The Cooper Union "Israel Lobby" Debate
by Terry Walz, CNI Staff
October 3, 2006
Last week the London Review of Books did a great service to free
speech in this country by enabling Prof. John Mearsheimer of the
University of Chicago to have a debate on the Israel Lobby that he
thought would never take place. The event was titled "The Israel Lobby
- Does it Have Too Much Influence on U.S. Foreign Policy?" and its
main purpose was to debate the pros and cons of a paper Mearsheimer
wrote with Prof. Stephen Walt of Harvard University called "The Israel
Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." It was a perfect opportunity for the
much criticized national media to report on a key issue in our foreign
The debate took place in the famous hall of the Peter Cooper Union in
New York City - the very hall where Abraham Lincoln effectively
launched his presidency in 1860 by bravely speaking out against the
extension of slavery in the U.S. The debaters included two well-known
Israel proponents, Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, an Israeli former
cabinet minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, and two supporters of Mearsheimer's
stance (if not views), Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University and Tony
Judt of New York University. If anyone had any question about whether
the Israel Lobby existed or not, the debate did much to establish its
effectiveness if not define its character.
The moderator, Anne Marie Slaughter of Princeton University's Woodrow
Wilson Center, sought to set the stage for the evening's agenda by
suggesting that what America needed to hear was a debate on U.S.
policy toward Israel, Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, and U.S.
policy toward the Middle East in general. None of these subjects is
discussed freely in the national media or in the halls of power in
Washington, DC. These are the questions for debate that the Israel
Lobby has effectively muzzled over the years.
Martin Indyk predictably led the attack against Mearsheimer by
charging that a "Jewish cabal" that aimed to "bend" and "distort" the
U.S. national interests to those of Israel did not exist, and that
Mearsheimer's use of words and meanings were "tendentious" and
"anti-Semitic." At the very least, he said, the argument for an
"Israel Lobby" fed anti-Semitism. Both he and Ben-Ami worked hard the
entire evening show that the paper on the Israeli Lobby written by
Mearsheimer and Walt was a work of "shoddy scholarship" - and
presumably on those grounds alone could be discarded.
But it was Tony Judt who fought them off by resurrecting the words of
Arthur Koestler who once said it wasn't his fault "if idiots and
bigots share my opinions" but it didn't make the opinion wrong. The
Israel Lobby has too often grouped criticism of Israel and U.S. policy
toward Israel under the rubric of "anti-Semitism."
Mearsheimer defended himself forcefully, though perhaps sticking too
closely to his written word - as if published meant it bore greater
truth - and at one point he turned almost dramatically to his two
colleagues, Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk - the ultimate pro-Israel
insiders - and told them, "you are in fact the core of the Israel Lobby."
The debate on foreign policy and national interest may have been too
narrowly focused on the Israel Lobby, argued Rashid Khalidi, who said
that on certain national issues, such as abortion, gun control and
Israel, there was no debate at all. On Israel, why is that so? He
wondered: Does it have anything to do with long-term American
attitudes toward the Middle East, toward Islam? And was President
Bush's abrupt turn after 9/11 to war against the Middle East, Arabs,
and Islam merely feeding into the general anti-Muslim, anti-Arab,
anti-Middle East paranoia?
Certainly the Israel Lobby warmly supported the move toward war in
Iraq. Was this because Israel wanted the U.S. to deal with its "No. 1"
enemy? No, the Israel Lobbyist debaters argued, because the No. 1
enemy has always been considered in Israel to be Iran. Dennis Ross
said that it was President Bush's decision to make, not the Israel
Lobby's - and view generally seconded by Ben-Ami - and added "if Gore
were president, the war might not have happened."
Yet no one denied the fact that the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee â" the epitome of the Lobby - was one of the most powerful
forces on Capitol Hill. Khalidi reminded the audience of the framing
of the debate it does in Congress, from the resolutions it drafts, to
the congressmen it harasses, to the candidates for public office that
it vets. It works tirelessly to demonstrate that U.S. and Israeli
interests are exactly the same.
Judt, who is Jewish himself, commented that most Jews saw no daylight
between Israeli and the U.S. policies. And this is a result of the
effectiveness of the Lobby. It has been easy to persuade Jews to think
that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic by nature.
But to what extent is the current administration typical of U.S.
government - Israel Lobby relations? Is the close collaboration
between the Bush administration and Sharon-Olmert government typical
of the relationship? Indyk believed that the current AIPAC leadership
"straight-jackets" American policy toward the Palestinians, whereas in
Israel, there is more of a willingness to negotiate. But can, in fact,
the American government demand that Israel follow a particular policy
it is opposed to? Indyk and Ross said no, but Judt argued that it was
because the American government was unwilling to do to Israel what it
has done in the past to any number of European states when it has
objected to their policies.
The packed audience in the hall was often partisan, cheering for
particular sides in this debate, but it seemed largely supportive of
Prof. Mearsheimer and was kept in balance by the able hand of Dr.
Slaughter. It was a travesty of news coverage that it was not
televised, not even by C-Span, and no major media covered the event,
including the major newspapers. Was this the Israel Lobby at work?
There seems little possibility that this extraordinary event will ever
be repeated, given the distaste of the Israel lobbyists of Walt and
Mearsheimer, but it is badly needed in every major community in the
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