Did 'The Israel Lobby' Change Anything?

Five years after.

Five years ago this week, John Mearsheimer and I published The Israel Lobby in the London Review of Books. Our goal in writing the article (and subsequent book) was to break the taboo on discussions of the lobby's impact on U.S. foreign policy and to transform it into a topic that people could talk about openly and calmly. Because we believed the "special relationship" that the lobby had promoted was harmful to the United States and Israel (not to mention the Palestinians), we hoped that a more open discourse on this topic would move U.S. Middle East policy in a direction that would be better for almost everyone.

Did we succeed?

There's little question that the article and book opened up discussion, aided by the efforts of a number of other people and by developments in the region (alas, most of them unfortunate). We also owe a debt of gratitude to our more virulent critics, whose efforts to misrepresent our work and portray us as anti-Semites merely confirmed many of our key points. We weren't surprised by these responses, but it was disappointing to see so much of the initial discussion focus on these bogus charges, instead of our actual arguments. (For academic evaluations of the work, see here and here; for our responses, see here and here.)

Yet despite these distractions, discussions of the lobby and its impact have moved from the fringes of U.S. discourse to the mainstream. Today, one can read or watch people from Jon Stewart to Andrew Sullivan to Glenn Greenwald to David Remnick to Nicholas Kristof acknowledging the lobby's role in shaping U.S. Middle East policy. Editorials in mainstream papers like the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times call for the U.S. government to adopt a tougher approach toward the Israeli government. More and more news stories on U.S. Middle East policy refer to the "Israel lobby" as a serious political force, and not always in flattering terms. Even hard-line neoconservatives like David Frum now acknowledge the power of groups in the lobby, as in Frum's recent complaint that Sarah Palin failed to appreciate the political benefits she could gain by choosing to visit Israel under the auspices of the Republican Jewish Coalition, instead of going on her own. Of course, our book and article are surely not the only reason for this shift in discourse, but we probably played a role.

When we wrote the book, we also hoped that our work would provoke some soul-searching among "pro-Israel" individuals and groups in the United States, and especially those found in the American Jewish community. Why? Because interest-group politics are central to American democracy, and the most obvious way to shift U.S. policy on this issue would be to alter the attitudes and behavior of the interest groups that care most about it and exert the greatest influence over U.S. behavior.

Indeed, we explicitly said in the book that what was needed was a "new Israel lobby," one that would advocate policies that were actually in Israel's long-term interest (and would be more aligned with U.S. interests too). The problem, we emphasized repeatedly, was not the existence of a powerful interest group focused on these issue; the problem was that it was dominated by individuals and organizations whose policy preferences were wrongheaded. A powerful "pro-Israel" interest group that favored smart policies would be wholly desirable.

It is therefore gratifying to observe the emergence of J Street, to see groups like Americans for Peace Now and Jewish Voice for Peace become more vocal, and to see writers like Peter Beinart and David Remnick take public stances that are substantially different from ones they might have expressed a few years ago.

Needless to say, these shifts weren't our doing. Events in the region -- especially the 2006 Lebanon war of 2006, the 2008-2009 Gaza war, the continued expansion of Israeli settlements, and the worrisome rightward drift in Israeli domestic politics -- also inspired the effort to create a "pro-Israel" organization that would favor smarter policies and be more representative of American Jewish opinion than hard-line groups like AIPAC, the Israel Project, or the Zionist Organization of America, to say nothing of Christian Zionist organizations like John Hagee's Christians United for Israel.

Our greatest disappointment, however, has been the lack of movement in U.S. Middle East policy. On the one hand, Barack Obama's administration has resisted the lobby's pressure for military action against Iran, and it took office proclaiming its intention to achieve a two-state solution during Obama's first term. But on the other hand, Obama and his Middle East team have been unable or unwilling to act as an evenhanded mediator.

This situation is disappointing but not surprising. U.S. foreign policy rarely turns on a dime, and a central pillar like the "special relationship" doesn't change just because two academics write a controversial article. We didn't expect groups like AIPAC to dry up and blow away just because we had cast a critical spotlight on their activities, and the mechanisms that these and other groups have used to influence Congress and the executive branch remain potent.

The result, unfortunately, is that a two-state solution that would secure Israel's long-term future is farther away than ever, and America's image in the region -- which showed signs of improvement at the time of Obama's 2009 Cairo speech -- remains parlous. And we are now witnessing a series of political upheavals in the Arab world that are likely to create governments that are far more sensitive to public sentiment than their predecessors were, even if they fall short of being perfect democracies. These new governments will pay more attention to the "Arab street," where the Palestinian issue resonates in powerful ways. This situation will raise the costs of the "special relationship" even more, which makes America's failure to achieve a two-state solution over the past 20 years -- a failure for which the lobby bears considerable (though not all) responsibility -- especially tragic.

Finally, I am sometimes asked whether I have any regrets about writing the article or the book. My answer is clear: absolutely not. As I told a Harvard official back in 2006, it was a "life-altering" event in the sense that it almost certainly closed some doors that might otherwise have been open to me. But writing the book and engaging in serious public debate about Israeli policy, the "special relationship," and the lobby also taught me a lot about politics and introduced me to a new community of scholars, policy analysts, and journalists from whom I've learned an enormous amount and who have become valued colleagues. I would do it again without hesitation, and I would not alter any of our central arguments.

For other reflections on the impact of the LRB article, see Philip Weiss and Scott McConnell here and here; for an interesting assessment by journalist Jordan Smith, go here.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images


The Case for Intervention in the Ivory Coast

As Libya steals the spotlight, another crisis threatens the lives of countless thousands of civilians.

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — As the world rallies behind the Libyan population, it is hard to understand why the Ivory Coast is just a footnote in international news and on the diplomatic agenda. In recent weeks in this critical West African country, hundreds of civilians have been killed, often in horrendous ways. New bodies turn up on the streets and in the morgues nearly every day with bullet wounds, slashed throats, and charred skin from being burned alive. As in Libya, a desperate regime clings to power and makes murderous threats against its own people. And, in both cases, peaceful protesters are being mowed down by machine guns.

In the case of Libya, it took the U.N. Security Council only days to pass one of its strongest resolutions in years, imposing severe sanctions on the country's leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and his enablers and referring the case to the International Criminal Court. The council took the ultimate step last week by authorizing military intervention, invoking its "responsibility to protect," a norm that grew out of the Rwandan genocide, requiring the international community to intervene when a country fails to protect its own citizens.

Not so in the case of Ivory Coast, where the council's response has been neutered by Russian and South African misgivings. The council has failed to send an unequivocal message to Laurent Gbagbo, who has clung to power despite having clearly lost the November presidential election. In the view of both the African Union and the United Nations, Gbagbo has overseen what probably amounts to crimes against humanity. His security forces and allied militias engage in brutal killings, forced disappearances, politically motivated rape, indiscriminant shelling, and torture in an often-organized campaign of terror against real or perceived supporters of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of last year's election. Armed clashes have intensified around the country during the last two weeks; on March 17, at least 30 civilians were killed and 40 wounded when mortars fired by Gbagbo's forces exploded in a crowded marketplace in the Abobo neighborhood.

Yet unlike Qaddafi, Gbagbo and his inner circle have not been added to the U.N. sanctions list. The Security Council has not taken action to ensure that perpetrators of the crimes are held to account, and no "responsibility to protect" has been invoked.

The signs of an impending tragedy are plain for the world to see. On Feb. 25, Gbagbo's youth minister and close confidant, Charles Blé Goudé, called on "real" Ivoirians to protect their neighborhoods and chase out foreigners, a scarcely veiled threat against northern Ivoirian ethnic groups that tend to support Ouattara and immigrants from neighboring countries, as well as the U.N.-authorized peacekeepers and French troops. Blé Goudé's militia supporters have heeded the call. Some victims have been burned alive or beaten to death, while attackers have looted other victims' shops, destroyed their homes, and told them to leave their neighborhoods -- where many have lived for decades -- or be killed. Since late February, some 700,000 Abidjan residents have been displaced from their homes due to fighting and reprisals.

More generalized violence against Ouattara supporters also continues. On March 3, seven women, armed only with branches and cardboard signs as they chanted anti-Gbagbo slogans with thousands more women, were slaughtered by heavy machine-gun fire. Gbagbo's security forces shot them as they drove by. A horribly graphic video of the event has circulated widely on the Internet. A March 19 statement by Gbagbo's spokesperson called on supporters to "neutralize" all suspect presences, which has only intensified concern about attacks against civilians.

Until recent days, the former rebels of the Forces Nouvelles, loosely allied to Ouattara, had more or less kept quiet. But our researchers have uncovered disturbing evidence that some of them have fallen back to their old ways, engaging in reprisal killings against Gbagbo supporters and summarily executing pro-Gbagbo forces detained in areas of the financial capital, Abidjan, which are now under Forces Nouvelles' control. Guillaume Soro, Ouattara's prime minister and the former Forces Nouvelles commander, has not publicly denounced these acts.

As incendiary threats pour in from both sides, the country is on the brink of a full resumption of armed conflict. As in the past, civilians will almost certainly bear the brunt of the bloodshed. Almost half a million Ivoirians have already been displaced by the violence, including more than 95,000 into neighboring Liberia, threatening regional stability as well.

The international community should not look the other way. Given the pressing dangers faced by the Ivoirian people -- tens of thousands of whose lives are at risk -- the Security Council should consider the full range of options available to protect the population. Ivory Coast deserves nothing less than the type of unified and decisive action the U.N. Security Council has brought to bear on Libya.