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14 April, 2009

The Israel Lobby Controversy

The Israel Lobby Controversy
Elite Factionalism or Elite Conspiracy Theory?

“The criticism surrounding The Israel Lobby paper was sparked by the fact that two card-carrying members of the American intellectual establishment finally pointed out the elephant in the room.”

by Will Banyan

The publication in March 2006 of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, as a working paper for the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and as an article in the London Review of Books, aroused much comment in the American media and academia -- most condemnatory. The authors, academics John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt from Harvard University, have had their work widely dismissed as being both conspiratorial and anti-Semitic.

"[T]his paper is anti-Semitic" declared Professor Eliot Cohen from Johns Hopkins University, in the Washington Post (April 5, 2006); nor was it "research in any serious sense," claimed Marty Peretz in The New Republic, but "the labor of obsessives with dark and conspiratorial minds." According to Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, the authors shared with white supremacist David Duke "the same interest in vilifying Jewish leaders and spouting conspiracy theories about Zionist plots against American interests" (Dershowitz 41). Even Stephen Zunes, a left-wing critic of U.S. support for Israel, implied that in subscribing to an "exaggerated claim of Jewish clout," Mearsheimer and Walt were "flirting with anti-Semitism" (Zunes 2006a, 15).

At the same time, there were some observers who were clearly overjoyed at the appearance of The Israel Lobby as it seemed to confirm their belief that the U.S. is, in fact, ruled by a "Zionist Occupation Government," or some other sinister Jewish cabal. David Duke, for example, praised it for having "told the truth about the proverbial gorilla in the room: the Zionist lobby and its enormous political and media power" (Duke 2006). The Israel Lobby, claimed a commentator for, left "absolutely no doubt that Israel not only controls our entire government, our Pentagon, our foreign policy and our political parties, but our media as well" (Lang 2006).

Missing from these critiques and the praise - most of which represented the paper as a conspiratorial account of Jewish influence over U.S. foreign policy - was any acknowledgement of Mearsheimer and Walt’s careful caveats to the contrary. Some were explicit: "the Lobby’s activities are not a conspiracy of the sort depicted in tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion." To be sure, Mearsheimer and Walt attribute to the Lobby an "ability to manipulate the American political system," but they stress that it is not "a unified movement with central leadership," but an ethnic lobby; one of many, though arguably the most successful (Mearsheimer and Walt 14-16).

According to Walt, the firestorm of criticism surrounding The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy was not sparked by what they said, but by "the fact that two card-carrying members of the American intellectual establishment finally pointed out the elephant in the room" (Washington Times, August 29, 2006). But why did they say it?

Aside from viewing The Israel Lobby controversy as confirming the unpalatable anti-Semitic nightmares of David Duke and others, there are from a conspiratorial perspective at least two more plausible ways of interpreting the storm.

The first is to see The Israel Lobby as a well-crafted attempt to divert blame for the costly debacle that the invasion of Iraq has become from the rest of the Establishment, especially the oil lobby, to the age-old scapegoat, the Jews (Zunes 2006a; Peretz 2006). In this counter-narrative Israel is the victim. Consider Zunes’ commentary on Israel’s recent attack on Lebanon - a military adventure he suggests Israel instigated "largely at the behest of the United States" - where Israel is painted as a U.S. "proxy in the Middle East." Zunes contends this use of Israel "corresponds to historic anti-Semitism" with the ruling elite using the Jews as the "most visible agents of the oppressive social order," who were always "convenient scapegoats" when the elites were seeking to redirect the anger of the restive masses. So now the scapegoating continues, evident in the blame placed on the "Zionist lobby" by Establishment critics (Zunes 2006b).

The second and more plausible interpretation (in this author’s opinion) is that the Mearsheimer-Walt paper is another salvo in an ongoing struggle between competing elites for control of the War on Terror. Rather than the U.S. power-elite being a monolithic entity, the increasingly shrill dispute over The Israel Lobby paper reveals that the fissures at the highest levels of the food chain have become deep and suppurating.

Rather than being a crude attempt to unfairly smear a single ethnic lobby, there really is an Israel Lobby (as AIPAC’s own website proudly attests), which has been successful (despite some exaggerations), and not surprisingly its agenda is opposed by elements in the Establishment. The paper suggested that the usual suspects in most conspiratorial accounts of the "New World Order" -- the Council on Foreign Relations, Trilateral Commission and Bilderbergers -- have some serious competition when it comes to influencing American foreign policy.

Continuing on with the argument raised in an earlier piece (Banyan 2006), it is the contention of this article that while the Mearsheimer-Walt article perhaps overstates the influence of the Israel Lobby, it exposes an aspect of elite factionalism missing from most mainstream and alternative narratives of the seemingly endless War on Terror.

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  1. Journalist Philip Weiss on the Neoconservative agenda:

    "In terms of their politics, they were almost all Democrats and then as soon as the Democratic party suggested that it wasn't going to have a strong military, Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, the grandfathers of this movement, they went Republican. Why? Because they said, back in the 70's, a strong American military is needed to protect Israel."

    Download an mp3 of Phil saying the above here (9:45 minutes in) - 07/12/ - 03/18/2009Watch the BBC documentary "The War Party", part 1 of 5Read Phil's blog on the Neocons, AIPAC, Israel/Palestine @

  2. Thank you! I'll post this documentary. It's exceptional. Please stop by again.