The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy - John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt

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The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy
by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
August 22, 2006

John J. Mearsheimer
Department of Political Science
University of Chicago

Stephen M. Walt
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University

March 2006

The two authors of this Working Paper are solely responsible for the views expressed in it. As academic institutions, Harvard University and the University of Chicago do not take positions on the scholarship of the individual faculty, and this article not should be interpreted or portrayed as reflecting the official position of either institution. It is reprinted on with permission.

An edited and reworked version of this paper was published in the London Review of Books Vol. 28, No. 6 (March 23, 2006), and is available online at


U.S. foreign policy shapes events in every corner of the globe. Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East, a region of recurring instability and enormous strategic importance. Most recently, the Bush Administration’s attempt to transform the region into a community of democracies has helped produce a resilient insurgency in Iraq, a sharp rise in world oil prices, and terrorist bombings in Madrid, London, and Amman. With so much at stake for so many, all countries need to understand the forces that drive U.S. Middle East policy.

The U.S. national interest should be the primary object of American foreign policy. For the past several decades, however, and especially since the Six Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering U.S. support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security.

This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the United States been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries is based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives. As we show below, however, neither of those explanations can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the United States provides to Israel.

Instead, the overall thrust of U.S. policy in the region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the "Israel Lobby." Other special interest groups have managed to skew U.S. foreign policy in directions they favored, but no lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical.1

In the pages that follow, we describe how the Lobby has accomplished this feat, and how its activities have shaped America’s actions in this critical region. Given the strategic importance of the Middle East and its potential impact on others, both Americans and non-Americans need to understand and address the Lobby’s influence on U.S. policy.

Some readers will find this analysis disturbing, but the facts recounted here are not in serious dispute among scholars. Indeed, our account relies heavily on the work of Israeli scholars and journalists, who deserve great credit for shedding light on these issues. We also rely on evidence provided by respected Israeli and international human rights organizations. Similarly, our claims about the Lobby’s impact rely on testimony from the Lobby’s own members, as well as testimony from politicians who have worked with them. Readers may reject our conclusions, of course, but the evidence on which they rest is not controversial.


Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing the amounts provided to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct U.S. economic and military assistance since 1976 and the largest total recipient since World War II. Total direct U.S. aid to Israel amounts to well over $140 billion in 2003 dollars.2 Israel receives about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year, which is roughly one-fifth of America’s foreign aid budget. In per capita terms, the United States gives each Israeli a direct subsidy worth about $500 per year.3 This largesse is especially striking when one realizes that Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to South Korea or Spain.4

Israel also gets other special deals from Washington.5 Other aid recipients get their money in quarterly installments, but Israel receives its entire appropriation at the beginning of each fiscal year and thus earns extra interest. Most recipients of American military assistance are required to spend all of it in the United States, but Israel can use roughly twenty-five percent of its aid allotment to subsidize its own defense industry. Israel is the only recipient that does not have to account for how the aid is spent, an exemption that makes it virtually impossible to prevent the money from being used for purposes the United States opposes, like building settlements in the West Bank.

Moreover, the United States has provided Israel with nearly $3 billion to develop weapons systems like the Lavi aircraft that the Pentagon did not want or need, while giving Israel access to top-drawer U.S. weaponry like Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets. Finally, the United States gives Israel access to intelligence that it denies its NATO allies and has turned a blind eye towards Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.6

In addition, Washington provides Israel with consistent diplomatic support. Since 1982, the United States has vetoed 32 United Nations Security Council resolutions that were critical of Israel, a number greater than the combined total of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members.7 It also blocks Arab states’ efforts to put Israel’s nuclear arsenal on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s agenda.8

The United States also comes to Israel’s rescue in wartime and takes its side when negotiating peace. The Nixon Administration re-supplied Israel during the October War and protected Israel from the threat of Soviet intervention. Washington was deeply involved in the negotiations that ended that war as well as the lengthy "step-by-step" process that followed, just as it played a key role in the negotiations that preceded and followed the 1993 Oslo Accords.9 There were occasional frictions between U.S. and Israeli officials in both cases, but the United States coordinated its positions closely with Israel and consistently backed the Israeli approach to the negotiations. Indeed, one American participant at Camp David (2000) later said, "far too often, we functioned . . . as Israel’s lawyer."10

As discussed below, Washington has given Israel wide latitude in dealing with the occupied territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), even when its actions were at odds with stated U.S. policy. Moreover, the Bush Administration’s ambitious strategy to transform the Middle East – beginning with the invasion of Iraq – is at least partly intended to improve Israel’s strategic situation. Apart from wartime alliances, it is hard to think of another instance where one country has provided another with a similar level of material and diplomatic support for such an extended period. America’s support for Israel is, in short, unique.

This extraordinary generosity might be understandable if Israel were a vital strategic asset or if there were a compelling moral case for sustained U.S. backing. But neither rationale is convincing.


According to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) website, "the United States and Israel have formed a unique partnership to meet the growing strategic threats in the Middle East . . . . This cooperative effort provides significant benefits for both the United States and Israel."11 This claim is an article of faith among Israel’s supporters and is routinely invoked by Israeli politicians and pro-Israel Americans.

Israel may have been a strategic asset during the Cold War.12 By serving as America’s proxy after the Six Day War (1967), Israel helped contain Soviet expansion in the region and inflicted humiliating defeats on Soviet clients like Egypt and Syria. Israel occasionally helped protect other U.S. allies (like Jordan’s King Hussein) and its military prowess forced Moscow to spend more backing its losing clients. Israel also gave the United States useful intelligence about Soviet capabilities.

Israel’s strategic value during this period should not be overstated, however.13 Backing Israel was not cheap, and it complicated America’s relations with the Arab world. For example, the U.S. decision to give Israel $2.2 billion in emergency military aid during the October War triggered an OPEC oil embargo that inflicted considerable damage on Western economies. Moreover, Israel’s military could not protect U.S. interests in the region. For example, the United States could not rely on Israel when the Iranian Revolution in 1979 raised concerns about the security of Persian Gulf oil supplies, and had to create its own "Rapid Deployment Force" instead.

Even if Israel was a strategic asset during the Cold War, the first Gulf War (1990- 91) revealed that Israel was becoming a strategic burden. The United States could not use Israeli bases during the war without rupturing the anti-Iraq coalition, and it had to divert resources (e.g., Patriot missile batteries) to keep Tel Aviv from doing anything that might fracture the alliance against Saddam. History repeated itself in 2003: although Israel was eager for the United States to attack Saddam, President Bush could not ask it to help without triggering Arab opposition. So Israel stayed on the sidelines again.14

Beginning in the 1990s, and especially after 9/11, U.S. support for Israel has been justified by the claim that both states are threatened by terrorist groups originating in the Arab or Muslim world, and by a set of "rogue states" that back these groups and seek WMD. This rationale implies that Washington should give Israel a free hand in dealing with the Palestinians and not press Israel to make concessions until all Palestinian terrorists are imprisoned or dead. It also implies that the United States should go after countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Israel is thus seen as a crucial ally in the war on terror, because its enemies are America’s enemies. This new rationale seems persuasive, but Israel is in fact a liability in the war on terror and the broader effort to deal with rogue states.

To begin with, "terrorism" is a tactic employed by a wide array of political groups; it is not a single unified adversary. The terrorist organizations that threaten Israel (e.g., Hamas or Hezbollah) do not threaten the United States, except when it intervenes against them (as in Lebanon in 1982). Moreover, Palestinian terrorism is not random violence directed against Israel or "the West"; it is largely a response to Israel’s prolonged campaign to colonize the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

More importantly, saying that Israel and the United States are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards: rather, the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around. U.S. support for Israel is not the only source of anti- American terrorism, but it is an important one, and it makes winning the war on terror more difficult.15 There is no question, for example, that many al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, are motivated by Israel’s presence in Jerusalem and the plight of the Palestinians. According to the U.S. 9/11 Commission, bin Laden explicitly sought to punish the United States for its policies in the Middle East, including its support for Israel, and he even tried to time the attacks to highlight this issue.16

Equally important, unconditional U.S. support for Israel makes it easier for extremists like bin Laden to rally popular support and to attract recruits. Public opinion polls confirm that Arab populations are deeply hostile to American support for Israel, and the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim world found that "citizens in these countries are genuinely distressed at the plight of the Palestinians and at the role they perceive the United States to be playing."17

As for so-called rogue states in the Middle East, they are not a dire threat to vital U.S. interests, apart from the U.S. commitment to Israel itself. Although the United States does have a number of disagreements with these regimes, Washington would not be nearly as worried about Iran, Ba’thist Iraq, or Syria were it not so closely tied to Israel. Even if these states acquire nuclear weapons – which is obviously not desirable – it would not be a strategic disaster for the United States. Neither America nor Israel could be blackmailed by a nuclear-armed rogue, because the blackmailer could not carry out the threat without receiving overwhelming retaliation. The danger of a "nuclear handoff" to terrorists is equally remote, because a rogue state could not be sure the transfer would be undetected or that it would not be blamed and punished afterwards.

Furthermore, the U.S. relationship with Israel actually makes it harder to deal with these states. Israel’s nuclear arsenal is one reason why some of its neighbors want nuclear weapons, and threatening these states with regime change merely increases that desire. Yet Israel is not much of an asset when the United States contemplates using force against these regimes, because it cannot participate in the fight.

In short, treating Israel as America’s most important ally in the campaign against terrorism and assorted Middle East dictatorships both exaggerates Israel’s ability to help on these issues and ignores the ways that Israel’s policies make U.S. efforts more difficult.

Unquestioned support for Israel also weakens the U.S. position outside the Middle East. Foreign elites consistently view the United States as too supportive of Israel, and think its tolerance of Israeli repression in the occupied territories is morally obtuse and a handicap in the war on terrorism.18 In April 2004, for example, 52 former British diplomats sent Prime Minister Tony Blair a letter saying that the Israel-Palestine conflict had "poisoned relations between the West and the Arab and Islamic worlds," and warning that the policies of Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were "one-sided and illegal."19

A final reason to question Israel’s strategic value is that it does not act like a loyal ally. Israeli officials frequently ignore U.S. requests and renege on promises made to top U.S. leaders (including past pledges to halt settlement construction and to refrain from "targeted assassinations" of Palestinian leaders).20 Moreover, Israel has provided sensitive U.S. military technology to potential U.S. rivals like China, in what the U.S. State Department Inspector-General called "a systematic and growing pattern of unauthorized transfers."21 According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, Israel also "conducts the most aggressive espionage operations against the U.S. of any ally."22 In addition to the case of Jonathan Pollard, who gave Israel large quantities of classified material in the early 1980s (which Israel reportedly passed onto the Soviet Union to gain more exit visas for Soviet Jews), a new controversy erupted in 2004 when it was revealed that a key Pentagon official (Larry Franklin) had passed classified information to an Israeli diplomat, allegedly aided by two AIPAC officials.23 Israel is hardly the only country that spies on the United States, but its willingness to spy on its principal patron casts further doubt on its strategic value.


Apart from its alleged strategic value, Israel’s backers also argue that it deserves unqualified U.S. support because 1) it is weak and surrounded by enemies, 2) it is a democracy, which is a morally preferable form of government; 3) the Jewish people have suffered from past crimes and therefore deserve special treatment, and 4) Israel’s conduct has been morally superior to its adversaries’ behavior.

On close inspection, however, each of these arguments is unpersuasive. There is a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence, but that is not in jeopardy. Viewed objectively, Israel’s past and present conduct offers no moral basis for privileging it over the Palestinians.

Backing the Underdog?

Israel is often portrayed as weak and besieged, a Jewish David surrounded by a hostile Arab Goliath. This image has been carefully nurtured by Israeli leaders and sympathetic writers, but the opposite image is closer to the truth. Contrary to popular belief, the Zionists had larger, better-equipped, and better-led forces during the 1947-49 War of Independence and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) won quick and easy victories against Egypt in 1956 and against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in 1967 – before large-scale U.S. aid began flowing to Israel.24 These victories offer eloquent evidence of Israeli patriotism, organizational ability, and military prowess, but they also reveal that Israel was far from helpless even in its earliest years.

Today, Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. Its conventional forces are far superior to its neighbors and it is the only state in the region with nuclear weapons. Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel and Saudi Arabia has offered to do so as well. Syria has lost its Soviet patron, Iraq has been decimated by three disastrous wars, and Iran is hundreds of miles away. The Palestinians barely have effective police, let alone a military that could threaten Israel. According to a 2005 assessment by Tel Aviv University’s prestigious Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, "the strategic balance decidedly favors Israel, which has continued to widen the qualitative gap between its own military capability and deterrence powers and those of its neighbors."25 If backing the underdog were a compelling rationale, the United States would be supporting Israel’s opponents.

Aiding a Fellow Democracy?

American backing is often justified by the claim that Israel is a fellow-democracy surrounded by hostile dictatorships. This rationale sounds convincing, but it cannot account for the current level of U.S. support. After all, there are many democracies around the world, but none receives the lavish support that Israel does. The United States has overthrown democratic governments in the past and supported dictators when this was thought to advance U.S. interests, and it has good relations with a number of dictatorships today. Thus, being democratic neither justifies nor explains America’s support for Israel.

The "shared democracy" rationale is also weakened by aspects of Israeli democracy that are at odds with core American values. The United States is a liberal democracy where people of any race, religion, or ethnicity are supposed to enjoy equal rights. By contrast, Israel was explicitly founded as a Jewish state and citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship.26 Given this conception of citizenship, it is not surprising that Israel’s 1.3 million Arabs are treated as second-class citizens, or that a recent Israeli government commission found that Israel behaves in a "neglectful and discriminatory" manner towards them.27

Similarly, Israel does not permit Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens to become citizens themselves, and does not give these spouses the right to live in Israel. The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem called this restriction "a racist law that determines who can live here according to racist criteria."28 Such laws may be understandable given Israel’s founding principles, but they are not consistent with America’s image of democracy.

Israel’s democratic status is also undermined by its refusal to grant the Palestinians a viable state of their own. Israel controls the lives of about 3.8 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, while colonizing lands on which the Palestinians have long dwelt. Israel is formally democratic, but the millions of Palestinians that it controls are denied full political rights and the "shared democracy" rationale is correspondingly weakened.

Compensation for Past Crimes

A third moral justification is the history of Jewish suffering in the Christian West, especially the tragic episode of the Holocaust. Because Jews were persecuted for centuries and can only be safe in a Jewish homeland, many believe that Israel deserves special treatment from the United States.

There is no question that Jews suffered greatly from the despicable legacy of anti-Semitism, and that Israel’s creation was an appropriate response to a long record of crimes. This history, as noted, provides a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence. But the creation of Israel involved additional crimes against a largely innocent third party: the Palestinians.

The history of these events is well-understood. When political Zionism began in earnest in the late 19th century, there were only about 15,000 Jews in Palestine.29 In 1893, for example, the Arabs comprised roughly 95 percent of the population, and though under Ottoman control, they had been in continuous possession of this territory for 1300 years.30 Even when Israel was founded, Jews were only about 35 percent of Palestine’s population and owned 7 percent of the land.31

The mainstream Zionist leadership was not interested in establishing a bi-national state or accepting a permanent partition of Palestine. The Zionist leadership was sometimes willing to accept partition as a first step, but this was a tactical maneuver and not their real objective. As David Ben-Gurion put it in the late 1930s, "After the formation of a large army in the wake of the establishment of the state, we shall abolish partition and expand to the whole of Palestine."32

To achieve this goal, the Zionists had to expel large numbers of Arabs from the territory that would eventually become Israel. There was simply no other way to accomplish their objective. Ben-Gurion saw the problem clearly, writing in 1941 that "it is impossible to imagine general evacuation [of the Arab population] without compulsion, and brutal compulsion."33 Or as Israeli historian Benny Morris puts it, "the idea of transfer is as old as modern Zionism and has accompanied its evolution and praxis during the past century."34
This opportunity came in 1947-48, when Jewish forces drove up to 700,000 Palestinians into exile.35 Israeli officials have long claimed that the Arabs fled because their leaders told them to, but careful scholarship (much of it by Israeli historians like Morris) have demolished this myth. In fact, most Arab leaders urged the Palestinian population to stay home, but fear of violent death at the hands of Zionist forces led most of them to flee.36 After the war, Israel barred the return of the Palestinian exiles.

The fact that the creation of Israel entailed a moral crime against the Palestinian people was well understood by Israel’s leaders. As Ben-Gurion told Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, "If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. . . . We come from Israel, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?"37

Since then, Israeli leaders have repeatedly sought to deny the Palestinians’ national ambitions.38 Prime Minister Golda Meir famously remarked that "there was no such thing as a Palestinian," and even Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the 1993 Oslo Accords, nonetheless opposed creating a full-fledged Palestinian state.39 Pressure from extremist violence and the growing Palestinian population has forced subsequent Israeli leaders to disengage from some of the occupied territories and to explore territorial compromise, but no Israeli government has been willing to offer the Palestinians a viable state of their own. Even Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s purportedly generous offer at Camp David in July 2000 would only have given the Palestinians a disarmed and dismembered set of "Bantustans" under de facto Israeli control.40

Europe’s crimes against the Jews provide a clear moral justification for Israel’s right to exist. But Israel’s survival is not in doubt – even if some Islamic extremists make outrageous and unrealistic references to "wiping it off the map" – and the tragic history of the Jewish people does not obligate the United States to help Israel no matter what it does today.

"Virtuous Israelis" versus "Evil Arabs"

The final moral argument portrays Israel as a country that has sought peace at every turn and showed great restraint even when provoked. The Arabs, by contrast, are said to have acted with great wickedness. This narrative – which is endlessly repeated by Israeli leaders and American apologists such as Alan Dershowitz – is yet another myth.41 In terms of actual behavior, Israel’s conduct is not morally distinguishable from the actions of its opponents.

Israeli scholarship shows that the early Zionists were far from benevolent towards the Palestinian Arabs.42 The Arab inhabitants did resist the Zionists’ encroachments, which is hardly surprising given that the Zionists were trying to create their own state on Arab lands. The Zionists responded vigorously, and neither side owns the moral high ground during this period. This same scholarship also reveals that the creation of Israel in 1947-48 involved explicit acts of ethnic cleansing, including executions, massacres, and rapes by Jews.43

Furthermore, Israel’s subsequent conduct towards its Arab adversaries and its Palestinian subjects has often been brutal, belying any claim to morally superior conduct. Between 1949 and 1956, for example, Israeli security forces killed between 2,700 and 5000 Arab infiltrators, the overwhelming majority of them unarmed.44 The IDF conducted numerous cross-border raids against its neighbors in the early 1950s, and though these actions were portrayed as defensive responses, they were actually part of a broader effort to expand Israel’s borders. Israel’s expansionist ambitions also led it to join Britain and France in attacking Egypt in 1956, and Israel withdrew from the lands it had conquered only in the face of intense U.S. pressure.45

The IDF also murdered hundreds of Egyptian prisoners-of-war in both the 1956 and 1967 wars.46 In 1967, it expelled between 100,000 and 260,000 Palestinians from the newly-conquered West Bank, and drove 80,000 Syrians from the Golan Heights.47 It was also complicit in the massacre of 700 innocent Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps following its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and an Israeli investigatory commission found then-Defence Minister Sharon "personally responsible" for these atrocities.48

Israeli personnel have tortured numerous Palestinian prisoners, systematically humiliated and inconvenienced Palestinian civilians, and used force indiscriminately against them on numerous occasions. During the First Intifida (1987-1991), for example, the IDF distributed truncheons to its troops and encouraged them to break the bones of Palestinian protestors. The Swedish "Save the Children" organization estimated that "23,600 to 29,900 children required medical treatment for their beating injuries in the first two years of the intifida," with nearly one-third sustaining broken bones. Nearly one-third of the beaten children were aged ten and under."49

Israel’s response to the Second Intifida (2000-2005) has been even more violent, leading Ha’aretz to declare that "the IDF … is turning into a killing machine whose efficiency is awe-inspiring, yet shocking."50 The IDF fired one million bullets in the first days of the uprising, which is far from a measured response.51 Since then, Israel has killed 3.4 Palestinians for every Israeli lost, the majority of whom have been innocent bystanders; the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli children killed is even higher (5.7 to 1).52 Israeli forces have also killed several foreign peace activists, including a 23 year-old American woman crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003.53

These facts about Israel’s conduct have been amply documented by numerous human rights organizations – including prominent Israeli groups – and are not disputed by fair-minded observers. And that is why four former officials of Shin Bet (the Israeli domestic security organization) condemned Israel’s conduct during the Second Intifada in November 2003. One of them declared "we are behaving disgracefully," and another termed Israel’s conduct "patently immoral."54

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 often responds harshly?

In fact, this argument is not a compelling moral justification either. Palestinians have used terrorism against their Israeli occupiers, 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. As former Prime Minister Barak once admitted, had he been born a Palestinian, he "would have joined a terrorist organization."55

Finally, we should not forget that the Zionists used terrorism when they were in a similarly weak position and trying to obtain their own state. Between 1944 and 1947, several Zionist organizations used terrorist bombings to drive the British from Palestine, and took the lives of many innocent civilians along the way.56 Israeli terrorists also murdered U.N. mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in 1948, because they opposed his proposal to internationalize Jerusalem.57 Nor were the perpetrators of these acts isolated extremists: the leaders of the murder plot were eventually granted amnesty by the Israeli government and one of them was elected to the Knesset. Another terrorist leader, who approved the murder but was not tried, was future Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Indeed, Shamir openly argued that "neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat." Rather, terrorism had "a great part to play … in our war against the occupier [Britain]."58 If the Palestinians’ use of terrorism is morally reprehensible today, so was Israel’s reliance upon it in the past, and thus one cannot justify U.S. support for Israel on the grounds that its past conduct was morally superior.59

Israel may not have acted worse than many other countries, but it clearly has not acted any better. And if neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America’s support for Israel, how are we to explain it?

The explanation lies in the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby. Were it not for the Lobby’s ability to manipulate the American political system, the relationship between Israel and the United States would be far less intimate than it is today.

What Is The Lobby?

We use "the Lobby" as a convenient short-hand term for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. Our use of this term is not meant to suggest that "the Lobby" is a unified movement with a central leadership, or that individuals within it do not disagree on certain issues

The core of the Lobby is comprised of American Jews who make a significant effort in their daily lives to bend U.S. foreign policy so that it advances Israel’s interests. Their activities go beyond merely voting for candidates who are pro- Israel to include letter-writing, financial contributions, and supporting pro-Israel organizations. But not all Jewish-Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them. In a 2004 survey, for example, roughly 36 percent of Jewish-Americans said they were either "not very" or "not at all" emotionally attached to Israel.60

Jewish-Americans also differ on specific Israeli policies. Many of the key organizations in the Lobby, like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (CPMJO), are run by hardliners who generally supported the expansionist policies of Israel’s Likud Party, including its hostility to the Oslo Peace Process. The bulk of U.S. Jewry, on the other hand, is more favorably disposed to making concessions to the Palestinians, and a few groups—such as Jewish Voice for Peace—strongly advocate such steps.61 Despite these differences, moderates and hardliners both support steadfast U.S. support for Israel.

Not surprisingly, American Jewish leaders often consult with Israeli officials, so that the former can maximize their influence in the United States. As one activist with a major Jewish organization wrote, "it is routine for us to say: ‘This is our policy on a certain issue, but we must check what the Israelis think.’ We as a community do it all the time."62 There is also a strong norm against criticizing Israeli policy, and Jewish-American leaders rarely support putting pressure on Israel. Thus, Edgar Bronfman Sr., the president of the World Jewish Congress, was accused of "perfidy" when he wrote a letter to President Bush in mid-2003 urging Bush to pressure Israel to curb construction of its controversial "security fence."63 Critics declared that, "It would be obscene at any time for the president of the World Jewish Congress to lobby the president of the United States to resist policies being promoted by the government of Israel."

Similarly, when Israel Policy Forum president Seymour Reich advised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to pressure Israel to reopen a critical border crossing in the Gaza Strip in November 2005, critics denounced his action as "irresponsible behavior," and declared that, "There is absolutely no room in the Jewish mainstream for actively canvassing against the security-related policies . . . of Israel."64 Recoiling from these attacks, Reich proclaimed that "the word pressure is not in my vocabulary when it comes to Israel."

Jewish-Americans have formed an impressive array of organizations to influence American foreign policy, of which AIPAC is the most powerful and well-known. In 1997, Fortune magazine asked members of Congress and their staffs to list the most powerful lobbies in Washington.65 AIPAC was ranked second behind the American Association of Retired People (AARP), but ahead of heavyweight lobbies like the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association. A National Journal study in March 2005 reached a similar conclusion, placing AIPAC in second place (tied with AARP) in the Washington’s "muscle rankings."66

The Lobby also includes prominent Christian evangelicals like Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, and Pat Robertson, as well as Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, former majority leaders in the House of Representatives. They believe Israel’s rebirth is part of Biblical prophecy, support its expansionist agenda, and think pressuring Israel is contrary to God’s will.67 In addition, the Lobby’s membership includes neoconservative gentiles such as John Bolton, the late Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley, former Secretary of Education William Bennett, former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and columnist George Will.

Sources of Power

The United States has a divided government that offers many ways to influence the policy process. As a result, interest groups can shape policy in many different ways – by lobbying elected representatives and members of the executive branch, making campaign contributions, voting in elections, molding public opinion, etc.

Furthermore, special interest groups enjoy disproportionate power when they are committed to a particular issue and the bulk of the population is indifferent. Policymakers will tend to accommodate those who care about the issue in question, even if their numbers are small, confident that the rest of the population will not penalize them.

The Israel Lobby’s power flows from its unmatched ability to play this game of interest group politics. In its basic operations, it is no different from interest groups like the Farm Lobby, steel and textile workers, and other ethnic lobbies. What sets the Israel Lobby apart is its extraordinary effectiveness. But there is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway U.S. policy towards Israel. The Lobby’s activities are not the sort of conspiracy depicted in anti-Semitic tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise the Lobby are doing what other special interest groups do, just much better. Moreover, pro-Arab interest groups are weak to non-existent, which makes the Lobby’s task even easier.68

Strategies for Success

The Lobby pursues two broad strategies to promote U.S. support for Israel. First, it wields significant influence in Washington, pressuring both Congress and the Executive branch to support Israel down the line. Whatever an individual lawmaker or policymaker’s own views, the Lobby tries to make supporting Israel the "smart" political choice.

Second, the Lobby strives to ensure that public discourse about Israel portrays it in a positive light, by repeating myths about Israel and its founding and by publicizing Israel’s side in the policy debates of the day. The goal is to prevent critical commentary about Israel from getting a fair hearing in the political arena. Controlling the debate is essential to guaranteeing U.S. support, because candid discussion of U.S.-Israeli relations might lead Americans to favor a different policy.

Influencing Congress

A key pillar of the Lobby’s effectiveness is its influence in the U.S. Congress, where Israel is virtually immune from criticism. This is in itself a remarkable situation, because Congress almost never shies away from contentious issues. Whether the issue is abortion, affirmative action, health care, or welfare, there is certain to be a lively debate on Capitol Hill. Where Israel is concerned, however, potential critics fall silent and there is hardly any debate at all.

One reason for the Lobby’s success with Congress is that some key members are Christian Zionists like Dick Armey, who said in September 2002 that "My No. 1 priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel."69 One would think that the number 1 priority for any congressman would be to "protect America," but that is not what Armey said. There are also Jewish senators and congressmen who work to make U.S. foreign policy support Israel’s interests.

Pro-Israel congressional staffers are another source of the Lobby’s power. As Morris Amitay, a former head of AIPAC, once admitted, "There are a lot of guys at the working level up here [on Capitol Hill] … who happen to be Jewish, who are willing … to look at certain issues in terms of their Jewishness …. These are all guys who are in a position to make the decision in these areas for those senators …. You can get an awful lot done just at the staff level."70

It is AIPAC itself, however, that forms the core of the Lobby’s influence in Congress. AIPAC’s success is due to its ability to reward legislators and congressional candidates who support its agenda, and to punish those who challenge it. Money is critical to U.S. elections (as the recent scandal over lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s various shady dealings reminds us), and AIPAC makes sure that its friends get strong financial support from the myriad pro-Israel political action committees. Those seen as hostile to Israel, on the other hand, can be sure that AIPAC will direct campaign contributions to their political opponents. AIPAC also organizes letter-writing campaigns and encourages newspaper editors to endorse pro-Israel candidates.

There is no doubt about the potency of these tactics. To take but one example, in 1984 AIPAC helped defeat Senator Charles Percy from Illinois, who, according to one prominent Lobby figure, had "displayed insensitivity and even hostility to concerns." Thomas Dine, the head of AIPAC at the time, explained what happened: "All the Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy. And the American politicians – those who hold public positions now, and those who aspire – got the message."71 AIPAC prizes its reputation as a formidable adversary, of course, because it discourages anyone from questioning its agenda.

AIPAC’s influence on Capitol Hill goes even further, however. According to Douglas Bloomfield, a former AIPAC staff member, "It is common for members of Congress and their staffs to turn to AIPAC first when they need information, before calling the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service, committee staff or administration experts."72 More importantly, he notes that AIPAC is "often called upon to draft speeches, work on legislation, advise on tactics, perform research, collect co-sponsors and marshal votes."

The bottom line is that AIPAC, which is a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on the U.S. Congress.73 Open debate about U.S. policy towards Israel does not occur there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world. Thus, one of the three main branches of the U.S. government is firmly committed to supporting Israel. As former Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) noted as he was leaving office, "You can’t have an Israeli policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here."74 Small wonder that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once told an American audience. "When people ask me how they can help Israel, I tell them—Help AIPAC."75

Influencing the Executive

The Lobby also has significant leverage over the Executive branch. That power derives in part from the influence Jewish voters have on presidential elections. Despite their small numbers in the population (less than 3 percent), they make large campaign donations to candidates from both parties. The Washington Post once estimated that Democratic presidential candidates "depend on Jewish supporters to supply as much as 60 percent of the money."76 Furthermore, Jewish voters have high turn-out rates and are concentrated in key states like California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania. Because they matter in close elections, Presidential candidates go to great lengths not to antagonize Jewish voters.

Key organizations in the Lobby also directly target the administration in power. For example, pro-Israel forces make sure that critics of the Jewish state do not get important foreign-policy appointments. Jimmy Carter wanted to make George Ball his first secretary of state, but he knew that Ball was perceived as critical of Israel and that the Lobby would oppose the appointment.77 This litmus test forces any aspiring policymaker to become an overt supporter of Israel, which is why public critics of Israeli policy have become an endangered species in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

These constraints still operate today. When 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean called for the United States to take a more "even-handed role" in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Senator Joseph Lieberman accused him of selling Israel down the river and said his statement was "irresponsible."78 Virtually all of the top Democrats in the House signed a hard-hitting letter to Dean criticizing his comments, and the Chicago Jewish Star reported that "anonymous attackers … are clogging the e-mail inboxes of Jewish leaders around the country, warning -- without much evidence -- that Dean would somehow be bad for Israel."79

This worry was absurd, however, because Dean is in fact quite hawkish on Israel.80 His campaign co-chair was a former AIPAC president, and Dean said his own views on the Middle East more closely reflected those of AIPAC than the more moderate Americans for Peace Now. Dean had merely suggested that to "bring the sides together," Washington should act as an honest broker. This is hardly a radical idea, but it is anathema to the Lobby, which does not tolerate the idea of even-handedness when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Lobby’s goals are also served when pro-Israel individuals occupy important positions in the executive branch. During the Clinton Administration, for example, Middle East policy was largely shaped by officials with close ties to Israel or to prominent pro-Israel organizations – including Martin Indyk, the former deputy director of research at AIPAC and co-founder of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP); Dennis Ross, who joined WINEP after leaving government in 2001; and Aaron Miller, who has lived in Israel and often visits there.81

These men were among President Clinton’s closest advisors at the Camp David summit in July 2000. Although all three supported the Oslo peace process and favored creation of a Palestinian state, they did so only within the limits of what would be acceptable to Israel.82 In particular, the American delegation took its cues from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, coordinated negotiating positions in advance, and did not offer its own independent proposals for settling the conflict. Not surprisingly, Palestinian negotiators complained that they were "negotiating with two Israeli teams –one displaying an Israeli flag, and one an American flag."83

The situation is even more pronounced in the Bush Administration, whose ranks include fervently pro-Israel individuals like Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, I. Lewis ("Scooter") Libby, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and David Wurmser. As we shall see, these officials consistently pushed for policies favored by Israel and backed by organizations in the Lobby.

Manipulating the Media

In addition to influencing government policy directly, the Lobby strives to shape public perceptions about Israel and the Middle East. It does not want an open debate on issues involving Israel, because an open debate might cause Americans to question the level of support that they currently provide. Accordingly, pro-Israel organizations work hard to influence the media, think tanks, and academia, because these institutions are critical in shaping popular opinion.

The Lobby’s perspective on Israel is widely reflected in the mainstream media in good part because most American commentators are pro-Israel. The debate among Middle East pundits, journalist Eric Alterman writes, is "dominated by people who cannot imagine criticizing Israel."84 He lists 61 "columnists and commentators who can be counted upon to support Israel reflexively and without qualification." Conversely, Alterman found just five pundits who consistently criticize Israeli behavior or endorse pro-Arab positions. Newspapers occasionally publish guest op-eds challenging Israeli policy, but the balance of opinion clearly favors the other side.

This pro-Israel bias is reflected in the editorials of major newspapers. Robert Bartley, the late editor of the Wall Street Journal, once remarked that, "Shamir, Sharon, Bibi – whatever those guys want is pretty much fine by me."85 Not surprisingly, the Journal, along with other prominent newspapers like The Chicago Sun-Times and The Washington Times regularly run editorials that are strongly pro-Israel. Magazines like Commentary, the New Republic, and the Weekly Standard also zealously defend Israel at every turn.

Editorial bias is also found in papers like the New York Times. The Times occasionally criticizes Israeli policies and sometimes concedes that the Palestinians have legitimate grievances, but it is not even-handed. In his memoirs, for example, former Times executive editor Max Frankel acknowledged the impact his own pro-Israel attitude had on his editorial choices. In his words: "I was much more deeply devoted to Israel than I dared to assert." He goes on: "Fortified by my knowledge of Israel and my friendships there, I myself wrote most of our Middle East commentaries. As more Arab than Jewish readers recognized, I wrote them from a pro-Israel perspective."86

The media’s reporting of news events involving Israel is somewhat more even-handed than editorial commentary is, in part because reporters strive to be objective, but also because it is difficult to cover events in the occupied territories without acknowledging Israel’s actual behavior. To discourage unfavorable reporting on Israel, the Lobby organizes letter writing campaigns, demonstrations, and boycotts against news outlets whose content it considers anti-Israel. One CNN executive has said that he sometimes gets 6,000 e-mail messages in a single day complaining that a story is anti-Israel.87 Similarly, the pro-Israel Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) organized demonstrations outside National Public Radio stations in 33 cities in May 2003, and it also tried to convince contributors to withhold support from NPR until its Middle East coverage became more sympathetic to Israel.88 Boston’s NPR station, WBUR, reportedly lost more than $1 million in contributions as a result of these efforts. Pressure on NPR has also come from Israel’s friends in Congress, who have asked NPR for an internal audit as well as more oversight of its Middle East coverage.

These factors help explain why the American media contains few criticisms of Israeli policy, rarely questions Washington’s relationship with Israel, and only occasionally discusses the Lobby’s profound influence on U.S. policy.

Think Tanks That Think One Way

Pro-Israel forces predominate in U.S. think tanks, which play an important role in shaping public debate as well as actual policy. The Lobby created its own think tank in 1985, when Martin Indyk helped found WINEP.89 Although WINEP plays down its links to Israel and claims instead that it provides a "balanced and realistic" perspective on Middle East issues, this is not the case.90

In fact, WINEP is funded and run by individuals who are deeply committed to advancing Israel’s agenda. The Lobby’s influence in the think tank world extends well beyond WINEP. Over the past 25 years, pro-Israel forces have established a commanding presence at the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Center for Security Policy, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). These think tanks are decidedly pro-Israel, and include few, if any, critics of U.S. support for the Jewish state.

A good indicator of the Lobby’s influence in the think tank world is the evolution of the Brookings Institution. For many years, its senior expert on Middle East issues was William B. Quandt, a distinguished academic and former NSC official with a well-deserved reputation for evenhandedness regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, however, Brookings’s work on these issues is conducted through its Saban Center for Middle East Studies, which is financed by Haim Saban, a wealthy Israeli-American businessman and ardent Zionist.91 The director of the Saban Center is the ubiquitous Martin Indyk. Thus, what was once a non-partisan policy institute on Middle East matters is now part of the chorus of largely pro-Israel think tanks.

Policing Academia

The Lobby has had the most difficulty stifling debate about Israel on college campuses, because academic freedom is a core value and because tenured professors are hard to threaten or silence. Even so, there was only mild criticism of Israel in the 1990s, when the Oslo peace process was underway. Criticism rose after that process collapsed and Ariel Sharon came to power in early 2001, and it became especially intense when the IDF re-occupied the West Bank in spring 2002 and employed massive force against the Second Intifada.

The Lobby moved aggressively to "take back the campuses." New groups sprang up, like the Caravan for Democracy, which brought Israeli speakers to U.S. colleges.92 Established groups like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Hillel jumped into the fray, and a new group – the Israel on Campus Coalition – was formed to coordinate the many groups that now sought to make Israel’s case on campus. Finally, AIPAC more than tripled its spending for programs to monitor university activities and to train young advocates for Israel, in order to "vastly expand the number of students involved on campus . . . in the national pro-Israel effort."93

The Lobby also monitors what professors write and teach. In September 2002, for example, Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes, two passionately pro-Israel neoconservatives, established a website (Campus Watch) that posted dossiers on suspect academics and encouraged students to report comments or behavior that might be considered hostile to Israel.94 This transparent attempt to blacklist and intimidate scholars prompted a harsh reaction and Pipes and Kramer later removed the dossiers, but the website still invites students to report alleged anti-Israel behavior at U.S. colleges.

Groups in the Lobby also direct their fire at particular professors and the universities that hire them. Columbia University, which had the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said on its faculty, has been a frequent target of pro-Israel forces. Jonathan Cole, the former Columbia provost, reported that, "One can be sure that any public statement in support of the Palestinian people by the preeminent literary critic Edward Said will elicit hundreds of e-mails, letters, and journalistic accounts that call on us to denounce Said and to either sanction or fire him."95 When Columbia recruited historian Rashid Khalidi from the University of Chicago, Cole says that "the complaints started flowing in from people who disagreed with the content of his political views." Princeton faced the same problem a few years later when it considered wooing Khalidi away from Columbia.96

A classic illustration of the effort to police academia occurred in late 2004, when the "David Project" produced a propaganda film alleging that faculty in Columbia University’s Middle East studies program were anti-Semitic and were intimidating Jewish students who defended Israel.97 Columbia was raked over the coals in pro-Israel circles, but a faculty committee assigned to investigate the charges found no evidence of anti-Semitism and the only incident worth noting was the possibility that one professor had "responded heatedly" to a student’s question.98 The committee also discovered that the accused professors had been the target of an overt intimidation campaign.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this campaign to eliminate criticism of Israel from college campuses is the effort by Jewish groups to push Congress to establish mechanisms that monitor what professors say about Israel.99 Schools judged to have an anti-Israel bias would be denied Federal funding. This effort to get the U.S. government to police campuses have not yet succeeded, but the attempt illustrates the importance pro-Israel groups place on controlling debate on these issues.

Finally, a number of Jewish philanthropists have established Israel studies programs (in addition to the roughly 130 Jewish Studies programs that already exist) so as to increase the number of Israel-friendly scholars on campus.100 NYU announced the establishment of the Taub Center for Israel Studies on May 1, 2003, and similar programs have been established at other schools like Berkeley, Brandeis, and Emory. Academic administrators emphasize the pedagogical value of these programs, but the truth is that they are intended in good part to promote Israel’s image on campus. Fred Laffer, the head of the Taub Foundation, makes clear that his foundation funded the NYU center to help counter the "Arabic [sic] point of view" that he thinks is prevalent in NYU’s Middle East programs.101

In sum, the Lobby has gone to considerable lengths to insulate Israel from criticism on college campuses. It has not been as successful in academia as it has been on Capitol Hill, but it has worked hard to stifle criticism of Israel by professors and students and there is much less of it on campuses today.102

The Great Silencer

No discussion of how the Lobby operates would be complete without examining one of its most powerful weapons: the charge of anti-Semitism. Anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over U.S. Middle East policy – an influence that AIPAC celebrates – stands a good chance of getting labeled an anti-Semite. In fact, anyone who says that there is an Israel Lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism, even though the Israeli media themselves refer to America’s "Jewish Lobby." In effect, the Lobby boasts of its own power and then attacks anyone who calls attention to it. This tactic is very effective, because anti-Semitism is loathsome and no responsible person wants to be accused of it.

Europeans have been more willing than Americans to criticize Israeli policy in recent years, which some attribute to a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. We are "getting to a point," the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union said in early 2004, "where it is as bad as it was in the 1930s."103 Measuring anti-Semitism is a complicated matter, but the weight of evidence points in the opposite direction. For example, in the spring of 2004, when accusations of European anti- Semitism filled the air in America, separate surveys of European public opinion conducted by the Anti-Defamation League and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that it was actually declining.104

Consider France, which pro-Israel forces often portray as the most anti-Semitic state in Europe. A poll of French citizens in 2002 found that: 89 percent could envisage living with a Jew; 97 percent believe making anti-Semitic graffiti is a serious crime; 87 percent think attacks on French synagogues are scandalous; and 85 percent of practicing French Catholics reject the charge that Jews have too much influence in business and finance.105 It is unsurprising that the head of the French Jewish community declared in the summer of 2003 that "France is not more anti-Semitic than America."106 According to a recent article in Ha'aretz, the French police report that anti-Semitic incidents in France declined by almost 50 per cent in 2005; and this despite the fact that France has the largest Muslim population of any country in Europe.107

Finally, when a French Jew was brutally murdered last month by a Muslim gang, tens of thousands of French demonstrators poured into the streets to condemn anti-Semitism. Moreover, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin both attended the victim’s memorial service in a public show of solidarity with French Jewry.108 It is also worth noting that in 2002 more Jews immigrated to Germany than Israel, making it "the fastest growing Jewish community in the world," according to an article in the Jewish newspaper Forward.109 If Europe were really heading back to the 1930s, it is hard to imagine that Jews would be moving there in large numbers.

We recognize, however, that Europe is not free of the scourge of anti-Semitism. No one would deny that there are still some virulent autochthonous anti-Semites in Europe (as there are in the United States) but their numbers are small and their extreme views are rejected by the vast majority of Europeans. Nor would one deny that there is anti-Semitism among European Muslims, some of it provoked by Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians and some of it straightforwardly racist.110 This problem is worrisome, but it is hardly out of control. Muslims constitute less than five percent of Europe’s total population, and European governments are working hard to combat the problem. Why? Because most Europeans reject such hateful views.111 In short, when it comes to anti-Semitism, Europe today bears hardly any resemblance to Europe in the 1930s.

This is why pro-Israel forces, when pressed to go beyond assertion, claim that there is a ‘new anti-Semitism’, which they equate with criticism of Israel.112 In other words criticize Israeli policy and you are by definition an anti-Semite. When the synod of the Church of England recently voted to divest from Caterpillar Inc. on the grounds that Caterpillar manufactures the bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes, the Chief Rabbi complained that it would 'have the most adverse repercussions on ... Jewish-Christian relations in Britain', while Rabbi Tony Bayfield, the head of the Reform movement, said: "'There is a clear problem of anti-Zionist – verging on anti-Semitic – attitudes emerging in the grass roots, and even in the middle ranks of the Church."113 However, the Church was neither guilty of anti-Zionism nor anti-Semitism; it was merely protesting Israeli policy.114

Critics are also accused of holding Israel to an unfair standard or questioning its right to exist. But these are bogus charges too. Western critics of Israel hardly ever question its right to exist. Instead, they question its behavior towards the Palestinians, which is a legitimate criticism: Israelis question it themselves. Nor is Israel being judged unfairly. Rather, Israeli treatment of the Palestinians elicits criticism because it is contrary to widely-accepted human rights norms and international law, as well as the principle of national self-determination. And it is hardly the only state that has faced sharp criticism on these grounds.

In sum, other ethnic lobbies can only dream of having the political muscle that pro-Israel organizations possess. The question, therefore, is what effect does the Lobby have on U.S. foreign policy?


If the Lobby’s impact were confined to U.S. economic aid to Israel, its influence might not be that worrisome. Foreign aid is valuable, but not as useful as having the world’s only superpower bring its vast capabilities to bear on Israel’s behalf. Accordingly, the Lobby has also sought to shape the core elements of U.S. Middle East policy. In particular, it has worked successfully to convince American leaders to back Israel’s continued repression of the Palestinians and to take aim at Israel’s primary regional adversaries: Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Demonizing the Palestinians

It is now largely forgotten, but in the fall of 2001, and especially in the spring of 2002, the Bush Administration tried to reduce anti-American sentiment in the Arab world and undermine support for terrorist groups like al Qaeda, by halting Israel’s expansionist policies in the occupied territories and advocating the creation of a Palestinian state.

Bush had enormous potential leverage at his disposal. He could have threatened to reduce U.S. economic and diplomatic support for Israel, and the American people would almost certainly have supported him. A May 2003 poll reported that over 60 percent of Americans were willing to withhold aid to Israel if it resisted U.S. pressure to settle the conflict, and that number rose to 70 percent among "politically active" Americans.115 Indeed, 73 percent said that United States should not favor either side.

Yet the Bush Administration failed to change Israel’s policies, and Washington ended up backing Israel’s hard-line approach instead. Over time, the Administration also adopted Israel’s justifications for this approach, so that U.S. and Israeli rhetoric became similar. By February 2003, a Washington Post headline summarized the situation: "Bush and Sharon Nearly Identical on Mideast Policy."116 The main reason for this switch is the Lobby.

The story begins in late September 2001 when President Bush began pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to show restraint in the occupied territories. He also pressed Sharon to allow Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, even though Bush was highly critical of Arafat’s leadership.117 Bush also said publicly that he supported a Palestinian state.118 Alarmed by these developments, Sharon accused Bush of trying "to appease the Arabs at our expense," warning that Israel "will not be Czechoslovakia."119

Bush was reportedly furious at Sharon’s likening him to Neville Chamberlain, and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer called Sharon’s remarks "unacceptable."120 The Israeli prime minister offered a pro forma apology, but he quickly joined forces with the Lobby to convince the Bush administration and the American people that the United States and Israel faced a common threat from terrorism.121 Israeli officials and Lobby representatives repeatedly emphasized that there was no real difference between Arafat and Osama bin Laden, and insisted that the United States and Israel should isolate the Palestinians’ elected leader and have nothing to do with him.122

The Lobby also went to work in Congress. On November 16, 89 senators sent Bush a letter praising him for refusing to meet with Arafat, but also demanding that the United States not restrain Israel from retaliating against the Palestinians and insisting that the administration state publicly that it stood steadfastly behind Israel. According to the New York Times, the letter "stemmed from a meeting two weeks ago between leaders of the American Jewish community and key senators," adding that AIPAC was "particularly active in providing advice on the letter."123

By late November, relations between Tel Aviv and Washington had improved considerably. This was due in part to the Lobby’s efforts to bend U.S. policy in Israel’s direction, but also to America’s initial victory in Afghanistan, which reduced the perceived need for Arab support in dealing with al Qaeda. Sharon visited the White House in early December and had a friendly meeting with Bush.124

But trouble erupted again in April 2002, after the IDF launched Operation Defensive Shield and resumed control of virtually all of the major Palestinian areas on the West Bank.125 Bush knew that Israel’s action would damage America’s image in the Arab and Islamic world and undermine the war on terrorism, so he demanded on April 4 that Sharon "halt the incursions and begin withdrawal." He underscored this message two days later, saying this meant "withdrawal without delay." On April 7, Bush’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, told reporters that, "‘without delay’ means without delay. It means now." That same day Secretary of State Colin Powell set out for the Middle East to pressure all sides to stop fighting and start negotiating.126

Israel and the Lobby swung into action. A key target was Powell, who began feeling intense heat from pro-Israel officials in Vice President Cheney’s office and the Pentagon, as well as from neoconservative pundits like Robert Kagan and William Kristol, who accused him of having "virtually obliterated the distinction between terrorists and those fighting terrorists."127 A second target was Bush himself, who was being pressed by Jewish leaders and Christian evangelicals, the latter a key component of his political base. Tom DeLay and Dick Armey were especially outspoken about the need to support Israel, and DeLay and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott visited the White House and personally warned Bush to back off.128

The first sign that Bush was caving came on April 11 – only one week after he told Sharon to withdraw his forces – when Ari Fleischer said the President believes Sharon is "a man of peace."129 Bush repeated this statement publicly upon Powell’s return from his abortive mission, and he told reporters that Sharon had responded satisfactorily to his call for a full and immediate withdrawal.130 Sharon had done no such thing, but the President of the United States was no longer willing to make an issue of it.

Meanwhile, Congress was also moving to back Sharon. On May 2, it overrode the Administration’s objections and passed two resolutions reaffirming support for Israel. (The Senate vote was 94 to 2; the House version passed 352-21). Both resolutions emphasized that the United States "stands in solidarity with Israel" and that the two countries are, to quote the House resolution, "now engaged in a common struggle against terrorism." The House version also condemned "the ongoing support of terror by Yasir Arafat," who was portrayed as a central element of the terrorism problem.131 A few days later, a bipartisan congressional delegation on a fact-finding mission in Israel publicly proclaimed that Sharon should resist U.S. pressure to negotiate with Arafat.132 On May 9, a House appropriations subcommittee met to consider giving Israel an extra $200 million to fight terrorism. Secretary of State Powell opposed the package, but the Lobby backed it, just as it had helped author the two congressional resolutions.133 Powell lost.

In short, Sharon and the Lobby took on the President of the United States and triumphed. Hemi Shalev, a journalist for the Israel newspaper Ma’ariv, reported that Sharon’s aides "could not hide their satisfaction in view of Powell’s failure. Sharon saw the white in President Bush’s eyes, they bragged, and the President blinked first."134 But it was the pro-Israel forces in the United States, not Sharon or Israel, that played the key role in defeating Bush.

The situation has changed little since then. The Bush Administration refused to deal further with Arafat, who eventually died in November 2004. It has subsequently embraced the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, but has done little to help him gain a viable state. Sharon continued to develop his plans for unilateral "disengagement" from the Palestinians, based on withdrawal from Gaza coupled with continued expansion on the West Bank, which entails building the so-called "security fence," seizing Palestinian-owned land, and expanding settlement blocs and road networks. By refusing to negotiate with Abbas (who favors a negotiated settlement) and making it impossible for him to deliver tangible benefits to the Palestinian people, Sharon’s strategy contributed directly to Hamas’ recent electoral victory.135 With Hamas in power, however, Israel has another excuse not to negotiate. The administration has supported Sharon’s actions (and those of his successor, Ehud Olmert), and Bush has even endorsed unilateral Israeli annexations in the Occupied Territories, reversing the stated policy of every president since Lyndon Johnson.136

U.S. officials have offered mild criticisms of a few Israeli actions, but have done little to help create a viable Palestinian state. Former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft even declared in October 2004 that Sharon has President Bush "wrapped around his little finger."137 If Bush tries to distance the United States from Israel, or even criticizes Israeli actions in the occupied territories, he is certain to face the wrath of the Lobby and its supporters in Congress. Democratic Party presidential candidates understand these facts of life too,which is why John Kerry went to great lengths to display his unalloyed support for Israel in 2004 and why Hillary Clinton is doing the same thing today.138

Maintaining U.S. support for Israel’s policies against the Palestinians is a core goal of the Lobby, but its ambitions do not stop there. It also wants America to help Israel remain the dominant regional power. Not surprisingly, the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups in the United States worked together to shape the Bush Administration’s policy towards Iraq, Syria, and Iran, as well as its grand scheme for reordering the Middle East.

Israel and the Iraq War

Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the U.S. decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was a critical element. Some Americans believe that this was a "war for oil," but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim. Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure. According to Philip Zelikow, a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (2001-2003), executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and now Counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the "real threat" from Iraq was not a threat to the United States.139 The "unstated threat" was the "threat against Israel," Zelikow told a University of Virginia audience in September 2002, noting further that "the American government doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell."

On August 16, 2002, eleven days before Vice President Cheney kicked off the campaign for war with a hard-line speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Washington Post reported that "Israel is urging U.S. officials not to delay a military strike against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein."140 By this point, according to Sharon, strategic coordination between Israel and the U.S. had reached "unprecedented dimensions," and Israeli intelligence officials had given Washington a variety of alarming reports about Iraq’s WMD programs.141 As one retired Israeli general later put it, "Israeli intelligence was a full partner to the picture presented by American and British intelligence regarding Iraq’s non- conventional capabilities."142

Israeli leaders were deeply distressed when President Bush decided to seek U.N. Security Council authorization for war in September, and even more worried when Saddam agreed to let U.N. inspectors back into Iraq, because these developments seemed to reduce the likelihood of war. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told reporters in September 2002 that "the campaign against Saddam Hussein is a must. Inspections and inspectors are good for decent people, but dishonest people can overcome easily inspections and inspectors."143

At the same time, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote a New York Times op-ed warning that "the greatest risk now lies in inaction."144 His predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, published a similar piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled "The Case for Toppling Saddam."145 Netanyahu declared, "Today nothing less than dismantling his regime will do," adding that "I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of Israelis in supporting a pre-emptive strike against Saddam’s regime." Or as Ha’aretz reported in February 2003: "The [Israeli] military and political leadership yearns for war in Iraq."146

But as Netanyahu suggests, the desire for war was not confined to Israel’s leaders. Apart from Kuwait, which Saddam conquered in 1990, Israel was the only country in the world where both the politicians and the public enthusiastically favored war.147 As journalist Gideon Levy observed at the time, "Israel is the only country in the West whose leaders support the war unreservedly and where no alternative opinion is voiced."148 In fact, Israelis were so gung-ho for war that their allies in America told them to damp down their hawkish rhetoric, lest it look like the war was for Israel.149

The Lobby and the Iraq War

Within the United States, the main driving force behind the Iraq war was a small band of neoconservatives, many with close ties to Israel’s Likud Party.150 In addition, key leaders of the Lobby’s major organizations lent their voices to the campaign for war.151 According to the Forward, "As President Bush attempted to sell the . . . war in Iraq, America’s most important Jewish organizations rallied as one to his defense. In statement after statement community leaders stressed the need to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction."152 The editorial goes on to say that "concern for Israel’s safety rightfully factored into the deliberations of the main Jewish groups."

Although neoconservatives and other Lobby leaders were eager to invade Iraq, the broader American Jewish community was not.153 In fact, Samuel Freedman reported just after the war started that "a compilation of nationwide opinion polls by the Pew Research Center shows that Jews are less supportive of the Iraq war than the population at large, 52% to 62%."154 Thus, it would be wrong to blame the war in Iraq on "Jewish influence." Rather, the war was due in large part to the Lobby’s influence, especially the neoconservatives within it.

The neoconservatives were already determined to topple Saddam before Bush became President.155 They caused a stir in early 1998 by publishing two open letters to President Clinton calling for Saddam’s removal from power.156 The signatories, many of whom had close ties to pro-Israel groups like JINSA or WINEP, and whose ranks included Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, William Kristol, Bernard Lewis, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, had little trouble convincing the Clinton Administration to adopt the general goal of ousting Saddam.157 But the neoconservatives were unable to sell a war to achieve that objective.Nor were they able to generate much enthusiasm for invading Iraq in the early months of the Bush Administration.158 As important as the neoconservatives were for making the Iraq war happen, they needed help to achieve their aim.

That help arrived with 9/11. Specifically, the events of that fateful day led Bush and Cheney to reverse course and become strong proponents of a preventive war to topple Saddam. Neoconservatives in the Lobby – most notably Scooter Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, and Princeton historian Bernard Lewis – played especially critical roles in persuading the President and Vice-President to favor war.

For the neoconservatives, 9/11 was a golden opportunity to make the case for war with Iraq. At a key meeting with Bush at Camp David on September 15, Wolfowitz advocated attacking Iraq before Afghanistan, even though there was no evidence that Saddam was involved in the attacks on the United States and bin Laden was known to be in Afghanistan.159 Bush rejected this advice and chose to go after Afghanistan instead, but war with Iraq was now regarded as a serious possibility and the President tasked U.S. military planners on November 21, 2001 with developing concrete plans for an invasion.160

Meanwhile, other neoconservatives were at work within the corridors of power. We do not have the full story yet, but scholars like Lewis and Fouad Ajami of John Hopkins University reportedly played key roles in convincing Vice President Cheney to favor the war.161 Cheney’s views were also heavily influenced by the neoconservatives on his staff, especially Eric Edelman, John Hannah, and chief of staff Libby, one of the most powerful individuals in the Administration.162 The Vice President’s influence helped convince President Bush by early 2002. With Bush and Cheney on board, the die for war was cast.

Outside the administration, neoconservative pundits lost no time making the case that invading Iraq was essential to winning the war on terrorism. Their efforts were partly aimed at keeping pressure on Bush and partly intended to overcome opposition to the war inside and outside of the government. On September 20, a group of prominent neoconservatives and their allies published another open letter, telling the President that "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [9/11] attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq."163

The letter also reminded Bush that, "Israel has been and remains America’s staunchest ally against international terrorism." In the October 1 issue of the Weekly Standard, Robert Kagan and William Kristol called for regime change in Iraq immediately after the Taliban was defeated. That same day, Charles Krauthammer argued in the Washington Post that after we were done with Afghanistan, Syria should be next, followed by Iran and Iraq. "The war on terrorism," he argued, "will conclude in Baghdad," when we finish off "the most dangerous terrorist regime in the world."164

These salvoes were the beginning of an unrelenting public relations campaign to win support for invading Iraq.165 A key part of this campaign was the manipulation of intelligence information, so as to make Saddam look like an imminent threat. For example, Libby visited the CIA several times to pressure analysts to find evidence that would make the case for war, and he helped prepare a detailed briefing on the Iraq threat in early 2003 that was pushed on Colin Powell, then preparing his infamous briefing to the U.N. Security Council on the Iraqi threat.166 According to Bob Woodward, Powell "was appalled at what he considered overreaching and hyperbole. Libby was drawing only the worst conclusions from fragments and silky threads."167 Although Powell discarded Libby’s most outrageous claims, his U.N. presentation was still riddled with errors, as Powell now acknowledges.

The campaign to manipulate intelligence also involved two organizations that were created after 9/11 and reported directly to Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith.168 The Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group was tasked to find links between al Qaeda and Iraq that the intelligence community supposedly missed. Its two key members were Wurmser, a hard core neoconservative, and Michael Maloof, a Lebanese-American who had close ties with Perle. The Office of Special Plans was tasked with finding evidence that could be used to sell war with Iraq. It was headed by Abram Shulsky, a neoconservative with longstanding ties to Wolfowitz, and its ranks included recruits from pro-Israel think tanks.169

Like virtually all the neoconservatives, Feith is deeply committed to Israel. He also has long-standing ties to the Likud Party. He wrote articles in the 1990s supporting the settlements and arguing that Israel should retain the occupied territories.170 More importantly, along with Perle and Wurmser, he wrote the famous "Clean Break" report in June 1996 for the incoming Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.171 Among other things, it recommended that Netanyahu "focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq -- an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right." It also called for Israel to take steps to reorder the entire Middle East. Netanyahu did not implement their advice, but Feith, Perle and Wurmser were soon advocating that the Bush Administration pursue those same goals. This situation prompted Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar to warn that Feith and Perle "are walking a fine line between their loyalty to American governments … and Israeli interests."172

Wolfowitz is equally committed to Israel. The Forward once described him as "the most hawkishly pro-Israel voice in the Administration," and selected him in 2002 as the first among fifty notables who "have consciously pursued Jewish activism."173 At about the same time, JINSA gave Wolfowitz its Henry M. Jackson Distinguished Service Award for promoting a strong partnership between Israel and the United States, and the Jerusalem Post, describing him as "devoutly pro-Israel," named him "Man of the Year" in 2003.174

Finally, a brief word is in order about the neoconservatives’ prewar support of Ahmed Chalabi, the unscrupulous Iraqi exile who headed the Iraqi National Congress (INC). They embraced Chalabi because he had worked to establish close ties with Jewish-American groups and had pledged to foster good relations with Israel once he gained power.175 This was precisely what pro-Israel proponents of regime change wanted to hear, so they backed Chalabi in return. Journalist Matthew Berger laid out the essence of the bargain in the Jewish Journal: "The INC saw improved relations as a way to tap Jewish influence in Washington and Jerusalem and to drum up increased support for its cause. For their part, the Jewish groups saw an opportunity to pave the way for better relations between Israel and Iraq, if and when the INC is involved in replacing Saddam Hussein’s regime."176

Given the neoconservatives’ devotion to Israel, their obsession with Iraq, and their influence in the Bush Administration, it is not surprising that many Americans suspected that the war was designed to further Israeli interests. For example, Barry Jacobs of the American Jewish Committee acknowledged in March 2005 that the belief that Israel and the neoconservatives conspired to get the United States into a war in Iraq was "pervasive" in the U.S. intelligence community.177 Yet few people would say so publicly, and most that did -- including Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) and Representative James Moran (D- VA) -- were condemned for raising the issue.178 Michael Kinsley put the point well in late 2002, when he wrote that "the lack of public discussion about the role of Israel … is the proverbial elephant in the room: Everybody sees it, no one mentions it."179 The reason for this reluctance, he observed, was fear of being labeled an anti-Semite. Even so, there is little doubt that Israel and the Lobby were key factors in shaping the decision for war. Without the Lobby’s efforts, the United States would have been far less likely to have gone to war in March 2003.

Dreams of Regional Transformation

The Iraq war was not supposed to be a costly quagmire. Rather, it was intended as the first step in a larger plan to reorder the Middle East. This ambitious strategy was a dramatic departure from previous U.S. policy, and the Lobby and Israel were critical driving forces behind this shift. This point was made clearly after the Iraq war began in a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal. The headline says it all: "President’s Dream: Changing Not Just Regime but a Region: A Pro-U.S., Democratic Area is a Goal that Has Israeli and Neo Conservative Roots."180

Pro-Israel forces have long been interested in getting the U.S. military more directly involved in the Middle East, so it could help protect Israel.181 But they had limited success on this front during the Cold War, because America acted as an "off-shore balancer" in the region. Most U.S. forces designated for the Middle East, like the Rapid Deployment Force, were kept "over the horizon" and out of harm’s way. Washington maintained a favorable balance of power by playing local powers off against each other, which is why the Reagan Administration supported Saddam against revolutionary Iran during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88).

This policy changed after the first Gulf War, when the Clinton Administration adopted a strategy of "dual containment." It called for stationing substantial U.S. forces in the region to contain both Iran and Iraq, instead of using one to check the other. The father of dual containment was none other than Martin Indyk, who first articulated the strategy in May 1993 at the pro-Israel think tank WINEP and then implemented it as Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.182

There was considerable dissatisfaction with dual containment by the mid-1990s, because it made the United States the mortal enemy of two countries who also hated each other, and it forced Washington to bear the burden of containing both of them.183 Not surprisingly, the Lobby worked actively in Congress to save dual containment.184 Pressed by AIPAC and other pro-Israel forces, Clinton toughened up the policy in the spring of 1995 by imposing an economic embargo on Iran. But AIPAC et al wanted more. The result was the 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, which imposed sanctions on any foreign companies investing more than $40 million to develop petroleum resources in Iran or Libya. As Ze’ev Schiff, the military correspondent for Ha’aretz, noted at the time, "Israel is but a tiny element in the big scheme, but one should not conclude that it cannot influence those within the Beltway."185

By the late 1990s, however, the neoconservatives were arguing that dual containment was not enough and that regime change in Iraq was now essential. By toppling Saddam and turning Iraq into a vibrant democracy, they argued, the United States would trigger a far-reaching process of change throughout the Middle East. This line of thinking, of course, was evident in the "Clean Break" study the neoconservatives wrote for Netanyahu. By 2002, when invading Iraq had become a front-burner issue, regional transformation had become an article of faith in neoconservative circles.186

Charles Krauthammer describes this grand scheme as the brainchild of Natan Sharansky, the Israeli politician whose writings have impressed President Bush.187 But Sharansky was hardly a lone voice in Israel. In fact, Israelis across the political spectrum believed that toppling Saddam would alter the Middle East to Israel’s advantage. Aluf Benn reported in Ha’aretz (February 17, 2003), "Senior IDF officers and those close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, such as National Security Advisor Ephraim Halevy, paint a rosy picture of the wonderful future Israel can expect after the war. They envision a domino effect, with the fall of Saddam Hussein followed by that of Israel’s other enemies … Along with these leaders will disappear terror and weapons of mass destruction."188

In short, Israeli leaders, neoconservatives, and the Bush Administration all saw war with Iraq as the first step in an ambitious campaign to remake the Middle East. And in the first flush of victory, they turned their sights on Israel’s other regional opponents.

Gunning for Syria

Israeli leaders did not push the Bush Administration to put its crosshairs on Syria before March 2003, because they were too busy pushing for war against Iraq. But once Baghdad fell in mid-April, Sharon and his lieutenants began urging Washington to target Damascus.189 On April 16, for example, Sharon and Shaul Mofaz, his defense minister, gave high profile interviews in different Israeli newspapers. Sharon, in Yedioth Ahronoth, called for the United States to put "very heavy" pressure on Syria.190 Mofaz told Ma’ariv that, "We have a long list of issues that we are thinking of demanding of the Syrians and it is appropriate that it should be done through the Americans."191 Sharon’s national security advisor, Ephraim Halevy, told a WINEP audience that it was now important for the United States to get rough with Syria, and the Washington Post reported that Israel was "fueling the campaign" against Syria by feeding the United States intelligence reports about the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad.192

Prominent members of the Lobby made the same arguments after Baghdad fell.193 Wolfowitz declared that "there has got to be regime change in Syria," and Richard Perle told a journalist that "We could deliver a short message, a two-worded message [to other hostile regimes in the Middle East]: ‘You’re next’."194 In early April, WINEP released a bipartisan report stating that Syria "should not miss the message that countries that pursue Saddam’s reckless, irresponsible and defiant behavior could end up sharing his fate."195 On April 15, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times entitled "Next, Turn the Screws on Syria," while the next day Zev Chafets wrote an article for the New York Daily News entitled "Terror-Friendly Syria Needs a Change, Too." Not to be outdone, Lawrence Kaplan wrote in the New Republic on April 21 that Syrian leader Assad was a serious threat to America.196

Back on Capitol Hill, Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) had reintroduced the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act on April 12.197 It threatened sanctions against Syria if it did not withdraw from Lebanon, give up its WMD, and stop supporting terrorism, and it also called for Syria and Lebanon to take concrete steps to make peace with Israel. This legislation was strongly endorsed by the Lobby—especially AIPAC—and "framed," according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, "by some of Israel’s best friends in Congress."198 It had been on the back burner for some time, largely because the Bush Administration had little enthusiasm for it, but the anti-Syrian act passed overwhelmingly (398-4in the House; 89-4 in the Senate), and Bush signed it into law on December 12, 2003.199

Yet the Bush Administration was still divided about the wisdom of targeting Syria at this time. Although the neoconservatives were eager to pick a fight with Damascus, the CIA and the State Department were opposed. And even after Bush signed the new law, he emphasized that he would go slowly in implementing it.200

Bush’s ambivalence is understandable. First, the Syrian government had been providing the United States with important intelligence about al Qaeda since 9/11 and had also warned Washington about a planned terrorist attack in the Gulf.201 Syria had also given CIA interrogators access to Mohammed Zammar, the alleged recruiter of some of the 9/11 hijackers. Targeting the Assad regime would jeopardize these valuable connections, and thus undermine the larger war on terrorism.

Second, Syria was not on bad terms with Washington before the Iraq war (e.g., it had even voted for U.N. Resolution 1441), and it was no threat to the United States. Playing hardball with Syria would make the United States look like a bully with an insatiable appetite for beating up Arab states. Finally, putting Syria on the American hit list would give Damascus a powerful incentive to cause trouble in Iraq. Even if one wanted to pressure Syria, it made good sense to finish the job in Iraq first.

Yet Congress insisted on putting the screws to Damascus, largely in response to pressure from Israel officials and pro-Israel groups like AIPAC.202 If there were no Lobby, there would have been no Syria Accountability Act and U.S. policy toward Damascus would have been more in line with the U.S. national interest.

Putting Iran in the Crosshairs

Israelis tend to describe every threat in the starkest terms, but Iran is widely seen as their most dangerous enemy because it is the most likely adversary to acquire nuclear weapons. Virtually all Israelis regard an Islamic country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons as an existential threat. As Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer remarked one month before the Iraq war: "Iraq is a problem …. But you should understand, if you ask me, today Iran is more dangerous than Iraq."203

Sharon began publicly pushing the United States to confront Iran in November 2002, in a high profile interview in The Times (London).204 Describing Iran as the "center of world terror," and bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, he declared that the Bush Administration should put the strong arm on Iran "the day after" it conquered Iraq. In late April 2003, Ha’aretz reported that the Israeli ambassador in Washington was now calling for regime change in Iran.205 The overthrow of Saddam, he noted, was "not enough." In his words, America "has to follow through. We still have great threats of that magnitude coming from Syria, coming from Iran."

The neoconservatives also lost no time in making the case for regime change in Tehran.206 On May 6, the AEI co-sponsored an all-day conference on Iran with the pro-Israel Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute.207 The speakers were all strongly pro-Israel, and many called for the United States to replace the Iranian regime with a democracy. As usual, there were a bevy of articles by prominent neoconservatives making the case for going after Iran. For example, William Kristol wrote in the Weekly Standard on May 12 that, "The liberation of Iraq was the first great battle for the future of the Middle East …. But the next great battle – not, we hope, a military one – will be for Iran."208

The Bush Administration has responded to the Lobby’s pressure by working overtime to shut down Iran’s nuclear program. But Washington has had little success, and Iran seems determined to get a nuclear arsenal. As a result, the Lobby has intensified its pressure on the U.S. government, using all of the strategies in its playbook.209 Op-eds and articles now warn of imminent dangers from a nuclear Iran, caution against any appeasement of a "terrorist" regime, and hint darkly of preventive action should diplomacy fail. The Lobby is also pushing Congress to approve the Iran Freedom Support Act, which would expand existing sanctions on Iran. Israeli officials also warn they may take preemptive action should Iran continue down the nuclear road, hints partly intended to keep Washington focused on this issue.

One might argue that Israel and the Lobby have not had much influence on U.S. policy toward Iran, because the United States has its own reasons to keep Iran from going nuclear. This is partly true, but Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not pose an existential threat to the United States. If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China, or even a nuclear North Korea, then it can live with a nuclear Iran. And that is why the Lobby must keep constant pressure on U.S. politicians to confront Tehran. Iran and the United States would hardly be allies if the Lobby did not exist, but U.S. policy would be more temperate and preventive war would not be a serious option.


It is not surprising that Israel and its American supporters want the United States to deal with any and all threats to Israel’s security. If their efforts to shape U.S. policy succeed, then Israel’s enemies get weakened or overthrown, Israel gets a free hand with the Palestinians, and the United States does most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding, and paying.

But even if the United States fails to transform the Middle East and finds itself in conflict with an increasingly radicalized Arab and Islamic world, Israel still ends up protected by the world’s only superpower.210 This is not a perfect outcome from the Lobby’s perspective, but it is obviously preferable to Washington distancing itself from Israel, or using its leverage to force Israel to make peace with the Palestinians.


Can the Lobby’s power be curtailed? One would like to think so, given the Iraq debacle, the obvious need to rebuild America’s image in the Arab and Islamic world, and the recent revelations about AIPAC officials passing U.S. government secrets to Israel. One might also think that Arafat’s death and the election of the more moderate Abu Mazen would cause Washington to press vigorously and evenhandedly for a peace agreement. In short, there are ample grounds for U.S. leaders to distance themselves from the Lobby and adopt a Middle East policy more consistent with broader U.S. interests. In particular, using American power to achieve a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians would help advance the broader goals of fighting extremism and promoting democracy in the Middle East.

But that is not going to happen anytime soon. AIPAC and its allies (including Christian Zionists) have no serious opponents in the lobbying world. They know it has become more difficult to make Israel’s case today, and they are responding by expanding their activities and staffs.211 Moreover, American politicians remain acutely sensitive to campaign contributions and other forms of political pressure and major media outlets are likely to remain sympathetic to Israel no matter what it does.

This situation is deeply worrisome, because 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.

Furthermore, the Lobby’s campaign for regime change in Iran and Syria could lead the United States to attack those countries, with potentially disastrous effects. We do not need another Iraq. At a minimum, the Lobby’s hostility toward these countries makes it especially difficult for Washington to enlist them against al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency, where their help is badly needed.

There is a moral dimension here as well. Thanks to the Lobby, the United States has become the de facto enabler of Israeli expansion in the occupied territories, making it complicit in the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians. This situation undercuts Washington’s efforts to promote democracy abroad and makes it look hypocritical when it presses other states to respect human rights. U.S. efforts to limit nuclear proliferation appear equally hypocritical given its willingness to accept Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which encourages Iran and others to seek similar capabilities.

Moreover, the Lobby’s campaign to squelch debate about Israel is unhealthy for democracy. Silencing skeptics by organizing blacklists and boycotts – or by suggesting that critics are anti-Semites – violates the principle of open debate upon which democracy depends. The inability of the U.S. Congress to conduct a genuine debate on these vital issues paralyzes the entire process of democratic deliberation. Israel’s backers should be free to make their case and to challenge those who disagree with them. But efforts to stifle debate by intimidation must be roundly condemned by those who believe in free speech and open discussion of important public issues. Finally, the Lobby’s influence has been bad for Israel. Its ability to persuade Washington to support an expansionist agenda has discouraged Israel from seizing opportunities – including a peace treaty with Syria and a prompt and full implementation of the Oslo Accords – that would have saved Israeli lives and shrunk the ranks of Palestinian extremists. Denying the Palestinians their legitimate political rights certainly has not made Israel more secure, and the long campaign to kill or marginalize a generation of Palestinian leaders has empowered extremist groups like Hamas, and reduced the number of Palestinian leaders who would be both willing to accept a fair settlement and able to make it work. This course raises the awful specter of Israel one day occupying the pariah status once reserved for apartheid states like South Africa. Ironically, Israel itself would probably be better off if the Lobby were less powerful and U.S. policy were more evenhanded.

But there is a ray of hope. Although the Lobby remains a powerful force, the adverse effects of its influence are increasingly difficult to hide. Powerful states can maintain flawed policies for quite some time, but reality cannot be ignored forever. What is needed, therefore, is a candid discussion of the Lobby’s influence and a more open debate about U.S. interests in this vital region. Israel’s well-being is one of those interests, but not its continued occupation of the West Bank or its broader regional agenda. Open debate will expose the limits of the strategic and moral case for one-sided U.S. support and could move the United States to a position more consistent with its own national interest, with the interests of the other states in the region, and with Israel’s long-term interests as well.

John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service professor of political science and the co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1982. He graduated from West Point in 1970 and then served five years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. He then started graduate school in political science at Cornell University in 1975. He received his Ph.D. in 1980.

Stephen M. Walt is Robert and Rene Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He holds a B.A. in international relations from Stanford University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. He was previously on the faculties of Princeton University and the University of Chicago.