Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Reviews of Walt and Mearsheimer: Moving Past the “Lobby” and Getting Stuck in the “Middle”

The reviews of Walt and Mearsheimer’s book-length version of the “Israel Lobby” in the mainstream media have run from the mixed to the negative. More accurately, they have been negative, with some crumbs thrown to the authors for having raised certain questions and broken certain taboos. The consensus of the reviews that I have seen is that the book is a one-sided indictment against Israel’s policies and supporters, a screed that needs to be "balanced." That certainly seems to have been the view of the Washington Post, which commissioned Samuel Freedman to review the Israel Lobby together with Abe Foxman’s “refutation,” The Deadliest Lies. Freedman, who teaches journalism at Columbia University, and who wrote an interesting book called Jew vs. Jew a few years back, has a lot to say against both books. To his credit, he takes Walt and Mearsheimer much more seriously than Abe Foxman, whose silly little book I leafed through in Barnes and Nobles. Freedman is an intelligent man and a first-rate journalist. But his implied conclusion that the truth lies somewhere in the middle reveals him in all his glory as a liberal Zionist – hardly the fairest reviewer for a book on the Israel Lobby. And yet, virtually all the reviews in the major media outlets have been by liberal Zionists, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

By “liberal Zionism” I mean the view that supports the state of Israel as founded in 1948 by political Zionists like Ben-Gurion. While liberal Zionists are often critical of Israeli policies (especially those advocated by the Israeli right and their hawkish allies, e.g., the settlements), they assume that a) that there are always "two sides" to the Israel-Palestine story, and b) a lot of justice is on the Israeli side. So when they read works by such disparate authors as Walt and Mearsheimer, Jimmy Carter, Tony Judt and Norman Finkelstein, they cannot refrain from saying, “Yeah, but what about the responsibility of the Palestinian side for the mess?” This is because they fundamentally accept the Zionist narrative of Jewish history that culminates in the State of Israel, and they reject the Palestinian narrative that a foreign settler movement displaced the natives who, as the majority population in Palestine, had every expectation of a belonging to an Arab Palestine with a Jewish minority.

Now, one can favor Israel over the Palestinians without accepting the justice of the Zionist narrative. One can argue that Israel is a state recognized by the United Nations and that there is a prima facie case for favoring a state over a non-state collective, a favored position that will evaporate when the Palestinians get a state. But this is not the position taken by the reviewers. To a man, they appeal to the comfortable (and banal) adage that the truth lies between the two extremes. The difficulty, however, is that they locate the “center” in the Zionist camp. Those who take a position that dissents from political Zionism, even if that position accepts de facto the state of Israel, are considered "dogmatic" and "one-sided".

The triumph of Zionism in this country is not so much that nobody "moderate" today questions the wisdom, or the justice, of the establishment and continued existence of a Zionist state. Rather, it is that nobody "in the middle" questions the correctness of the Zionist narrative that justifies the Jewish claim to a state at the expense of the Palestinian claim. Because if some body did, then the failure to establish a strong and vibrant Palestinian state sixty years after the UN recommended creating .such a state, a state that is at least the equal of the Jewish state, would not allow that person to sleep at night.

I am not saying that reviewers should have been chosen who reject the Zionist narrative. But why not ask people who have no vested interest in either narrative to review the book? Or, if liberal Zionists, are being asked, why not liberal Palestinians, like Rashid Khalidi (who happens to be critical of the book’s thesis.)

As long as the world does not impose a solution that levels the playing field between Israeli Jew and Palestinian, there is no point in talking about “balance”. The situation there is incredibly skewed in favor of Israel, which has virtually all the cards, and against the Palestinians, who have virtually none.

Let me demonstrate Freedman’s fundamental acceptance of the liberal Zionist narrative with the following passage.

It is certainly the right of Mearsheimer and Walt to advance these arguments, and their analysis of Camp David in particular echoes that of Robert Malley, one of the American mediators there. There is no lack of Israeli culpability in the Middle East morass, most obviously for the settlement enterprise. Still, one can leave this book with only the faintest realization that the political majority in Israel had been prepared to withdraw from most of the occupied territories to conclude a peace agreement with a Palestinian state -- until the Al-Aksa intifada brought terrorism as deeply into sovereign, pre-1967 Israel as the Tel Aviv beachfront. Having withdrawn from all of Gaza in 2005, Israel received a steady barrage of rocket attacks, which undermined public support for further disengagement from portions, at least, of the West Bank. The authors do not have to concur with the Israeli reaction to those events, but they prove their intellectual dishonesty in barely even mentioning them...Thus, while Mearsheimer and Walt endorse a two-state solution, they still lump into the nefarious Israel lobby some of the very diplomats -- Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, to name two -- who tried to negotiate precisely such a peace agreement.

Here you have, in a nutshell, the faith of the liberal Zionist. Israel is indeed responsible for much of the Middle East morass, “most obviously for the settlement enterprise,” as if everything pre-1967 was just hunky-dory and could be solved by a simple withdrawal to the 67 borders -- by ceding “much of the occupied territories,” and concluding it all in Geneva or Camp David with a peace agreement. It seems that according to Freedman, the Israel-Palestinian conflict could have been solved via Oslo, were it not for the al-Aksa intifada, “that brought terrorism as deeply into sovereign, pre-1967 Israel as the Tel Aviv beachfront.” Aside from the fact that this factually incorrect -- Palestinians blew up Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv before, during, and after Oslo, it assumes that Israelis were ever willing to conclude a peace agreement with the Palestinians that would create a strong, secure Palestinians state. As I have written before, this is pure balderdash. Nobody in Israel, except those on the extreme left, have ever supported the establishment of a Palestinian state -- rather, they support an emasculated demilitarized “state” that could survive only because of its neocolonial relation to Israel, and that would never pose a threat to the security of the Jewish state. That the state of Israel would pose a threat to the security of the Palestinian state is dismissed -- after all we are Jews, and we honor agreements.

Freedman, qua liberal Zionist, seems to believe that Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. That is also balderdash, as many people have written many times. Israel never “withdrew” from Gaza; it redeployed its troops for the most part on the other side of the "Green Line" and later imposed a crippling siege against Gaza, when the Palestinians elected Hamas. So what really happened was that the Israelis who felt that Gaza could be most effectively controlled by the presence of settlers and IDF troops lost out to the Israelis who felt that Gaza could be most effectively controlled by withdrawing the settlers and the IDF. But the control of Gaza "for the security of Israel" was never once in doubt.

This is the classic Zionist debate – the sort of “Jew vs. Jew” that Freedman should have written about: How does one control the maximum amount of territory with the minimum responsibility for the native Arabs? Had Ariel Sharon been interested in giving peace a chance – and, to his credit, he never once even hinted in that direction – he would have negotiated a withdrawal with the PA, and, more importantly, he would have negotiated a final settlement. But the Gaza withdrawal was never about paving the way to peace – and Sharon had the guts to say that. In fact, the unilateral Gaza withdrawal was intended to humiliate the Palestinians by implying that negotiating with them made as much sense as negotiating with wild animals. (Remember the liberal Zionist Benny Morris’s solution for the Palestinians in his interview with Ari Shavit – put them in cages.) Only a liberal Zionist, who identifies troop-redeployments with peace overtures, can spin the Gaza withdrawal as an opportunity for peace.

Because Freedman is a liberal Zionist – and I criticize not him for that, only the editors who asked him to review the books without demanding him make full disclosure -- he is shocked that Walt and Mearsheimer lump Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross in the Israeli lobby. How dare they throw these two liberal peacemakers into the same camp as Abe Foxman, AIPAC, Daniel Pipes, and Norman Podhoretz? I mean, how many times were Indyk and Ross called self-hating Jews by the rightwing? And how hard did they labor for peace?

But the truth is that virtually all Jews in the US, from the far right to the Peace-Now-Meretz-Tikkun left, are a part of the Israel Lobby, or if you don’t like that term (I don’t), they are strong supporters of Israel, each in their own way. Again, this is not a criticism – believe me, some of my best friends are liberal Zionists (full-disclosure: I am a card-carrying member of Meretz, although, in my defence, I joined the party just to vote for Yossi Beilin in the primaries) . To see how deeply Zionist a Dennis Ross is, one needs only read a few pages of The Missing Peace. The fact that he doesn’t share the “Islamofascist” neuroses of Podhoretz and Pipes doesn’t make him into a centrist on Israel-Palestine.

So, who is really in the middle and not just in the "middle"? Well, Walt and Mearsheimer, Carter, Chomsky, Khalidi, for a start. They are all willing to allow a strong Zionist state in Palestine -- more than I can say for most Israelis with respect to Palestine. In fact, most of the one-statists I know of are in the center -- they do not call for a transfer of populations against their will. If you are for transfer -- either Palestinian or Israeli Jewish -- then you are most definitely not in the middle. If your willing for your national self-expression to come at the expense of the other group's national self-expression -- then you are definitely not in the middle.

Because the Zionist narrative has been accepted by the mainstream liberal press in the US, (but not by Middle East experts), one doesn’t need an AIPAC or a Foxman or a Dershowitz to make the case for Israel. The latter will always serve as the “bad cops” to “good cops” like Tom Friedman, Richard Cohen, Dennis Ross, etc. The real question is – and Walt and Mearsheimer don’t raise it – why has Israel been so successful in getting the Zionist narrative accepted? It is not just the alleged political clout or money of an Israel Lobby. There may be many factors -- liberal Christian guilt for Christian antisemitism, sympathy for the Jews after the Holocaust, the shared Judaeo-Christian heritage on the Bible (the secret weapon of the Zionist), the success story of Jews in the US, including the high intermarriage rates, which makes it more difficult for Christians to act against members of their family. The Palestinians have failed to make the same impact on the consciousness of American non-Jews as have the Jews. They haven't been around as much. And they are "oriental" in the a way that ashkenazi Israelis are not.

And they are Arab, and, mostly, Muslim.


Anonymous said...

In reply to your questions, could 'hollywood' have been a factor? Coincidentally, Joachim Martillo posted two entries recently on his blog, one today on the film Exodus, and the other a couple of days ago on Schindler's List. Which begs the question: if sympathy for Zionism was somehow ingrained in the American public, why was it necessary to produce so many of those films & others with negative depictions of Arabs?

And then, there is the question of Christian Zionism that must have played a role certainly. That is more than a plausible explanation for the "self-interested" sympathy shown towards Israel, at least by a good chunk of the American public. The direction it would take comes from way way back.

Unknown said...

A distinctive sign of Liberal-Zionists (or, at least, Israeli Liberal-Zionists) is their beliefs about Israel's role in Jewish history.
The reasoning goes something like this:
"The Holocaust is a decisive proof that the Jews are destined to be haunted down (this is the "everybody-hates-us" clause). Therefore, a Jewish state is a necessity - it is the only configuration in which Jews can live their lives peacefully."
The first thing to note about this argument is that it is contradictory: if Jews are DESTINED to be haunted then how come there's a chance they can actually live their lives peacefully?
The second thing is that if this is what most Israelis believe (and it is) then it becomes quite obvious why Israelis don't want an independent Palestinian state next to them. "There's always a chance they'll try to kill us. We can't take that kind of chance. One Holocaust is more then enough." Hence, any possible threat should be eliminated at all costs. After all, "we want to live our lives peacefully." That's how it is with contradictory arguments - you can never get it right.

Jerry Haber said...

furgaia, you make good points; I certainly didn't mean to be exhaustive in my post. I don't think, though, that some sort of pro-active and ideological Christian zionism is as big a factor as what Arthur Cohen called "the myth of the Judaeo-Christian" heritage, which once was limited to liberal religious circles, and which now is dominant, at least in the major US cities.

Jerry Haber said...


No doubt the early Zionist view that a Jewish state would end antisemitism has been discarded in favor of the view that a state provides pride and self-respect, since Jews can protect themselves, and deterrence against the antisemites, who will think twice before attacking (the "iron wall" theory).

Israelis don't want a real Palestinian state because they believe that such a state will try to drive them into the sea. That is because they believe that the Arabs are fundamentally and murderously antisemitic. How else can one explain the unprovoked riots against the Jews before the establishment of the State? The rejection of Zionism, despite the attempts made by Zionists to compromise, reveals the true nature of the Arabs. That the Arabs have just grievances against Zionism is usually not considered; when liberal Zionists who are not stupid grudgingly concede the point, they say, "OK, but there is no point arguing over history; what's done is done." But if that's your attitude then you cannot be a Zionist, since many of your justifications are redresses of historical grievances.

Richard said...

I have not read Freedman's review in detail, but it's not surprising WaPo had a negative review considering their editorial pg. is rabidly pro-Israel.

Another review I started but couldn't finish because it made me so ill was Jeffrey Goldberg's at TNR. It was literally bilious.

BTW, Norman Finkelstein's just delivered the coup de grace to Goldberg's own book in a Counterpunch review of it.

But one thing I'm sure we're both happy about is that the people reading The Israel Lobby don't give a crap what Samuel Freedman or Jeffrey Goldberg have to say aobut it. In fact, the worse they find the book the more its audience will take to it. It's an odd thing & I can't recall anything like this happening in publishing though I'm no expert on the subject.

Jerry Haber said...

Whenever I am happy that folks are reading the Israel Lobby book, I remind myself that folks are also reading Podhoretz's World War IV book. I assume that they are not the same folks, but still, it gives you pause....

Anonymous said...

Great review.
It reminds me, for some reason, of a scene Ross described at the Camp David summit.
Friday night. The Israeli negotiators and the US "mediators" were having Shabbat dinner. The Palestinians came, donned their kippot, and politely hummed along to Lecha Dodi and Kiddush.
Like orphans, they were. But they were invited!
In their eyes, of course, they were guest at an all-Jewish party.
And they were.

And this was considered normal.

Peter H said...

Very interesting post, Jerry. Not directly related to Walt & Mearsheimer, but an example of what you're talking about regarding the limits of the liberal Zionist narrative is Adam Lebor's book review in the New York Times this past weekend. Take the opening paragraph of Lebor's review:

"There are two Israels: one inside the Green Line, the 1967 border, the other an occupying power extending beyond it. The first is a vibrant democracy, with Arab members of Parliament, university professors and lawyers, beauty queens and soldiers, and even a Muslim cabinet minister. There are no separate roads for Arabs and Jews in the name of that all-purpose explanation “security,” no villages made inaccessible because their roads have been dug up by army bulldozers, no checkpoints and no security fence cleaving farmers from their land and schoolchildren from their playgrounds."

Notice how this paragraph, while correct as far as it goes, glosses over all the issues facing Arab Israelis - discrimination, unequal resource allocation, land expropriation, unrecognized villages, the privileged status of Jewish organizations -- which leads some scholars to claim that Israel is an "ethnocracy" rather than a liberal democracy. That's not to mention the issue of the Palestinian refugees.

Jerry Haber said...

Peter, you just stopped me from writing a post on Lebor's review, which I planned to do -- no point now, since your comment says it all. I suppose one has to be a card-carrying liberal Zionist to write for the Times. Still, wouldn't it be nice to open the paper of record one day and see a review of a book on Israel by Judt, Mearsheimer, Henry Siegman, Daniel Levy, Rashid Khalidi, Walid Salem -- or somebody not involved at all? It won't happen. The Times will always have liberal Zionists review (liberal zionist) books on Israel

Anonymous said...

"The real question is – and Walt and Mearsheimer don’t raise it – why has Israel been so successful in getting the Zionist narrative accepted? It is not just the alleged political clout or money of an Israel Lobby. There may be many factors -- "

I agree completely! That is one key error made by Walt and Mearsheimer that play into the hands of those inclined to label them anti-Semites. Since by their estimation there is no reason for America’s Israel policy, it must The Lobby. Since there was no good reason for the Iraq war, it must be the Lobby. Please! Anyone who follows domestic politics knows that politicians vote for stupid policies all the time for myriad reasons.

lobewiper said...

Jerry Haber wrote:

"The real question is – and Walt and Mearsheimer don’t raise it – why has Israel been so successful in getting the Zionist narrative accepted? It is not just the alleged political clout or money of an Israel Lobby. There may be many factors -- liberal Christian guilt for Christian antisemitism, sympathy for the Jews after the Holocaust, the shared Judaeo-Christian heritage on the Bible (the secret weapon of the Zionist), the success story of Jews in the US, including the high intermarriage rates, which makes it more difficult for Christians to act against members of their family."

I think the main answer to this question involves the almost complete absence of historical context of the conflict provided Americans by their government and their media.

A very few Americans know that the "statehood" proposed by the US and Israel for Palestine is not true statehood, but a post-colonial appendage that will leave Palestine in a weakened and subservient position for the indefinite future. Ask the average American whether Barak made a fair settlement proposal at Camp David, and he/she will say, "Yes." (And that is only if they are well informed about middle eastern affairs. Many will not even remember Camp David.)

Only a few Americans understand the history of the conflict, because the Israeli historical account is all they know, and that account has been designed from the outset to elicit sympathy with the Israeli David vs. the Arab Goliath as well as a steady supply of US aid. A central MO of The Lobby is to ensure that historical accounts that challenge Israeli "history" are suppressed or trivialized.

Point: There is no need to view American support for Israel (vs. the Palestinians) in any respect as beyond rational explanation. The explanation is clear: Americans have been propagandized on this history from Day 1, and I believe M & W imply as much in their book.