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Pronouncing Blame on the Israel Lobby

by Dana Mil­bank

It was quite a bon­er.

Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go polit­i­cal sci­en­tist John Mearsheimer was in town yes­ter­day to elab­o­rate on his view that Amer­i­can Jew­ish groups are respon­si­ble for the war in Iraq, the destruc­tion of Lebanon’s infra­struc­ture and many oth­er bad things. As evi­dence, he cit­ed the influ­ence pro-Israel groups have on “John Bon­er, the House major­i­ty leader.”

Actu­al­ly, Pro­fes­sor, it’s “BAY-ner.” But Mearsheimer quick­ly dis­pensed with Boehn­er (R‑Ohio) and moved on to Jew­ish groups’ nefar­i­ous sway over Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D‑Md.), who Mearsheimer called ” Von Hollen.”

Such gaffes would be triv­ial — if Mearsheimer weren’t claim­ing to be an author­i­ty on Wash­ing­ton and how pow­er is wield­ed here. But Mearsheimer, with co-author Stephen Walt of Har­vard’s Kennedy School, set off a furi­ous debate this spring when they argued that “the Israel lob­by” is exert­ing undue influ­ence in Wash­ing­ton; oppo­nents called them anti-Semit­ic.

Yes­ter­day, at the invi­ta­tion of the Coun­cil on Amer­i­can-Islam­ic Rela­tions (CAIR), they held a forum at the Nation­al Press Club to expand on their alle­ga­tions about the Israel lob­by. Blur­ring the line between aca­d­e­mics and activism, they accept­ed a but­ton pro­claim­ing “Fight the Israel Lob­by” and won cheers from the Mus­lim group for their denun­ci­a­tion of Israel and its friends in the Unit­ed States.

What­ev­er moti­vat­ed the per­for­mance, the result was­n’t exact­ly schol­ar­ly.

Walt sin­gled out two Jews who worked at the Pen­ta­gon for their pro-Israel views. “Peo­ple like Paul Wol­fowitz or Doug Fei­th . . . advo­cate poli­cies they think are good for Israel and the Unit­ed States alike,” he said. “We don’t think there’s any­thing wrong with that, but we also don’t think there’s any­thing wrong for oth­ers to point out that these indi­vid­u­als do have attach­ments that shape how they think about the Mid­dle East.”

“Attach­ments” sounds much bet­ter than “dual loy­al­ties.” But why sin­gle out Wol­fowitz and Fei­th and not their non-Jew­ish boss, Don­ald Rums­feld?

“I could have men­tioned non-Jew­ish peo­ple like John Bolton,” Walt allowed when the ques­tion was put to him.

Pick­ing up on the “attach­ments” lin­go, Mearsheimer did men­tion Bolton but cit­ed two Jews, Elliott Abrams and David Wurmser, as “the two most influ­en­tial advis­ers on Mid­dle East affairs in the White House. Both, he said, are ” fer­vent sup­port­ers of Israel.” Nev­er mind that oth­ers in the White House, such as nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er Stephen Hadley, Vice Pres­i­dent Cheney and Pres­i­dent Bush, have been just as fer­vent despite the lack of “attach­ments.”

This line of argu­ment could be con­sid­ered a pre­car­i­ous one for two blue-eyed men with Ger­man­ic sur­names. And, indeed, Walt seemed defen­sive about the charges of anti-Semi­tism. He cau­tioned that the Israel lob­by “is not a cabal,” that it is “not syn­ony­mous with Amer­i­can Jews” and that “there is noth­ing improp­er or ille­git­i­mate about its activ­i­ties.”

But Mearsheimer made no such dis­tinc­tions as he used “Jew­ish activists,” “major Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions” and the “Israel lob­by” inter­change­ably. Clench­ing the lectern so tight­ly his knuck­les whitened, Mearsheimer accused Israel of using the kid­nap­ping of its sol­diers by Hezbol­lah as a con­ve­nient excuse to attack Lebanon.

“Israel had been plan­ning to strike at Hezbol­lah for months,” he assert­ed. “Key Israelis had briefed the admin­is­tra­tion about their inten­tions.”

A ques­tion­er asked if he had any “hard evi­dence” for this accu­sa­tion. Mearsheimer cit­ed the “pub­lic record” and “Israeli civil­ian strate­gists,” then repeat­ed the alle­ga­tion that Israel was seek­ing “a cov­er for launch­ing this offen­sive.”

As evi­dence that the Amer­i­can pub­lic does not agree with the Israel lob­by, the polit­i­cal sci­en­tist cit­ed a USA Today-Gallup poll show­ing that 38 per­cent of Amer­i­cans dis­ap­proved of Israel’s mil­i­tary cam­paign. He neglect­ed to men­tion that 50 per­cent approved, and that Amer­i­cans blamed Hezbol­lah, Iran, Syr­ia and Lebanon far more than Israel for the con­flict.

Walt kicked off the ses­sion with a warn­ing that we face a “threat from ter­ror­ism because we have been so close­ly tied to Israel.” This pro­duced chuck­les in the audi­ence. Walt allowed that this was “not the only rea­son” for our prob­lems, but he did blame Israel sup­port­ers for the hands-off posi­tion the Bush admin­is­tra­tion took dur­ing the Lebanon fight­ing.

“The answer is the polit­i­cal influ­ence of the Israel lob­by,” Walt said. He also hypoth­e­sized that if not for the Israel lob­by, the Iraq war “would have been much less like­ly.”

Up next, Mearsheimer ridiculed U.S. lead­ers for “falling all over them­selves to express sup­port for Israel.” And he drew groans from the crowd when he spoke about a law­mak­er who, after ques­tion­ing Israel’s pol­i­cy, “met with var­i­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tives from major Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions, who explained to him the basic facts of life in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.”

When the two pro­fes­sors fin­ished, they were besieged by auto­graph- and pho­to-seek­ers and Arab tele­vi­sion cor­re­spon­dents. Walt could be heard telling one that if an Amer­i­can crit­i­cizes Israel, “it might have some eco­nom­ic con­se­quences for your busi­ness.”

Before leav­ing for an inter­view with al-Jazeera, Mearsheimer accept­ed a but­ton pro­claim­ing “Walt & Mearsheimer Rock. Fight the Israel Lob­by.”

“I like it,” he said, beam­ing.


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