The Influence of AIPAC

Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University
Over time, the Israel lobby has come to play a very influential role in American politics—and has had a pretty dramatic effect on what the United States does in the Middle East
  • Transcript


Question: Why did you decide to write about the Israel lobby?

Stephen Walt: Well, I had done work on Middle East politics previously. My first book and dissertation was about the Middle East from the perspective of alliances. And I'd actually written about the Israel lobby in that book, although not in as much detail and not with as much of a critical eye, I think is one way to put it. We decided to write on this for two reasons. First, after September 11th, like many other Americans, and indeed like lots of other people around the world, we realized that something had gone badly off the rails in American Middle East policy—just understanding why the United States was so unpopular there; why a group like Al Qaeda could organize and decide to attack the United States. So we started... John and I both started thinking a lot more about this, and I actually wrote an article or two about the specific problem of what American foreign policy should be. Second, the more we thought about it, the more we realized there was an aspect of American Middle East policy that was very important and very influential. It was the role of different pro-Israel groups in the United States, but it was a topic that not very many people wanted to talk about. It was a real third rail question, because anybody who did try to bring it up usually got attacked and often got smeared in various ways. And we decided that we were in sufficiently secure and prominent positions that we could try to bring this up. And one of our purposes was to simply break the taboo and make this a subject that one could actually talk about the same way you would talk about the farm lobby, or the oil lobby, or the, you know . . . National Rifle Association, or the American Association of Retired Persons. These are all important public . . . important interest groups, and they get talked about all the time; but the Israel lobby is one that nobody wanted to debate, and we decided that wasn't a good idea. So we wrote a book.

Question: What is the central conclusion of your book?

Stephen Walt: The basic argument is that there is a loose coalition of groups that don't agree on every issue; that are not all predominantly Jewish American, but are all committed to trying to maintain a special relationship between the United States and Israel. And that over time these groups have become more influential; that what they were doing was entirely legitimate; just good old-fashioned interest group politics. But like some other interest groups, they'd gotten to be quite . . . quite powerful and had a pretty dramatic effect on what the United States was doing in the Middle East both in terms of providing unconditional support for just about anything that Israel was doing; but also influencing our foreign policy more broadly throughout the entire region. And we decided that not only was this not good for the United States; that it was producing policies that were harmful to the country; but we also argued that it was not good for Israel. In fact that many of these policies, which tended to be on a more hard line end, were unwittingly causing harm to Israel as well. And we thought that what . . . the United States should have as a much more normal relationship with Israel. We should treat it the same way we treat other democracies like Britain, or France, or Japan, or India where we support them when they're doing things that are in our interest, and where we don't support them when they're doing things that aren't in our interest. Needless to say even saying that, which sounds, I think, pretty banal, got us both a fair degree of attention, but also a non-trivial amount of abuse.

Question: When has the Israel lobby influenced the U.S. to act against its national interests?

Stephen Walt: One is Israel's Settlements Policy. The official position of the American government since 1967 has been that settlements in the West Bank are not a good idea.They're not good for Israel. They're not consistent with the international law. So we formally oppose them, but no American president has ever put any substantial pressure on Israel to stop that. It's continued to be the largest recipient of U.S. economic and military aid, even though it's doing something that we clearly don't want them to do; and even though many Israelis now understand that this was a huge strategic blunder on their part to try and colonize the West Bank.We would have been a better ally if we had stopped that many years ago.So that would be one example. The second we argue in our book is that some of these groups in [...] lobby  and particularly the neo-conservatives; were a key element. By no means the only element, but a key element in getting the United States into war with Iraq.They sort of conceived the idea, worked hard to sell it; didn't succeed in selling it until after September 11th when suddenly the political stars lined up, and Bush and Cheney bought onto a particular program.So an important component; and again not good for us. And also not good for Israel when you think about how the Iraq war has gone. And then last but not least, I would argue that the response to the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 where Israel's response to Hezbollah . . . which they had every right to respond, but it wasn't a smart response. And we would have been a better ally, again, if we had either pushed the Israelis to come up with a better way of dealing with Hezbollah, or gotten the war ended very quickly before it lasted a month; before lots of 'civilian areas in Lebanon were attacked; before Hezbollah had been able to fire hundreds of rockets into Israel as well.The United States didn't do that. We didn't actually shut it down. We backed the Israelis even though their policy was quite ill-conceived. But in all three of those cases, I would argue the lobby was a key player in shaping U.S. policy. And in each case it wasn't good for us and it wasn't good for Israel either.

Question: What distinguishes the Israel lobby from other special interest groups?

Stehen Walt: They're not doing anything substantially different. It's a lot of the same techniques.You go up on Capitol Hill. You try and get journalists to write things that are favorable to your cause.' When they don't write things favorable, you protest. You do the same things at the National Rifle Association. You make sure that congressmen understand that if they take positions contrary to what you want, you're going to steer campaign contributions to the other side if at all possible. So the nature of the activities is pretty similar to what other powerful groups do as well. Why is Social Security a sacrosanct, third rail issue? It's because the AARP has a position of that, and they can organize their members. And so a politician who suddenly steps up and says, You know I think Social Security ought to be cut ,is gonna be in real trouble for doing that.So what they're doing is not all that different. They are particularly good at it, but they're not doing anything that's illegitimate.With one exception, which is the tendency to smear anybody who is critical of this relationship of being anti-Semitic or being bigoted in some way. Though what happened to Jimmy Carter, for example, after he published his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is sort of a classic example of this where he was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer; accused of being a Jew-hater, etc., etc.And this is a president who had done as much for Israeli security as any American president ever has. And that, I think, is not legitimate because it gets in the way of free and open discourse, which is really essential in a democracy.

Question: Did the outcry surprise you?

Stephen Walt: We knew it was gonna be a controversial body of work, and it was undoubtedly gonna get some criticism. I was a little surprised early on at just how venomous some of the criticism was; that there was a real sort of willingness to use almost any stick to try and beat us with... So you know people immediately began linking us to David Duke and people like that which, you know again, is just a smear tactic designed to sort of marginalize anyone who is critical. But apart from that it hasn't been all that surprising. I mean we've seen what had happened to some other people. The basic point I guess I'd emphasize here and this gets to sort of broader questions about where the world is going is my co-author and I basically think that all countries do stupid things periodically. No government, no people is immune to folly.And the only way you can minimize the possibility of folly is to have as open a discussion as possible about different options, and what's really going on. So anything that gets in the way of open discussion is a real problem. It's the kind of thing that will lead a country off the deep end and be unable to correct itself once it starts.It's why I think dictatorships actually commit some of the greatest human rights violations and greatest travesties because they don't have an open dialogue. When they are doing something that's unwise, or cruel, or stupid, it';s hard for people in that society to correct course. So here in a democracy, we do have the opportunity for doing that.; And one of the things we ought to be doing is encouraging open discussion as much as possible so that stupid policies are either not adopted; or when they are adopted, as will happen from time to time, we can figure it out quickly and change course.

Question: What is the difference between fair criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism?

Stephen Walt: My own view is that anti-Semitism conceives of the Jewish people as sort of separate and not equal members of society. It wants to treat them as a separate tribe and accuse them of various things suggesting that they have to be treated harshly or in some way discriminated against because they don't fully belong as members of society. This is the complete opposite of what I believe.I think that Jewish Americans are like everybody else. I think Jews are like everybody else and they ought to be treated like every other member of society; every other ethnic group; every other religious group.One of the great things about this country is we don't believe that discrimination is appropriate. And even though it happens from time to time, the good news is that it's been increasingly discredited in our society as it has throughout many other realms.; Now once you conceive of Jewish people or anybody else as just like everybody else, then they should be as open to criticism when their actions are not correct, or you think they're not correct. And we make it clear, for example, in our book that we don't question Israel's right to exist or its legitimacy as a state. But no country should be immune from criticism.And no interest group in the United States should be immune from criticism. Somebody wants to criticize college professors, that's fine. If somebody wants to criticize Republicans, or Democrats, or people who are in favor of disarmament, that's good too. But I think there's a pretty clear distinction between the way most anti-Semites think of this and the way my co-author and I do, and I think many other Americans.

Well any country that the United States is aligned with, it seems to me one should be able to examine that relationship and ask is it ... is it going in the right way. But the key there is not that we wanna focus disproportionate attention on Israel and single it out in any particular way. It's rather that American policy has already singled out Israel in some fundamental ways. It's the largest recipient of American economic and military aid.It's about three to four billion dollars a year, which works out to about $500 for each Israeli citizen from the American taxpayer. And this is a country that' not a poor country any longer. It has the 29th per capita income in the world, which is a wonderful thing.It's a remarkable testimony to the industry and achievement of Israel's own citizens.But the fact is we have a special relationship with it. It's not that we're singling it out for attention.It's already been singled out. And our question in writing the book was trying to explain why that was the case, and ask whether that was in the American interest at this point.

It's the strongest military power in the region. It has a strong ally in our case. It'ss won every war it's fought.You could argue about the most recent war with Lebanon, but that was not an existential war. It has peace treaties with Egypt and with Jordan. I believe it could have a peace treaty with Syria; and I believe the Arab countries actually would like to make peace with Israel now if the solution could be found to the Palestinian problem. And finally the question is Iran and Iran's nuclear ambition. And I think that's a problem for the Israelis, no question about it, as it is for us. And we all ought to be thinking of ways that we could try and discourage Iran from developing a full nuclear capability. But even if Iran got a few nuclear weapons, I don't believe that it's a threat to Israel's existence. I don't think Iran could use those weapons without causing its own destruction. Remember that Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons of its own, and I don't think believe would be at all bashful about threatening to use those if it were ever attacked; much the same way that the United States threatened to use its weapons during the Cold War if it was ever attacked... I don't want to paint a picture that, you know, everything is just completely rosy or anything like that. All countries face security problems, and Israel faces more serious security problems than most. But Israel's existence, and this is good news, is not in doubt at this point. And I think that's a good thing, and I don't think any of the external threats it now faces pose a threat to Israel's existence either now or in the long term.

Question: What should Israel do in the face of Iranian threats?

Stephen Walt: Well a couple of things. One is to understand exactly what Ahmadinejad said. He's frequently misquoted as having said that Israel should be wiped off the map.What he was really saying was that Israel should vanish from the page of time. Now that still sounds pretty awful, and I think the remarks are reprehensible. But what he was suggesting an allusion to an old quotation by Khomeini; that the Jewish state in Palestine could be a temporary political condition. And it could eventually evolve into some kind of democracy so the Palestinians would have control. So he's opposing the Zionist regime there, but he's not calling for the physical destruction of Israel or the massacre of all of its inhabitants or things like that. He's suggesting it could be like the Soviet Union. It goes out of business at some point down the road, but not because it's been physically destroyed. I think if I were an Israeli, and indeed as an American I find those remarks deeply objectionable because I think the existence of a Jewish state is a good thing. But how you deal with that is not necessarily by, say, advocating preventive war or exaggerating a particular danger it calls for. It seems to me what we wanna do is isolate people like Ahmadinejad; do our best to strengthen more moderate forces in Iran; look for a deal with the Iranians that prevent them or discourage them from going ahead and getting nuclear weapons; and finally doing everything we can to get a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians which would take away the main political cause that extremists like Ahmadinejad like to invoke.I think once you get that one settled, the extremists start looking like obstructionists and criminals and we don't have a problem anymore. And we don't have anywhere near the problem that we're facing today.

Question: Can Zionism survive?

Stephen Walt: I wish state can't exist in perpetuity in Palestine where it is now. I mean I can imagine ways in which the Zionist project over many decades and many centuries might eventually erode. But I also see lots of reasons why it might continue. That's really beyond the scope of what we were working on as well and will, if anything, reflect political and social developments inside Israel that are very hard to foresee.

Question: Has any criticism has given you pause for thought? 

Stephen Walt: That's a great question.Most of the criticisms, to be honest, I don't think did much damage to our basic argument. There were a lot of people who, you know, called us names that I think was largely irrelevant ; predictable but irrelevant. There were a number of people who pointed out what they thought were major factual errors.; And we've written a long response to our critics where we showed that most of those complaints are wrong. I did take seriously the concern that a number of people voiced that you know, Alright fine. These criticisms are well intentioned. You may even be right, but your work is gonna be misused... It's going to be taken by bigots. It's going to be seized upon by anti-Semites who will use it for their own nefarious purposes. And I thought, you know, a lot about that, and I would not want to have written something that could be used in those terms. If I thought that the kind of anti-Semitism that existed, you know, centuries ago, or more recently in the 20th century was coming back in any significant way, you know I would have had real doubts about writing the book.The good news is I don't think that's the case, particularly in the western world. I think the good news is that anti-Semitism has been completely discredited among respectable members of society and that''s wonderful. So I don't think the danger that people are pointing to is actually likely to materialize. Moreover, I think the fear of bringing about a resurgence of anti-Semitism can't be allowed to stifle discussion. It can't be allowed to stifle debate. Those who say, you know. You might be bringing back anti-Semitism. Therefore you can';t criticize Israel, and therefore you can't criticize, say, the activities of APEC or other groups are basically saying this fear means we can't have a conversation. And as I said a while back, I think the ability to talk openly about political and social issues is essential to getting policies right.And we can't allow anything to silence us.

Recorded on: July 25 2007