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Dueling Books Reignite Debate Over Israeli Lobby in United States

October 9, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: A year ago, two American political scientists raised a storm with an article asserting that Israel and its supporters in the United States have far too much influence over American policy. The fight is still going on now in the pages of two books.

“The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” is the work of John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, and Steven Walt, a professor at Harvard. They argue that Israel enjoys an extraordinary level of U.S. support that is now proving a, quote, “strategic liability,” closed quote, to U.S. interests in the world. And this outside support, they say, is, quote, “due largely to the political power of the Israel lobby, led by groups like the American-Israel political action committee, or AIPAC.

“The Deadliest Lies” is the title of a rebuttal book by Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League. He calls the Mearsheimer-Walt book “explosive and inflammatory” and says it is based on, quote, “half-truths, distortions and falsehoods.”

We bring the two together now, Professor Mearsheimer joining me here, and Mr. Foxman in New York. And welcome to you both.

John Mearsheimer, first, before we really get into this, define your term. What do you mean by “Israel lobby”?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER, University of Chicago: The Israel lobby, Margaret, is a loose coalition of individuals and groups who worked actively to push American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. It’s an American interest group along the lines of the National Rifle Association or the American Association for Retired People.

MARGARET WARNER: So what’s your evidence that it is distorting American foreign policy in a way that is jeopardizing U.S. security and that it has the degree of influence that it can do so?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, probably the best example would be U.S. policy on the settlements in the occupied territories. Every American president since Lyndon Johnson in 1967 has opposed, at least officially opposed, the building of settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Nevertheless, no American president has been able to put any serious pressure on the Israelis to stop that settlement-building. even though there’s lots of evidence that that has been one of the principal reasons that the United States is deeply disliked around the world, and it is one of the causes — not the only cause — but one of the causes of our terrorism problem.

And the reason, of course, that no president can put any meaningful pressure on the Israelis is because of the Israel lobby.

Israel lobby's role in Iraq war

Abraham Foxman
Director, Anti-Defamation League
The deadly lie is the concept that Jews, wherever they are, disproportionately control government means of media in order to promote their interests.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Foxman, what is the deadly lie, to use your phrase, that you believe these authors are promoting here?

ABRAHAM FOXMAN, Director, Anti-Defamation League: The deadly lie is the concept that Jews, wherever they are, disproportionately control government means of media in order to promote their interests.

Mearsheimer and Walt in their book basically say that the lobby, which is I guess all those American Jews and some Zionist Christians who support Israel, distort what is America's interest, distort what is in the best interest of the United States, in order to serve the interests of Israel and support of Israel.

And they go as far as saying that -- in their magazine article originally, they said that it was because of the Israel lobby that America went to war in Iraq. They've sort of adjusted it in their book, and they say, "If not for the Israel lobby, America would not be at war," and basically saying the American Jews so control the American government, the administration and Congress and media, that it brought about America's entry into the Iraq war, which is against the interest of the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me read you the exact quote, Mr. Mearsheimer. You say that, "The war was motivated, at least in good part, by a desire to make Israel more secure." And you go on to say, "The war would almost certainly not have occurred had it" -- the Israel lobby -- "been absent."

What is your evidence for that? Because in reading your book, I have to say, I didn't see any quotes from people in the administration saying, "You know, this was a big factor when we sat around the table."

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, first of all, it's quite clear that the government of Israel pushed very hard for the war. Furthermore, it's very clear...

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: It's not clear, but...

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: ... that the principal institutions in the lobby, to include AIPAC, pushed for the war. Now that the war has gone south, a number of Israel's supporters have argued that that's not the case, that the lobby did not push for the war. But there's all sorts of evidence that organizations like AIPAC did push for the war.

And, furthermore, the neoconservatives who are deeply committed to Israeli security, as well as American security, were among the principal force-drivers behind this war.

And when you add all of that up, it's quite clear that one of the principal reasons -- not the only reason, but one of the principal reasons -- that the United States went to war against Iraq was because of the Israel lobby and Israel itself pushing for it.

Opposition to the war

Abraham Foxman
Director, Anti-Defamation League
If Mearsheimer and Walt were engaged in an honest research and scholarship, they would have found that, number one, the overwhelming majority of American-Jews since before the war to this day are opposed to the war.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Foxman, do you dispute that?

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: That's absolute nonsense. First of all, either it is the lobby that forced the war or it isn't. And now we've heard several versions of it.

If Mearsheimer and Walt were engaged in an honest research and scholarship, they would have found that, number one, the overwhelming majority of American-Jews since before the war to this day are opposed to the war. I am part of the lobby, the Anti-Defamation League is, and all that we did is, after the president declared war with Congress, we issued a statement supporting the president's war against terror. AIPAC did the same.

That is nothing close to the type of lobbying that Mearsheimer and Walt claim that the Jewish community and the Israel lobby engaged in.

But Israel, again, had they done their research not selectively, not skewed, they would have found that Prime Minister Sharon advised this administration that he felt that the threat is Iran, not Iraq.

And now we're being told, Margaret, this is only a precursor. The people who brought you the Iraq war, the Israel lobby, the Jewish supporters, are now going to bring you the Iran war. So this is a precursor in terms of the canards, that the American-Jewish community, the Israel lobby, which is part and parcel in their definition, are the ones who are pushing America again to war, against America's interest, against the best interests of the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Your book does, in fact, argue that now the Israel lobby is pushing for conflict with Iran?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Can I respond to a number of the points that Mr. Foxman made?

AIPAC's involvement on Capitol Hill

John Mearsheimer
University of Chicago
Our claim is that the Israel lobby, which is not the Jewish lobby and is not the American-Jewish community, was pushing for the war. With regard to AIPAC, there is hard evidence that AIPAC was pushing for the war.

MARGARET WARNER: Please.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: First of all, we make it very clear in the book that the American-Jewish community was more opposed to the war than the American body politic at large. We agree with what he says. He's misrepresenting the argument here.

Our claim is that the Israel lobby, which is not the Jewish lobby and is not the American-Jewish community, was pushing for the war. With regard to AIPAC, there is hard evidence that AIPAC was pushing for the war.

Howard Kohr, who is the executive director of AIPAC, told the New York Sun in January 2003 that one of his most important accomplishments for the previous year was quietly pushing for the war in Iraq up on Capitol Hill. So there is evidence that AIPAC was in favor of the war.

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: It's bad scholarship to quote a -- one quote in the New York Sun by the spokesman of AIPAC. Based on that, I hardly believe the United States government would be convinced to go to war.

MARGARET WARNER: Can we go onto what the other point Mr. Foxman made, which is that now the, quote, "Israel lobby" is pushing for conflict with Iran?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, if you look around the world, there's only one country that is actively pushing the United States to seriously consider military action against Iran, and that country is Israel. Not only its leaders, but its population is in favor of using military force against Iran, if necessary.

Furthermore, if you look at who the voices are inside the United States who are pushing for using military force against Iran, it's essentially the same cast of characters who pushed for war against Iraq. And most of those people, certainly not all of them, but most of them are in the lobby.

Legacy of anti-Semitism

John Mearsheimer
University of Chicago
We're not talking about a cabal or a conspiracy, and we make that point very clear. The Israel lobby is an interest group. And it operates in a rich American tradition, which is built around interest group politics.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Foxman, I'd like to ask you about a quote in your book. And you say that, speaking of Mearsheimer and Walt, you say that the book "supports myths and beliefs that anti-Semites have peddled for centuries, thereby giving aid and comfort to some of the most despicable people in our society." That's tough stuff. What are you saying there?

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: Well, Margaret, I have, despite the accusation, never accused Mearsheimer or Walt of being anti-Semites, nor have we ever tried to stifle their debate. But when one cherry-picks and selects events of recent history and piles it on to prove and to show that the Israel lobby, i.e., the Jewish community or those in the Jewish community who support Israel, have power beyond their numbers, that they control, they manipulate the American government, in fact, bringing them to war, they control media, because you can't debate these issues.

These are classic anti-Semitic canards, where Jews have been accused of being responsible for the plague, being responsible for World War I, World War II. We heard it from Pat Buchanan and David Duke in the first Gulf War.

Any time that things go wrong, you scapegoat. And Jews have been scapegoated, especially blamed for wars and calamities. And what this book does in a very sophisticated manner is say, "Well, Israel is not a moral country. It's not really a democratic country. It really doesn't deserve our support because of the way they treat the Palestinians. And Israel is not really in our interest."

So why is it that the United States continues to support Israel? By the way, yes, Israel gets $3 billion a year. So does Egypt get $2 billion a year. What about the oil lobby? Nobody is asking those questions.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you say to that?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: I think that's true, that his description of that kind of behavior is an old anti-Semitic canard. But the problem is that we didn't say any such thing in our book.

We're not talking about a cabal or a conspiracy, and we make that point very clear. The Israel lobby is an interest group. And it operates in a rich American tradition, which is built around interest group politics. It's like the National Rifle Association or the American Association of Retired People.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, I'm sorry. We have to leave it there. Thank you both.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: You're welcome.

JIM LEHRER: Abraham Foxman and John Mearsheimer will answer your questions about the Israel lobby in an online forum. To participate, go to our Web site at PBS.org.