John Mearsheimer on the State of the Israel Lobby
The Journal of Palestine Studies summer 2010 issue includes a report on the annual conference of the leading pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as well as excerpts from a congressional letter to President Obama sponsored by J Street, a new pro-Israel group.
JOHN MEARSHEIMER is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and the co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1982. He graduated from West Point in 1970 and then served five years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. He then started graduate school in political science at Cornell University in 1975. He received his Ph.D. in 1980. He spent the 1979-1980 academic year as a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs from 1980 to 1982. During the 1998-1999 academic year, he was the Whitney H. Shepardson Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Professor Mearsheimer has written extensively about security issues and international politics more generally. He has published five books: Conventional Deterrence (1983), which won the Edgar S. Furniss, Jr., Book Award; Liddell Hart and The Weight of History (1988); The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), which won the Joseph Lepgold Book Prize; The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (with Stephen M. Walt, 2007), which made the New York Times best seller list and has been translated into nineteen different languages; and Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics (2010).
Cléa Thouin: I’m Cléa Thouin, assistant editor for the Journal of Palestine Studies. Here with me today, via Skype, to talk about the pro-Israel lobby is John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and co-author of the book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Professor Mearsheimer, welcome to Palestine Studies TV.
Professor John Mearsheimer: It’s my pleasure.
CT: Prof. Mearsheimer, many people have been arguing that AIPAC’s power has been exaggerated or is waning. What do you say to that?
JM: I think this is a remarkably foolish argument. AIPAC remains as strong as ever. And if anybody needs evidence of that fact, all I have to do is look at what’s happened to President Obama since he took office in January of 2009. On three separate occasions he has gone head to head with PM Netanyahu, and demanded that Netanyahu either stop building settlements or not renew the, so called, freeze on settlements in the West Bank. And in all three cases, Obama was humiliated by Netanyahu, and the only way that could happen is if you had a powerful Israel lobby, and here we are talking about organizations like AIPAC, they were able to bring so much pressure to bear on Obama that he had no choice but to cave in to Netanyahu.
CT: With reports of increasing numbers of American Jews distancing themselves somewhat from AIPAC’s more hardline positions, to what do you attribute to AIPAC’s continuing influence, especially in Congress?
JM: Well, there is no question that you have organizations like J Street that are popping up, that are deeply interested in a two-state solution. So an organization like J Street, unlike AIPAC, wants to support president Obama in his fight with Netanyahu. Because J Street and the Jews that are associated with J Street understand full well that Netanyahu has no interest in a two-state solution, which they think is disastrous for Israel, quite correctly I might add.
But the 64 thousand dollar question is whether or not J Street can gain enough power in the near future to contest AIPAC. And I would make two points there: first of all, I think that’s not going to happen because AIPAC is a well established organization that has lots of support and lots of expertise and it’s going to take J Street a long time to become power enough to compete in a serious way with AIPAC.
But the second and more important point is that the two-state solution is effectively dead. There is not going to be a two-state solution, we are headed towards a greater Israel, in large part because that’s what Israel wants. And that greater Israel, of course, is going to be an apartheid state, and that by the way is why J Street is so fearful of not having a two-state solution. But organizations like J Street came to the game too late, the train has left the station and the two-state solution is dead. So even if I am wrong and J Street gets powerful all of a sudden, J Street is not going to be able to affect what happens in greater Israel in any meaningful way because, again you are just not going to get a two-state solution which is what J Street wants.
CT: And could you talk a little bit more about the role that AIPAC might have played in the administration’s retreat from its call for a complete settlement freeze to its endorsement, later on, of the more limited 10 month settlement moratorium.
JM: Well, it’s very hard to say exactly what role AIPAC or any other organization or any other individuals in the lobby might have played on pressuring the Obama administration to back off, because most of that lobbying was done behind closed doors. We have all sorts of evidence that AIPAC went to work on Capitol Hill, and has put significant pressure on Senators and Congress persons to back Israel to the hilt with letters and resolutions and so forth and so on, and we know that has had an effect on the White House. But in terms of how AIPAC has actually dealt with the White House, it’s hard to put your finger on the specifics of that.
CT: And what was the significance for the Israel lobby of the March 2010 tensions between the United States and Israel
JM: I think that the dust up this past spring and summer scared the lobby greatly. First of all the lobby likes to pretend that America’s interest and Israel’s interest are in sync: there is no difference. This, of course, is a ridiculous argument because no two countries always have the same interest. But the reason the lobby is so deeply committed to spreading the story that there is no difference between the interests of the United States and the interests of Israel is because they understand full well that if there is a perceived set of differences or real set of differences that Americans see, and they side with Israel against the United States, then it will look like they are favoring Israel over the United States. And this would not be good for the lobby, so the lobby likes to, therefore, either emphasize that are no differences or if there are differences to settle them behind closed doors so that the American people won’t see that the lobby is siding with Netanyahu against Obama.
Again, I pointed out that Obama and Netanyahu have gone head to head three times and in all three cases Obama was humiliated. If the American people really understood what had happened here, that the lobby played the kin’s principal role in helping Netanyahu humiliate Obama, the American people would be enraged, because this is an outrageous situation. But of course, the lobby’s main goal is to make sure that the American people are ignorant of this situation and instead think that the United States and Israel are always on the same page.
CT: So do you think that the Israel lobby has not been hurt by its reaction to the tensions?
JM: Well, what’s happening here that really matters is that Israel, with the help of the lobby, is effectively committing national suicide. If you don’t have a two-state solution, what’s going to happen is that Israel is going to turn into an apartheid state. And once that happens it’s going to be very difficult to sustain that greater Israel over time, simply because apartheid is a repugnant political system, and it cuts against core Western values.
You want to remember that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, this is Benjamin Netanyahu’s predecessor, said in November 2007, that if there is no two-state solution Israel will end up in a South Africa-like situation. In other words, he was saying: no two-state solution, Israel will be an apartheid state. And then Olmert said, and this is not John Mearsheimer or Steve Walt or Tony Judt talking, this is Ehud Olmert, he said if Israel ends up in a South Africa-like situation, that will be the end of Israel.
What he is recognizing is that an apartheid state is not sustainable, and my argument is that the lobby foolishly believes it is helping Israel out today, by thwarting Obama and preventing the creation of a Palestinian state. This is not helping Israel out, this is dooming Israel. And in fact, what’s going to happen over time in this greater Israel is that the more numerous Palestinians are eventually going to get a democratic state and they are going to outnumber, by far, the Israeli Jews in the state, and that will be the end of Zionism.
CT: And what does the future hold for AIPAC then if it continues on that course?
JM: Well, AIPAC will not have much of a future if greater Israel turns into a bi-national state, because it will no longer be a Jewish state. I mean, AIPAC depends on the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. And, again this gets to the fundamental divide that exists between organizations like J Street and AIPAC.
J Street, much like Ehud Olmert, understands that there has to be a two-state solution in order to secure Israel’s future. If there is no two-state solution they believe, the people associated with J Street, that the logic laid out by Ehud Olmert and by John Mearsheimer will kick in, and that will be disastrous for Israel as a Jewish state.
And the J Street people are desperate to ginny up support for Obama in the Jewish community so he can put pressure on Netanyahu to do what is the smart thing. But the problem that J Street faces, and the problem that Obama faces, is that the President is no match for AIPAC or the lobby more generally. There is no American president that has ever been able to take on Israel in a really serious way when it comes to the Palestinians, and it is in large part due to the power of the lobby.
CJ: In a recently published book, Mitchell Bard argues that there is another lobby, much less talked about, that does influence the question of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that’s an Arab lobby. Could you comment on that assessment?
JM: This is not a serious argument. There is no powerful Arab lobby in Washington. There is no lobby on the other side from the Israel lobby, and key figures in the Israel lobby have said as much on a number of occasions. Mr. Bard is entitled to his own opinions, but he’s not entitled to his own facts.
CT: Prof. Mearsheimer, thank you very much for talking to Palestine Studies TV
JM: It was my pleasure, thank you for having me on.
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