-interested actors seeking to maximise their relative power. This is not how even moderate progressives wish to see states act in the modern world. International law and human rights are central to progressive approaches, and not, as perceived by this school of IR, likely barriers to the pursuit of rational state interest. Mearsheimer himself comes from the heart of the system, a West Point graduate who served for five years as an officer in the US air force.
All this should give us pause. Yet, there is a case to answer, as shown in the first part of the book, which establishes the general parameters of the argument, particularly in its stunning opening chapter ‘The great benefactor’. This shows in detail the quite extraordinary economic and military support the US gives to Israel, let alone its ‘diplomatic protection and wartime support’. It is by far the best thing I’ve seen on the topic.
‘Israel became the largest annual recipient of US foreign assistance in 1976, a position is has retained ever since’ receiving ‘about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year … roughly one-sixth of America’s direct foreign assistance budget.’ About three-quarters is military aid, the rest economic. It amounts to a direct subsidy of more than $500 per year for each Israeli. Egypt, number two recipient of American foreign aid, receives only $20 per head. Furthermore, ‘the canonical $3 billion figure omits a substantial number of other benefits and thus significantly understates the actual level of US support’ – estimated at ‘more than $4.3 billions’ ‘because Israel gets its aid under more favourable terms than most other recipients of US assistance’.
For example, ‘since 1982, the annual foreign aid bill has included a special clause specifying that Israel is to receive its entire annual appropriation in the first 30 days of the fiscal year’ – an early transfer costing the US taxpayer an extra $50-60 million per annum. And while the foreign military financing programme normally requires recipients to spend military assistance in the US, Israel has a special exemption to spend around a quarter on its own defence industries. ‘Remarkably, Israel is the only recipient of US economic aid that does not have to account for how it is spent’ (all quotes, pages 26-28). And on it goes.
This ‘singling out’ of Israel and the host of tax supports and financial breaks it receives from the US really does require explanation.
Chapter Two argues that while support for Israel may have had some strategic value in the cold war, this is definitely no longer the case, whether in the ‘war on terror’ or in confronting rogue states. As Mearsheimer and Walt (MW) put it provocatively (page 64): ‘The United States did not form an alliance with Israel because it suddenly realised that it faced a serious danger from “global terrorism” and urgently needed Israel’s help to defeat it. In fact, the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it has been so long supportive of Israel.’ Chapter Three argues that there is a dwindling moral case for supporting Israel and the next three chapters look at what the ‘Israel lobby’ is and how it works both within the political structures and in attempting to direct the wider national debate.
The second half of the book is devoted to the lobby in action: against the Palestinians, on Iran, Syria and the Lebanon war. In each case the authors argue that the Israel lobby very effectively steers such actions, outside US interests. For example (page 334), ‘It kept the United States firmly aligned with Israel during the [second Lebanon war] conflict, despite the strategic costs and dubious moral position this entailed’.
Finally, there is the briefest what is to be done which entails identifying US interests in the Middle East, outlining a strategy to protect them and, in turn, developing a new relationship with Israel.
Two lines of critique have been advanced against MW’s argument: first, that their conception of the ‘Israel lobby’ is at best misleading, at worst antisemitic; and second, that insofar as the lobby exists, it doesn’t have the power they claim for it. I will add a third: their very notion of the American ‘national interest’.
The original article was heavily criticised for having presented ‘the lobby’ in conspiratorial terms. In fact ‘the lobby’ is conceived of in reasonably nuanced terms. The centrality of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations is recognised, as is the role of the Christian Zionists, Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Above all, the legitimacy of lobbying in the US political system is fully recognised and affirmed. The argument is not that anything wrong, unusual or conspiratorial is being done, simply that the lobby is too damned good at it for America’s – or indeed Israel’s – own good.
Though the concept of ‘the lobby’ is sometimes deployed by MW as an actor that ‘has concerns’ (page 168), ‘a desire to mould debate’ (page 178) and so on, this seems to me reasonable shorthand. They make it quite clear that they view it, as already cited, as ‘a loose coalition of individuals and groups that seeks to influence American foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that will benefit Israel’. Just because they don’t continually repeat this point, they are not suggesting that there is a central committee that issues instructions to its members.
They do say, however, that a critic of Israeli policy ‘stands a good change of getting labelled an anti-semite’. Exaggerated perhaps, but far from fanciful in a situation where Norman Finkelstein was recently refused tenure at DePaul University after a vicious campaign spearheaded by Alan Dershowitz; where Shulamit Reinharz, a senior professor at Brandeis, can label a host of Jews critical of Israel as ‘Jewish anti-semites’; or where Pluto Press was threatened with having its book distribution arrangements with the University of Michigan Press terminated because of objections to its publication of Joel Kovel’s Zionism and its Discontents.
And among those central to the campaigns of vilification of radical critics of Israel are members of Aipac, the ADL and so on – central components in any conception of the ‘Israel lobby’.
Alan Dershowitz’s response to MW in the London Review of Books (20 April 2006) is revealing: ‘It is the “music” as well – the tone, pitch and feel of the article – that has caused such outrage.’ It seems to me that Dershowitz and the like are tone deaf or, rather, can hear only one tone – that of vindictive anti-semitism. And it doesn’t even have to exist for them to hear it. So while they aver that ‘legitimate’ criticism of Israel is always justified, their assumption in advance is that criticism is likely to be suspect.
The real criticism of MW is that they ascribe far too much influence to ‘the lobby’ in the formulation of US foreign policy towards the Middle East. Blaming the Israel lobby for the war in Iraq, say, simply lets the administration off the hook. If the administration is out of step with most western governments over Middle East policy, it is, too, over Kyoto or the decades-long embargo against Cuba. If the Iraq war was motivated by a desire ‘in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure’ (page 231) by ending the threat of terror, it has been singularly ineffective. Nor did the US have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into reluctant support for Israel in the Lebanon war in 2006 – however much its failure may be against both Israel’s and America’s interests.
MW have a simplistic view of what America’s real interests are. When the US administration does not pursue what MW want, they feel obliged to blame the Israel lobby. A simpler explanation is that the administration sees the national interest differently. For in reality, the ‘national interest’ is never clear and unambiguous. It is always contested: by fractions of capital, by cliques in administrations, by NGOs and other agents. Never has this been truer than with regard to the neocon agenda. And while this agenda might have focused on Middle East policy, its aims are much wider.
Political analysts often claim to perceive the national interest better than the government of the day, but governments are rarely single-minded in the pursuit of what neo-realists see as their rational self-interest. Successive US governments, for example, needed no Israel lobby or its equivalent to lead them to disaster in Vietnam. Rather than there being a static, unified national interest there is a dynamic jostling over direction and winners and losers in any concrete policy direction adopted. The real talent of governments is finding ways of extracting partial victories from the disasters their own policies so often generate.
There is no simple way of saying that American Middle East policy is against America’s interests, as MW do. Yes, it alienates Arab states the US wants support from – but rarely sufficiently for the consequences to be truly upsetting; yes, it is feeding the terrorist threat rather than reducing it; yes, the US looks inconsistent in its support for human rights and international law or its opposition to nuclear proliferation.
But there are also enormous gains from the ‘irrational’ policies it has pursued: from the battlefield testing of US weapons to the tied market for US arms exports, from the ability to use Israel as a proxy in supporting dirty operations the US would rather not be openly seen as supporting (from Africa in the 1970s onwards) to the lessons Israel has been able to give the US in how to conduct irregular operations in Iraq and elsewhere. Even the disaster in Iraq looks like it can be turned into a major victory for US oil interests and the arms industry (and thus for US capital as a whole) if Jim Holt’s scintillating argument ‘It’s the oil’ (London Review of Books, 18 October 2007, see http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/ n20/holt01_.html) is even partially valid.
To put it another way, someone in the US has coined a fast buck from every twist and turn of US foreign policy and its Middle East policy is no exception. If you want an interest that really has benefited over decades from the support given to Israel simply cast a glance at the arms industry. Highly organised, and funded beyond the dreams even of the Israel lobby, the arms lobby has seen the US ‘investment’ in aid to Israel returned many fold, with the employment generated, spread over most of the country, providing a ready reason as to why politicians are loathe to challenge it.
It is this that goes a long way to explaining the extraordinary financial and military commitment that the US has to Israel, outlined in chapter one. That the Israel lobby has reinforced these policies with every resource available to it is not surprising. But its success in doing so – very real indeed with regard to the various financial breaks, both for Israel directly and for US private donors to Israel – is attributable to it going with, rather than against, the grain of what the heaviest weights in the American economic and political system are pursuing.
The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy can be purchased here.
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook