Friday, April 07, 2006

Mearsheimer and Walt versus Aaronovitch on the Israel Lobby

The issue of Zionist influence on US foreign policy is back in the spotlight, thanks to a recent controversial essay by two top level American academics in The London Review of Books.

I’ve just read The Israel Lobby, by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. I have to say I found it academically rigorous, fair minded, and way, way beyond any suspicion of anti-Jewish racism. This is patently not the work of two Protocols of the Elders of Zion-quoting fringe far right nut jobs.

The piece is essential reading, but if you want a taster, this paragraph probably puts their stance in summary:

‘ … the thrust of US policy in the [Middle East] region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.’

Mearsheimer and Walt go to some length to spell out the factual reasoning behind this claim, detailing at length the activities of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.

And later:

‘Critics are also accused of holding Israel to an unfair standard or questioning its right to exist. But these are bogus charges too. Western critics of Israel hardly ever question its right to exist: they question its behaviour towards the Palestinians, as do Israelis themselves. Nor is Israel being judged unfairly. Israeli treatment of the Palestinians elicits criticism because it is contrary to widely accepted notions of human rights, to international law and to the principle of national self-determination. And it is hardly the only state that has faced sharp criticism on these grounds.’

The authors are not leftists, by any means. But surely few leftists would gainsay such an approach? One who would is former communist David Aaronovitch. You can read his contribution to the debate here.

The headline hints at the standard 'any criticism of Israel = anti-semitic conspiracy theory' argument. But hey, let's blame the sub-editors on that one, right?

Yet Aaronovitch's intro - which essentially boils down to taking the piss out of the titles of the professorships of Mearsheimer and Walt - strikes me as particularly weak.

Until somebody invents a big swinging dick-o-meter, there is no way of knowing whether or not elite academic posts at top US universities are more or less prestigious than, say, being a columnist on a Murdoch newspaper. But Mearsheimer in particular is one of the top names in international relations as a discipline. Aaronovitch really needs to do better than dissing him for obscurity.

Aaronovitch’s conclusion is equally unsatisfactory:

‘The problem with the Professors Mearsheimer and Walt is not that their arguments are silly or exaggerated, though many of them are. In a way I sympathise with their desire for redress, since there has been a cock-eyed failure in the US to understand the plight of the Palestinians. No, it’s what pornographers would call their “money-shot” that really offends. For, breaking into polemic, the professors finally claim that if the Lobby succeeds: “Israel will get a free hand with the Palestinians, and the US will do most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding and paying.” Not the Jews.’

First, I don’t think Aaronovitch’s piece demonstrates the silly or exaggerated character of any part of the Mearsheimer/Walt case. Second, I’m not really sure what ‘really offends’ about the money shot. Mearsheimer and Walt are proponent of the so-called realist school of international relations. they accords primacy to what they see as the US national interest. By those lights, theirs is a legitimate critique. More explanation required, methinks.

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