America’s relationship with Israel is difficult to discuss openly in the United States. In March, we published an article in the London Review of Books titled “The Israel Lobby,” based on a working paper which we posted on the faculty Web site at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Our goal was to break the taboo and to generate a candid discussion of U.S. support for Israel, because it has far-reaching consequences for Americans and others around the world. What followed was a barrage of responses—some constructive, some not.
Every year, the United States gives Israel a level of support that far exceeds what it provides to other states. Although Israel is now an industrial power with a per-capita GDP roughly equal to Spain’s or South Korea’s, it still receives about $3 billion in U.S. aid each year—that is, roughly $500 per Israeli citizen. Israel also gets a variety of other special deals and consistent diplomatic support. We believe that this generosity cannot be fully explained on either strategic or moral grounds. Israel may have been a strategic asset during the Cold War, but it is a strategic burden in the war on terror and the broader U.S. effort to deal with rogue states. The moral rationale for unconditional U.S. support is undermined by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its unwillingness to offer them a viable state. We believe there is a strong moral case for Israel’s existence, but that existence is not at risk. Palestinian extremists and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may dream of wiping Israel “off the map,” but fortunately neither has the ability to make that dream a reality.
The “special relationship” with Israel, we argue, is due largely to the activities of the Israel lobby—a loose coalition of individuals and organizations who openly work to push U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. The lobby is not synonymous with Jewish Americans, because many of them do not support its positions, and some groups that work on Israel’s behalf (Christian evangelicals, for example) are not Jewish. The lobby has no central leadership. It is not a cabal or a conspiracy. These organizations are simply engaged in interest-group politics, a legitimate activity in the American political system. These organizations believe their efforts advance both American and Israeli interests. We do not.
We described how the Israel lobby fosters support within the U.S. Congress and the executive branch, and how it shapes public discourse so that Israel’s actions are perceived sympathetically by the American public. Groups in the lobby direct campaign contributions to encourage politicians to adopt pro-Israel positions. They write articles, letters, and op-eds defending Israel’s actions, and they go to great lengths to discredit or marginalize anyone who criticizes U.S. support for Israel. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the lobby’s most powerful organization, and it openly touts its influence over U.S. Middle East policy. Prominent politicians from both parties acknowledge AIPAC’s power and effectiveness. Former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt once observed that if AIPAC were not “fighting on a daily basis to strengthen [the relationship], it would not be.”
We also traced the lobby’s impact on recent U.S. policies, including the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Neoconservatives inside and outside the Bush administration, as well as leaders of a number of prominent pro-Israel organizations, played key roles in making the case for war. We believe the United States would not have attacked Iraq without their efforts. That said, these groups and individuals did not operate in a vacuum, and they did not lead the country to war by themselves. For instance, the war would probably not have occurred absent the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which helped convince President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to support it.
With Saddam Hussein removed from power, the Israel lobby is now focusing on Iran, whose government seems determined to acquire nuclear weapons. Despite its own nuclear arsenal and conventional military might, Israel does not want a nuclear Iran. Yet neither diplomacy nor economic sanctions are likely to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Few world leaders favor using force to deal with the problem, except in Israel and the United States. AIPAC and many of the same neoconservatives who advocated attacking Iraq are now among the chief proponents of using military force against Iran.
There is nothing improper about pro-Israel advocates trying to influence the Bush administration. But it is equally legitimate for others to point out that groups like AIPAC and many neoconservatives have a commitment to Israel that shapes their thinking about Iran and other Middle East issues. More important, their perspective is not the last word on what is good for Israel or the United States. In fact, their prescriptions might actually be harmful to both countries.
John J. Mearsheimer is professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).
Stephen M. Walt is professor of international affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His most recent book is Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).