Jeffrey Herf & Andrei S. Markovits: Letter to the Editor of the London Review of Books ... About Israel Lobby

[Jeffrey Herf is Professor, Department of History, University of Maryland. Andrei S. Markovits is Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies, Department of Political Science and Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, The University of Michigan]

Accusations of powerful Jews behind the scenes are part of the most dangerous traditions of modern anti-Semitism. So it is with dismay that we read John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt's "The Israel Lobby."

We have known and respected John Mearsheimer for over twenty years which makes the essay all the more unsettling. A long reply to the erroneous history of recent events they present would exceed the length of a letter to the editor. The following must suffice.

First, it is not true that the American relationship with Israel has been "the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy." That centrepiece has been and remains access to oil for the United States and for the global economy. As it became apparent during the 1960s that Israel was not merely the only democracy in the region but also a supporter of the West in the Cold War, the American relationship intensified. At that point, support for Israel, which had been strongest among liberals who supported a Jewish state in the wake of the Holocaust, expanded to include the previously less than enthusiastic traditional military and diplomatic foreign policy establishment, some of which was deeply hostile to Israel and suspicious of Jews, to put it mildly. This was not due to the efforts of the Jewish lobby or the power of the five million Jews (in a country of almost 300 million). It was due to an assessment of American national interest made by an overwhelmingly non-Jewish political and military establishment long before Christian fundamentalism became a factor in the Republican Party. It coincided with increasingly close ties with the Saudi regime.

Second, it is not true that the United States went to war in Iraq due to the pressure of a Jewish lobby. Even if the key decision makers were Jews, this would not prove the point about the Jewish lobby. As it happens, primary advisers and war planners for Bush were Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice and the entirely non-Jewish military leadership, not the usual suspects now trotted out by those peddling stories about Jewish power behind the scenes. Whatever Israel or its supporters in the United States may or may not have wanted, American and British leaders decided to go to war for their reasons grounded in their interpretation of the respective national interest. Saddam Hussein stunned and surprised his military leaders three months before the United States and Britain invaded by revealing to them that indeed, Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. There were many officials in London and Washington - or Berlin and Paris, for that matter - who would have been just as surprised. One need not think the decision to go to war was the correct one to remember that it was not motivated by concerns about Israel's national security. One need not agree that oil below the ground and dictatorship above it posed an immediate threat to recall that British and American (as well as other Western) leaders believed that Saddam with weapons of mass destruction in years to come would have posed a threat to the other Arab oil producing states as much as Israel. Mearsheimer and Walt's realism ignores this conventional threat on the minds of American and British policy makers.

Third, while much opinion in the Arab and Islamic world has rejected the presence of a Jewish state in its midst, anti-Americanism, hatred of Europe (including Britain) and of liberal modernity in general would exist if Israel was not there. Mearsheimer and Walt stand in a long tradition of "realist" political scientists known for naivete regarding the power and import of ideological fanaticism in international affairs. This naivete is the reason that radical Islam and the enduring crises of modernization in the region that produced it receive hardly a word in their long attack.

Fourth, American Jewish citizens have a right to express their views without being charged with placing the interests of Israel ahead of those of the United States. Mearsheimer and Walt's attack appears eight years after the terrorist war against the West declared by Osama Bin Laden; six years after Ehud Barak offered a compromise plan to end the conflict and occupation of the West Bank and Yassir Arafat responded with a terrorist campaign of his own; after countless terrorist attacks all over the world by Al Qaeda and its sympathizers, including the London underground bombings; after repeated acts of terrorist barbarism in Iraq by radical Islamists; the declaration by the Iranian President that Israel should be wiped out and that the Holocaust was a myth; and most recently after the world's first electoral victory with a solid majority won by an openly anti-Semitic terrorist organization, Hamas. Mearsheimer and Walt further ignore that all of this happened also after Israel withdrew from Lebanon; offered the Barak plan; retaliated to the terrorist campaign as any state - including Britain or the United States - would; accepted the principle of a Palestinian state and thus agreed to withdraw from over 90% of the West Bank; and then withdrew completely from Gaza. If the Palestinians had responded to these offers of a compromise peace, they would now have a functioning state perhaps before radical Islam came to dominate their politics. It was radical Islamist and secular Palestinian militants as well, not the Jewish lobby, that destroyed prospects for a compromise settlement.

Were Mearsheimer and Walt's views to win the day in Washington - and we are confident that they won't - terrorists inspired by Islamic fundamentalism would conclude that the terror campaign of recent years has paid handsome dividends among some Western academics, perhaps among some Western politicians. If the United States concluded that it no longer had a vital interest in the continued survival of the only democracy in the Middle East, those now attacking Western modernity might conclude that the Americans could be convinced that defence of Europe - and Britain as well - was also not in the American interest. Turning one's back on one's good friends when times are tough has never been, is not now and will never be a realistic, decent or wise foreign policy.

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