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August 22, 2006

The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy


by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt

The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

John J. Mearsheimer
Department of Political Science
University of Chicago

Stephen M. Walt
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University

March 2006
RWP06-011

The two authors of this Working Paper are solely responsible for the views expressed in it. As academic institutions, Harvard University and the University of Chicago do not take positions on the scholarship of the individual faculty, and this article not should be interpreted or portrayed as reflecting the official position of either institution. It is reprinted on Antiwar.com with permission.

An edited and reworked version of this paper was published in the London Review of Books Vol. 28, No. 6 (March 23, 2006), and is available online at www.lrb.co.uk.

THE ISRAEL LOBBY AND U.S. FOREIGN POLICY

U.S. foreign policy shapes events in every corner of the globe. Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East, a region of recurring instability and enormous strategic importance. Most recently, the Bush Administrationís attempt to transform the region into a community of democracies has helped produce a resilient insurgency in Iraq, a sharp rise in world oil prices, and terrorist bombings in Madrid, London, and Amman. With so much at stake for so many, all countries need to understand the forces that drive U.S. Middle East policy.

The U.S. national interest should be the primary object of American foreign policy. For the past several decades, however, and especially since the Six Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering U.S. support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security.

This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the United States been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries is based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives. As we show below, however, neither of those explanations can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the United States provides to Israel.

Instead, the overall thrust of U.S. policy in the region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the "Israel Lobby." Other special interest groups have managed to skew U.S. foreign policy in directions they favored, but no lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical.1

In the pages that follow, we describe how the Lobby has accomplished this feat, and how its activities have shaped Americaís actions in this critical region. Given the strategic importance of the Middle East and its potential impact on others, both Americans and non-Americans need to understand and address the Lobbyís influence on U.S. policy.

Some readers will find this analysis disturbing, but the facts recounted here are not in serious dispute among scholars. Indeed, our account relies heavily on the work of Israeli scholars and journalists, who deserve great credit for shedding light on these issues. We also rely on evidence provided by respected Israeli and international human rights organizations. Similarly, our claims about the Lobbyís impact rely on testimony from the Lobbyís own members, as well as testimony from politicians who have worked with them. Readers may reject our conclusions, of course, but the evidence on which they rest is not controversial.

THE GREAT BENEFACTOR

Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing the amounts provided to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct U.S. economic and military assistance since 1976 and the largest total recipient since World War II. Total direct U.S. aid to Israel amounts to well over $140 billion in 2003 dollars.2 Israel receives about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year, which is roughly one-fifth of Americaís foreign aid budget. In per capita terms, the United States gives each Israeli a direct subsidy worth about $500 per year.3 This largesse is especially striking when one realizes that Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to South Korea or Spain.4

Israel also gets other special deals from Washington.5 Other aid recipients get their money in quarterly installments, but Israel receives its entire appropriation at the beginning of each fiscal year and thus earns extra interest. Most recipients of American military assistance are required to spend all of it in the United States, but Israel can use roughly twenty-five percent of its aid allotment to subsidize its own defense industry. Israel is the only recipient that does not have to account for how the aid is spent, an exemption that makes it virtually impossible to prevent the money from being used for purposes the United States opposes, like building settlements in the West Bank.

Moreover, the United States has provided Israel with nearly $3 billion to develop weapons systems like the Lavi aircraft that the Pentagon did not want or need, while giving Israel access to top-drawer U.S. weaponry like Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets. Finally, the United States gives Israel access to intelligence that it denies its NATO allies and has turned a blind eye towards Israelís acquisition of nuclear weapons.6

In addition, Washington provides Israel with consistent diplomatic support. Since 1982, the United States has vetoed 32 United Nations Security Council resolutions that were critical of Israel, a number greater than the combined total of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members.7 It also blocks Arab statesí efforts to put Israelís nuclear arsenal on the International Atomic Energy Agencyís agenda.8

The United States also comes to Israelís rescue in wartime and takes its side when negotiating peace. The Nixon Administration re-supplied Israel during the October War and protected Israel from the threat of Soviet intervention. Washington was deeply involved in the negotiations that ended that war as well as the lengthy "step-by-step" process that followed, just as it played a key role in the negotiations that preceded and followed the 1993 Oslo Accords.9 There were occasional frictions between U.S. and Israeli officials in both cases, but the United States coordinated its positions closely with Israel and consistently backed the Israeli approach to the negotiations. Indeed, one American participant at Camp David (2000) later said, "far too often, we functioned . . . as Israelís lawyer."10

As discussed below, Washington has given Israel wide latitude in dealing with the occupied territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), even when its actions were at odds with stated U.S. policy. Moreover, the Bush Administrationís ambitious strategy to transform the Middle East Ė beginning with the invasion of Iraq Ė is at least partly intended to improve Israelís strategic situation. Apart from wartime alliances, it is hard to think of another instance where one country has provided another with a similar level of material and diplomatic support for such an extended period. Americaís support for Israel is, in short, unique.

This extraordinary generosity might be understandable if Israel were a vital strategic asset or if there were a compelling moral case for sustained U.S. backing. But neither rationale is convincing.

A STRATEGIC LIABILITY

According to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committeeís (AIPAC) website, "the United States and Israel have formed a unique partnership to meet the growing strategic threats in the Middle East . . . . This cooperative effort provides significant benefits for both the United States and Israel."11 This claim is an article of faith among Israelís supporters and is routinely invoked by Israeli politicians and pro-Israel Americans.

Israel may have been a strategic asset during the Cold War.12 By serving as Americaís proxy after the Six Day War (1967), Israel helped contain Soviet expansion in the region and inflicted humiliating defeats on Soviet clients like Egypt and Syria. Israel occasionally helped protect other U.S. allies (like Jordanís King Hussein) and its military prowess forced Moscow to spend more backing its losing clients. Israel also gave the United States useful intelligence about Soviet capabilities.

Israelís strategic value during this period should not be overstated, however.13 Backing Israel was not cheap, and it complicated Americaís relations with the Arab world. For example, the U.S. decision to give Israel $2.2 billion in emergency military aid during the October War triggered an OPEC oil embargo that inflicted considerable damage on Western economies. Moreover, Israelís military could not protect U.S. interests in the region. For example, the United States could not rely on Israel when the Iranian Revolution in 1979 raised concerns about the security of Persian Gulf oil supplies, and had to create its own "Rapid Deployment Force" instead.

Even if Israel was a strategic asset during the Cold War, the first Gulf War (1990- 91) revealed that Israel was becoming a strategic burden. The United States could not use Israeli bases during the war without rupturing the anti-Iraq coalition, and it had to divert resources (e.g., Patriot missile batteries) to keep Tel Aviv from doing anything that might fracture the alliance against Saddam. History repeated itself in 2003: although Israel was eager for the United States to attack Saddam, President Bush could not ask it to help without triggering Arab opposition. So Israel stayed on the sidelines again.14

Beginning in the 1990s, and especially after 9/11, U.S. support for Israel has been justified by the claim that both states are threatened by terrorist groups originating in the Arab or Muslim world, and by a set of "rogue states" that back these groups and seek WMD. This rationale implies that Washington should give Israel a free hand in dealing with the Palestinians and not press Israel to make concessions until all Palestinian terrorists are imprisoned or dead. It also implies that the United States should go after countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saddam Husseinís Iraq, and Bashar al-Assadís Syria. Israel is thus seen as a crucial ally in the war on terror, because its enemies are Americaís enemies. This new rationale seems persuasive, but Israel is in fact a liability in the war on terror and the broader effort to deal with rogue states.

To begin with, "terrorism" is a tactic employed by a wide array of political groups; it is not a single unified adversary. The terrorist organizations that threaten Israel (e.g., Hamas or Hezbollah) do not threaten the United States, except when it intervenes against them (as in Lebanon in 1982). Moreover, Palestinian terrorism is not random violence directed against Israel or "the West"; it is largely a response to Israelís prolonged campaign to colonize the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

More importantly, saying that Israel and the United States are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards: rather, the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around. U.S. support for Israel is not the only source of anti- American terrorism, but it is an important one, and it makes winning the war on terror more difficult.15 There is no question, for example, that many al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, are motivated by Israelís presence in Jerusalem and the plight of the Palestinians. According to the U.S. 9/11 Commission, bin Laden explicitly sought to punish the United States for its policies in the Middle East, including its support for Israel, and he even tried to time the attacks to highlight this issue.16

Equally important, unconditional U.S. support for Israel makes it easier for extremists like bin Laden to rally popular support and to attract recruits. Public opinion polls confirm that Arab populations are deeply hostile to American support for Israel, and the U.S. State Departmentís Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim world found that "citizens in these countries are genuinely distressed at the plight of the Palestinians and at the role they perceive the United States to be playing."17

As for so-called rogue states in the Middle East, they are not a dire threat to vital U.S. interests, apart from the U.S. commitment to Israel itself. Although the United States does have a number of disagreements with these regimes, Washington would not be nearly as worried about Iran, Baíthist Iraq, or Syria were it not so closely tied to Israel. Even if these states acquire nuclear weapons Ė which is obviously not desirable Ė it would not be a strategic disaster for the United States. Neither America nor Israel could be blackmailed by a nuclear-armed rogue, because the blackmailer could not carry out the threat without receiving overwhelming retaliation. The danger of a "nuclear handoff" to terrorists is equally remote, because a rogue state could not be sure the transfer would be undetected or that it would not be blamed and punished afterwards.

Furthermore, the U.S. relationship with Israel actually makes it harder to deal with these states. Israelís nuclear arsenal is one reason why some of its neighbors want nuclear weapons, and threatening these states with regime change merely increases that desire. Yet Israel is not much of an asset when the United States contemplates using force against these regimes, because it cannot participate in the fight.

In short, treating Israel as Americaís most important ally in the campaign against terrorism and assorted Middle East dictatorships both exaggerates Israelís ability to help on these issues and ignores the ways that Israelís policies make U.S. efforts more difficult.

Unquestioned support for Israel also weakens the U.S. position outside the Middle East. Foreign elites consistently view the United States as too supportive of Israel, and think its tolerance of Israeli repression in the occupied territories is morally obtuse and a handicap in the war on terrorism.18 In April 2004, for example, 52 former British diplomats sent Prime Minister Tony Blair a letter saying that the Israel-Palestine conflict had "poisoned relations between the West and the Arab and Islamic worlds," and warning that the policies of Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were "one-sided and illegal."19

A final reason to question Israelís strategic value is that it does not act like a loyal ally. Israeli officials frequently ignore U.S. requests and renege on promises made to top U.S. leaders (including past pledges to halt settlement construction and to refrain from "targeted assassinations" of Palestinian leaders).20 Moreover, Israel has provided sensitive U.S. military technology to potential U.S. rivals like China, in what the U.S. State Department Inspector-General called "a systematic and growing pattern of unauthorized transfers."21 According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, Israel also "conducts the most aggressive espionage operations against the U.S. of any ally."22 In addition to the case of Jonathan Pollard, who gave Israel large quantities of classified material in the early 1980s (which Israel reportedly passed onto the Soviet Union to gain more exit visas for Soviet Jews), a new controversy erupted in 2004 when it was revealed that a key Pentagon official (Larry Franklin) had passed classified information to an Israeli diplomat, allegedly aided by two AIPAC officials.23 Israel is hardly the only country that spies on the United States, but its willingness to spy on its principal patron casts further doubt on its strategic value.

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John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service professor of political science and the co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1982. He graduated from West Point in 1970 and then served five years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. He then started graduate school in political science at Cornell University in 1975. He received his Ph.D. in 1980.

Stephen M. Walt is Robert and Rene Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He holds a B.A. in international relations from Stanford University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. He was previously on the faculties of Princeton University and the University of Chicago.

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