The view from down under

April 18, 2006

In News

A RECENT academic study on the “Israel lobby” by political scientists John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has caused a political storm in the US.

Their article was accepted, but then rejected, by The Atlantic Monthly; it was eventually published in the London Review of Books.

The study says that the US has been “willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state” and that the Israel lobby has managed to convince Americans that “US interests and those of Israel are essentially identical”, when they are not.

The authors argue that the Israel lobby has every right to pursue its interests in the political arena and through the media. However, they also note that one of the “most powerful weapons” against honest debate is the perennial accusation of anti-Semitism.

This carefully reasoned study concludes that by blindly supporting Israel’s agenda – a brutal occupation and desire for war against Iraq and Iran – the US has aided an aggressor state in the heart of the Middle East. US support is underpinned by a loose affiliation of journalists, politicians and lobbyists who operate on the assumption that the only language understood by Arabs and Palestinians is force.

The extraordinary reaction to the Mearsheimer-Walt article suggests that the Israel-US relationship is out of bounds. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has labelled the authors bigots and compared their study with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Leading neo-conservative intellectual Eliot Cohen has called the academics “anti-Semitic”. The Anti-Defamation League sees “a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control”.

The American Enterprise Institute’s resident scholar Michael Ledeen argues that the study gave comfort to “Ayman al-Zawahiri and his buddy, the Ayatollah Khamenei”, because it tells the “Big Lie” and is “anti-Semitic in the grand tradition”. He further calls for donors to cease granting funds to the two professors’ university departments. Harvard University has removed its logo from the web version of the study. Overwhelmingly hostile commentary has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The New York Sun, Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, more nuanced responses have appeared in Europe and Israel. The Financial Times in Britain has described the debate on US-Israel relations as overdue and defended the academic thesis. LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers told Britain’s The Observer that, being Jewish, she is very alert to anti-Semitism, “and I do not think criticising US foreign policy, or Israel’s way of going about influencing it, is anti-Semitic”.

Daniel Levy, a former prime ministerial adviser in Israel, writes in Haaretz that “defending the occupation has done to the American pro-Israel community what living as an occupier has done to Israel – muddied both its moral compass and its rational self-interest”.

Public debate on the subject is routinely curtailed by intimidation and slander initiated by the Zionist lobby. In a healthy democracy, Israel’s policies should not be immune to criticism. However, this seems to be the status quo: Israel remains a blind spot of the US administration.

Take the example of US Jewish historian Norman Finkelstein. His recent book, Beyond Chutzpah, alleges that Dershowitz lifted some passages in his work The Case for Israel from another book, From Time Immemorial, and challenges the Harvard professor’s claims about Israel’s outstanding human rights record. Dershowitz, well known in the US as a fighter for human rights, attempted to prevent publication of the book, even urging California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to intervene and demand that Finkelstein’s publisher, the University of California Press, abandon the project. This supposed free-speech advocate appears to believe some subjects are beyond debate.

The situation in Britain is more enlightened. In mid-2004, 347 British Jews wrote to the Board of Deputies of British Jews and said the time had come to “distinguish the interests of the community in Britain from the policies adopted by Israeli governments. These issues must be brought into the open. Silence discredits us all.” Mearsheimer and Walt are merely calling for an appraisal of a key US relationship that has remained a no-go zone for too long.

An Israel lobby also exists in Australia, though it is far less influential than its US counterpart. The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council claims to represent the interests of the Jewish community in Australia and maintains strong ties with the Labor and Liberal parties. Its executive director Colin Rubenstein explained in 2003 that there is an “affinity between Australia and Israel, almost an overlapping destiny”. As a strong advocate of the Iraq war, Guantanamo Bay and military strikes against Iran, AIJAC’s agenda has dovetailed seamlessly with the Howard Government’s views, especially since September 11, 2001.

AIJAC funds a travel program to send journalists and politicians to Israel in an attempt to rectify the influence of “the biased media or the agendas run by hard-left organisations”, according to program representative Yosi Tal. Deviating from the accepted view results in pressure on editors and political leaders to knock dissenters into line.

For example, during 2002 and 2003 the ALP experienced the consequences of dissenting from the AIJAC view. A handful of backbenchers questioned Israeli policy in the occupied territories. A raft of Jewish leaders slammed the party as anti-Semitic. Liberal MP Christopher Pyne, as chairman of the Australia-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group, told ABC Radio that a motion put forward by MP Julia Irwin – damning the occupation and calling for a secure Israel and Palestine – was “pandering to the pro-Palestinian position”.

It would appear that even the mild proposition that the Palestinian people should have the right of self-determination is taboo. To those less blinkered, it would seem obvious that peace will never be achieved in the Middle East without mutual understanding. Unilateralism is no substitute for this necessary process. This truism has been accepted as a given, as the recent elections in Israel make clear. But the realpolitik that has made disengagement possible in Israel has no place in the feverish anxiety this issue raises in the diaspora.

For those who seek a just and peaceful solution to problems in the Middle East, it is disheartening to witness the attack on a reasoned paper analysing the US-Israel relationship. Beyond the vilification of the two distinguished US academics lies the more disturbing question of why a healthy democracy fears a frank analysis. It would be an indication of an ailing democracy if interest groups prevailed in the public sphere.

Antony Loewenstein is author of My Israel Question, to be released in August by Melbourne University Publishing.