It seems silly to deny that a powerful lobby on behalf of Israel exists. The real question is how pernicious it is. ~Nicholas Goldberg, The Los Angeles Times

It does seem silly to deny it, but some commentary writers and pundits earn no small part of their salary saying that and other things that are just as silly. The blogosphere is filled with silly attempts to deny the existence of what Daniel Pipes refers to as a “mythical Lobby.” David Gergen comes out and declares that there is no such thing. Let the silliness continue! What prompted Mr. Goldberg’s remarks? The now famous London Review of Books article by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt entitled, boldly enough, “The Israel Lobby.” Profs. Mearsheimer and Walt pull no punches. Here is their second paragraph:

Instead, the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.

The two writers proceed to lay out certain facts that no one will dispute: Israel is by far the largest annual recipient of American government assistance and the largest total recipient of assistance in the post-WWII period “to the tune of well over $140 billion (in 2004 dollars).” I realise that in contemporary Washington a mere $140 billion dollars doesn’t sound like much anymore, but to some of us it still sounds like a fair amount of money. They go on:

Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance each year, roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. This largesse is especially striking since Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to that of South Korea or Spain.

Why does Israel in particular receive so much money from Washington? Of all the allied states in the world (and there are many), Israel receives a strange favouritism that strategic interests cannot explain and seem to oppose. The authors go on to explain that Israel enjoys certain advantages over other recipients in how it may use the money it receives. They then recount the number of times since 1982(32) the U.S. has vetoed anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N. That shows a certain determination and level of support that we do not extend to any other country. That much is obvious.

The authors make the supposedly controversial suggestion that Mr. Bush’s current policy in the Near East fits a pattern of American policy working to the imagined advantage of Israel: “Finally, the Bush administration’s ambition to transform the Middle East is at least partly aimed at improving Israel’s strategic situation.” I say imagined advantage, because the policies being undertaken by Washington were in all likelihood aimed in part at improving Israel’s strategic situation but have managed instead to make the region more volatile, more hostile and generally more dangerous for Israel.

The authors make another potentially controversial claim here: “Israel is thus seen as a crucial ally in the war on terror, because its enemies are America’s enemies. In fact, Israel is a liability in the war on terror and the broader effort to deal with rogue states.” This seems like common sense to me, since we have no necessary conflict with “its enemies” in Iran and Syria. Syria threatens no American interests, and rapprochement with Iran would be an intelligent move for the future. Until Mr. Bush’s “war on terror” morphed into a “war on tyranny,” the equation of Israel’s regional enemies with our specific foes in al-Qaeda under the rubric of “terror” literally made no sense. Now we are seeing this “war on tyranny” (and the promotion of “democracy”) continue to hijack the limited campaign against al-Qaeda and its supporters. Profs. Mearsheimer and Walt explain one of the reasons why this hijacking is taking place.

When it comes to anti-American terrorism, there is an elephant in the room that only the courageous and masochistic point out publicly: “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.” That is the phrase that will probably earn these two men more opprobrium than almost anything else they have to say.

There are the unwelcome reminders that Israel pursues its national interest ruthlessly: “Israel has provided sensitive military technology to potential rivals like China, in what the State Department inspector-general called ‘a systematic and growing pattern of unauthorised transfers’. According to the General Accounting Office, Israel also ‘conducts the most aggressive espionage operations against the US of any ally’.” These are true statements that are easily verifiable: here is one article confirming the transfer of weapons and the specific claim the scholars make about the State Department report.

That is what any nation will do when it serves its turn, which is all the more reason why any nation’s undue influence should be guarded against and its access to our technology much more closely controlled. More to the point, if any other nation (say, Germany) tried to do these same things there would be a colossal uproar and an intense straining of relations. Israel does this as a matter of course, because it has reliable spokesmen and friends who will continue to support its cause as our “reliable ally.” The authors are realistic, but they see no reason to continue to indulge this “reliable ally” in letting it have it both ways: “Israel is hardly the only country that spies on the US, but its willingness to spy on its principal patron casts further doubt on its strategic value.”

When it comes to explaining the power of the lobbying groups, surveys of Congressional representatives and their staff tell the story:

Jewish Americans have set up an impressive array of organisations to influence American foreign policy, of which AIPAC is the most powerful and best known. In 1997, Fortune magazine asked members of Congress and their staffs to list the most powerful lobbies in Washington. AIPAC was ranked second behind the American Association of Retired People, but ahead of 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 ‘muscle rankings’.

For the political illiterates who somehow imagine that the pro-Israel lobby, as a broad group, cannot include non-Jews, the authors also note the prominent involvement of many of the well-known evangelical leaders, conventional Republican pundits and, of course, an occasional neoconservative:

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, all of whom believe Israel’s rebirth is the fulfilment of biblical prophecy and support its expansionist agenda; to do otherwise, they believe, would be contrary to God’s will. Neo-conservative gentiles such as John Bolton; Robert Bartley, the former Wall Street Journal editor; William Bennett, the former secretary of education; Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former UN ambassador; and the influential columnist George Will are also steadfast supporters.

A very illuminating passage comes a little later when discussing the direct influence in Congress:

Where Israel is concerned, however, potential critics fall silent. One reason is that some key members are Christian Zionists like Dick Armey, who said in September 2002: ‘My No. 1 priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel.’ One might think that the No. 1 priority for any congressman would be to protect America. There are also Jewish senators and congressmen who work to ensure that US foreign policy supports Israel’s interests.

Armey’s quote speaks for itself. When critics speak of undue or inappropriate levels of support for Israel, this is what we mean. If I were a Congressman and I were to start promoting the defense of Armenia, let’s say, as my top priority in foreign policy, the derision and laughter would likely be endless, as well they should be. This sort of excessive enthusiasm for Israeli security as the top priority of policy should also draw the ire and mockery of any patriot. Alas, it will not, because everyone knows what the disparate groups that support Israel will do when you begin to criticise or laugh. That is really the most pernicious and dangerous aspect of the power of this broadly based lobby–its ability to stifle speech, inculcate a climate of fear and dictate debate through intimidation.

It is not only Congress, but the executive, that is open to this same strong influence, especially in the current administration:

The situation is even more pronounced in the Bush administration, whose ranks have included such fervent advocates of the Israeli cause as Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, I. Lewis (‘Scooter’) Libby, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and David Wurmser. As we shall see, these officials have consistently pushed for policies favoured by Israel and backed by organisations in the Lobby.

The objections that Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice all went along with or urged Mr. Bush in the course of action he has taken in Iraq, in particular, which supposedly proves that Israel has nothing to do with it (because these people are not Jewish) miss that these people are just as capable of having strong pro-Israel views in just the same way that Armey does (though perhaps not for the same reasons) and that they are just as susceptible to the strong influence of “the Lobby.”

The authors address the question of how the neoconservatives in particular worked their influence inside the administration to promote the invasion of Iraq:

Other neo-conservatives were meanwhile at work in the corridors of power. We don’t have the full story yet, but scholars like Bernard Lewis of Princeton and Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins reportedly played important roles in persuading Cheney that war was the best option, though neo-conservatives on his staff – Eric Edelman, John Hannah and Scooter Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff and one of the most powerful individuals in the administration – also played their part. By early 2002 Cheney had persuaded Bush; and with Bush and Cheney on board, war was inevitable.

They judge the overall influence of the neoconservatives to have been very strong on the decision to go to war:

There is little doubt that Israel and the Lobby were key factors in the decision to go to war. It’s a decision the US would have been far less likely to take without their efforts. And the war itself was intended to be only the first step. A front-page headline in the Wall Street Journal shortly after the war began says it all: ‘President’s Dream: Changing Not Just Regime but a Region: A Pro-US, Democratic Area Is a Goal that Has Israeli and Neo-Conservative Roots.’

The overarching claim of the article is very simply that this alliance of varying interests all committed to support for Israel is very effective and very influential. They deny that this is a “conspiracy” as such (not that anyone really ever affirmed that it was). The authors have made the mistake, from the perspective of correct-thinking opinion, of judging that influence as detrimental to U.S. national interests. But that the influence is obvious, strong and very real should be the starting point for all future debates on the subject.

The authors do not ignore the problem of the climate of fear entirely:

No discussion of the Lobby would be complete without an examination of one of its most powerful weapons: the charge of anti-semitism. Anyone who criticises Israel’s actions or argues that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle Eastern policy – an influence AIPAC celebrates – stands a good chance of being labelled an anti-semite. Indeed, anyone who merely claims that there is an Israel Lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-semitism, even though the Israeli media refer to America’s ‘Jewish Lobby’. In other words, the Lobby first boasts of its influence and then attacks anyone who calls attention to it. It’s a very effective tactic: anti-semitism is something no one wants to be accused of.

On a final note, there is this very straightforward indictment of the current situation:

The bottom line is that AIPAC, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress, with the result that US policy towards Israel is not debated there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world.

Which means that the interests of Israel, and not those of the American people, take priority in the deliberations of Congress, if so they may be called, when it comes to policy in that part of the world. If it were any other country, or if it were any other time in our history, we know what we would call it (treason), but none dare calls it that. And the fact that none dares call it that is a significant part of what is wrong with the entire arrangement.