I have been impressed by the things that have tended to characterise the response to the article by Profs. Mearsheimer and Walt: the rush to find the odd counter-example (which comes off sounding like, “Well, oh yeah, what about the cease-fire in Lebanon? How do you explain that one?”), the astonishing vacuity of retort (”They’re just asserting things,” Dennis Ross asserted), the personal anecdote of how things “really” worked in high places (David Gergen says he never saw anyone privilege Israeli goals over the American interest, so we are now reassured that it never happened) and the usual recourse to idealistic reasons (democracy, freedom, etc.) for solidarity with Israel.

The article proposed to explain quite a lot, but it did not propose to explain all actions ever taken in Middle East policy. The authors have been attacked for engaging in a monocausal argument (i.e., “Israel Lobby” causes all foreign policy decisions in Middle East), when it seems to me that they are allowing for a wide range of causes and sources for the strength of “the Lobby,” which is obviously an umbrella term that will encompass numerous different groups with common interests (in this case, support for the perceived interests of Israel). When their explanation does not account for every event in Israeli and American foreign policy history–which a monocausal account would do–the counter-example is offered as some sort of proof that their argument is obviously nonsense. If there are errors of fact in a few places (and there could be in such a lengthy article), this is regrettable and ought to be corrected. But most of the most telling and powerful claims have not really been addressed or taken seriously by the respondents. Is it or is it not true that Israel has tranferred military technology to China? The evidence seems to show that it is true. Is that really acceptable behaviour for a state Washington subsidises this heavily? Let’s hear the arguments why we should tolerate our “ally” aiding a potential rival and pay for the privilege. That’s not a debate these folks want to have.

The response to the idea of “the Lobby” is that there is no such Lobby as such–it is mythical! It is as if an historian studied a number of groups and individuals who belonged to a given political movement (let’s say Prohibition) because of the policies or initiatives they supported and worked for, referred to them as a movement and was then ridiculed for having made up the entire phenomenon because he called it by a name (”the Prohibition movement”) that the adherents did not use among themselves. Because there is no central headquarters issuing commands, the phenomenon is all in the heads of these authors. That is, to put it mildly, stupid. It is as if there can be no lobby in support of Israel, however diffuse and multifaceted, unless all of them carry cards and say, “I am an Israel Lobby member.”

Not that the echo chamber here in America would care, but Daniel Levy writes in Ha’aretz that the study lacked finesse and nuance, and overlooked some of the tensions that exist in the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv, but made some fundamentally correct claims:

It sometimes takes AIPAC omnipotence too much at face value and disregards key moments - such as the Bush senior/Baker loan guarantees episode and Clinton’s showdown with Netanyahu over the Wye River Agreement. The study largely ignores AIPAC run-ins with more dovish Israeli administrations, most notably when it undermined Yitzhak Rabin, and how excessive hawkishness is often out of step with mainstream American Jewish opinion, turning many, especially young American Jews, away from taking any interest in Israel.

Yet their case is a potent one: that identification of American with Israeli interests can be principally explained via the impact of the Lobby in Washington, and in limiting the parameters of public debate, rather than by virtue of Israel being a vital strategic asset or having a uniquely compelling moral case for support (beyond, as the authors point out, the right to exist, which is anyway not in jeopardy). The study is at its most devastating when it describes how the Lobby “stifles debate by intimidation” and at its most current when it details how America’s interests (and ultimately Israel’s, too) are ill-served by following the Lobby’s agenda.