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.