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Researchers Say U.S. Policy Influenced by Israel


This morning, we'll meet two academics who violated a taboo. John Mearsheimer teaches at the University of Chicago, Stephen Walt is at Harvard. Together, the noted academics wrote a paper called, The Israel Lobby; it questioned the power of groups that support Israel and the United States.


That paper sparked a storm of criticism. Today and tomorrow, we'll examine their argument that support for Israel is not always in America's national interest. John Mearsheimer says he decided to question what he calls The Israel Lobby, after events in 2002.

Professor JOHN MEARSHEIMER (Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago): The Israelis had occupied, or reoccupied, the Palestinian areas that they had been given control over, as a result of the Oslo Peace Process. And President Bush told Ariel Sharon, in no uncertain terms, that he was supposed to withdraw his forces. Sharon then made contact with The Lobby, and The Lobby went to work. Bush was forced, after about a week's time, to back down. He was, in effect, humiliated by The Israel Lobby.

And that event made me realize just how powerful The Lobby was. And it also made it quite clear to me that The Lobby could force the United States to operate in ways that were not in its national interest.

INSKEEP: Gentlemen, let's dig into that example. When you say The Israel Lobby went to work, what specifically did they do, as far as you can tell, to move U.S. policy?

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Well what happened was, AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, put significant pressure on senators and congressmen, and got them to approach the White House, and to tell President Bush, in no uncertain terms, that it was not possible for him to try to face down Ariel Sharon. And as a result, what happened was, that Bush backed down.

INSKEEP: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is one of many, many, many lobbying organizations in Washington. What would give them the influence to move the opinions of senators, members of Congress, even the White House?

Professor STEPHEN M. WALT (Academic Dean, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): This is Steve Walt. AIPAC is extremely well organized and well funded. It's very good at channeling campaign contributions to candidates who are supportive of Israel, and against anyone that they think might be unsupportive of Israel. They also spend a lot of time up on the Hill. They help congressmen prepare talking points and things like that.

Other organizations that are part of this broad coalition, write op-eds, challenge anyone who is critical of Israel so that Israel is perceived in a very favorable light. This is, again, the standard tactics that most interest groups employ, but they are particularly effective at it.

INSKEEP: You argue also, that The Israel Lobby was at least one factor in the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq. Why do you think that?

Prof MEARSHEIMER: It's quite clear that from about early 1998, forward, there was one group that was pushing very hard for war; and that was the neo-conservatives. And the neo-conservatives are closely identified with Israel, and have been pushing American policy for a long time to support Israeli objectives. Which, of course, they believe are consistent with American objectives. But there is an abundance of evidence that it was those forces, specifically the neo-conservatives and the leaders of The Israel Lobby, who were pushing for that war. And it is that evidence that led us to make the argument that they were a necessary, but not sufficient cause for the conflict.

INSKEEP: Which gets into one of the complexities here. You're acknowledging that The Israel Lobby, at most, was one of the factors here.

Prof MEARSHEIMER: Our argument is that it was a major driving force. And if you took that major driving force away, in all likelihood, you would not have had a war.

INSKEEP: Stephen Walt, as you examined the history of what you describe as The Israel Lobby, did you find an example where they did not get what they wanted?

Prof. WALT: Well, there is a number of things where they haven't gotten what they wanted. They pressed very hard, for example, for the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem. They have occasionally failed to prevent certain weapons sales. But the key goal is to make sure that nothing interferes with broad American support with the very high level of American economic aid -roughly $3 billion a year - that goes to Israel - the most to any country.

So no matter what Israel does, whether it continues building settlements; whether it spies on the United States; whether it sells our military technology to other countries; no matter what Israel does, one of The Lobby's main goals is to make sure that nothing interferes with broad American support.

INSKEEP: Gentlemen, can we get to the underlying issue beneath all of this debate? Is it in the U.S. national interest to provide support to Israel?

Prof. WALT: I think it's very important to distinguish between support for Israel's existence, and a willingness to defend Israel if its survival were ever in danger. I think that is in American interest, and it's one that John and I both support.

It's a separate question whether the United States should be providing unconditional backing for Israel, and for all of Israel's policies. Most notably, the continued occupation and control over the Palestinians, and the refusal to negotiate a long-term peace settlement with the Palestinians. That's something that the United States pays a large price for, in terms of our image in the Middle East, and our image elsewhere in the world.

INSKEEP: I should mention, Stephen Walt, just to note, that Israeli spokesmen would dispute almost every phrase of what you just described. When you say refusal to negotiate a long-term peace settlement, they would add a lot of qualifications to that.

John Mearsheimer, what do you think?

Prof MEARSHEIMER: My argument is very similar to Steve's. Our piece was not anti-Israel. We believe there's a powerful moral case for Israel's existence. And our argument is, is that Israeli policy, and American support for Israeli policy, is not in America's national interest.

INSKEEP: I want to try to understand what concretely you would want to do differently. Because if you have made that fundamental decision that you're going to support Israel, and you're in this messy situation where there's plenty of blame to go around on many different sides, isn't that going to force you into some compromises? What could you really do differently?

Prof. WALT: This is Steve Walt. If you imagined The Lobby being less influential, the United States, I think, would still be supportive of Israel's right to exist and supporting Israel's core security. But the United States would be using its leverage to prevent the construction of settlements. The United States would have formulated its own proposals in peace negotiations, which we tended not to do. We tended to clear our positions in advance with Israel. The United States would, in our judgment, have been much less likely to have invaded Iraq. And finally, we would have been adopting a much more flexible policy towards a number of other regional problems, most notably Iran.

INSKEEP: John Mearsheimer?

Prof MEARSHEIMER: Yeah. I would add to that, that I think the United States would also have put significant pressure on Israel to give the Palestinians a viable state of their own. The conventional wisdom in the United States, especially among many American Jews and supporters of Israel, is that it is the Palestinians who have been the principle obstacle to the two-state solution, not the Israelis. I think that's not the case.

I think there is certainly blame to go around to all sides, but I think the Israelis have essentially been unwilling to give the Palestinian a viable state since 1967. And I think in the absence of The Lobby, the United States would have put great pressure on Israel to settle the conflict.

INSKEEP: John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, thanks very much.

Prof. WALT: Thank you.

Prof MEARSHEIMER: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: And this debate continues tomorrow, when we'll talk with one of Mearsheimer and Walt critics, former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross.

You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.