September 13th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY / EDITORIAL: How America's choice will affect Australia

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Rudd's threat to close non-performing schools

FOREIGN INVESTMENT: Stronger rules needed on foreign investment

AGRICULTURE: High stakes in federal quarantine inquiry

EDUCATION: Reflections on home-schooling

UNITED NATIONS: Australia should not sign UN women's rights protocol

VICTORIA: Victoria battles over so-called 'right to kill'

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: Bid to tax churches out of existence?

ADVERTISING: Protests force removal of offensive billboards

CHINA: How China topped the Olympic gold medal tally

UNITED STATES: Michelle Obama's separationist view of race

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Migration debate revisited / Migrating on the SS Urea (1970) / 2008 postscript

Mandated medical malpractice (letter)

BOOKS: ON BURCHETT, by Tibor Méray, Tibor Meray

BOOKS: THE ISRAEL LOBBY and US Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt

Books promotion page

THE ISRAEL LOBBY and US Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, September 13, 2008
The pro-Israel lobby in America

THE ISRAEL LOBBY and US Foreign Policy
by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Paperback: 496 pages
Rec. price: AUD$30.00

The late Professor Patrick O'Brien of the University of Western Australia, Fulbright Scholar and expert on American politics, when asked how Australia could maximise its leverage over US foreign policy, used to recommend that the Australian government encourage half a million Australians to emigrate to the United States. If they settled in a few key states, said Prof. O'Brien, they could wield disproportionate power over the US political process, as do some other lobbies.


In The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, two distinguished American scholars John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, political scientists at the universities of Chicago and Harvard respectively, examine US foreign policy towards the Middle East, and towards Israel in particular, in light of the influence of what they call "the Israel lobby".

According to Mearsheimer and Walt, the Israel lobby is "a loose coalition of individuals and organisations that actively works to move US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.... It is not a single, unified movement with a central leadership, and it is certainly not a cabal or conspiracy that 'controls' US foreign policy. It is simply a powerful interest group, made up of Jews and gentiles, whose acknowledged purpose is to press Israel's case within the United States and influence American foreign policy in ways that its members believe will benefit the Jewish state."

The authors present a convincing case for the existence of the Israel lobby and present evidence for its successes and occasional failures. As they stress, Jewish opinion is not monolithic and, going on polling, Jewish voters are even more opposed to the Iraq war than other Americans. This is despite the fact that the Israel lobby and the neo-conservative supporters of the war, who are influential within the Bush Administration, waged a long campaign for the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime.

While the influence of the Israel lobby cannot be doubted, the extent of its influence can be questioned.

In democratic nations such as the United States that have citizen armies, it is not easy to undertake a long and costly military campaign without public support. Thus, it is not easy to wage what might be called "policy wars", as in Iraq. Saddam was a nasty man, but there are many nasty rulers around who survive until they die or are overthrown by their own people.

The reasoning behind the Iraq war remains opaque. However, it clearly involves the three main strategic aims of the United States in the Middle East - maintaining access to the oil and gas located in the Persian Gulf region; discouraging Middle East nations from acquiring weapons of mass destruction; and reducing anti-American terrorism.

In other words, the US, rather than relying on a specific aim or casus belli, undertook the Iraq war to further US foreign policy objectives, with the elimination of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction being the proximate public justification.

As such, the Israel lobby's ability to rally public and political support for the Iraq war was furthered by the political aims of the Bush Administration, with the added bonus of rallying the Jewish vote for the Republicans.

The Jewish vote will have a critical role in shaping the outcome of the November US presidential election. In recent elections, the Jewish vote has favoured the Democrats, but it is by no means rusted on. In 1980, for example, the Democrats' Jimmy Carter got a mere 45 per cent.

"American Jewish voters maintain the potential to be the decisive factor in national election results.... American Jews wield power through their high concentration in key states and their tendency to behave as a swing vote in ways that set them apart from virtually all other groups in American politic," says Jeffrey Helmreich of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs.

This is only a "slight exaggeration", say Mearsheimer and Walt.

The Jewish population of the United States is less than 3 per cent of the total, but several factors increase that influence. First, Jewish Americans have a high level of civic involvement, demonstrated in their participation in political and social activities, and also in their generosity in donating to many causes, including charities, educational institutions and political campaigns.

Second, Jewish votes tend to have high turnout rates - voting in America is not compulsory.

Third, Jewish voters are concentrated in key battleground states such as New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois and Pennsylvania. And, of course, there is the "swinging vote" factor.

This book presents some attractive arguments, but its central thesis - that the Israel lobby is detrimental to US interests in the Middle East - is unproven.

The fact is that Israel and the US have a rare congruence of strategic and political aims, and the Israel lobby's ability to rally support for Washington's policies is welcome.

The main US strategic aim in the Middle East is to prevent any one power, in particular the Iranians, exercising hegemony over the region. As with Australia, it's a case of "permanent interests", not "permanent allies".

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