The Great 'Israel Lobby' Fuss

Kurt Jacobsen

In the mid-1980s an obligatorily air-headed action film entitled Delta Force popped up on American cinema screens. The gaudy Golan-Globus production dangled before its audiences a wish-fulfillment fantasy as to how the bungled 1979 effort to rescue hostages in Iran somehow might have succeeded. (The braggart advertisement could have been scrawled by Dubya: ”They don't negotiate with terrorists . . . They blow them away.”) So this formulaic B movie strutted out in the same delirious tradition as a series of flicks at the time depicting rescues of mythical US soldiers held prisoner in Vietnam for no imaginable reason long after that ugly war ended.[1]

Delta Force boasted Lee Marvin as the cunning US commander and chop-socky wizard Chuck Norris as his trusted sidekick. You can't do much better than that for a macho man cast. But the Yanks required one more essential piece if they were going to redeem themselves. The missing ingredient turned out to be a suave Israeli commando who obligingly showed grateful Americans how nifty rescues are performed, as in the famous 1976 Entebbe raid. This silver screen Israeli was so radiantly saintly, so ingratiating, and yet so condescending that I ridiculed him in a review as the candy-coated propaganda figure he plainly was. (That screen image today seems less comic, and more a harbinger of tragedy.)[2]  Here was an earnest one-dimensional character who many, and probably most, Israelis themselves would laugh at.  

Predictably the Chicago weekly where the review appeared received letters accusing this reviewer of anti-Semitism. To criticize anything Israeli, the aggrieved letter writers implied, was to befoul the memory of six million Jews (not to mention, those five million other victims) murdered in the Holocaust. The Nazi extermination camps were hideous horrors that should not happen to anyone anywhere ever again (though we don’t seem to be doing too well), but what exactly does the Final Solution have to do with criticism of second rate movies or, for that matter, Israeli foreign policy? Would holocaust victims believe they hadn’t died in vain if they knew they had conferred a series of realpolitik governments with a virtual license to abuse Palestinians? One really had to wonder if any unfavorable comment was too trivial for Israel boosters not to regard as a mortal threat. Indeed, for the ultras among American Zionists, no criticism, no matter how tiny or tangential, escapes their notice, or what they regard as retaliation. An ironic result, as any visitor to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem soon discovers, is that debate about the Middle East is far less inhibited inside Israel than in the US.[3] 

So, to seasoned eyes, there was nothing startling about the statement earlier this Spring by two high-profile American professors who, in the course of a robust, if rehashed, critique of Israeli influence over US policy, remark that [a]nyone who criticizes Israel's actions or argues that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle Eastern policy stands a good chance of being labeled an anti-Semite. Indeed, anyone who merely claims that there is an Israel Lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism, even though the Israeli media refer to America's 'Jewish Lobby.' They proved, as earlier critics of Israeli policies could have told them, to be painfully prophetic. Although little that John J. Mearsheimer of The University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University wrote is new (nor do they claim otherwise), they have, as establishment darlings, made a very welcome attempt to spark a desperately needed debate.

The London Review of Books, where their incendiary article appeared, is not exactly a fixture in the waiting rooms at your local barber’s or mechanic’s shop.[4] This hitherto obscure upscale outlet drew a barrage of vehement attacks culminating in a minor media fire storm. The searing heat scorched serene academe. The Harvard web site for access to the full-length Israel lobby paper forces visitors through a funnel so as to encounter a rebuttal by that scholarly paragon Alan Dershowitz – the academic equivalent of parading Quasimodo amidst a bevy of bathing beauty contestants.[5] Here is the sort of de rigueur disingenuous ploy that gives the Fox News phrase “Fair and Balanced” its nose-wrinkling odor. Mearsheimer and Walt - the writer is acquainted with both gentlemen – actually are staunch supporters of Israel’s right to a secure existence, and are fair-minded fellows almost to a fault- although, like anyone else, they have paradigmatic blind spots. Both happen to be eminent ‘’Realist’ scholars who merely pursued a painstakingly logical, if narrow, analysis of international politics into rather daunting local territory. A Chicago newspaper, for example, resorted to the typical tack of denouncing not what the professors said but what the editorialists wanted to imagine they said: “Claim that Jewish Cabal runs US Government is Rubbish.”[6] It got worse, much worse, at media outlets ranging from the guttersnipe New York Sun – equating them with racist David Duke who, for his own dark reasons, liked the paper - to the glowering Wall Street Journal.[7] 

According to Realist doctrine, states in an anarchic world have no reliable friends, only material interests which change from time to time, depending on where leaders reckon their best advantages lay. Therefore, states must be cold-hearted opportunists. Power is everything. Selfishness is, if not quite an insane Ayn Rand virtue, a fixed feature of behavior. (That relentless self-seeking only exacerbates international instability is a notion that we cannot take time to examine here.) Hence, Mearsheimer and Walt, for the life of them, cannot figure out why the US seems to depart regularly from what they see as shrewd pursuit of self-interest in order instead to indulge pipsqueak Israel in costly ways - dishing out billions in subsidies to Israel every year, winking at hundreds of homegrown Israeli nukes while threatening to obliterate Iran for aspiring to make one, and acting as neurotic enablers of avid Israeli expansionists so as to antagonize the whole Arab world, which is surely not in America’s long term interest.[8]

[E]specially since the Six Day  War in 1967,” they observe, “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.’ True, although these authors, like many others, take much too seriously the sententious self-explanation of Bush’s administration that it is selflessly spreading democracy, whereas the only democracy Bush is prepared to countenance is the kind that complies with preordained policy objectives. US elites seem hopelessly devoted to Israel, so long as Israel ultimately serves their goals.

US largesse to Israel may go well beyond what Mearsheimer and Walt estimate. Apart from $3 billion of annual aid usually cited, Israel, according to a study by former Foreign Service Officer Richard Curtis, annually absorbs another half billion in grants from a variety of agencies plus $2 billion in loan guarantees, which handily get forgiven as they come due.[9] From 1949 to 1996 per capita U.S. aid to Israel amounted to 15 thousand dollars. For every dollar the U.S. spent on an African, it gave $250 to an Israeli, and for every dollar it spent on someone from the Western Hemisphere outside the US, it spent $214 on an Israeli. “America's $84.8 billion in aid to Israel from fiscal years 1949 through 1998, and the interest the U.S. paid to borrow this money, has cost U.S. taxpayers $134.8 billion,” writes Curtis. “Or, put another way, the nearly $14,630 every one of 5.8 million Israelis received from the US in 1997 has cost American taxpayers $23,240 per Israel.” Publicizing such figures alone can land you on an enemies list, as determined by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which maintains a vigilant “opposition department” to track foes and nay-sayers, and also by B’nai Brith’s Anti-Defamation League, with its $45 million budget and extensive private surveillance operations. Little wonder the organizations are so touchy. Perhaps more American taxpayers on learning even the lowball estimates of subventions for Israel may ask, is it worth it?

How to explain the US’ peculiar generosity? Mearsheimer and Walt’s answer – after, astonishingly, dismissing the motive of oil, and America’s related need to denominate oil in dollars – is the excessive influence of an ‘Israel lobby,’ which comprises a loose coalition of all uncritical supporters of Israeli policy.[10] There is, they take pains to say, no central command post, as concocted long ago in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion via the quasi-imaginative Tsarist secret police.[11] They carefully cite polls showing American Jews, if anything, are more skeptical than other countrymen toward Bush’s Middle East adventures. But Mearsheimer and Walt’s long recitation of qualifications, exceptions, and nuances to their overall thesis was of no avail.

In early May on the University of Chicago campus Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens, for example, moseyed into a room full of ‘Friends of Israel’ to castigate Mearsheimer who wisely had declined to get into a “food fight,” for that is what would have occurred had he showed. Stephens, pugnacious as only a fighter without an opponent can be, opined that the only real sin of AIPAC, cited by Mearsheimer and Walt for its advertisements for itself, was that it was too ‘too boastful’ of its influence and, in this case, and in this case only, shouldn’t be taken at face value.  

Stephens, who evidently knows his Philip Roth novels, suggested that Professor Mearsheimer was the new millennium’s Charles Lindberg - an aviation hero who was a sprightly establishment anti-Semite and eugenicist and, moreover, in the run-up to World War II went about stumping for the interests of a foreign power, Nazi Germany. So here was a strange accusation indeed. Did Stephens consider the US a foreign power? For that is unequivocally the nation to which Mearsheimer and Walt pledge allegiance. One agitated audience member solemnly asked Stephens if Arab loot had bankrolled the vile paper. (Maybe the profs got an oil well or two out of it?) Stephens allowed as he wasn’t sure. It was clearly time to exit.    

So has US opinion been "captured" by pro-Israel groups who manage to suppress all critical debate? Examples of attempts to do so are plentiful. Norman Finkelstein, son of holocaust survivors, is a loathed figure because of his debunking volumes such as The Holocaust Industry, and more recently Beyond Chutzpah which obliterated Alan Dershowitz’ The Case for Israel on grounds not only of plagiary, but plagiary of false 'facts’ at that. Holocaust denial regrettably has its lesser but significant counterpart in the denial by Zionists of the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from Israel in 1948 (and in 1967 from the West Bank and Golan heights). Dershowitz waged a furious but failed campaign to dissuade the University of California Press from publishing the apostate Finkelstein.[12] So the ‘lobby’ is not all-powerful, but tangling with these folks is no fun unless you have the combative temperament for it.

In the US intimidating watch lists of Israel’s critics are diligently compiled and diarrhetically spread by ardent right-wingers Daniel Pipes (“Campus Watch”) and, lately, David Horowitz in his neo-McCarthyesque bestseller. Even tough theater producers in New York were unable to sidestep fierce opposition to staging of a sympathetic play about peace activist Rachel Corrie, who in 2003 was crushed in Gaza by a myopic Israeli bulldozer driver, who, poor fellow, also couldn’t hear her screams or those of her companions either. But, you know, ‘teaching people a lesson’ dulls the senses, always has.

National Public Radio is about as good as it gets as mainstream US media goes, but through the conflict, a study found, NPR reported 81% of Israeli children’s deaths and just 20% of Palestinian children’s deaths - the reverse of the actual proportion.[13] For whatever comfort it is, things aren’t much better in Britain. Legendary journalist Robert Fisk of The Independent garners hate mail galore for his superbly blunt reportage from the bleeding bowels of the Middle East. The Guardian reports survey findings that a large fraction of British citizens are under the impression from standard news coverage that Palestinians are occupying Israeli land, not vice versa.[14] Even BBC coverage customarily is stripped of historic context so as to align with a Likudnik framing of reality. “Increasingly, Palestinian violence has been labeled "terrorism," Paul de Rooij observes of the BBC, “it has never been labeled 'resistance'."

It is not possible to connect the violence perpetrated against the Israelis with the violence and injustice of the occupation; since the latter is not acknowledged Palestinian violence is simply seen as criminal, whereas Israeli violence always has redeeming characteristics…The constant reference to "cycle of violence" equates the Israeli violence to a response to Palestinian violence, diminishing the fact that Israeli violence is disproportionate and used to oppress the native population. This context-free reporting thus renders the violence unintelligible? BBC coverage doesn't answer why there is any violence at all.

It is true enough that in Congress, and much of the media, Israel is ‘virtually immune from criticism.’  Even so, this profoundly disturbing fact is not at all the same as proving that pro-Israel interests misshape American policy to the point of instigating the invasion of Iraq, or the subsequent threats to Iran and Syria. It is likewise true that neocons inhabiting the Bush administration have enjoyed warm remunerative links to the Israeli Right – to the extent, Mearsheimer and Walt point out, of authoring a ferocious 1996 position paper, “Clean Break,” for then new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a paper intent on reordering the Middle East to suit truculent rightwing Israeli dreams. Yet the paper was wholly compatible with unbridled American dominance as well. One gets the gist of neocon conquistador aims from peripheral motor mouths such as Yale history professor Donald Kagan, father of Robert, who in the giddier days of October 2003 stated that the victorious US nevertheless “will probably need a major concentration of forces in the Middle East over a long period of time.” What about worrisome signs of Iraqi resistance? "People worry a lot about how the Arab street is going to react,” the ivory tower tough guy retorted. "Well, I see that the Arab street has gotten very, very quiet since we started blowing things up." Yes. That went well.

So who needs Israeli agents force-feeding a strapped-sown Bush administration with faulty, self-serving data when frothing neocons at home tirelessly peddle their own congenial lies. To flip Mearsheimer and Walt’s charge, the neocons, and American elites more generally, may well have been using Israel adroitly all along for their purposes. US elites do act ruthlessly for interests of their own in the energy-rich Middle East – and Israel is often enough a small piece in this geopolitical game. Ask yourself why the US government, boasting a mighty propaganda apparatus, and populated by policy makers who are a match for devious leaders anywhere, would be gulled to go along with a single small state's whims?

Mearsheimer and Walt soundly argue that knee jerk complicity with Israel, for whatever reasons, militates not only against US interests but those of Israel too. Realists always pride themselves on cutting through ruses and rhetoric to the underlying core of seamy self-interest at work in any international conflict. Yet Realists can be strangely ingenuous in assuming that policy elites act independently of crass commercial motives, therefore see the ‘big picture’ with dazzling clarity, and act accordingly. In case no one noticed, Big Oil, pestilentially influential since Ida Tarbell’s day, virtually seized the White House in 2000.[15] They don’t control everything, mind you, just whatever affects them, which is rather a lot. Nuances are nice, but sometimes they become blinders. Noam Chomsky, lauding Walt and Mearsheimer’s courage, found that they missed the real process of US elites doing pretty much as they please under the mesmerizing masquerade of the ‘national interest.’[16]  Neocons are "pro an Israel that is useful to the U.S. and, therefore, useful to them,” Finkelstein remarks. “What use would a Paul Wolfowitz have of an Israel living peacefully with its Arab neighbors and less willing to do the U.S.'s bidding?[17]

Mearsheimer and Walt ask, plaintively, why has the US “been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state?”  Could it not be more strikingly clear that a coterie of reactionary radicals blithely sacrificed any wider public good in order to plump up fat cat insiders since 2000? If devout Likudniks benefited too, and at someone else’s expense, so what? The Bush administration is at least as alien and inimical to ‘American values’ as any nightmarishly conceived invader from Mars or Jerusalem. Michael Moore did not entitle his bestseller Dude, Where’s My Country? for nothing.

Israel would indeed be far better off if the US applied its full leverage to compel a fair settlement with the Palestinians. And, indeed, about half of Israelis support full disengagement from the West Bank. Many US groups, including a large segment of the American Jewish population, sincerely seek a fair and just solution. The saber-toothed Israel lobby, as Walt and Mearsheimer say, has a perfect right to make their case, like any other lobbying organization, but they have no right to escape scrutiny, skew the truth with impunity, or to bully critics. Public opinion may be up for grabs anyhow, as Mearsheimer and Walt note, with upwards of 70% of Americans in a 2003 survey supporting the halt of aid from Israel in order to compel it to come to a mutually acceptable agreement with the Palestinians.

Given growing domestic skepticism regarding US interventionism, Mearsheimer and Walt have ignited a frenzy because Israel boosters fear losing their firm grip on public opinion. Witness the debunking earlier this year of a survey, conducted by pro-Israel interests, which depicted 40% of boring Swedes as rabid anti-Semites, and which turned out to be nonsense – counting as anti-Semitic anyone critical of Israeli policy. The anti-Semitic component in Sweden is in the low single digits - exceeded by anti-Muslim feelings, though thankfully also in single digits. Yet, as critic Kristoffer Larsson notes, “A 68 per cent majority of the Israeli Jews would refuse to live in the same building as an Arab Israeli, and 40 per cent think that the Israeli government should encourage them to leave the country.”[18] Further, a 2006 Israeli Democracy Index reveals “62% of respondents want the government to pursue policies in order to persuade the 1.3 million Arabs, who account for about one-fifth of the population, to leave.”[19] These are the same Israelis who otherwise perceptive liberals like Michael Massing dutifully say have been besmirched by Mearsheimer and Walt’s charge of ‘blood kinship’ as the basis of citizenship because there are, after all, a lot of (second class) Arab Israelis walking around.[20]  Apparently not if most non-Arab Israelis can help it.

Some states, like some people, don’t appreciate who their real friends and enemies are. Witness the certifiably insane alliance between the Israeli right and the American Christian right on confoundedly mystical grounds that defy parody. Fanatic fundamentalist Christians believe that they require an expansionist Israel in order to fulfill cockeyed prophecies and thereby achieve personal salvation – at which point these ordinarily anti-Semitic folks consign unconverted Jews to the molten furnaces of hell. In other words, the Christian Right despises Arabs a tad more than they despise Jews. Here is an unstable, if not floridly psychotic, partnership if there ever was one. By contrast, heartily scorned enemies like Mearsheimer and Walt, by stirring up this indelicate debate, may turn out in the long run to be among Israel’s best friends.


[1] See Bruce Franklin, MIA, or Mythmaking in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993)

[2]  Julian Borger, “Israel Trains US Assassination Squads in Iraq.”  The Guardian, 9 December 2003.

[3]  For one thing, one is less likely in Israel to be a victim of ‘hasbara,” which “roughly means ‘propaganda: ‘rhetoric,’ ‘Indoctrination’ and even ‘self-righteousness." Hasbara is "a specialty of Israel's professional emissaries and publicists ----the intended audience is Diaspora Jews who want to know Israel is always right as well as Goys....the trouble is when the dispenser of "hasbara" also is taken in by it....and confuses hasbara with policy.” Avisha Margalit, ‘The Terror Masters,’ New York Review of Books, 5 October 1995.

[4] John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt , ‘The Israel Lobby,’ London Review of Books 22 March 2006 . Available online at The article first was commissioned but ultimately spurned by the Atlantic Monthly.

[5] John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, Kennedy School of Government Working Paper Number:RWP06-011, 13 March 2006.

[6] Chicago Sun-Times, 27 March 2006.

[7] Eli Lake, ‘David Duke Claims to Be Vindicated By a Harvard Dean,’ New York Sun, March 20, 2006.

[8] On the Israeli nuclear program see Seymour Hersh, The Samson Option (New York: Random House, 1991).

[9] Richard H. Curtiss, “The Cost of Israel to U.S. Taxpayers: True Lies About U.S. Aid to Israel.”  Washington Report on Middle East Affairs December 1997. Accessed at “In addition, there have been the approximately $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees and perhaps $20 billion in tax-exempt contributions made to Israel by American Jews in the nearly half-century since Israel was created . . . It would be interesting to know how many of those American taxpayers believe they and their families have received as much from the U.S. Treasury as has everyone who has chosen to become a citizen of Israel.”

[10] See, for example, Antonia Juhasz, The Bush Agenda (New York: Regan Books, 2006); David Lindorff, “Secret Bechtel Documents Reveal: Yes, It Is About Oil.” Counterpunch 9 April 2003; and Joshua Holland, “The Great Iraqi Oil grab,” Alternet 23 May 2006 at

[11] On the history of the protocols see Stephen Eric Bronner, A Rumor about the Jews (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).  Police are creative when they want to be. In Northern Ireland the Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary long ago also dreamed up and publicized a pledge for IRA members, who supposedly were bent on Rome Rule throughout the known universe.

[12] See the debate between Dershowitz and Matthew Abraham on Finkelstein’s work in the Winter 2006 issue of Logos.

[13] “The Illusion of Balance: NPR’s Coverage of Middle East Deaths doesn’t Match Reality,” Extra   November/December 2001.

[14] Paul de Rooij, Worse Than CNN?  BBC News & The MidEast,” 16 May 2002. Also see Owen Gibson, ‘BBC’s Coverage of Israel-Palestinian Conflict ‘Misleading” Guardian 3 May 2006; and the Glasgow University Media group study in Greg Philo and Mike Berry, Bad News from Israel (London Pluto Press, 2004).

[15] In a response to critics, Mearsheimer and Walt yielded on nothing, including their presupposition that oil is incidental in US strategy. London Review of Books, 11 May 2006. 

[16] Noam Chomsky, ‘The Israel Lobby?’ ZNET, 28 March 2006.

[17] Norman Finkelstein, “It’s Not Either/Or: The Israeli Lobby.” Counterpunch 1 May 2006.

[19] ‘Survey: Most Israelis want Arabs out.’ 9 May 2006 at

[20] Michael Massing, ‘The Storm over the Israel Lobby.’ New York Review of Books, 8 June 2006, p. 65.

Kurt Jacobsen is book review editor at Logos and a research associate at the University of Chicago. His latest books include Maverick Voices: Conversations with Political and Cultural Rebels (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004); a second edition of No Clean Hands: Skeptical Chronicles of 9/11 (Ushba International Publishers, 2006), with Sayeed Hasan Khan, and, co-edited, Experiencing the State (Oxford University Press, 2006).