Grabbing the Third Rail

Two professors respond to the backlash over their controversial paper on the Israel Lobby.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Every piece of scholarship carries risks. But for Harvard Professor Stephen Walt and University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer, the potential fallout from their paper “The Israel Lobby,” published in the March 23 edition of the London Review of Books, was more dangerous than most. Declaring that the extent of the U.S.-Israel alliance had “no equal in American political history,” the professors posed a distinctly uncomfortable question: “Why has the U.S. been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state?”

The United States support for Israel, the authors argued, was motivated neither by strategic concern nor moral imperative. Instead, they identify the Israel lobby as the primary driver of this support. Were it not for the power of this community of pro-Israel advocates, the argument goes, the U.S. wouldn’t cling so tightly to an alliance that is, in the authors’ view, detrimental to American interests abroad. The professors, who were both early opponents of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, hold the Israel lobby partly responsible for that debacle as well: “Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was critical,” they wrote. “[T]he war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure.”

The backlash to the paper was fast in coming. As one journalist later observed, not since Samuel Huntington wrote “The Clash of Civilizations” has “an academic essay detonated with such force.” Reactions were largely critical: Even Noam Chomsky disputed the awesome powers ascribed to the lobby by the authors. In the New York Review of Books, reporter Michael Massing criticized the paper’s “thin documentation” and often “unconvincing” lines of reasoning. But he also commended the professors for taking on a subject that is traditionally shrouded in taboo, adding that “The nasty campaign waged against [them]… has itself provided an excellent example of the bullying tactics used by the lobby and its supporters.” (Massing also offered additional reporting to show that the lobby was indeed extremely powerful.)

Meanwhile, the New York Post linked the two scholars to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz questioned their motivations for writing the report, with the sinister implication that only rank anti-Semitism could explain it. Others were more explicit on this charge: In a Washington Post op-ed entitled “Yes, It’s Anti-Semitic,” Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins, said the report “is not scholarship or policy advocacy. It is merely, and unforgivably, bigotry.”

How are the two professors taking all of this? Professors Walt and Mearsheimer recently spoke with Mother Jones, defending the arguments in their essay and parrying many of the charges leveled against them.

Mother Jones: Why did the two of you choose to work together on the piece?

John Mearsheimer: Steve and I had been colleagues at the University of Chicago for a decade and we had talked a lot about American foreign policy and Israel. So we had had a close relationship before we wrote the article. What actually happened with the lobby piece is that in the fall of 2002, I talked with people at the Atlantic Monthly about the possibility of writing an article on the lobby and American foreign policy. They were very interested in getting that piece but I told them that I would not do it unless I could get someone else to do it with me, and that someone else would be Steve.

MJ: That was for fear of a backlash?

JM: Yes, I understood that the piece would create a firestorm that no one person would be able to withstand. You would need two scholars with big reputations to stand up to the withering criticism that would be aimed at the article and especially the authors. For that reason I told the Atlantic that I would first have to ask Steve if he would be willing to do it with me, and if he said yes, we could write the piece together. But if he wasn’t willing to do it, I wouldn’t be willing to do it alone.

MJ: You two were criticized when the report came out for having ventured out of your field. What was it in your background that brought you to this topic and gave you the expertise necessary to take it on?

Stephen Walt: First, this is a topic in foreign policy and international politics, and both John and I have been in that field for 25 years or so. So we have substantial credentials already. Second of all, we had both done research on Middle East issues earlier in our professional careers. So even though neither of us would call ourselves a Middle East expert, we both had some background in that subject as well. Finally, both of us had done a fair bit of writing on different aspects of American foreign policy—including on how the American foreign policy process operated—and had been working in those fields for a long time. So I think the claim that we were in a field that we didn’t understand is a specious criticism.

MJ: The report gives a quite expansive definition of the Israel lobby. What in your opinions constitutes the lobby?

JM: We argue that the lobby is a loose coalition of groups and individuals who spend a considerable amount of time working to make sure that American foreign policy supports Israel, regardless of what Israel does. We emphasize this is not a Jewish lobby, because it does not include all Jewish Americans and, furthermore, it includes Christian Zionists, who are an important part of the lobby.

MJ: What makes the pro-Israeli lobby different from other interest groups promoting their own agendas?

SW: There is not much that the Israel lobby does that isn’t done by other groups like the Cuban-American lobby or other special interest groups. What is different is how effective they are. They’ve been widely evaluated as one of the most effective and influential interest groups in Washington. That’s certainly what politicians like Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich—who don’t agree on very much, but agree on that—have said. So it’s not that their activities are different, it’s how effective they are: it’s not what they do, it’s how well they do it.

MJ: You have been criticized from the left—by Noam Chomsky and Stephen Zunes, for example—for assigning so much blame to the Israel lobby in the paper that you end up absolving the United States government of any culpability. What about factors other than the lobby that were at work in shaping America’s Israel policy, such as reliance on Middle Eastern oil?

JM: Many people, especially on the left, believe that American policy in the Middle East is driven in large part by oil interests—and here we’re talking about the oil companies and the oil-producing states in the region. This is an intuitively attractive argument, but there is little actual evidence that the oil companies and the oil-producing states are driving the United States’ Middle East policy, and there’s a lot of evidence that the Israel lobby is the main force behind the policy.

Just to take a couple of examples: if the oil companies and the oil-producing states were driving policy, the United States would favor the Palestinians over the Israelis. In fact, the opposite is the case. If oil interests were driving policy, the United States would not have gone to war against Iraq and the United States would have a much less confrontational policy toward Iran. But in fact the lobby was one of the main driving forces behind the war in Iraq and it is the lobby that has been pushing assiduously for a hard-line policy against Iran.

MJ: Couldn’t America’s historical affinity for Israel, or its sympathy with the country as a fellow democracy, also explain its support?

JM: The main reason there is a powerful affinity between Israel and the United States in our body politic is because we are not allowed to have an open and free-wheeling discussion about either Israeli policy or the relationship between the United States and Israel. For example, if we were to have an open and candid discussion about what the Israelis are doing in the Occupied Territories, there would be much less sympathy for Israel in the American public. And of course this is the principle reason why Israel’s supporters go to great lengths to silence critics of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. In essence, America’s present relationship with Israel could not withstand public scrutiny.

SW: It’s not that the Israel lobby is the only thing that shapes American support and American sympathy for Israel. But it shapes the unconditional nature of American support—the fact that our support continues independent of what Israel’s policies are. There are a variety of reasons why Americans tend to look favorably on the Jewish state and many of them are ones that I would agree with myself. John and I clearly state that we support Israel’s right to exist and we also think that there are admirable features in Israeli society, so that’s not really the issue. The point of the lobby is it drives those aspects of U.S. support that aren’t in American interests.

MJ: What makes you think that pro-Israeli forces actually caused certain U.S. policy decisions—such as invading Iraq or, to take another example in the report, ratcheting up pressure on Syria—rather than it simply being the case that both groups agreed on what should be done?

JM: Let’s start with the Syrian Accountability Act, which called for Washington to play hardball with Syria at a time when Damascus was helping the United States deal with al-Qaeda. It is clear that the Bush administration did not want that legislation—and that the lobby pushed very hard in Congress to get it.

Regarding Iraq, we argue that the lobby—and here we are talking mainly about the neoconservatives—was pushing hard for a war against Iraq from early 1998 on. But the neoconservatives were unsuccessful at convincing the Clinton administration to use military force to topple Saddam. They were also unable to sell the case for war to the Bush administration in its early days in office.

After September 11, however, President Bush and Vice President Cheney fundamentally altered their thinking about Iraq and concluded that war made good strategic sense. For sure, the neo-conservatives helped push Bush and Cheney to that conclusion, as they had a well-developed set of arguments to justify the war—even though Saddam had nothing to do with September 11. In short, our argument is that the lobby by itself could not push the United States to attack Iraq; it needed help, and it got that help from Bush and Cheney after September 11. The lobby, in other words, was a main driving force behind that war, but it was not the only driving force.

MJ: You point to a lot of overlap between the lobby and neoconservatives generally. Are you suggesting that Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle were promoting the Iraq war from within the administration in order to benefit Israel?

SW: The neoconservatives are a faction within the loose coalition or loose community of groups that are strongly pro-Israel. They tend to have pretty close ties to the Likud party and other more hard-line or right-wing groups within Israel itself. And I believe the policies that they were promoting were partly intended to create a strategic environment that would be good for Israel; partly to give Israel more of a free hand in dealing with the Palestinians.

But I want to make very clear that I believe these people also felt that these policies were in the American national interests. We do not accuse anyone of disloyalty or trying to harm American interests on behalf of Israel. I think they were trying to advance American interests and Israeli interests at the same time.

MJ: How do you think U.S. policy in the Middle East would differ, if its current level of attachment and support for Israel were diminished?

JM: First, I think we would have a much more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think we would bring great pressure to bear on both sides to reach an agreement that would give the Palestinians a viable state. I also think the United States would return to its traditional strategy of acting as an off-shore balancer in the region—in other words, the United States would get its troops out of Iraq, and out of the Middle East more generally, and maintain an over-the-horizon capability the way it did during the Cold War. I think that one of the principle reasons the United States has been so deeply involved militarily in the Middle East since the first Gulf War in 1991 is because of pressure from the Israel lobby. I also think the United States would have a less-confrontational approach to dealing with Iran if the lobby were much weaker.

MJ: Even some defenders of the report have said that your extensive use of secondary sources rather than say interviews or donation records gives the report a “secondhand feel.” Why did you two choose to rely on the sources that you did?

SW: There are limits to what any set of scholars can do. We thought there was a lot of information available through journalistic sources and from testimony that other people had reported. We were also particularly interested in tracing how these pro-Israel groups operated within certain policy debates, and those were things that one couldn’t necessarily find in available primary sources.

It’s worth emphasizing that we relied heavily on both Israeli sources and Jewish newspapers like the Forward, as well as mainstream U.S. sources like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. John and I aren’t investigative reporters: we have day jobs. So we weren’t in a position to go and spend a lot of time interviewing people in Washington. Others have done that, though. Michael Massing has done a quite impressive body of investigative reporting on this [in the New York Review of Books] and his research shows that in terms of our central claims, we are entirely correct. What he provides is a complementary body of evidence that supports the same picture that we presented from a different set of sources.

MJ: But without yourselves tracking the mechanism by which pressure is exerted on U.S. policymakers, how could you be certain that the lobby caused them to make certain decisions?

JM: We did show evidence of the lobby at work. For example, we talked about how the lobby worked hard to defeat Senator Charles Percy (R-IL), who was up for re-election in 1984. We also showed how the lobby forced President Bush to back down in April 2002, after he had told Ariel Sharon to remove his troops from the Palestinian areas they had just re-occupied. The fact is that there are countless examples we could have used to make our point had it not been for space limitations.

Michael Massing is correct when he says that it would have been nice if we could have discussed in greater detail how the lobby works. But the fact is that we had roughly 14,000 words in the London Review of Books and we were covering wide swaths of history and a variety of topics. There were just limits to how much we could say about any part of the story.

MJ: In the Foreign Policy roundtable on your paper, Shlomo Ben-Ami criticizes your argument for the lobby’s primacy by citing examples of times when U.S. administrations have acted contrary to Israel’s wishes. He mentions Madrid; Reagan’s recognition of the PLO; Clinton’s decision to hold Camp David. How do you account for what appear to be these occasional failures of the lobby?

JM: There are a handful of cases in the past where the lobby lost, but almost all of those cases date from the 1980s and the early 1990s. The lobby has grown increasingly powerful with time and it rarely loses nowadays.

SW: We never said that the lobby was all-powerful, or that it dictated every single thing that American presidents do. There are a number of situations that you can point to where the lobby has pushed on a particular issue and didn’t get its way. But these issues often tend be pretty peripheral: they’re not central, critical issues for Israel and they are ones where it’s fairly obvious where the American interest lies.

The key thing to observe is that no matter what Israel does the United States continues to back them. They continue to build settlements even though every president since Lyndon Johnson has thought that was a bad idea. They spy on us routinely. They’ve given or sold American military technology to other countries. Also, according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and B’Tselem, they have conducted a wide variety of human rights violations, and yet none of those activities ever slow down American support.

MJ: You write in the report that the U.S. has a terrorism problem “in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel” and that U.S. support for Israel is a major cause of anti-Americanism abroad, especially in the Middle East. To what extent do you think that those problems would be alleviated by a diminishment in our support for Israel?

JM: There is no question that American support for Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories is a principle source of our terrorism problem, but it’s hardly the only one. If the United States were able to put pressure on Israel and the Palestinians and actually solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, we would still have a terrorism problem—although we would have much less of one. The 9/11 Commission report, for instance, makes clear that Osama bin Laden’s thinking about the attack was influenced by Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians. He even considered moving up the date of the attack to coincide with a visit to Washington by Ariel Sharon, and he wanted to ensure that Congress was targeted, because he believed that Israel’s staunchest support came from Capitol Hill.

And it’s not just bin Laden—people in the Islamic world more generally are deeply hostile to the United States because we support Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. As a consequence, huge numbers of people in the Middle East tend to be more sympathetic to bin Laden than would otherwise be the case. As long as the United States continues to support Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, it will be impossible to win hearts and minds in the Arab and Islamic world and solve the terrorism problem.

MJ: Have either of you experienced consequences at Harvard or the University of Chicago for publishing this report?

SW: Nothing substantial. There have been a few things I know about—invitations that were cancelled and things like that. But one of the reasons we wrote this is that John and I were both in a position where we could do this without losing our jobs.

JM: There is no evidence that I’ve suffered at the University of Chicago as a consequence of the article. What the actual long-term consequences will be for my professional career are hard to say. My sense is that Steve and I will pay a significant price, but it’s hard at this early date to point to evidence that supports that conclusion, and hopefully I will be proven wrong.

MJ: In what sense do you imagine paying a price?

JM: I think that in the wake of the piece it would be almost impossible for either of us to ever be appointed to a policy-making position in Washington. It’s also difficult to imagine Steve becoming a high-level academic administrator, despite the fact that he just completed a distinguished tour of service as the academic dean at the Kennedy School.

MJ: And you anticipated that?

JM: Yes. There’s no way anyone can study how the lobby operates and not appreciate that he or she will pay a significant price for taking it on.

MJ: Do you think that the paper has been ignored in the mainstream media?

SW: What was most discouraging was not that it was ignored but rather that much of the mainstream coverage was simply not very substantive. One of the reasons we did not do a lot of media interviews or appearances when the story first appeared was simply that we did not want attention focusing on the authors—we wanted attention focusing on what we wrote.

JM: What is interesting here is that a good number of people, including some who were very critical of the piece, concede that many of our main points are correct, especially the claim that the lobby plays a key role in shaping American foreign policy. Given that and given the trouble facing the United States in the Middle East, one would expect that the mainstream media would be much more interested in grappling with our piece. But the issue of whether our Israel policy is in our best interest is rarely discussed in the mainstream media.

MJ: Are you glad you wrote it?


SW: Yes. We are not going to be able to deal with the Israel-Palestine conflict, the implications of Hamas being elected, the situation in Iraq, our policy with Iran, or any number of other truly vexing challenges if we can’t have an open discussion about these issues.

JM: I feel very good about having written the piece, and if I had to do it again, I would do it with enthusiasm. I think that the Israel lobby and its influence has been a taboo subject for too long. It is very important for the national interest that this matter be discussed at length and in a serious way in the media and on Capitol Hill. Too much is at stake to continue treating the lobby and Israel like two elephants in the room.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.