The article, a fully documented version of which was simultaneously posted on the website of Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government, not only had a great appeal, but it also generated a wide variety of reactions and critiques. In view of the widespread interest and the need to respond to critics, Mearsheimer and Walt extended their manuscript into a lengthy book that was published in 2007. Their core argument is that the special relationship between the US and Israel and the disproportionate aid the latter receives from the former (ed. note: its total value was estimated in 2015 around 124.3 billion US dollars)[i] cannot be reasoned on either moral, or strategic accounts. This policy can only be construed via the strong influence of the Israeli lobby on the decision making mechanisms of the US administration. Mearsheimer and Walt were careful enough to drop the term “Jewish lobby” since many of those who advocate for Israel are not Jewish but devout Christians. Moreover, the authors by no means do they speak for a conspiratorial cabal with a unified and / or invisible leadership. On the contrary, they refer to a loose coalition of individuals and groups that seek in the open, and according to their constitutional rights, to influence American foreign policy in ways that will benefit Israel.[ii]
The book undoubtedly stirred up the waters. Yet, this was the case not so because the authors introduced new gods in the fashion of Socrates, but because they touched on an, up to then, taboo issue. Moreover, it appeared to many that the book’s arguments did lend legitimacy to some of the claims of US’s worst enemies. In other words, it is one thing Nasrallah of Hezbollah to allege that Israel manipulates the US, and quite another when analogous assertions, albeit much milder, come from professors teaching in top American universities. Yet, putting the validity of Mearsheimer and Walt’s arguments to the test is relatively easy and all it takes is a look at the last conference of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) which took place in Washington last week. The two academics wrote in 2007 that AIPAC is the leading pressure group of the US pro-Israel community. In this context, and with the use of extended analysis and examples, they showed how presence at AIPAC’s annual conference became a must for ambitious US politicians, presidential hopefuls included.[iii]
AIPAC 2018 conference was, as expected, held in a celebratory festival-like atmosphere. Members of Congress and Senate, Republicans and Democrats alike, competed for their loyalty to Israel either by taking the podium, or by taking part in brief Q&A sessions on stage. Republican Marco Rubio rushed to reassure the audience that a potential revision of state’s expenditure will not affect the allegedly vital for US’s security aid for Israel. Democrat Chuck Schumer not only hailed the discussed imminent transfer of US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but he also attributed the lack of progress in the peace process to the reluctance of Palestinians in accepting the Jewish Torah’s claims which ascribe the Holy Land to the Jewish nation. US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley pledged to do more in order to contain what she described as bias and bullying against Israel in international forums. The conference also hosted friendly talks delivered by US vice president Mike Pence and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman; a clear implication of how seriously the US administration takes AIPAC. Finally, the conference was concluded with the appearance and address of the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu did not miss the opportunity to give a show before an over friendly audience. He addressed the conference delegates in impeccable English and employed theatrics on scene in order to keep the attendants’ ears fixed to him. To be precise, before beginning his oration he pretended to defy his security detail’s suggestion not to leave the podium and walk around the stage. Later, he called on all the students cutting classes to attend the conference to come and take a note from him after his speech. With such tricks and a performance reminiscent of a TED-style talk he succeeded in conveying his message. His main goal was to focus on the Israel’s achievements and challenges. In an interactive presentation, which sometimes went too far, he showcased his country as a CEO of a start-up company would do in an innovation conference. With charts and figures he extolled Israel and showed how much the world has to learn from it. Indicatively, he stressed that his country recycles the 87% of its waste water and that it enacts precision agriculture techniques that enable the farmer to know the quantity of water and fertilizer he should give down to the individual plant. Thereafter, he referred to the threats that Israel faces by the nuclear program of Iran and the rockets of Hamas and Hezbollah. The third, and final, part of his speech pertained to the optimism that all challenges will be successfully overcome largely thanks to the strong friendship between Israel and the US which, as he repeatedly stressed, has never been stronger than now.
Netanyahu’s speech was succeeded by rapturous applauses and ovations amplified by the suitable music in the background. The extravagant atmosphere, the parade of top tier dignitaries, and the high number (18,000) of delegates undoubtedly confirm AIPAC’s enhanced weight in US politics. However, a careful observer would point at a direction that could change the whole picture. The Israeli lobby in general, and AIPAC in particular may have overstretched themselves and the arrival of the era where their influence would diminish, rather than grow, is imminent.
References to students, both by Netanyahu and others, were not accidental. The battle for the hearts and minds of the new generation is crucial for the Israeli lobby. This is the case as more young Americans perceive Israel, not as the sheltering home of those who survived the holocaust, but as a force of occupation and suppression. Surveys have shown that between 2010 and 2016 the support for Israel among Jewish Americans college students has dropped 27 percentage points. In other words, if some of them chose to watch the works of the conference, it is doubtful that they would endorse the arguments of the key speakers. Quite the contrary, they would receive them with skepticism.
To be sure, instead of focusing on the alleged bias against Israel in the UN, they would most probably look for the reasons why resolutions condemning Israel’s acts are so often put to the vote. Similarly, instead of getting worried about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, they would not hesitate to wonder why nobody bothers to discuss Israel’s non-conventional arsenal in the first place. In the same vein, instead of simply admiring Israel’s truly exemplary management of water resources and precision agriculture techniques, they would go further and question the wisdom behind the appropriation of Palestinian land and water. Finally, in view of tax cuts for the wealthy and welfare cuts for the poor, they would probably not accept so easily the necessity to spend billions of dollars for the security of a foreign ally which not only is stationed thousands of miles away, but also it is too powerful already.
And although it is not realistic to assume that the influence of the Israeli lobby will dissipate overnight, the concerned actors know too well how dynamic the situation is. If not anything else, they do not forget that relations between Israel and the US started becoming close only in the mid 1960s.[iv] In this regard, the reference by the AIPAC board chair Lillian Pincus who, while introducing Netanyahu to the conference, mentioned that the first time the current Israeli prime minister took part in AIPAC’s gathering back in 1986 the conference had only a few hundreds attendants, demonstrates that the lobby’s political weight is prone to change. And currently there is something that can indeed accelerate change; the unprecedented division of the US society.
Mearsheimer and Walt did not omit to note that for presidential hopefuls is a must to give their credentials to AIPAC.[v] This unwritten rule continues to be observed and so far only one exception has occured. In March 2016 the candidate for the nomination of the Democratic Party Bernie Sanders, though of Jewish heritage himself, opted to skip AIPAC. Furthermore, during TV debates with Hillary Clinton he repeatedly criticised Netanyahu. As it is widely known, Sanders did not get the nomination and Hillary lost the presidency to Donald Trump. To the degree that the current period, which is recognised as the best regarding US-Israel relations, is identified with Trump’s leadership, it becomes easier for many Americans to distance themselves from pro-Israel policies. And this is the case because in a deeply polarised and divided society every government initiative is perceived negatively by the opposition. And so long as the opposition to Trump is dominated by figures like Sanders who has a great appeal to millennials, champions the single-payer healthcare, advocates for gun control, and opposes the sealing of borders, the support of pro-Israel associations that, among other things, are partly alienated with young progressive Jews, all of a sudden does not seem that necessary. No doubt the election of somebody like Sanders in 2020 to the White House will not automatically signal a dramatic rupture with Israel, or the violent freezing of the US aid towards it. Nevertheless, such a scenario presupposes a significant shift in Washington’s approach towards its special ally and that may frighten Netanyahu even more than the ongoing corruption investigations against him.
* Georgios Rigas holds a Ph.D. in Modern Middle Eastern History from the University of Edinburgh
[i] Jeremy M. Sharp, U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel (Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, June 2015), 29.
[ii] John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (London: Penguin, 2007), 23.
[iii] Ibid., 160.
[iv] Ariel Ilan Roth, “Reassurance: A Strategic Basis of U.S. Support for Israel,” International Studies Perspective, Vol. 10, No. 4 (November 2009), 387.
[v] Mearsheimer and Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, 4.