Taking Sides

John Mearsheimer · Israel (and the lobby) against the US

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.


  • 17 March 2010 at 8:38pm
    Richard Trillo says:
    Surely "greater Israel" is already a de-facto "apartheid state". At this juncture it seems even less conceivable that it will ever become two states than that apartheid South Africa's "Bantustans" would ever achieve international recognition. Despite internal opponents, the facts on the ground seem to make it more likely that one new country will emerge, rather than two.

  • 17 March 2010 at 11:16pm
    William.deB.Mills says:
    The completely unsympathetic attitude of proponents of the Israeli right wing both in Israel and in the U.S. toward U.S. national security concerns strikingly exposes their special pleading and, for the American ones, their lack of patriotism. Over the long run, this should help greatly to overcome the taboo on critical thinking regarding the positions of whatever Israeli politician happens temporarily to gain office.

    All of that is of course completely separate from the long-term security concerns of the Israeli people; perhaps now, Americans will slowly begin to comprehend this. Many reporters and historians in Israel, ironically, have long understood this and publish their thoughts regularly in the Israeli media. Americans would do well to read such essays, much of which appears in English.

    Over the short run, the self-centered self-pleading of the Israeli right and its American, ah, running dogs (?), contrasts so sharply with the professional aura of Petraeus (not whining about being insulted but factually, unemotionally laying out the threats of the U.S. pro-Israeli right wing bias [my language, not his]) that it provides unassailable cover for Obama, should he have the insight to take advantage of it.

    • 15 November 2012 at 5:14pm
      gotnotruck says: @ William.deB.Mills
      Ah the unfettered ignorance of the British left! Dare I say running dog press? Do you know anything about the American left and Israel? Do you read The Nation, older than The Sanctimonious Guardian? It had a magnificent article on the Israeli left, and their actions hiding out with Gazans waiting for the IDF to show up. I called the NY Times. And one of their reporters, Ethan Bronner, did the same. He was with a family breaking a Ramadan fast when who should show up to search the house for guns but the IDF. The man of the house, understandably angry, threw a stone. The IDF shot at him. The Israeli left also tries to keep settlers from taking over Arab Israelis' houses. I recently learned that Israel has segregated schools. There's one experimental school in which Jewish and Arab Israelis study together. I wrote an unpublished letter to the Times saying I, a white Southerner, along with many others like me, from every southern state, including Alabama and Mississippi, had picketed, marched, sang badly, and sat in to integrate every place in town, including the schools. And i was surprised since I expected Israel to be ahead of America in democratic values. (Sarcasm.) Are you aware of J St, a pro Israel, pro peace lobby, that we hope will counteract AIPAC. Do you know Americans for Peace Now, and their News Nosh from Israel? Just Foreign Policy? By Robert Naiman, who was recently in Waziristan protesting drone attacks? And took a petition to the US embassy? Of course you don't. And you don't want to. A Christian group has suggested America cut military aid to Israel because of its human rights violations. Know that? The New York Review of Books had a marvelous article called The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment. Its thesis was that AIPAC etc, had expected young Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism's door. But they did the opposite. The Guardian said Tony Judt wasn't published in America at the end of his life. He had an article in every issue of the NYRB until his death, and became an American citizen after a cross country trip on which he admired the art galleries, museums and libraries in small towns and cities, and the vastness of the country. One was about a childhood teacher in the UK, anti semitism and his then Zionism. a great article was Eyeless in Gaza, which seems to be repeated. The Gaza war, sadly not more articles. An editor there is writing a biography. Perhaps the LRB will review it, doubtless with a snarky comment about America. Those get boring. You think we don't know our sins. You must get annoyed when your best intellectuals move here. You don't cover Britain's new reduced military reliant on drones and special ops. Why not? In the Guardian it's quite convenient. An option is there on UK Drones Launched from Britain (something like that): Go straight to comments. Where you can list our sins, and not mention that Hitler, Mao and Stalin killed far more than we ever did. Even more than you superior Europeans did in your colonies. Have fun. I'm outta here. Can get the same opinion and articles but based on knowledge not prejudice.

  • 18 March 2010 at 7:19am
    Roy Mayall says:
    Israel is already an apartheid state. The two-state solution - under the cover of which the Israelis can pretend to be negotiating peace while simultaneously undermining it - is long dead. "Facts on the ground" such as the land grab hidden behind the spearation wall, and the occupation and control of watrer supplies, plus the ongoing settlement peogramme, make this clear. In a way, this may the the best way forward for the Palestinians. Their state was unviable anyway. Once Greater Israel comes into effect then the real relationship between the two peoples becomes apparent for the whole world to see - an effective aparthied based on religion - which would make it harder for Western governments to continue to support Israel.

  • 19 March 2010 at 7:52pm
    jeff.davis says:
    I suppose the folks at London Review Blog can be forgiven for not noticing so American a cultural feature, or perhaps it's just courtesy, but US values don't conflict in the least with an aparteid "condition". The US was born with race slavery codified in its constitution, enjoyed the economic advantages of race slavery, embraced racial superiority as a cultural norm, practiced aparteid for a hundred years after formal slavery was abolished (involuntarily, in the midst of a war that was not, contrary to the mythic popular narrative, about slavery), and is still a nation with deep roots of racial prejudice.

    It's but a small jump from the historic practice of prejudice against blacks, to a fully developed screaming hatred for Muslims. Lynchings are as American as apple pie.

    • 15 November 2012 at 5:33pm
      gotnotruck says: @ jeff.davis
      What an incisive argument. The Civil War ended a hundred and fifty years ago. And I know about the Civil Rights Movement because I was in it. As an 18 year old (white) girl, I picketed a segregated motel out in the country, was spat at, cursed, things thrown. The Eastern part of the state used to be KKK. No longer. When we drive down to the coast through eastern NC, at filling station restaurants, I see MLK's dream. White and black farmers are eating lunch together joking and laughing. Just as in MLK's speech. Except he had them eating in a field. Showing he was a city guy. if you ate in a field in the summer, you'd be eaten alive by chiggers. Where we sat in at the crossroad of the two main drags is now half MLK Blvd. You don't want to hear good news about America, do you? Why not? I suggest you ask yourself. We love Brits, except for your TV on PBS: "Masterpiece" stuff like the soap opera, Downton Abbey. Turned it off. Turn it off. Tell me about racism in Britain and those riots, please. Police harassment. Recently in England I said "Our criminal industrial industrial complex is filled with blacks and latinos. What's yours?" "Blacks and Irish", I was told. Funny, the left in the Americas sided with the IRA. Though I never gave them money. The BBC tells us that Columbine is one of the massacre stones on the new Beeb bldg's grounds. Is Bloody Sunday? When you have a black PM you can lecture U.S. about racism.

  • 19 March 2010 at 8:02pm
    exudd1 says:
    I somewhat agree with the following points made in the thoughtful article: One, the Obama administration would not seriously engage Israel over the illegal housing problem; two, this would turn into a "rather muted, protracted dispute between the two sides"; three, "The crisis will undoubtedly simmer down over the next few weeks".
    The stranglehold the Lobby has on both political parties and the electoral process makes the other predictions, although well argued and plausible in a rational world, highly optimistic and very unlikely.
    As always in the matter of US-Israeli relations, this will prove to be another tempest in a tea cup (not even in the teapot), the magical and all-pervasive power of the Lobby will play its usual role and all will return to normal until the next mini-tempest erupts and we all again get excited and start making over-optimistic predictions.
    As a wild guess, this current excitement is likely designed more to sooth the nervousness in the servants' quarter than anything else. (Our clients/servants in the Arab/Muslim world are perhaps a bit agitated that some of their streets are nearing boiling point, what with our ongoing wars on several of their peoples, and Israel’s daily brutality on the Palestinians and its routine violations of the territorial integrity of some of its neighbors. They might be pleading/begging for our help to cool down the anger; nothing does that better than a few slick, well-coordinated but empty gestures, one of which is to make a public show of US displeasure at Israel).

  • 19 March 2010 at 11:45pm
    duglarri says:
    Israel is neither a strategic liability or a strategic asset; Israel is a strategic objective. It's not an impediment or an asset for American foreign policy; it's what American foreign policy is for. It's what the American military is for. When the Pentagon complains that Israel makes the job harder, well, too bad- it's the job. They wouldn't be in the Middle East mucking about if they weren't there to defend Greater Israel.

    I'm sure the Likudniks will tone down the provocations to the point where business as usual can proceed, that being the maintenance and expansion of the beachhead. That being the point of the existence of the Pentagon and the US government.

    Petraeus will likely be reminded that Israel is why he has a job. Israel will be reminded not to make that job unnecessarily painful. And that will be that.

    • 24 April 2010 at 10:37pm
      William.deB.Mills says: @ duglarri
      Your claim that Israel is the Mideast "strategic objective" of Washington is an important statement that deserves analysis. Someone should convene a workshop.

      One could make a very strong case that you are correct. On the other hand, the question of how Washington would pursue Mideast oil (via the market or via the military) in the absence of Israel is also a fair question.

      I will not attempt to evaluate the merits of these alternative interpretations of U.S. foreign policy behavior here; after all, I've spent the better part of the last three years writing about exactly that.

      But I think your blunt statement would give pause to a lot of Americans who consider themselves well-informed.

      One follow-up question: To the degree that Israel is the primary strategic objective of the U.S. in the Mideast, how does that objective, as implemented, impact the broader conduct of U.S. foreign policy?

      No, I hardly expect an answer, but that seems like a good second question for that proposed workshop to consider.

  • 15 November 2012 at 5:59pm
    gotnotruck says:
    I see nothing beneficial to the US in supporting Israel. I supported them because they needed and need a homeland. Anti semitism, let's face it, is everywhere. I lived in Vienna where swastikas and Juden Rein were scrawled on walls, have seen swastikas in France. Forget Germany. An arrogant German woman told me in Central Park that American neo nazis "weren't serious." She couldn't name another European country. Britain? A Joke! France? Silence. If the Guardian wished, it could get help from the Southern Poverty Law Center in locating Neo Nazi sites in Britain. A woman married to an American Neo Nazi said he told her that most of the hits on his site were from England. They couldn't All be the Guardian. (Which, of course, revels in American groups like that.) I believe it was Gore Vidal who said "The dark night of fascism is always setting over America, but it lands in Europe." One of several reasons your economic calamity scares U.S. The Nation magazine had a good article on European Islamophobia. Plenty to go around. France was unusually anti semitic. Francoise Gilot, Picasso's lover, who left him and became an artist on her own, was on Charlie Rose a few weeks ago. She said during WW2, villagers would sell their Jewish friends to the SS for a few francs. Of course, human nature has changed since then. Europeans, on losing their colonies, suddenly saw the light and became the essence of virtue. On Iraq, you could have warned US it had been patched together by a British woman who drew its boundaries. Cleverly including Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Go women!!! Almost as brilliant as Belgians putting Tutsi and Hutu in one country. African cab drivers agree going back to tribes would be a good idea. Only one little problem. It has to do with crazy Salafist jihadists. Of course we were asking for it on 9/11. Just as you were during the blitz. Joke. But ask Pakistanis, why are the Taliban killing their own people? They turn, pull over, grab my hand and say, "We don't know!" I say at least it's good you're here now. Especially if you have daughters. Does any British paper report the fact that muslims are killing more muslims by FAR than we're killing them. Of course we should stop entirely. The Salafist in Mali who destroyed the world heritage Sufi holy site, has a plan. Take N Africa, take France, take the UK, then take US. How do we make a true defense dept, instead of an Offense Dept? Tell me by talking about the British military, please.

Read more