The U.S.-Israel Relationship: Fact and Fiction


David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, was invited recently to address the think tank Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik (German Council on Foreign Relations) in Berlin to respond to the appearance the previous month of Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of The Israel Lobby.

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The U.S.-Israel Relationship: Fact and Fiction
by David A. Harris

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik
(German Council on Foreign Relations)
Berlin, Germany, December 17, 2007

Last month, this Council was addressed by two American academics who recently authored a book entitled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. The book, and the articles that preceded it in the London Review of Books and on the website of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, have received some attention both in the United States and Europe.

Let me assure you: I have no interest in selling books for Professors Walt and Mearsheimer. I’m not here to add to what some would describe as the “controversy” surrounding their book. I’m here because the Council graciously invited me to balance their perspective with a different one.

I have been asked to address this distinguished audience about the so-called Israel lobby in the United States – or, more generally, about the place of Israel in America. It’s my pleasure to do so.

The argument in The Israel Lobby is complex, and describing it here risks some simplification. But among the authors’ key points are:

They support Israel’s right to exist, and reject any implication of anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism on their part. They also deny that they are leveling charges of dual loyalty against American supporters of Israel.

They do, however, believe that a powerful Israel lobby exists in the U.S. They believe this lobby has succeeded in stifling debate about the Middle East, in part by being quick to label critics of current U.S. policy as anti-Semites.

While defending the right of American interest groups to lobby, they ascribe to the so-called Israel lobby, which is broadly and rather ambiguously defined, extremist tactics and a penchant for seeking to silence or intimidate its opponents.

They assert that this lobby has managed to divert the U.S. from pursuing its true national interest in foreign policy.

They claim that this lobby and its natural allies, including evangelical Christians and neo-conservatives, led the U.S. into a fateful decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

They argue that Osama Bin Laden and his followers detest the U.S. principally because of American support for Israel.

They contend that Israel, as an occupying nation, has lost its moral claim on America. Moreover, that in the post-Cold War era, Israel no longer serves American strategic interests. Indeed, they claim Israel has become a strategic liability.

And they state that Israel’s existence is not threatened, not even by Iran, and that therefore the existential argument used by the Israel lobby to gain support is essentially a non-starter.

Of course, there is more to the case they present, but these are some of the highlights.

So what should we make of all this? What is the truth about the Israel lobby?

It is said that the formula or recipe for Coca-Cola is kept in a vault somewhere in Atlanta, Georgia, and only a handful of people have access to it.

I have zero interest in Coca-Cola. So I’ve never spent a moment thinking about how to get inside.

But I am prepared this evening to unlock the vault and reveal the secret of the so-called Israel lobby and its success in the United States.

The truth may come as a disappointment to some. It is quite different – and far less splashy – than the image conjured by the speakers here last month, who seem to revel in the image of intellectual martyrdom and victimization that they create.

They portray themselves as targets of a powerful machine that wishes to silence them. If that’s the case, then the machine has done its job rather poorly.

Professors Walt and Mearsheimer have had their names in every major American newspaper. Their book has been published by a major American publishing house. They’ve given speeches all across the country and around the world, and have become minor international celebrities.

This invented victimization is even more exaggerated in the case of Jimmy Carter, whose work as a former president I generally respect. President Carter was given virtually every media platform in America to promote his book. And each time, he claimed that debate on the Middle East was being silenced, even as he discussed – guess what? – the Middle East.

The reality is the opposite. When he was invited to debate at two major American universities – Brandeis and Emory – former President Carter refused. He would only appear if his views were unchallenged, and he insisted, we are told, that questions from the audience be screened beforehand.

So much for the vaunted power of the Israel lobby to silence its critics. Then how can we explain this?

Here is the secret: There is no single Israel lobby.

There are several Israel lobbies. And they spend as much time fighting with each other as seeking to make their case in the halls of power.

This should come as no surprise.

For one thing, this diversity of views reflects the broader diversity one finds in Israel, in its multitude of political parties, debates in the media, and discussions in the Knesset. Israel’s parliament has 18 parties represented in only 120 seats.

For another, it reflects Jewish nature. It’s no secret that Jews make an art form out of argument and disagreement. And Jews viscerally reject notions of hierarchy. They say: Who is that individual or that organization to tell me how I should think?

I’ve spent a lifetime in Jewish communal politics. And like anyone else who has done so, I bear the scars of internal disagreement. On a daily basis, as a centrist organization, the American Jewish Committee contends with Jewish groups on our left and right in the Middle East debate.

The existence of so many pro-Israel lobbies exists brings me to my second point. The right to lobby – the right to petition the government – is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The authors acknowledge this, and they defend the right to lobby. But they still end up casting aspersions on the so-called Israel lobby in particular.

I know that for some in Europe the word “lobby” has negative implications, and, let’s be frank, especially when it’s joined with the words “Jewish” or “Israel.”

But in the U.S., the word “lobby” is anything but pejorative. Lobbying has been a feature of American life for a very long time. Perhaps the best observer ever of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted this 170 years ago in his magisterial Democracy in America. He said that Americans tended to form “voluntary associations,” coming together in groups to advance a common purpose.

Today, just about every racial, religious, ethnic, business, agricultural, trade union and other group does so – and often vigorously. Lobbying is the name of the game, and the object of the game is to prevail.

There is nothing wrong with that, so long as it is within the letter of the law. In the realm of foreign policy, there are many non-governmental actors in the U.S., including, yes, the pro-Israel community.

There is also a powerful Armenian community, a Cuban community, a Greek community, an Irish community, etc.

And yes, there is an Arab lobby (or, in reality, several), even though the authors put this term in quotation marks in their book, as if to call into question whether it really exists. Indeed, it does exist and its goal is to re-orient U.S. foreign policy away from its close ties with Israel.

Maybe next time someone should write a book about the Saudi lobby, perhaps the most powerful interest group of all in the realm of foreign policy actors.

With an impressive arsenal of former American diplomats, members of Congress, academics, paid lobbyists on Washington’s K Street corridor, and businessmen singing the praises of Saudi Arabia and Saudi-U.S. relations, and with tens of millions of dollars flowing from Saudi donors to prestigious American universities like Harvard and Georgetown, the Saudi lobby wields considerable influence.

Each interest group seeks to leave an imprint on American foreign policy. Each has the right to do so. No one should begrudge the other’s right to try. And no one should cast aspersions on those who succeed-again, as long as they play by the rules.

Incidentally, lobbying is not unique to the U.S., of course. It exists in Europe. Recently, the European Commission began an effort to voluntarily register the thousands of lobbying groups that have emerged in Brussels, all of whom seek to influence EU policy in one direction or another. In democracies, lobbies debate national priorities.

And this leads me to the third point, the national interest. The authors make the argument that the so-called Israel lobby has diverted U.S. foreign policy from the country’s national interest. Really?

Who decides what exactly is the American national interest? Is it to be left to a self-selected group of academics to make that determination, assuming they can reach agreement among themselves?

If a majority of the American people and their elected officials determine that U.S. support for Israel is warranted and welcome, then shouldn’t this definition of the national interest at least be given serious consideration, rather than summarily rejected?

There is a certain, forgive me, arrogance or conceit in ascribing to oneself the job of defining the national interest, and in dismissing the views of others – the majority – as uninformed, parochial or short-sighted.

Recently, a fierce debate arose in Washington and elsewhere over a proposed congressional resolution labeling the killing of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey between 1915 and 1923 as genocide. The debate pitted Armenians and their supporters against Turkey and its supporters. A similar debate occurred not too long ago in France, when the National Assembly took up a similar issue.

Whatever side of the argument you happen to choose, it is fair to say that one could make a case that one’s position aligns with the national interest.

Similarly, let’s look at Germany.

Clearly, there is more than one view as to what ought to be the national interest regarding China, as was revealed in the debate over the visit of the Dalai Lama. Or, regarding policy towards Russia.

In both of those cases, it essentially comes down to whether the national interest, above all, is principally defined by status quo and economic interests – what’s good for the German economy and its export-focused industries is good for Germany – or, if you will, by values interests – democracy and human rights are the principal drivers of the national interest.

So what do Americans think is in their national interest?

This is the fourth point. The authors of The Israel Lobby inexplicably overlook the key to the success of the pro-Israel community in the United States: The vast majority of Americans believe in the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

This stark and simple fact has been confirmed time and time again, in poll after poll, over many years and against the backdrop of many different situations in the Middle East.

Americans identify with Israel. They identify with its democratic institutions. They identify with its struggle for survival. They identify with its friendship for the U.S. They identify with its battle against terrorism. They identify with its pioneering, can-do spirit. They identify with its immigrant-and refugee-based culture. And they identify with its protection of the Holy Land.

Consider the case of President George W. Bush. Other than African-Americans, no other identifiable racial, religious, or ethnic group voted against President Bush as heavily as Jews did.

Only 19 percent of American Jews supported him in 2000. Only 24 percent supported his re-election- despite the fact that he is perhaps the most pro-Israel president in American history. And, reportedly, only 12 percent of Jews voted Republican in the 2006 congressional elections.

Clearly, the Jewish vote and the so-called lobby were not the deciding factor in George Bush’s outlook on Israel and the Middle East. Far more important are his own sense of right and wrong, friend and foe, and his own religious beliefs and historical perspective.

In fact, Jewish history and the Hebrew Bible have always had a special resonance in American history. Many early Americans saw themselves as living out the narrative of the children of Israel reaching the Promised Land.

The first European immigrants spoke of building the new Jerusalem, the shining “city on a hill.” Thomas Jefferson, joined by other leaders like Benjamin Franklin, proposed a national seal that would depict the exodus from Egypt on one side.

If you go to Philadelphia and visit the Liberty Bell, the symbol of American freedom, you’ll see that the inscription on it reads: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Where does that come from? Leviticus – the Hebrew Bible.

This identification with the Jewish people also shaped President Harry Truman’s decision to support the new State of Israel – against the wishes of his own Secretary of State, George Marshall.

When the U.S. became the first country to recognize Israel, Truman said, “I am Cyrus! I am Cyrus!” He saw himself as the Persian emperor who let the Jews return home from exile. And to explain his views, Truman cited his favorite psalm, Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

If most Americans didn’t still identify with Israel, they could change American policy.

A majority of the members of the U.S. Senate come from states where there are a combined total of 175,000 Jews – 0.33 percent of these states’ total population. Even if they were motivated and in agreement, could such an insignificant group – 1 in 300 – truly wield such influence if they didn’t enjoy much broader support?

Consider another fact. In August 2007, a national poll revealed that Americans ranked Israel as our country’s fourth closest ally, after Britain, Canada and Australia. (And, incidentally, ahead of Germany.)

This may be difficult for self-proclaimed practitioners of the “realist” school of international relations to grasp. After all, they see a sea of 22 Arab countries, hundreds of millions of residents, energy sources, export markets, and, behind it all, a vast arc of the Muslim world.

Under these circumstances, why should Israel count at all? If it’s to be a zero-sum game, then the answer should be obvious, shouldn’t it?

But in reality, it’s not a zero-sum game. The U.S. enjoys strong ties with a range of Arab and other Muslim-majority countries, and has always sought to juggle its ties with Israel and its links with other countries.

And the U.S., to its credit, sees Israel not as a liability, but an asset-a democratic, pluralistic nation, friendly to the U.S. and dependable as an ally, in a region vital to American interests.

And here is my last point.

The authors of The Israel Lobby misread the Middle East map and mindset.

Bin Laden would have masterminded the September 11 attacks even had Israel not existed or had the U.S. been estranged from it. His world view goes far beyond Israel, as has repeatedly been shown. To reduce his Weltanschaung to Israel is to reveal a lack of understanding of his theology and eschatology.

And even if Bin Laden were singlemindedly obsessed with Israel, would that be reason enough to call on the U.S. to succumb to political blackmail and abandon Israel in order to appease him? Because that’s what it would be: blackmail.

The war in Iraq was a decision of the Bush Administration, made from the very top. To suggest otherwise implies that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Tenet and the others involved in the fateful choice were mere puppets of fiendish Jewish minds.

This, unfortunately, does have a resonance with a history of alleged Jewish conspiracies plotting to undo nations from within. The authors repeatedly state that they are not anti-Semitic, nor are they anti-Zionist. I take them at their word. It is not useful to question their motives.

But their argument itself cannot help but evoke memories of books like the notorious tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And so, too, does the cover of the book’s German edition, which continues a tradition of ugly images that replace the stars on the American flag with Stars of David.

History shows the tremendous damage inflicted by words and images like these. I accept the authors’ assertion that their motives are pure, but their claims nonetheless stir troubling echoes. It reminds me of the description coined by former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, who famously commented that a divestment campaign against Israel was “anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent.”

Instead of perpetuating old myths, let’s face the real facts.

Were there Jews in government in support of an Iraq invasion? Yes, there were. Were they acting as Jews in voicing their support? Difficult, if not impossible, to tell, though I would strongly argue that they were acting in their capacity as U.S. officials.

Were there Jews opposed to the invasion? Yes, there were many. In fact, according to polls taken before and after the invasion, Jews opposed the war in greater proportions than other Americans. A new poll released just last week by AJC confirms the same. You can see the numbers on the AJC website.

Was Israel involved in pushing the U.S. to war, as some have alleged? There is no evidence to support this assertion. Indeed, in my contacts with Israeli leaders going back to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, it was clear that Iran, not Iraq, preoccupied Israeli decision-makers.

Iraq was an enemy, yes, in its professed hatred for Israel, support for radical groups, and financial assistance to the families of suicide bombers. But, unlike Iran, it was not seen as a potentially existential threat to Israel.

And, pray tell, was Prime Minister Tony Blair also pushed to go to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by the same Israel lobby? That would be even harder to believe than the American case.

Maybe – just maybe – there is another explanation. Indeed, there is. And this brings us to the contention that Israel is not in danger, and that this argument of the pro-Israel community should therefore be discounted.

Israel is in danger. That ought to be obvious. I take no comfort from the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. As long as Iran enriches uranium and builds missiles, may be hiding nuclear-related facilities, and expresses the desire for a world without Israel, the danger, as I said, should be obvious.

History ought to have taught us to take demagogues at their word. Failure to do so cost us dearly. We cannot allow another incapacity for imagination.

And Israel is also faced with dangers closer to its borders, including a rump state, Gaza, whose leadership seeks not to build its own nation, but to destroy a neighboring one, Israel.

Have we become so inured, so anesthetized to the language of hatred and incitement coming from Gaza, so accustomed to the daily barrage of rocket and mortar attacks hitting Sderot and other towns in southern Israel, that our judgment of reality has become clouded?

And while I hope and pray that the post-Annapolis environment will lead to a breakthrough in talks between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, I am under no illusion about the wide gap between the two sides. There are many minefields along the way, and Israel will be asked to take risks for peace that no other nation I know – and most assuredly no nation victorious on the battlefield against enemies who sought its destruction – has ever been asked to take.

Many will say that it’s all about the settlements, that the burden to advance the process lies entirely on Israel. I agree that the settlements pose a significant challenge for peacemakers, but the core issue of the conflict, which began long before Israel came into possession of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war, remains the same.

Is the Arab world ready, at long last, to truly accept the presence of a non-Arab, non-Muslim state – whatever the final borders – in its midst?

The Saudi/Arab League initiative offers a glimmer of light, but there is more that needs to be said and done.

We see many maps showing the Israeli presence in the West Bank. But where are the other maps? Where is the map that shows what Israel would look like if it withdrew to the 1949 Armistice Lines, leaving its main international airport and principal population centers as easily reached by rocket and mortar attacks as Sderot is today?

And where is the map of Israel, two-thirds the size of tiny Belgium, dwarfed by its neighbors? Look at a larger map of the Middle East: Israel, which is one percent the size of Saudi Arabia and two percent the size of Egypt, can barely be found.

I proudly participate in the pro-Israel movement in the United States.

I do so because I believe there is a unique relationship, established over 3,000 years ago, between a people, a land, a faith, a language and a vision.

I do so because that link is unique in the annals of history.

I do so because I believe that Israel has a right to exist in secure and recognized boundaries.

I do so because I believe Israel’s right to exist has not yet been assured, and that the dangers to the state are clear and present.

I do so because I believe that Israel has already demonstrated its capacity to advance the frontiers of human knowledge and has so much more to offer the world, including its neighbors.

I do so because I believe the link between the United States and Israel is vital for Israel’s security and, no less, for its pursuit of genuine peace.

I do so because I believe there is no substitute for the role of the United States in the life of Israel, and I will do my utmost to confront those who would seek to drive a wedge between Washington and Jerusalem.

I do so because I believe that democracies need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with one another in common purpose and common defense.

I do so because I cannot accept, sixty years after the Holocaust, that some six million Israelis live in danger, targeted by those who openly declare their desire to drive the Jews into the sea.

And I do so because I believe I am expressing the highest democratic and aspirational values of the United States when I express my support for Israel.

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