Unscholarly Scholars: Mearsheimer, Walt, and “The Israel Lobby”

By Peter Berkowitz

Tel Aviv

March 26, 2006


[This essay was originally prepared for an Israeli newspaper but never made its way into print.]



In the March 23 issue of the prestigious London Review of Books, John J. Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Stephen M. Walt, professor of international affairs and academic dean at Harvard=s Kennedy School of Government, published AThe Israel Lobby.@  Their lengthy essay argues that a loose group of formal lobbyists, op-ed columnists, magazine editors, think tanks, wealthy Jews, and Jews in the Bush administration hijacked American foreign policy and brainwashed the American public and political leadership alike.  The Israel lobby, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, has generated Aunwavering support for Israel@ in the United States that cannot be explained in terms of Ashared strategic interests or compelling moral narratives.@


The Mearsheimer and Walt essay is an edited and revised version of a scholarly working paper larded with footnotes but otherwise in all essentials the same and posted at the Kennedy School=s Harvard website.  In the US, the paper has provoked a storm of controversy, further stirred up by the enthusiastic endorsement it received from David Duke, former Ku Klux Klan leader and America=s best known white supremacist.  Here in Israel, AThe Israel Lobby@ has been embraced by some on the Left as, despite its excesses here and there, a revealing diagnosis of the dangerous influence in America of Jewish neoconservatives and Christian evangelicals, and as an indictment of those supporters of Israel in the US who defended occupation or oppose or are dragging their feet on disengagement.


Yet of the shockingly poor quality of the distinguished professors= analysis there can be little doubt.


Although they assert in their Kennedy School research paper that Athe facts recounted here are not in serious dispute among scholars,@ the professors= analysis has unleashed an army of commentators that in short order exposed the myriad half-truths, gross distortions, ignorant assertions, and defective reasoning out of which Mearsheimer and Walt wove their argument.


It=s not that critics doubt that the Israel lobby in the US has been forceful and effective, but rather, and contrary to the professors= contentions, the critics show that a key reason for the lobby=s success is that the alliance between Israel, the Middle East=s only liberal democracy, and the United States is reasonably grounded in both shared national security interests and justice.


Naturally, speculation is rife about Mearhseimer=s and Walt=s intentions in putting such shoddy work on so explosive a topic before English intellectuals and American university professors already predisposed to believe the worst about the Bush administration and its Jewish neoconservative allies.  Perhaps more significant, however, is what their analysis reveals about the intellectual standards of the ostensibly respectable London Review of Books.  And what the professors= work says about certain segments of the discipline of American political science at America=s leading universities.


            Three examples of the professors= systematic misrepresentation of the facts and the issues must suffice.  First, Mearsheimer and Walt observe that, ASince the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing that given to any other state.@  Indeed, as they assert, “Israel receives about “$3 billion in direct assistance each year.”  But this can hardly be said to Adwarf@ the annual average of over $2 billion in economic and military foreign assistance since 1979 that the US has given to EgyptBwhich for some reason Mearsheimer and Walt fail to mention.  Or, for that matter, the almost $1 billion that the US transferred to the Palestinian Authority in the last year of Yasser Arafat=s presidency, about which the professors are also strangely silent.


Second, Mearsheimer and Walt maintain that while the Israel lobby disseminates the myth that Israel is a ADavid confronted by Goliath,@ the truth is more nearly the reverse.  To so maintain, the professors must tendentiously argue that, AContrary to popular belief, the Zionists had larger, better equipped and better led forces during the 1947-49 War of Independence.@  In fact, when the five Arab armies, backed by others, invaded the fledgling state of Israel after the Arabs rejected the U.N. partition plan, the Israeli fighters, hardly more than citizen militias at the time, were numerically larger but they possessed considerably less equipment.


Mearsheimer and Walt also misleadingly refer to Israel=s Aquick and easy@ victory in 1967.  Such a characterization must ignore the grave danger posed by Nasser=s closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping in May; his expulsion of U.N. soldiers from, and deployment of his own troops in, Sinai; his forming of a military alliance with Syria and Jordan; the mobilization of troops by Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan, and Algeria; and Israel=s daring preemptive air strike on the Egyptian air force which saved the day.  Mearsheimer and Walt must also omit to mention the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria on Israel on Yom Kippur 1973, which, but for the last-minute airlift by the United States, would have resulted in the complete collapse of the Israeli armed forces.  And although Israel=s conventional forces are today, as the professors indicate, stronger than those of any other single state in the regime, Mearsheimer and Walt must overlook the threat posed by the simmering domestic tensions in all of Israel=s neighbors, none of which are democratic, and must obscure the larger picture in which Israel is a single Jewish state of 6 million surrounded by 300 million Muslim Arabs in numerous states.


Third, Mearsheimer and Walt declare that Israel does not deserve special consideration from the US as a fellow democracy, because, Aunlike the US, where people are supposed to enjoy equal rights irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity, Israel was explicitly founded as a Jewish state and citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship.@  In fact, while Israel was founded as a Jewish state it was also founded as a democratic and liberal state, dedicated, according to the promise of its Declaration of Independence, to Athe benefit of all its inhabitants@ and committed to the Acomplete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.@  It is in part because of that promise, despite the many imperfections of Israel=s practice inside its borders and beyond them in the West Bank and Gaza, that the freest Arab Muslims in the Middle East are the Arab citizens of Israel.


Although they don=t mention it, both Mearsheimer and Walt are leading proponents of a school of international relations theory called realism, which assumes that all states seek to maximize power, and that domestic affairs do not significantly influence a state=s foreign policy, which in the end is driven by the cold logic of national interest.  Except, it seems, in the case of the Israel lobby=s pernicious influence over American foreign policy.


Amazingly, the professors have managed to produce a high profile analysis of international relations that both contradicts the theory to which they have devoted their professional lives and which, at the same time, suggests, among other things, that prolonged exposure to that theory robs one the historical, cultural, and strategic understanding necessary to grasp the intricacies of Middle East politics.


Peter Berkowitz teaches at George Mason University School of Law and is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at Stanford=s Hoover Institution.  His writings are posted at PeterBerkowitz.com.