What more could there possibly be to say about “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the controversial new book-length version of John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s provocative thesis about pro-Israel forces in America? We’ve heard both the cries of anti-Semitism, and the sighs of those defending the two professors as illuminators of inconvenient truths (“their book has the power of Silent Spring and The Jungle”). And then, this past Sunday, in The New York Times’ book review section, Leslie Gelb provided, what I think, was the most clear-headed and dispassionate deconstruction of the Mearsheimer and Walt argument so far.
So I don’t wish to add too much more to the noise. Personally I feel torn by the debate. There is certainly a discussion to be had about role that the Israel lobby (and I’m referring here only to the actual, registered lobbyists of AIPAC) plays on Capitol Hill in stifling real political debate about Israel, or at least in restricting the options open to American leaders who want to tackle the Israel-Palestinian conflict creatively. There is little doubt that this is a real phenomenon, just as the absence of debate on Cuba, support of Taiwan, or alternative energy is due to strong lobbies using their power to effect policy.
This might be the professors’ starting point. But it is certainly not where they end up. Their idea is that the Israel lobby is large and amorphous, encompassing many more institutions and people than just AIPAC. Its influence and ability to shape American foreign policy is also virtually boundless in their account, having led us into Iraq and possibly into Iran next. And though they repeat ad infinitum that there is nothing illegal or untoward about the lobby’s work - it being an American tradition for interest groups to organize and try to effect policy, foreign and domestic — there is something inescapably sinister to the tone in which they describe it. “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” this is not, for sure, but the incredible powers of influence granted to these supporters of Israel in Walt and Mearsheimer’s telling, and the zeal with which the professors denounce and accuse, makes it hard for me to see their argument as useful. They have taken the grain of an interesting idea and cultivated with it a confused and potentially poisonous plant.
But what I really find difficult to swallow - and this I do not feel unambiguous about - is their account of how American media and specifically newspapers are molded in the hands of this Israel lobby. Six pages out of their book in a chapter titled “Dominating Public Discourse” are devoted to making this argument. In all their pronouncements about the lobby, when their initial paper was published and since the book was released last month, the media have always played a central role in what they see as a shutting out of debate, both about American policy towards Israel and about the lobby itself. In these six pages, they stick to looking at the discussion of Israel’s policies (especially vis-à-vis the Palestinians) and how they are presented here. The professors try to build an argument that, due to the lobby, we are receiving a skewed and one-sided picture. But this examination is plagued by the same lack of concrete evidence, strange extrapolations and generalizations, and innuendo that makes the rest of the book uninteresting as a piece of scholarship.