The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy: John Mearsheimer and Stephen M Walt

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The core of this book originated as an article for the London Review of Books in spring 2006. As a denunciation of the US government's pro-Israeli bias in foreign policy it produced a predictably vicious backlash from the Israel lobby itself which this book seeks to expose.

The first chapter is by far the best in detailing the full extent of US economic, diplomatic and military aid to Israel. New information is given about the way even what are supposed to be loans end up as aid. Though of course the US government's uncompromising support for Israel is hardly news.

The main aim of Walt and Mearsheimer is to explain why this is the case. Their argument, as the title suggests, is that the supposedly unique power of the pro-Israel lobby is responsible for driving US policy as regards Israel and Palestine. However, they go further still by attempting to show that the Israel lobby is responsible for general US policy in the Middle East from the Iraq war to relations with Iran and Syria.

It is important to note that the authors avowedly support the existence of Israel. It is also important to note that they are leading members of the "realist school" of foreign policy academics. The realists take the view that the guiding light for US foreign policy should be fundamentally practical in terms of what is perceived to be in the best interests of the US.

Here they come into conflict with the messianic fervour of the neoconservatives, with their view of the US as the harbinger of democracy and free trade.

Walt and Mearsheimer take it for granted that the US has the right to intervene across the world - essentially an imperialist outlook.

The problem for them with US pro-Israeli bias is not to do with any moral considerations about Israel's crimes. It is solely to do with what they see as the negative impact it has had on the ability of the US to carry out its foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. Indeed they pose the question of whether the US should continue to support Israel as one of "Strategic Asset or Liability?"

The second major problem is with the overall analysis itself. They attempt to show that, whereas once upon a time US policy was more even-handed, from the 1960s on it changed solely due to the increasing power of the Israel lobby. The authors identify a number of official pro-Israel campaign groups, media outlets and prominent individuals that constitute the lobby.

They are aware of the danger of reinforcing the age-old anti-Semitic stereotype of the tightly organised Jewish cabal intent on global domination, and explicitly reject it. They give a very good account of the activities of the Christian right as part of the lobby despite its latent anti-Semitism. But occasionally the lists of Jewish names in government identified as part of the lobby get a little uncomfortable especially when non-Jews like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney are identified not as part of this lobby but instead under the influence of it.

This leads to an even more fundamental problem: the idea that the ruling class of the world's sole superpower are being dragged along under the influence of this lobby. It is a ridiculous assumption and does not fit the facts. Are we really being asked to believe that the US military-industrial complex falls at the feet of a group simply because of its extensive money, advertising and electoral threats to candidates? If that is the case, why are the trades unions not driving US government policy too?

While it is certainly true that support for Israel in the present state of global opinion is harder than before, Walt and Mearsheimer are wrong about both the extent of this liability on US policy and about the really serious liability for the US. Support for Israel is just one expression of the US's imperial project.

Resentment towards the US stretches from Israel and Palestine to Iraq to Latin America and far beyond, and none of this is remotely affected by lobbies or pressure groups. This resentment is based in the imperialist project which requires aggressive military power, and economic and cultural domination.

No doubt the Israel lobby, like the tobacco, weapons and oil lobbies, wields such huge power that it is able to distort public debate and tar opponents. But its lobbying power derives from the central role of Israel in US imperial strategy in the Middle East, not the other way around, hence the relative lack of power of trade unions or the civil rights movement in making their case despite large scale lobbying.


The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy is published by Allen Lane, £25