Taking Sides: Israel and the lobby against the US

by John Mearsheimer

In the wake of Vice President Joe Biden’s ill-fated trip to Israel last week, many people would agree with the Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s remark that ‘Israel’s ties with the United States are in their worst crisis since 1975… a crisis of historic proportions.’ Like all crises, this one will eventually go away. However, this bitter fight has disturbing implications for Israelis and their American supporters.

First, the events of the past week make it clear in ways that we have not seen in the past that Israel is a strategic liability for the United States, not the strategic asset that the Israel lobby has long claimed it was. Specifically, the Obama administration has unambiguously declared that Israel’s expansionist policies in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, are doing serious damage to US interests in the region. Indeed, Biden reportedly told the Israeli prime minister, Binyahim Netanyahu, in private:

This is starting to get dangerous for us. What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace.

If that message begins to resonate with the American public, unconditional support for the Jewish state is likely to evaporate.

Right after Biden’s remarks were reported by the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Mark Perry, a Middle East expert with excellent contacts in the US military, described a briefing that senior officers working directly for General David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, gave on 16 January to Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The central message Petraeus sent to Mullen, according to Perry, was that ‘Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardising US standing in the region… and could cost American lives.’ Apparently, Mullen took this message to the White House, where it had a significant impact on the president and his chief advisers. Biden’s comments to Netanyahu appear to reflect that view.

Israel’s supporters in the United States have long defended the special relationship between the two countries on the grounds that their interests are virtually the same and therefore it makes sense to back Israel no matter what policies it adopts. Recent events show that claim to be false, however, which will make it hard to defend the special relationship, especially if it is putting American soldiers at risk.

Second, the Obama administration has gone beyond simply expressing anger over the 1600 housing units that Israel announced it would build in East Jerusalem just after Biden landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. According to press reports that have not been challenged, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has demanded that Netanyahu reverse his government’s decision approving that construction. This demand is unprecedented; the United States has often complained about settlement building, and Obama asked Israel to freeze temporarily the construction of new settlements in 2009, but it has never asked Israel to reverse a building plan that the government has already approved.

Israel will surely fight tooth and nail against Clinton’s demand, and so will the main groups in the lobby. The Netanyahu government is filled with hard-line opponents of a two-state solution, many of whom also believe that East Jerusalem is an integral part of Israel, and it is hard to see how Netanyahu’s coalition could survive if he agreed not to build those 1600 housing units. Yet Obama has powerful incentives to stand his ground as well. After all, he backed down last year when Netanyahu refused his request that Israel completely freeze settlement building in all of the Occupied Territories – including East Jerusalem – and that act of spinelessness has cost him dearly in the Arab and Islamic world. More important, we now know that the president and his lieutenants believe that new construction in East Jerusalem threatens American lives, which makes it even harder to see how he could back down without suffering political damage.

Still, it is hard to imagine the Obama administration engaging in a serious fight with Israel over the fate of those 1600 housing units, given that the lobby wields extraordinary influence inside the Beltway. The president is also not inclined by temperament to engage in public brawls and he has so many other problems on his plate that he surely does not want to get bogged down in a costly fight with Israel and its American supporters. In the end, there is likely to be a rather muted, protracted dispute between the two sides over those housing units and the many others that the Netanyahu government plans to build in East Jerusalem. This ongoing conflict will be a constant reminder to Americans that Israel and the United States have conflicting interests on a very important issue.

The third reason that this crisis is so troublesome for Israel and the lobby is that it forces the latter to choose sides in a public way. There is little doubt that almost all of the mainstream organisations of the lobby will back Israel to the hilt and blame the Obama administration for the crisis. This tendency to defend Israel no matter what it does is reflected in the recent comments of Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League. He issued a press release about the Biden visit in which he said he was ‘shocked and stunned at the administration’s tone and public dressing down of Israel on the issue of future building in Jerusalem’. It was, he said, ‘a gross overreaction to a point of policy difference among friends’. He will have plenty of company in the weeks ahead from his fellow hard-liners in the lobby, who will not miss an opportunity to defend Israel and lambast Obama and his advisers.

Siding with Israel against the United States was not a great problem a few years ago: one could pretend that the interests of the two countries were the same and there was little knowledge in the broader public about how the Israel lobby operated and how much it influenced the making of US Middle East policy. But those days are gone, probably for ever. It is now commonplace to talk about the lobby in the mainstream media and almost everyone who pays serious attention to American foreign policy understands – thanks mainly to the internet – that the lobby is an especially powerful interest group.

Therefore, it will be difficult to disguise the fact that most pro-Israel groups are siding with Israel against the US president, and defending policies that respected military leaders now openly question. This is an awful situation for the lobby to find itself in, because it raises legitimate questions about whether it has the best interests of the United States at heart or whether it cares more about Israel’s interests. Again, this matters more than ever, because key figures in the administration have let it be known that Israel is acting in ways that at best complicate US diplomacy, and at worst could get Americans killed.

The crisis will undoubtedly simmer down over the next few weeks. We are already hearing lots of reassuring rhetoric from the administration and Capitol Hill about ‘shared values’, ‘unbreakable bonds’ and the other supposed virtues of the special relationship. And the lobby is hard at work downplaying the importance of the crisis. For example, Congressman Gary Ackerman, a fervent supporter of Israel, described recent events as a ‘mini-crisis, if even that’. Michael Oren is now denying – rather late in the game I might add – that he ever said that relations between Israel and the United States are at a 35-year low. He claims to have been ‘flagrantly misquoted’. And to show how Orwellian the lobby can be, Israel’s supporters are also trying to make the case that Biden too was flagrantly misquoted and indeed, he never told Netanyahu that Israel’s policies were putting American troops at risk.

This concerted effort to rewrite history and generate lots of happy talk about the special relationship will surely help ameliorate the present crisis, but that will only be a temporary fix. There will be more crises ahead, because a two-state solution is probably impossible at this point and ‘greater Israel’ is going to end up an apartheid state. The United States cannot support that outcome, however, partly for the strategic reasons that have been exposed by the present crisis, but also because apartheid is a morally reprehensible system that no decent American could openly embrace. Given its core values, how could the United States sustain a special relationship with an apartheid state? In short, America’s remarkably close relationship with Israel is now in trouble and this situation will only get worse.

John Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the co-author of the bestselling The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, and one of PULSE’s 20 Top Global Thinkers of 2009.

First published on the London Review Blog, this piece appears here by the author’s permission.

Related post:
Petraeus: Israel is putting American lives at risk (updated)

24 thoughts on “Taking Sides: Israel and the lobby against the US”

  1. Wrong headed as they may be, whether Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Jerusalem are putting American soldiers in Iraq at risk is a very debatable point. Some would argue that the Middle East is an unstable region with many actors there finding it convenient to play the Israel card. Remember a desperate Saddam firing Scud missiles in the general direction of Israel as his army fled Kuwait with all the plunder it could carry.

    What about the US military leaving Iraq instead of building huge installations if it is so concerned about risks? Don’t hold your breath. And don’t hold it waiting for Mearsheimer or other lackeys of Big Oil to write objectively on these issues.

    1. US won’t be in Iraq if it weren’t for the Israel lobby. What has big oil got to do with this?

      P.s. this pathetic zionist tactic of defaming and slandering critics of Israel is getting tedious. Try something new.

      1. *** P.s. this pathetic zionist tactic of defaming and slandering critics of Israel is getting tedious. Try something new. ***

        Yeah, no shit.

      2. Though few saw it at the time, Desert Storm was the first indication that the U.S. military had become an oil protection force. Then the al-Saud family made terms with al-Queda which agreed to cease its attacks within the Kingdom. In exchange, the US military was politely ordered out of “the Land of the Two Mosques” with some muttering about the Israel-Palestine issue as a diplomatic fig leaf.

        With no possibility of basing troops and equipment in Saudi Arabia any more Iraq was chosen as a replacement, which it remains.

        Speaking of Desert Storm, when Saddam invaded and occupied Kuwait there was wild celebration by Palestinians all over the Middle East. That didn’t help their cause in the USA or any other country that joined the coalition. The al-Sabah family was soon back on the throne and the thousands of Palestinians who had been working in Kuwait were thrown out. Not so politely.

        1. That has got to be the most ludicrous assessment of developments in the Middle East that I’ve seen yet. So US leaves strategic energey resources when ‘politely ordered’, but at the same time invades others invades others for the same privileges?

          Once again, do facts matter? Is that why the military was given a 90 day action plan? Who made this decision? Where is the evidenc? Where did the military stand on this? What was the State department’s position? Why did US, with all its military presence in Iraq, stand by and watch when the Maliki government handed all major contracts to the Norwegians, Russians, Chinese and the French?

          Sorry, conjecture won’t do. Present facts.

          1. Here are your facts, courtesy American Friends Service Committee:

            http://www.fcnl.org/iraq/bases_text.htm.

            If the host government orders the US military out, it leaves. It’s not the Red Army.

            Big Oil is a cartel, responsible to no government (except the Chinese, a real fly in the yogurt). The important thing is that the oil **keeps flowing** to the West.

            Who did you say was getting the concession from the Mosul oil fields, in the Kurdish Autonomous Region?

  2. Mearsheimer is optimistic. If single payer option came down as “killing gran’ma” what will the Israel-Palestine Conflict and its “complexities” come down to. I can see Glen Beck linking Obama with Khamenei on his chalk board, or something like that.

    Honestly I don’t think US public understanding of the conflict is somewhere near to where Mearsheimer thinks it is.

    This is a win-win situation for Israel. At best, they push more Republicans – specially the ones eager to “bomb Iran” – into Congress in the mid-term’s. Things come to worst, Obama’s administration will have to play it down – already underway – to avoid the best case scenario for the Israelis. Anyway, Israel will push on with their colonial project.And those 1600 outposts will be built.

    I hope I am wrong. But I really don’t see any hints of a greater enlightenment of American public opinion capable of jeopardizing the “special relationship”.

    1. All this is predicated on the notion that US style democracy is determined on the streets , or ballot box.This is where the Marxist analysts , and the Left in general is out of touch.

      Power is the privitised democracy that is the US is determined in the lobby operations in the corridors of power.So while the Centre right is entering that arena to mix it up with the Israel lobby which was previously the in a race with only 2 horses ( the lobby itself and J-street) we now have the Centre right entering the arena in an evolving and , in future, competitively resourced manner.

      So while the real battle is going on in the lobby corridors the left are still arguing which each other using a 19th century analytical template which was designed to understand and effect change in the dynamics of Germany to explain 21st Century USA.

  3. “There will be more crises ahead, because a two-state solution is probably impossible at this point and ‘greater Israel’ is going to end up an apartheid state. The United States cannot support that outcome,”

    But why cannot America support that outcome?

    You answer here:

    “…partly for the strategic reasons that have been exposed by the present crisis, but also because apartheid is a morally reprehensible system that no decent American could openly embrace.”

    I see, because of your assumption of the inviolate moral legitimacy of liberalism. The assumption, which entails the equal innate capabilities of all individuals and peoples, is, to put it bluntly, delusional. Liberalism cannot brook the observation that to equally enfranchise and grant access to people(s) of inferior quality to all the privileges of superior people(s) is to injure the latter. Would you be willing to live in the slums of Detroit or allow a few bums to move into your home? Of course you wouldn’t, and therein lies the rub.

  4. This is a hoax for the purpose of allowing Israel to distance itself from the US for the strike on Iran.

  5. Concur with the opinion of John Hendricks above.

    A lone jewish air attack,be it with tactical WMD or bombers flying precisely over traitorous muslin/arabic nations,proceeding probably from southern to northern Iranian territory,has the highest likelihood of happening.

    USA involvement will be contained by a UN truce before Iranian countermeasures provoke serious scalation and unpredicted(or not quite so) widespread war.

    US military presence in the Gulf if for an unforeseen failure to obtain a truce.

    Don’t you remember whom is General David Petraeus?

    Can you rely on Admiral Mullen?

    Please give me a break!

  6. Alas,the great unwashed in the West still have not the slightest inkling of the apocalyptic threat that organized Jewry presents to mankind.It may already be too late to prevent a catastrophe of unseen proportions for which the Zionists in Israel and in their colonies,particularily the US,have already set the stage.

  7. I believe the awareness that Israel is a strategic liability (and otherwise) for the United States began with the people and that the White House and the Pentagon have been slow on the uptake. I hope so. That will make it harder for the politicians to continue to mislead us.

    Cut off the money! Cut off the hands and heads of spies and sayanim!

  8. Israel’s Jim Crowe laws and aggressive expansionist policies prove the assertion that zionism is indeed racism.I am tired of being subjected to paying my taxes in support of this. I am tired of AIPAC subverting our domestic political process. AIPAC and it’s supporters are the modern equvalent of the GermanAmerican Bund, only far more powerful and destructive.

  9. Seven million Jews, hundreds of million Arabs. Think it through, Israel, and make peace with your neighbors. You can’t have all of Palestine, that’s just the way it is…

  10. Most Americans are still in the dark when it comes to the massive power of the pro-Israel Lobby. In reality, the United States is no longer a stand-alone sovereign nation as it has been replaced by the “US-Israel Empire.” Being a good American now means that you must wrap yourself in the flag of Israel along with the Stars and Stripes. And, you’re often called an unpatriotic American if you don’t believe in the “unconditional” support of Israel.

    Don’t believe that the US has been replaced by the US-Israel Empire? Just travel to any foreign nation and ask the following question: What best describes modern day America? Answer 1) The United States. Answer 2) The US-Israel Empire. I can guarantee you that over 80% of those asked will say that the US-Israel Empire best describes today’s America. When the US Congress allowed Israel to become “America’s overlord” freedom died. USA, RIP…….

    1. you are absolutely right. contact your elected officials and put massive pressure on them to change their treasonous behavior!

  11. apartheid israel will fall, just as white south africa fell in the 1990s. its just a matter of time and everyone knows it.

    our US congress is totally corrupt and treasonous when it comes to the israel lobby. obama genuinely wants to move the peace process forward, however the israeli-occupied US congress is trying to stop him.

    wake up american people and take your country back!

  12. The most powerful man in the world! Obama is a wimp, to be sure he is up against a formidable opposition, ( Israeli Lobby ). but he holds the reigns and he could force the Lobby and Israeli hands in a no holds Barred fight thereby showing the American public the treasonous behavour of the Zionist Maffia. Obama get some spine and do what is best for the USA, the trolls in your party will in the end back you. At the moment the US looks like a LACKY for the LIKUD.

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