Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s recent book, “The Israel Lobby,” has received criticism on a number of fronts. Prof. Barry Rubin points to their claim that Ariel Sharon pushed the Bush Administration to war, despite the total lack of proof for that idea. Walter Russell Mead’s scathing review criticizes the loose logic and standards used to reach their conclusions. They use only second-hand sources. They fail to define who is in the Lobby. Walt/Mearsheimer’s logic falls over itself- they claim that the Israel Lobby was a prime motivating factor in the push toward war with Iraq, while also noting that the Israelis saw Iran as the graver threat, and urged action against them instead. Ambassador Dennis Ross, in an interview on NPR, said that they should have spent more time actually talking to the decision-makers to understand why their reached their positions, instead of just assuming that the nefarious Lobby was behind every development that conceivably was beneficial to Israel.
James Woolsey, Director of the CIA from 1993-1995, takes a slightly different tack. He uses Bill Clinton’s accounts of the negotiations to undermine Walt/Mearsheimer’s argument that Israeli intransigence sunk the Oslo process. His overall judgment is that they so enthusiastically reach their conclusions not because of anti-Semitism, but because of an understanding of International Relations that views the world solely through the lens of the balance of power.
It’s a Wamworld—–R. JAMES WOOLSEY
In this book, professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt repeatedly stress that they accept the existence of Israel and its right to security. Their protestations naturally raise the question: Are these men, like most of their fellow Americans, Zionists?
The authors stress that what they seek is a more open debate about U.S. interests in the Middle East than we have at present. They further proclaim that they recognize that Israel’s well-being is one of those interests – on moral grounds. They emphasize, however, that U.S. interests definitely do not include Israel’s continued presence in the Occupied Territories. Indeed, their main assertion is that it is the Israel lobby – through its effective support for a continued Israeli presence beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders – that has produced a major share of terrorist, Arab, and other worldwide forms of hostility to the U.S. The authors hammer on this point repeatedly: “[An end to the IsraeliArab conflict] will not happen as long as the lobby makes it impossible for American leaders to use the leverage at their disposal to pressure Israel into ending the occupation and creating a viable Palestinian state”. Even Hamas will not be able to block peace in the Mideast if only the all-powerful Israel lobby can be checked:” If the United States presses hard to help them gain a viable state, and Hamas is exposed as the main obstacle to that end, then the Palestinians would be more likely to turn against Hamas and seize the olive branch.”
Has anything happened in recent years that would allow us to test the authors’ hypothesis? Indeed something has.
In Washington, in late December 2000 and January 2001, President Bill Clinton mediated negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. If, during those negotiations, Israel accepted a generous two-state solution and the Palestinians turned it down, then Mearsheimer and Walt’s central thesis – that an all-powerful Israel lobby would never have permitted a mediating American government to propose such a thing, that Israel would never have accepted it, and the Palestinians would never have turned it down – would suffer a triple blow.
In fact, this is precisely what happened. Let’s compare Mearsheimer and Walt’s rendition of those events with the detailed recollections of a direct participant: in this case, former president Clinton, as set out in his autobiography, My Life.
In one last effort to reach an agreement before the change in administrations in the U.S., the two sides negotiated for several days during the week before Christmas 2000. Then, on December 23, Clinton brought the parties together at the White House. Clinton calls that day a fateful day for the Middle East peace process. Concerned that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s fear of being criticized by other Arab leaders and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s weakened political position at home were blocking the possibility of compromise, Clinton and his team decided to try to narrow the range of debate and force the big compromises up front.
Clinton proposed detailed parameters that required both sides to make major concessions. He made clear that there was a four-day deadline for acceptance of the parameters by both parties – if they were not accepted in that time, he warned, we were through. The Clinton parameters were not vague principles. They entailed an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, a territorial division in which the Palestinians would receive about 97 percent of the West Bank, and an Israeli withdrawal over a three-year period. For Jerusalem, Clinton proposed that the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City be in the Palestinian state and the Jewish and Armenian ones in Israel, and that the Palestinians should have sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Haram and the Israelis sovereignty over the Western Wall and the holy space of which it is a part, with no excavation around the wall or under the Mount, at least without mutual consent. On refugees, Clinton proposed that it should be the new state of Palestine that would be the homeland for refugees displaced in the 1948 war and afterward.
Clinton made clear that it would have to be agreed that these steps would mark the end of the conflict and put an end to all violence; also, that the Palestinians would give up the absolute right of return and the Israelis would give up East Jerusalem and parts of the Old City.
Whatever one’s substantive views about this proposal, Clintons parameters constituted an historic and major effort. So what happened to his offer? According to Clinton, Arafat immediately began to equivocate. Meanwhile, on December 27, Barak’s cabinet endorsed the parameters with reservations, but all their reservations were within the parameters, and therefore subject to negotiations anyway. (Emphasis added.)
Clinton stresses the importance and clarity of the Israeli acceptance: It was historic: An Israeli government had said that to get peace there would be a Palestinian state in roughly 97 percent of the West Bank . . . and all of Gaza. . . . The ball was in Arafats court.
Clinton writes that as of December 29, “I still didn’t believe Arafat would make such a colossal mistake [of rejecting the agreement after Israel accepted it].” Yet when they next met, on January 2, Arafat objected to two aspects of the parameters: “He wanted 50 feet of the Western Wall . . . [to] go to the Palestinians and he wanted a few blocks of the Armenian quarter.” Clinton writes, “I couldnt believe he was talking to me about this.” Clinton reports that after he rejected Arafat’s changes out of hand (in important part because ceding to the Palestinians the 50 feet of the Western Wall could keep the Israelis from protecting against someone using one entrance of the tunnel [to damage] the remains of the temples beneath the Haram), Arafat began trying to wiggle out of giving up the right of return. As Clinton writes,”the right of return was a deal breaker. . . . Arafat’s rejection of my proposal after Barak accepted it was an error of historic proportions.” In a postscript on January 7, Clinton stresses that Arafat’s reservations, unlike Israel’s, were outside the parameters, at least on refugees and the Western Wall.
A number of witnesses to these negotiations confirm Clinton’s version. Now lets return to Walt and Mearsheimer: Reading their version of events is like entering a completely different world. Lets call it Wamworld.
Wamworld is a place where there was no Israeli acceptance paired with a Palestinian rejection. In Wamworld, the oft-repeated claim that Arafat rejected the December 2000 Clinton parameters . . . is also wrong. They admit that the Palestinian response expressed reservations but assert that the Israeli government also had its own reservations and that neither side accepted [the parameters] in toto. They conclude that the charge that Arafat and the Palestinians rejected the last chance for peace and chose violence over reconciliation is false.
Mearsheimer and Walt are stunningly deceptive. They use a January 7 attempt by Clinton to leave the door open for an agreement to smear across the canvas of the negotiations a patina of equivalency between the Israeli and Palestinian positions. That patina amounts to a fundamental and unsupportable distortion. By mischaracterizing the nature of the Israeli reservations, which, Clinton points out, were within the parameters, Mearsheimer and Walt make it appear that Israel never accepted Clintons proposal any more than Arafat did.
A commitment to distorting the historical record is the one consistent feature of this book. Let me add just a few examples.
You may have thought that the 1947/48 attacks on Israel by all of its Arab neighbors after the U.N. partition of Palestine created a perilous situation for the new Jewish state. But in Wamworld, this understanding is part of the myth of Israel as a victim. And, by the way, those Arab leaders calls for driving the Jews into the sea were largely rhetoric designed to appease their publics. So if you want to drop by Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar, deep in the Galilee, as my wife and I did a few years ago, and talk to a survivor of the last-ditch fight there during the War of Independence that turned back the invading Syrian armor column, youd have to assume, in Wamworld, that he was badly mistaken – that the kibbutzniks defending their homes to their last bazooka round were engaging not Syrian tanks but Syrian rhetoricians.
You may have thought that the Egyptian and Syrian attacks on Yom Kippur in 1973 created serious danger for Israel. Not in Wamworld: There, it is a well-established fact that both Arab armies were pursuing a limited arms strategy.
You may have thought that the continuing commitment by the U.S. to provide about $2 billion in aid annually to Egypt – accompanying the $3 billion in annual aid to Israel that the authors invoke to prove the power of the Israel lobby – demonstrates a certain degree of evenhandedness. Not in Wamworld. Nor, heaven forbid, is this evidence of an Egypt lobby two-thirds as powerful as its Israeli rival: In Wamworld, its all a consequence of Israeli influence. As the authors tell it, the U.S. willingness to reward Egypt . . . in this way is yet another manifestation of Washingtons generosity toward the Jewish state.
You may have thought that Iran – with its continuing effort to produce nuclear weapons, and with its presidents Holocaust-denial conferences and demands that Israel be wiped off the map – would be a danger to U.S. and Israeli national security. Well, in Wamworld you can just relax: There is good reason to think a nuclear Iran could be contained and deterred, and anyway those bellicose Iranian statements are not really a reflection of deep ideological antipathy to the Jewish state but . . . more accurately seen as tactical measures intended to improve Irans overall position in the region. (Similarly, Mein Kampf could be described as an outline of its authors tactical measures to improve Germany’s regional position.)
You may be inclined to call terrorist-supporting nations such as Iran and Syria, which are actively involved in fomenting the insurgency in Iraq, rogue states. Well, while visiting Wamworld please remember to insert so-called before rogue.
You get the idea.
What is going on here? Is this all just naked anti-Semitism in modern form, with a substitution of Israel for the Jew and the Israel lobby for the Elders of Zion?
Such a conclusion is certainly reasonable. My own judgment, however, is that the underlying premise of this book is more general. I would suggest that the authors are firing at a bigger target even than Israel and its American supporters. Their bête noire is the notion that international relations can be about anything other than power.
Think of the authors as afflicted with colorblindness as far as their views of international affairs are concerned. In this realm, they see only the red wavelengths of power. This could explain why they so systematically, and strangely, overestimate the power and misunderstand the views of pro-Israel lobbying groups. If one starts from the premise that nothing happens in international affairs that is not power-driven, and then reasons backward to find some locus of power that had a reason to be concerned about Saddam Husseins regime, then pro-Israel groups are among those who turn up. The congressional votes heavily supporting the Iraq war in 2003 had nothing to do with concerns about, say, human rights, arms proliferation, or U.S. national security; Congress must have been forced by some powerful entity to vote as it did. The authors note, but then ignore, repeated polls indicating that American Jews did not support going to war against Iraq as strongly as non-Jews.
In reality, few of us are motivated in our foreign-policy views by a single idée fixe. We are interested, yes, in the balance of power, but also in enhancing human rights, in economic prosperity, and in a host of other considerations. But if we were to elevate fairness to as dominant a position in the IsraeliPalestinian question as Mearsheimer and Walt elevate power, a look at our current policies would lead a reasonable person to conclude that they are based on defining deviancy down for the Palestinians. And just as acting in such a manner debilitated the social progress of minorities in America, so today this stance toward the Palestinians both insults them and works to cripple their political development.
Lets try a thought experiment. Israel’s population (within the pre-1967 borders) is about one-sixth Israeli Arab, and the vast majority of this group is Muslim. These Arab/Muslim citizens of Israel live freely, if not absolutely ideally, among Israel’s Jews. They vote for and successfully elect real representatives in a real legislature. They speak freely, build and attend mosques, operate businesses, and partake in the booming Israeli economy (with a per capita GDP approximately double that of Saudi Arabia). They have seen cabinet members and senior judges emerge from their ranks. And they sleep soundly at night without fearing a knock on the door.
Suppose Israel were to take the position that absolute fairness between the two parties is essential – and that it would agree to a separate Palestinian state, along the lines of the Clinton parameters, only if that state treated Jewish settlers in the West Bank who were willing to become citizens of Palestine at least as well as Israel treats Israeli Arabs. These Jewish (and Christian and other) citizens of Palestine would be able to vote for their representatives in a democratically elected Palestinian legislature, enjoy freedom of speech and press, build and attend synagogues and churches, operate businesses, and sleep soundly at night.
Such an insistence on Israel’s part would be the essence of fairness. And although, in the real world, fairness cannot be the only criterion for foreign-policy decisions (any more than power can be), the evolution of the Palestinian people toward being able to accept something close to such a principle may be necessary before Israelis can actually risk living with some degree of collegiality next door to a people that today elects the likes of Hamas. Indeed, under current circumstances it is reasonable to believe that Israel cannot prevent the murder of its people without the sort of tough measures used today in the West Bank to constrain terrorism both there and against pre-1967 Israel. In Wamworld, such considerations are never addressed.
There are many Americans who dont know a soul at AIPAC but see in Israel an ally and fellow democracy – moreover, a state that is the refuge for a people with ancient ties to the land and for the religion that gave to the world the concept of rule of law. And they see that ally doing its best both to maintain a decent society and to protect itself against the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. That many of us are sympathetic to this state for reasons having nothing to do with lobbying groups doubtless will continue to mystify Mearsheimer and Walt and those who inhabit their strange little world. So be it.