The invitation to this event [March 6] noted that some of the works we are discussing tonight have put progressive Jews in a “quandary.” I respectfully disagree. The M&W boys got a lot of things wrong, and anyone who cares about the truth, let alone cares about Israel, should be able to point this out publicly. They also got some things right, and we should call attention to those points as well. I’m not sure I see what the problem is.
One of the worst examples of how simplistic they were: to demonstrate the fundamentally “racist” nature of Israeli society, they write that Israeli citizenship is based on the principle of “blood kinship.” They ignore the fact that Israel has 1.3 million Arab citizens. They were obviously confused about Israel’s citizenship laws.
Another example: after detailing all kind of human rights violations that Israel perpetrated in the territories in the last few years, they pose a question:
But isn’t Israel entitled to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens? Doesn’t the unique evil of terrorism justify continued U.S. support, even if Israel responds harshly?
In fact, this argument is not a compelling one, either. Palestinians have used terrorism against the Israeli occupier, and their willingness to attack innocent civilians is wrong. This behavior is not surprising, however, because the Palestinians believe they have no other way to force Israeli concessions.
That is, at the very least, a questionable way to describe Palestinian motives for terrorism. In the ‘90s, there were suicide bombings just about every time Israel was poised to make a concession. Those who pulled them off weren’t trying to force concessions. They were vying for power with Fatah within Palestinian society; they were making a declaration that negotiations of any kind with the Zionist entity was unacceptable. The motives for Palestinian terrorism deserve a lucid, careful discussion. They gave it a throwaway line that would work well at an Israel-bashing rally at Berkeley. One finds that kind of simplistic summarizing throughout the paper.
But I don’t want to sum up all of the evidence they trot out and give a point by point analysis of all the flaws. There are plenty of those available on the Internet that are worth reading. A guy named Dan Fleshler wrote a piece in the winter issue of Reform Judaism [reprinted in ISRAEL HORIZONS and at the Meretz USA Weblog] , which refuted one of the most troubling arguments they made — that the invasion of Iraq was a war for Israel.
But those of us who have often disagreed with AIPAC and its allies need to do more than carp about the inaccuracies in Mearsheimer and Walt, or in Jimmy Carter’s book. Because some of their most important premises are true. They over-reached when they categorically dismissed the mutual interests of Israel and the U.S. But it is also true that, when American Presidents avoid criticizing Israeli settlement expansion, that is not in America’s interests. When this administration raises only a few, quiet objections to the route of a security barrier that sometimes cuts through Palestinian villages and olive groves, that is not in American interests. When this administration puts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner and does little to foster negotiations, that is not in America’s interests. And there’s not much doubt that one of the reasons for this American passivity is the work of AIPAC and the conventional Israel lobby.
By conventional Israel lobby, I’m referring to AIPAC, the staff of the Conference of Presidents, some of the so-called centrist groups that generally go along with them on key legislative issues, like the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee. Mearsheimer and Walt have a much more expansive definition, but let’s not worry about that now.
Conventional wisdom in Congress and the White House is that if you stand up against Israel, you’re going to get attacked and badgered by a well-organized, well-funded lobby with an active grassroots constituency. Mearsheimer and Walt have it right when they claim:
The Lobby’s influence causes trouble on several fronts. It increases the terrorist danger that all states face, including America’s European allies….By preventing U.S. leaders from pressuring Israel to make peace, The Lobby has also made it impossible to end the Israeli Palestinian conflict. This situation gives extremists a powerful recruiting tool, increases the pool of potential terrorists and sympathizers, and contributes to Islamic radicalism around the world.
There is ample evidence of this. MichaeI Massing gave some telling examples of how this works in practice in his article on Walt and Mearsheimer in the New York Review of Books:
In late 2000, when the intifada began, [a] former Clinton adviser told me, there were cases in which Israel used what seemed to many to be excessive force, such as breaking the bones of young Palestinians, and exacerbated the conflict in doing so. But if administration officials had said anything that smacked of ‘moral equivalency’, he observed, it would have gotten us attacks from Congress, the media, and interest groups. After a while, he continued, officials begin to shy away from saying anything that might become controversial domestically, leading to self-censorship in speech and action. There were many policy initiatives we were considering where we’d have to address how certain domestic constituencies would react.
What Mearsheimer and Walt leave out, of course, is that allowing the status quo in the territories to continue is not in Israel’s interests, either. That is why the work of the M&W boys was so disappointing. They could have been helpful to those of us who often disagree with the conventional lobby. They could have done a careful analysis of that lobby’s machinery of influence, the mechanisms of its power. An honest assessment would have given practical lessons to American Jews and others who want to either transform the mainstream, pro-Israel forces in Washington or replace them. But by exaggerating the power of the Israel lobby, they made our job more difficult,
If M&W had scratched the surface, guess what they would have discovered? They would have found chinks in the conventional lobby’s armor. If they had been doing an honest assessment, they would have found flaws and weaknesses. And, in finding them, they would have provided hope to American Jews who often don’t feel like the lobby speaks for them. The less it comes across as an irresistible political object that no force can remove, the easier it will be to recruit more American Jews to either replace or transform it.
Take the power of American Jewish money, for example. Mearsheimer and Walt note that: “Money is critical to U.S. elections and AIPAC makes sure its friends get strong financial support from the myriad pro-Israel political action committees. Those sees as hostile, on the other hand, can be sure AIPAC will direct campaign contributions to their opponents.”
Well, that’s true. And, in my experience, it’s disheartening to peace activists who believe that we cannot possibly come close to matching the power of AIPAC’s money machine. But just how much is this money machine generating for members of Congress? When it comes to the impact of political fundraising, AIPAC’s important tool is the widespread perception that it is a major source of campaign gifts. That perception is often not reflected in reality.
You can follow the role of money in American politics by going to the website of the Center for Responsive Politics. They study federal election records and break down contributions into what they call “industries.” There is the energy industry. There are retirees. And there is the pro-Israel industry, which consists of PACS and individuals who mostly toe the AIPAC line.
In 2004, PACS and individuals categorized as “pro-Israel” contributed about $6 million to federal candidates and parties. That’s not a small amount. But pro-Israel industry was ranked 39 out of the 80 “industries” listed by the Center. Lawyers, the top-ranked industry, contributed more than $85 million. The real estate industry gave about 35 million, six times as much as the pro-Israel industry. These and corporate interests are the major league lobbyists when it comes to financial contributions. Compared to them, AIPAC and its friends are minor league.
One key aide to a friendly Congressperson told me that “Except when they are really trying to punish somebody, which doesn’t happen that much, the AIPAC types contribute, at most, maybe 10 percent of a campaign.” Usually, he indicated, they contribute much less. And, usually campaigns could survive easily without these contributions.
So it is true that most members of Congress are reluctant to cross AIPAC. And one of the reasons is the fear of losing campaign contributions. Or the fear that AIPAC’s money machine will punish them by funding their opponents, a fear that is also mentioned by Mearsheimer and Walt. But it would not be inconceivable to diminish the conventional lobby’s hold on Congress.
If American Jews who backed Israel’s peace camp launched a massive, well-organized, sophisticated effort to raise money for politicians, Congress and the White House staff might stop being gutless. Our government might be more balanced, more pro-active when it deals with Israel and its neighbors. I have been told that one of the ideas contemplated by the people working on the so-called “Soros initiative,” the alternative Jewish lobby, is to set up some dedicated PACs – Political Action Committees that would counter the ones fueled by AIPAC supporters. That would be a welcome, long overdue development.
When leaders of the mainstream Jewish community attack Mearsheimer and Walt for exaggerating the conventional Lobby’s power, they do it because they are concerned that the exaggeration will feed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. They’re not wrong. We should be concerned about that.
But I believe progressive Zionists also have another reason to show that Mearsheimer and Walt assigned too much power to AIPAC and its allies. We need to encourage the loyal Jewish opposition in this country to get off their butts, and speak louder and spend more money.