Recently, two prominent U.S. academics published their research on America's close ties with Israel, sparking a fierce debate over the role Israel plays in U.S. politics. Observers say the discussion over this essay is unlikely to end anytime soon.
John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University say, what they term, "the Israel lobby" exercises enormous influence over U. S. foreign policy in the Middle East. In a heavily documented but highly controversial paper on the subject -- first published in the London Review of Books earlier this year -- they argue that well organized supporters of Israel shape Congressional legislation and presidential decisions involving that country.
This is not always in the U.S. national interest, contends Professor Walt. "We both started thinking more about this primarily in the aftermath of September 11th, when we realized, along with many other Americans, that American foreign policy in the region needed to be reshaped. And that began to focus our attention on the political forces in the United States that were making it hard for the U.S. to pursue, what we saw, as its basic national interest in that part of the world," says Walt.
Professors Mearsheimer and Walt define "the Israel lobby" as a loose coalition of important individuals and pro-Israel groups, not all of which are Jewish. The most important, according to Professor Walt, is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.
"AIPAC's agenda is to make sure that nothing interferes with American support with Israel,” argues Walt. He adds, “Irrespective of what Israel's conduct is, they work to make sure the United States backs it and continues to provide billions of dollars of assistance every year. It involves channeling campaign contributions to Congressmen who are sympathetic, channeling them away from Congressmen who they perceive to be unreliable. They have been extraordinarily good at it -- well funded, well organized and quite relentless."
As a result, the authors say, the U.S. Government grants Israel nearly three billion dollars in foreign aid each year -- the largest amount received by any nation -- and diplomatic support in its dealings with the Palestinians and others in the Middle East.
But some Jewish organizations, such as the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, argue that this close relationship serves America's national interest. They point to consistently broad-based American public support for Israel. And they say the contention that the "lobby" strongly influences policymakers is an effort to delegitimize the work of Israel supporters.
"What has happened in the last 50-to-60 years is that the American people on a bi-partisan basis, although they might not agree on everything, support the state of Israel for its democratic process and for its Western values”, says Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. “To believe that this is created by a group of Jews who can control elements of the Congress, the government and media is an absurdity."
Abraham Foxman says the American Israel Public Affairs Committee functions like any other lobbying group in the country. He notes that AIPAC “reports its finances, it deals in the open and public and it talks to Congressmen and members of the administration. That's what America is all about. We have lobbyists on all kinds of issues and there is nothing sinister about it.”
In addition, says Morton Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America, the oldest pro-Israel group in the U.S., founded in 1897, supporters of Israel are not as powerful as Professors Mearsheimer and Walt contend.
He says that the Israeli lobby has failed in the last ten years in many cases. “They failed to get the U.S. embassy moved to Jerusalem; they failed to stop the Roadmap [for Peace], which we think is harmful for both America and Israel; they were not able to prevent America from condemning Israel for getting rid of Saddam Hussein's [Osirak] nuclear reactor [in 1981]. In fact, I am disappointed that America hasn't been more supportive of Israel in its right to use any means necessary to defend its people. America's policy continues to be based on what it thinks is best for America", says Klein.
But others, while supportive of Israel, say there is something to the Mearsheimer-Walt argument. And historian Tony Judt of New York University says that the lobby's activities are occasionally not in the best interests of Israel.
He notes, "The kind of silence, which this lobby enforces within America, diminishes internal criticism, even of things America officially disapproves, like the settlements in the occupied territories. And that's bad for America because it makes it look like and unconditional backer of Israel in international affairs. It is also bad for Israel. There are many Israelis who are very critical of many things that their governments do, but they are cut off at the knees because the government says, 'Look, we do it and the Americans don't seem to mind, they seem to approve. So why should we listen to internal critics?'"
Harsh attacks against critics of the "lobby” have a chilling effect on public discourse, says Professor Judt. He says, "The reason why many of the issues that Mearsheimer and Walt and other people have raised don't get a full airing is because there is, I think, an exaggerated, but real fear of being thought anti-Israel. And if you are anti-Israel, you are, therefore, somehow anti-Jewish."
Tony Judt and other observers add that candid and open discussion on the different factors that shape U.S. foreign policy is an integral part of American democracy. And the debate over John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's article will not likely end anytime soon.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.