Missing the Conversation About the Israel Lobby

After giving a lecture in San Francisco, I drove to a friend's house where I'd arranged to pick up a copy of The Israel Lobby during my swing through the States. Curiously, it took just a few pages of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's book to induce the disjointed feeling I usually get from reading an all-out defense of Israeli policy from precisely the right-wing Jewish groups they find so pernicious: I recognize dates, main events, sources of information, yet they are put together to create a world wildly simpler than the one in which I live -- an alternate reality neat and devoid of complexity, as if late at night I'd accidentally entered a subdevelopment's model home instead of my family's house down the street. The floor plan is the same, but the mess of being lived in is missing.

Admittedly, I asked for dissonance by starting with the chapter that portrays the Israel lobby's power to crush all dissent within the U.S. Jewish community. If the description were accurate, the lecture I'd just given at a large Reform Jewish congregation on Israel's need to evacuate settlements couldn't have taken place, and most of the middle-aged middle class audience couldn't have been supportive.

Yes, I know of the Jewish right's efforts to Swift Boat opponents. As an irregular visitor from Jerusalem, I can also see that American Jewish debate about Israel has been steadily growing. An excellent recent example is the powerful op-ed by Los Angeles Orthodox rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, calling for honesty about Israel's mistakes in settling the West Bank since 1967. It represents a necessary rebellion within a wing of American Judaism that usually supports Israeli intransigence. (The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, which published the article, reported that it got over 100 letters in response, most “largely supportive” of Kanefsky.) Alongside such thoughtful efforts, so many people are loudly and publicly proclaiming that no one is allowing them to criticize Israel loudly and publicly that the din is hard to bear.

But the deeper dissonance in reading Walt and Mearsheimer is this: Like others on the Israeli left, I'd love to see a scholarly study of how AIPAC has influenced America's Mideast policy, of why that lobbying group is considerably to the right of the Jewish community it purports to represent, and why pro-peace supporters of Israel have yet to put together an effective counter-lobby.

But this book isn't it. Instead of enjoying The Israel Lobby I find myself scribbling glosses in the margins about secondary sources quoted out of context to prove that "the lobby" -- which is sloppily and inconsistently defined -- is the sole force behind America's unflinching support for Israel. Walt and Mearsheimer do not use primary documents -- government memos, diplomatic cables, scribbled notes -- even when dealing with events long enough ago that the archives are open. If they had, they might have seen that in the messy house of real history, nothing is explained by a single cause. Meant as a challenge to the Israel lobby, the book instead challenges the naïve notion that tenure at Harvard (Walt) or the University of Chicago (Mearsheimer) indicates that someone will engage in solid scholarship.

Rather than cataloguing errors, let me give one example of what the authors might have found if they'd examined the actual paper trail -- a memorandum written by McGeorge Bundy that lies in the Lyndon Johnson presidential library's files on the Arab-Israeli crisis of 1967. Call it the Bundy Doctrine.

Bundy had been national security adviser under John F. Kennedy and Johnson from 1961 to 1966. When the Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967, his successor Walt Rostow was too busy not really coping with Vietnam to cope with another conflict, and Johnson temporarily called back Bundy to deal with the Middle East. A month later, on June 7, 1967, Bundy wrote a nine-page "framework of policy" for future U.S. relations with the region, before he left the White House again. The bottom line of the memo is that America's interests in the region contradict each other, that American influence is profoundly limited -- and that even when Washington disagrees with Israeli policy, it should provide enough arms for Israel to defend itself. Otherwise, the United States might find itself with the job of defending Israel.

I should note that Walt and Mearsheimer have a dim view of U.S. behavior in 1967. They do write approvingly that a decade earlier, the Eisenhower administration had "forced Israel to withdraw from the territory it had seized" in its brief war with Egypt. But they see the Johnson administration as lacking backbone. When Egypt first closed the Straits of Tiran in May 1967, Johnson sought a diplomatic solution and dismissed Israeli fears of an Egyptian attack. But "his efforts to restrain Israel gradually softened," they write, and by early June, Washington was giving Israel a "yellow light" to attack first. The only explanation they can suggest is pressure from "pro-Israel friends and advisers" and "a letter-writing campaign organized by the Israeli embassy" in the United States.

In the real, tangled world, where Bundy lived, Israel had agreed to withdraw in the 1950s based in part on an American promise to keep the Straits of Tiran open. But in 1967 Johnson couldn't keep the promise: His military was tied up in Vietnam, and his Congress didn't want a fight elsewhere. As the crisis grew, Iraq and even pro-Western Jordan joined the Egyptian-Syrian coalition against Israel. As Bundy wrote in his memo, Washington was "not able to dissuade some of our best friends among the Arabs from joining in the gang-up" that led Israel to decide to launch a preemptory strike. This context makes much more sense of the American "yellow light" than does the Walt-Mearsheimer explanation. Writing after the war, Bundy also showed great relief that Israel had won on its own, saving America "extraordinarily painful" choices – presumably the choice between sending in troops or watching Israel fall.

Bundy wrote that America also had moderate Arab friends, but could not give them "what they most want … U.S. opposition to Israel." He stated explicitly that Israel's "existence has brought three wars in a generation," but also that the United States was committed to Israel's survival. It was best to supply enough arms so that Israel could defend itself, and therefore difficult to use arms supplies as a form of pressure, except on the most essential issues.

A lot has changed in the Middle East in 40 years. But in some ways, Bundy's description has remained valid. Washington can't satisfy all its allies at the same time. It is easier, even cheaper, to keep Israel strong than to defend it directly. The range of options for American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict is often claustrophobically constrained. Within those options, it's true, the United States has sometimes chosen quite badly, especially under the current administration. AIPAC has done its best to influence which choices are made, as have other pro-Israel groups. But they are not responsible for how unsatisfying the options often are.

It would have been nice to read a good analysis of what role lobbying has, and has not, played in U.S. policy toward Israel. It might have contributed to reasoned discussion about that policy. Instead, The Israel Lobby is one more shout. Instead of careful research and analysis of how policy develops, we’ve been treated to a version of history as starkly simplistic as we might get from those who say that Israel can do no wrong. Thank God, the discussion will continue anyway.

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