Authors of ‘Israel Lobby’ paper only add to skepticism in D.C. talk


WASHINGTON — The “Israel Lobby, The Sequel” is officially on the road, and it’s forcing the Jewish community to reassess the two professors peddling its story of Washington in the grip of nefarious pro-Israel lobbyists.

In an address Monday in Washington hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer expanded their original thesis of an excessively influential Israel lobby by addressing the reaction to their March paper, “The Israel Lobby,” and assessing its theories in the wake of the Lebanon war.

The result was clarity: There no longer is any doubt about what drove the two academics, critics of the original paper say.

“It’ll be much easier now to deal with them and their arguments,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “They’re not academics, they’re handmaidens of the Arab propaganda machine.”

CAIR and Mearsheimer did not return requests for comment.

The most damning criticism of the original paper was that it made assertions unbacked by evidence. Yet instead of retreating from their critique, Mearsheimer and Walt seemed to revel in it.

Not only had Israel long planned its war this summer against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Mearsheimer claimed, but it did so with the connivance of the Bush administration.

“It now seems clear that Israel had been planning to strike at Hezbollah for months before the July 12 kidnapping” of two Israeli soldiers “and that key Israelis had briefed the administration about their intentions,” Mearsheimer said. “The available evidence indicates that the Bush administration enthusiastically endorsed Israel’s plans for war in Lebanon.”

No serious researcher has made this claim. New Yorker investigative journalist Seymour Hersh and others have reported on Israeli contingency plans and how senior Israeli officials believed a confrontation was inevitable because of Hezbollah’s missile buildup in southern Lebanon, but the argument that Israel was seeking a pretext to attack — and that the U.S. “enthusiastically” endorsed it — seems to be Mearsheimer’s alone.

Asked to present evidence, Mearsheimer cited articles quoting Israel’s “understandable” fears of a missile buildup, but failed to cite evidence of a search for a pretext with U.S. collusion.

Mearsheimer also said the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was the “driving force” behind efforts in Congress to remove language from pro-Israel war resolutions that called on all sides to preserve civilian life.

In fact, JTA has established that the initiative was purely Republican and had nothing to do with AIPAC. Some pro-Israel lobbyists told JTA they found the partisan dustup on the issue distasteful.

The appearance at an event hosted by CAIR, a group that calls for cuts in U.S. funding to Israel and in the past has been accused of excusing Arab terrorism, was enough for some to underscore the lack of seriousness of men once better known as leading advocates of “realist” foreign policy — the school that argues that nations pursue power, not ideals, in their foreign dealings.

Eric Rozenman, Washington director for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, the first group to deconstruct the “Israel Lobby” paper, said Mearsheimer and Walt were marginalizing themselves. “This shows how far from academic moorings they’ve drifted,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored, said Foxman, who noted that the professors had speaking engagements planned on the topic.

Others worried that confronting the duo reinforced their false assertion that the pro-Israel lobby is a monolith.

“They talk as if there is no IPF, no organizations that support Israel by supporting peace and negotiations,” said M.J. Rosenberg, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that advocates for aggressive U.S. promotion of peace negotiations. “So when there is a monolithic response to them, it confirms a cabal when there is no cabal.”

Instead of addressing accusations of sloppiness advanced by New York Review of Books critic Michael Massing and others, Walt said the duo’s credentials should speak for themselves. Mearsheimer teaches at the University of Chicago, Walt at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“John and I have between us written six books and countless articles,” Walt said. “No one has ever said before that our work was sloppy. Is it credible to think that the two of us would tackle a third-rail issue like this one and suddenly decide to be careless and cavalier in what we did?”

Walt repeated, without qualification, the paper’s most controversial thesis: that the Israel lobby was critical in leading the United States into the Iraq war.

“If the lobby were less influential, the United States would have been much less likely to have invaded Iraq in 2003,” he said. “This war was conceived by neoconservatives — many of them connected in the lobby — encouraged by many Israeli leaders and endorsed openly by groups like AIPAC.”

In fact, AIPAC never openly endorsed the war. It was reported at the time that its Hill lobbyists were friendly to the invasion, but only as an inevitable quid pro quo to a Bush administration that was unprecedentedly friendly to Israel and in return expected its friends to back a war it was determined to undertake.

The vast majority of Jewish groups refrained from endorsing the war, fearing precisely the backlash manifested in the Walt-Mearsheimer argument that American treasure and blood were spent for Israel. Subsequently, polls showed U.S. Jews outpaced non-Jews in opposing the war, and in the past year major U.S. Jewish groups have joined calls for a phased ending to the occupation of Iraq.

That would seem to at least raise questions about why the two professors were determined to attach the war to Jews. They deflect claims of anti-Semitism by saying their definition of the lobby is “loose” and excludes some Jewish groups, while including many non-Jews, neo-conservatives and evangelical Christians.

Yet that looseness means their definition of “the lobby” shifts when it’s convenient. So, in arguing for the lobby’s role in Iraq, Walt ignored Jewish groups’ refusal to endorse the war and instead cited Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, both former undersecretaries of defense who advocated for war — and who are Jewish.

“I think they were critical members in driving the case for war, more so than Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld,” Walt said when asked why he mentioned Wolfowitz and Feith but ignored their non-Jewish boss, Donald Rumsfeld. He did not cite evidence to support the suggestion that Rumsfeld was less enthusiastic than his Jewish deputies.

Earlier, Walt alluded to another reason for the assertion: There’s nothing wrong, he said, “for others to point out these individuals do have attachments that shape how they think about the Middle East and how they think about American policy in that region.”

The word “attachments” raised red flags for Dana Milbank, a Washington Post political columnist who excoriated the two on Tuesday.

“Attachments” sounds better than “dual loyalties,” Milbank wrote, adding: “This line of argument could be considered a precarious one for two blue-eyed men with Germanic surnames.”