Question: Mearsheimer and Walt: are they right about the Israel lobby?
Dennis Ross: You know at a certain level, there are so many claims they make that are so ludicrous, that are so divorced from reality that you almost tend to dismiss it. Because they create an illusion that they have based it on reality, but it’s totally divorced from reality. They don’t have a fact-based approach. They have an ideologically-driven approach. They may criticize the Bush administration, and I do as well for an ideologically-driven set of assessments and an ideologically-driven policy.
But theirs is an opposite policy that is also ideologically driven, and the facts and reality never intrude. They make a major case that it was the Israeli lobby that basically drove us into war – the prime decision that drove us into war in Iraq. Well the Israeli lobby was far more preoccupied with Iran than they were with Iraq. I mean if President [George W.] Bush isn’t president, we don’t go to war in Iraq. If Vice President Gore becomes president in the year 2000, even though he’s the one with a long history of very close ties to the “Israeli lobby”, we don’t go to war in Iraq.
So what’s decisive here? Was it the Israeli lobby, or who was president? They say it was the Israeli lobby that is . . . that’s the reason we never opposed the Israeli settlement activity. It’s just not true. I mean the fact of the matter is our approach on settlements could have been much harder than it was. Was it because of the Israeli lobby ________? No.
In our case in the [Bill] Clinton administration, I can tell you. We had Prime Minister Rabin say to us, “I’m going to change things on settlement activity, but I can’t go as far as you might want because the fact is I’m going to take big steps, and I need the political space to do it. And the political traffic won’t bear my taking on too much at one time.” So basically we cut him some slack on that. Now the fact that he was assassinated by someone who came out of the Religious National Settler Movement suggested that maybe he knew what he was talking about. Ehud Barrack said to us, “I’m going to withdraw from almost all the territory. I’m going to settle the whole conflict. The Palestinians will have a state. Now don’t push me prematurely on the settlement issue because you’ll undercut the political strength I need to take those big decisions.” You can disagree with our judgment, but those are the reasons we made it, not because the Israeli lobby was asking us to do it. I’ve said when I was a negotiator, there’s never a single decision we made because the Israeli lobby wanted us to do it. And there’s never a single decision we didn’t make because they didn’t want us to do it. So it isn’t to say: Is there a lobby for Israel? You bet. Are they effective? Yes. Are they decisive when it comes to the Executive branch? Absolutely not.
I had one exchange with Stephen Walt where he quoted; because this is what they do. They quote political leaders like the President Clinton and Newt Gingrich saying how strong AIPAC is. Well they made these statements when they were giving speeches at AIPAC! Now how often do political leaders go to any lobbying group and say, “Gee, you’re not strong. You’re not effective.”
But this is what they cite as a kind of proof. That’s why I say there’s a kind of ludicrous quality to it.
Recorded on: September 12, 2007