Sunday, September 16, 2007
When two eminent US scholars wrote about the 'Israel lobby' they were vilified by colleagues and the Washington Post. This week Barack Obama joined the attack. Ed Pilkington hears their story
Saturday September 15, 2007
"Given the reception John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt received for their London Review of Books essay last year on what they called the Israel Lobby, it would have been understandable had they crawled away to a dark corner of their respective academic institutions to lick their wounds. Their argument that US foreign policy has been distorted by the stultifying power of pro-Israeli groups and individuals was met with a firestorm of protest that has smouldered ever since......
Given the battering he has taken, Walt is remarkably upbeat. "We were surprised by how nasty it got," says the Harvard professor. "The David Duke reference, the neo-Nazi websites - these were intended to smear us and swing attention on to us rather than to what we were saying. It wasn't pleasant, but it never made me doubt what we had written or doubt myself." Standing tall in the face of attack is one thing; to raise your head above the parapet for a second round is quite another. But that is what the Mearsheimer/Walt double act are doing: they have gone on the offensive with the publication of a book-length version of their original treatise......
There is one obvious question to put to Walt: why do it to yourself? Wasn't one stoning enough? "We did ask ourselves, did we want to go through this again?" he admits, but only to add: "It didn't take us all that long to figure out we had more to say and it was our job to say it."
By writing a 496-page book, as opposed to the original article's mere 13,000 words, the authors hope to present a more nuanced version of their case. They have taken in new examples to support their thesis, notably the second Lebanon war, which broke out in the interim, and have sought to address some of the points raised by critics.
.....But from the 1960s onwards the relationship deepened to the extent that today American and Israeli interests are deemed by many Americans to be essentially identical. The authors ask why this is the case, and argue that strategically there is no reason for it......
But the authors have brought into the open aspects of American intellectual life that needed airing. They cast light on the overweening activities of specific pro-Israeli groups, most importantly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Aipac is a self-avowed lobby (it calls itself America's pro-Israel lobby) and has been ranked the second most powerful such body in the US.......
.....Walt and Mearsheimer have also put their finger on the limits of acceptable discourse in the US. It is notable that none of the candidates standing for president in 2008 have a word of criticism for Israeli state behaviour; this week Barack Obama pulled an advert for his campaign from the Amazon page selling The Israel Lobby, denouncing the book as "just wrong".
So what happened to America's commitment to free speech, the First Amendment? "We knew from De Tocqueville this country is driven by conformity," Judt says. "The law can't make people speak out - it can only prevent people from stopping free speech. What's happened is not censorship, but self-censorship." Judt believes that a few well-organised groups including Aipac have succeeded in proscribing debate. He recalls a prominent Democratic senator confiding to him that he would never criticise Israel in public. "He told me that if he did so, for the rest of his career he would never be able to get a majority for what he cared about. He would be cut off at the knees."
In the final chapter of the book, Walt and Mearsheimer make a shopping list of reforms. They call for: a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis; greater separation of US foreign policy from Israel for both nations' sake; and campaign finance reform to reduce the power of pro-Israeli groups.
Nothing outlandish, or even controversial, there. Coming at the end of such a bumpy ride of claim and counter-claim, the conclusion feels almost disappointingly gentle. That in itself bears eloquent witness to the state of affairs in America today, where thoughts considered unremarkable elsewhere are deemed beyond the pale."