The Cooper Union “Israel Lobby” Debate
by Terry Walz
Last week the London Review of Books did a great service to free speech in this country by enabling Prof. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago to have a debate on the Israel Lobby that he thought would never take place. The event was titled “The Israel Lobby – Does it Have Too Much Influence on U.S. Foreign Policy?” and its main purpose was to debate the pros and cons of a paper Mearsheimer wrote with Prof. Stephen Walt of Harvard University called “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” It was a perfect opportunity for the much criticized national media to report on a key issue in our foreign policy.
The debate took place in the famous hall of the Peter Cooper Union in New York City – the very hall where Abraham Lincoln effectively launched his presidency in 1860 by bravely speaking out against the extension of slavery in the U.S. The debaters included two well-known Israel proponents, Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, an Israeli former cabinet minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, and two supporters of Mearsheimer’s stance (if not views), Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University and Tony Judt of New York University. If anyone had any question about whether the Israel Lobby existed or not, the debate did much to establish its effectiveness if not define its character.
The moderator, Anne Marie Slaughter of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson Center, sought to set the stage for the evening’s agenda by suggesting that what America needed to hear was a debate on U.S. policy toward Israel, Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, and U.S. policy toward the Middle East in general. None of these subjects is discussed freely in the national media or in the halls of power in Washington, DC. These are the questions for debate that the Israel Lobby has effectively muzzled over the years.
Martin Indyk predictably led the attack against Mearsheimer by charging that a “Jewish cabal” that aimed to “bend” and “distort” the U.S. national interests to those of Israel did not exist, and that Mearsheimer’s use of words and meanings were “tendentious” and “anti-Semitic.” At the very least, he said, the argument for an “Israel Lobby” fed anti-Semitism. Both he and Ben-Ami worked hard the entire evening show that the paper on the Israeli Lobby written by Mearsheimer and Walt was a work of “shoddy scholarship” – and presumably on those grounds alone could be discarded.
But it was Tony Judt who fought them off by resurrecting the words of Arthur Koestler who once said it wasn’t his fault “if idiots and bigots share my opinions” but it didn’t make the opinion wrong. The Israel Lobby has too often grouped criticism of Israel and U.S. policy toward Israel under the rubric of “anti-Semitism.”
Mearsheimer defended himself forcefully, though perhaps sticking too closely to his written word – as if published meant it bore greater truth – and at one point he turned almost dramatically to his two colleagues, Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk – the ultimate pro-Israel insiders – and told them, “you are in fact the core of the Israel Lobby.”
The debate on foreign policy and national interest may have been too narrowly focused on the Israel Lobby, argued Rashid Khalidi, who said that on certain national issues, such as abortion, gun control and Israel, there was no debate at all. On Israel, why is that so? He wondered: Does it have anything to do with long-term American attitudes toward the Middle East, toward Islam? And was President Bush’s abrupt turn after 9/11 to war against the Middle East, Arabs, and Islam merely feeding into the general anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-Middle East paranoia?
Certainly the Israel Lobby warmly supported the move toward war in Iraq. Was this because Israel wanted the U.S. to deal with its “No. 1” enemy? No, the Israel Lobbyist debaters argued, because the No. 1 enemy has always been considered in Israel to be Iran. Dennis Ross said that it was President Bush’s decision to make, not the Israel Lobby’s – and view generally seconded by Ben-Ami – and added “if Gore were president, the war might not have happened.”
Yet no one denied the fact that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – the epitome of the Lobby – was one of the most powerful forces on Capitol Hill. Khalidi reminded the audience of the framing of the debate it does in Congress, from the resolutions it drafts, to the congressmen it harasses, to the candidates for public office that it vets. It works tirelessly to demonstrate that U.S. and Israeli interests are exactly the same.
Judt, who is Jewish himself, commented that most Jews saw no daylight between Israeli and the U.S. policies. And this is a result of the effectiveness of the Lobby. It has been easy to persuade Jews to think that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic by nature.
But to what extent is the current administration typical of U.S. government - Israel Lobby relations? Is the close collaboration between the Bush administration and Sharon-Olmert government typical of the relationship? Indyk believed that the current AIPAC leadership “straight-jackets” American policy toward the Palestinians, whereas in Israel, there is more of a willingness to negotiate. But can, in fact, the American government demand that Israel follow a particular policy it is opposed to? Indyk and Ross said no, but Judt argued that it was because the American government was unwilling to do to Israel what it has done in the past to any number of European states when it has objected to their policies.
The packed audience in the hall was often partisan, cheering for particular sides in this debate, but it seemed largely supportive of Prof. Mearsheimer and was kept in balance by the able hand of Dr. Slaughter. It was a travesty of news coverage that it was not televised, not even by C-Span, and no major media covered the event, including the major newspapers. Was this the Israel Lobby at work? There seems little possibility that this extraordinary event will ever be repeated, given the distaste of the Israel lobbyists of Walt and Mearsheimer, but it is badly needed in every major community in the country.
Originally published by the Council for the National Interest Foundation