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Finkelstein on the Israel Lobby

June 13, 2013

[Note: This essay was originally to appear earlier this year in an online roundtable discussion of political scientist Norman Finkelstein's book Knowing Too Much. Hosted by the New Left Project, the invited contributors were to submit pieces addressing various aspects of the book, with Finkelstein replying to all in a single essay; Harms was asked to discuss those parts of the book examining the Israel lobby issue. However, the roundtable was cancelled due to scheduling complications. The piece has been self-published in hopes that readers will still find it informative, regardless of being presented out of context.]

In this essay for the New Left Project's roundtable on Norman Finkelstein's new book, Knowing Too Much, I undertake three objectives: review the basics of the Israel lobby controversy, locate Finkelstein within the controversy, and then, if to a slight degree, revise Finkelstein's position on the lobby's influence on the Palestine-Israel conflict.

The Lobby Controversy: Background

Not long after Israel declared its independence in 1948, a formal lobbying movement began slowly developing in Washington, DC. In the 1950s a 'public affairs boutique' called the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) formed and took up the cause of influencing Capitol Hill to provide ever-increasing support for the Jewish state.

Over the decades, AIPAC has grown significantly, and has been joined by a multitude of different Jewish and Christian organizations, associations, committees, and think tanks all working toward the same basic goal. Collectively they form what we know as the Israel lobby.

In the mid-1980s a few academics and individuals from the world of politics began questioning whether the Israel lobby was becoming too influential, to the point of harming U.S. national interests. They also started calling into question the conventional wisdom that Israel was a "strategic asset."[1]

The discussion would continue throughout the 1990s, but it was in 2006 that the Israel lobby controversy came off the hinges. Two establishment political scientists published a 12,000-word essay entitled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," sending a shockwave across the worlds of academia, the media, and politics. Its authors, John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Harvard University), followed up with a book of the same title the following year.[2]

In brief, the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis states that the lobby is the "principal reason" for the enormous U.S. support for Tel Aviv, "and this uncritical and unconditional relationship is not in the American national interest."[3] They view Israel as a "strategic liability," one that imperils U.S. regional interests by, for example, pushing the United States into Iraq.

After the appearance of the Mearsheimer-Walt essay and book, a torrent of articles and opinion pieces were published in response.[4] The commentary roughly divided into three categories in relation to the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis: strongly critical, moderately critical, and compatible.[5]

Finkelstein and the Moderately Critical

Among the strongly critical were a number of writers who appear in political scientist Norman Finkelstein's new book Knowing Too Much. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz, activist Abraham Foxman, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, historian Benny Morris, and historian-diplomat Michael Oren all took turns harshly condemning Mearsheimer and Walt for criticizing Israel and its relationship with Washington. The pieces were generally agitated, nationalistic, and indicated a concern for ideology over history. In Knowing Too Much, Finkelstein places the work of these individuals - especially Goldberg, Morris, and Oren - under a magnifying glass and makes abundantly clear where their priorities are not.

The moderately critical set took a more sober approach, occasionally making similar criticisms as the strongly critical set (though in a more rational manner), but nonetheless viewing Mearsheimer-Walt as a positive development, as an opportunity to raise the level of public discourse around U.S. policy toward Israel. But the core issue remained. Everyone agreed the Israel lobby is powerful and influential; but is it powerful and influential enough to push the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon around?

The moderate group generally maintained that the Israel lobby does not influence the core regional policies of the executive branch and that, from the perspective of American power, Israel has remained a strategic asset in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 periods. Moreover, some argued that the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis does an unmerited service to the White House by blaming recent aggressive, destructive, foolish Middle Eastern policy decisions on a domestic lobby instead of the real architects of these decades-old policies.

In an article at the time, Finkelstein approached the subject along similar lines.[6] Taking the position that "fundamental U.S. policy in the Middle East hasn't been affected by the Lobby," he reasoned:

The claim that Israel has become a liability for U.S. "national" interests in the Middle East misses the bigger picture. Sometimes what's most obvious escapes the eye. Israel is the only stable and secure base for projecting U.S. power in this region. Every other country the U.S. relies on might, for all anyone knows, fall out of U.S. control tomorrow.

In Knowing Too Much, Finkelstein dedicates the fourth chapter to further examining the lobby issue. As he states,

The analysis of Mearsheimer and Walt, which rests on the premise that Washington's primary objective in the Middle East during the Cold War was checking the Kremlin, overlooks continuities in American foreign policy that straddle the Cold War and the concomitant overlap of U.S. and Israeli strategic aims in the region. (p. 47)

Finkelstein goes on to investigate a number of specific cases presented by Mearsheimer and Walt. For instance, he analyses their contention that Israel's 2006 war with Hizballah was authorized by Washington under lobby pressure, despite the former knowing ahead of time that the mission was "doomed to fail." (p. 51-2) As Finkelstein reveals, Mearsheimer and Walt provide no compelling evidence for their theory.

Another case is the common assertion - one also made by Mearsheimer and Walt - that Harry Truman was easily swayed by pro-Israel lobbying while his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, showed greater resoluteness in 1956 by ordering the Jewish state to evacuate the Sinai Peninsula. The implication here is that Eisenhower represented a high point in U.S. willingness to stand determined in the face of duress. Finkelstein locates both Truman and Eisenhower's decision-making in the framework of realpolitik and appropriately highlights the uniformity of both executives' geostrategic calculations.

Finkelstein devotes significant attention to the Mearsheimer-Walt argument that the Israel lobby coerced the Bush II administration into invading Iraq. Locating the core of their position, he observes that the authors "insinuate that Jewish neoconservatives occupying second-tier positions [in the administration] - had duped Cheney and Rumsfeld." (p. 76) Surveying the chronology of and the policy interests in play during the leading-up to war, and drawing on commonsensical logic and the memoirs of the key players surrounding the president at the time, Finkelstein reveals that Mearsheimer and Walt offer much writing but scant convincing substance to support their Iraq thesis.

Finkelstein's look at the neoconservatives dovetails into a discussion of their championing Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, an area where he maintains lobby influence has played a stronger role.[7] While I agree the Palestine-Israel conflict is where the lobby has likely made a dent, the history seems to indicate a slightly lesser degree of influence than Finkelstein suggests.

The Lobby and Palestine

As mentioned, all parties to the debate over the sources of U.S. policy towards the Middle East conflict agree that the lobby is powerful and influential. And its efforts have certainly discouraged honest public discussion of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. But how much influence has it had on U.S. policy toward Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories? Finkelstein reasons the influence has been significant:

However one configures the elusive notion of "national interest," it is hard to make out how Washington benefits from Israel's occupation and de facto annexation of Palestinian lands, whereas its support of these policies has come at the price of alienating public opinion in the Arab-Muslim world and making itself a likelier target of terrorist attacks. (p. 62)

For Finkelstein, while the United States doesn't seem to derive a benefit from Israel's occupation, neither has it "jeopardized a vital American strategic interest." (p. 65) So the benefits are close to nil, but there is no threat to serious concerns. And because the occupation is less of a priority, the lobby has more leeway to aid Israel in its expansionist agenda in the territories: "If the U.S. has not compelled Israel to terminate the occupation, it is because of the efficacy and ruthlessness of the lobby." (p. 65-6)

Finkelstein underlines the stark reality of the situation: "Washington will not order Tel Aviv to withdraw until and unless the occupation becomes a major liability for it." (p. 66) The lobby, according to Finkelstein, "raise[s] the threshold" of this liability through its impact on public opinion and electoral politics.

However, benefits do accrue to U.S. power on account of Israel's occupation. For one, the United States has over the course of the twentieth century systematically discouraged democracy and self-determination in its foreign policy, globally so after 1945.[8] The fifteen years of almost inconceivable death, destruction, and financial cost of U.S. operations in Indochina testify to this. Finkelstein makes the point: "But if the Palestinians succeed in wringing their rights despite Israel's will, the wrong message will be transmitted to the Arab world, including where the U.S. does have strategic interests." (p. 82)

This "wrong message" is a core doctrinal concern in Washington, referred to, among other labels, as the "rotten apple theory."[9] Small, poor countries and groups might become inspired if another of their kind achieves self-determination and genuine independence. Punishment helps maintain "stability." The situation in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem is of region-wide importance at the popular level, and even resonates globally. If concern for rotting apples spoiling their neighbors in the barrel (Dean Acheson's metaphor) is a matter of policy taken with the utmost seriousness, its goes doubly for the rotten apple par excellence of Palestine.

The occupation also keeps Israel in the mode of militancy. As Finkelstein correctly points out in his 2006 lobby article, "the U.S. doesn't want an Israel truly at peace with the Arabs, for such an Israel could loosen its bonds of dependence on the U.S., making it a less reliable proxy." Militancy is Israel's job. Its dependability in this regard aids U.S. regional strategy as well as bringing handsome, steady profits to American firms involved in weapons production - firms hardly lacking in their own clout on Capitol Hill. The United States continually arms other countries in the region while at the same time maintaining Israel's "qualitative military edge" above its neighbours. "The result", analyst Frida Berrigan observes, "is a regional arms race for which the United States provides virtually all the weapons."[10]

Israel's aggressive reputation also takes some of the heat off the United States, and lowers regional expectations. As Henry Kissinger states in his memoirs,

Israel is dependent on the United States as no other country is on a friendly power ... Israel's obstinacy, maddening as it can be, serves the purposes of both our countries best. A subservient client would soon face an accumulation of ever-growing pressures. It would tempt Israel's neighbors to escalate demands. It would saddle us with the opprobrium for every deadlock.[11]

With the asset of Israeli recalcitrance, Washington can routinely turn to the international community and shrug its shoulders, as if to say, "You know how they are." Moreover, this invites repeated U.S. diplomatic involvement in regional affairs on account of the American president being the sole possessor of influence over the Middle East's junkyard dog.

Similarly, with Israel's general belligerence comes an attendant - and constant - need of diplomatic protection. Since 1970, the United States has used its veto in the UN Security Council a total of 42 times to shield Israel from resolutions condemning its behavior.[12] With this kind of cover from international law, the White House retains significant leverage over its client.

U.S. support for Israel's occupation may well alienate Middle Eastern public opinion and foment possible terrorism. Yet the former has never been much of a worry among policymakers; if it was, Washington would not play the regional role that it does. Likewise, terrorism is deemed an acceptable cost; if it wasn't, Washington would not play the regional role that it does. Terrorism is only taken seriously if it is an immediate threat; otherwise it is viewed in the abstract and chalked up as a manageable risk.

Given these observable patterns and realities, it would appear that the lobby has had much less opportunity to affect U.S. policy than Finkelstein concedes. That the lobby has worked to that end anyway is undeniable. That, as Finkelstein correctly notes, the lobby has endeavored to narrow - or just plain squelch - open public dialogue on Israel's conduct can also not be disputed. And if this is the area where the lobby has made its mark, then as Finkelstein also correctly concludes, this is where it is most insecure. The facts continue to receive more light, and as they do, people will continue to draw the appropriate conclusions. Finkelstein's new book adds to the list of reasons why the lobby should be nervous.


[1] Writers such as former Illinois representative Paul Findley, independent scholar Cheryl Rubenberg, and journalist Edward Tivnan were among the critical voices, putting out books addressing the subject in 1985, 1986, and 1987, respectively.

[2] John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] I review the lobby issue, Mearsheimer and Walt, and the enormous response they engendered in chapter 6 of my Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East: U.S. Foreign Policy, Israel, and World History (London: Pluto Press, 2010).

[5] The three groups also tended to reflect, more often than not, the writer's political origin. Those who were strongly critical were typically well right of centre and nationalist in their perspective; those who were moderately critical were often left-progressive; and the writers whose responses were compatible with Mearsheimer-Walt commonly hailed from the liberal centre, much like Mearsheimer and Walt themselves.

[6] Norman Finkelstein, "The Israel Lobby: It's Not Either/Or," CounterPunch, May 1, 2006,

[7] This is the focal point of Finkelstein's 2006 essay. As he states,

a crucial dimension of this debate should be the extent to which the Lobby stifles free and open public discussion on the subject ... Especially since U.S. elites have no entrenched interest in the Israeli occupation, the mobilization of public opinion can have a real impact on policy-making - which is why the Lobby invests so much energy in suppressing discussion.

[8] I survey some of the core foreign-policy principles and doctrines from independence to Truman in chapter 2 of Straight Power Concepts. For an excellent summary of U.S. democracy prevention, see William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II, rev. ed. (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2004).

[9] During the Cold War there was a fear among policymakers of multiple countries "falling" to communism in sequence. This fear generated a list of metaphors - onions, apples, bandwagons, and dominoes - during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Nicaragua under the Sandinistas was also referred to as an "infected piece of meat," employing the same logic; see Blum, Killing Hope, 300.

[10] Frida Berrigan, "Made in the U.S.A.: American Military Aid to Israel," Journal of Palestine Studies, 38, no. 3 (spring 2009): 8. See also Jeremy M. Sharp, "U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel" (RL33222), Congressional Research Service, September 16, 2010, For recent developments to this end, see Thom Shanker, "U.S. and Gulf allies pursue a missile shield against Iranian attack," New York Times, August 8, 2012.

[11] Henry Kissinger, Years of Upheaval (Boston: Little, Brown, 1982), 483-4; quoted in Camille Mansour, Beyond Alliance: Israel and U.S. Foreign Policy, trans. James A. Cohen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 119.

[12] Stephen Zunes, "U.S. Outrage over Syria Veto at UN Rife with Hypocrisy," Truthout, February 8, 2012,

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© MMXIII Gregory Harms