With the primary season heating up and a general election looming, America stands at something of a foreign policy crossroads, having just limped out of Iraq but with boots still on the ground in an increasingly hopeless war in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, one foreign policy issue that is unlikely to be raised by any candidate or party is U.S. support for Israel. Given the strategic and political implications of any issue related to the Middle East, it is vital for Americans to be able to speak freely and seriously about the influence of Israel over our foreign policy decisions.
As political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt noted in their groundbreaking 2006 essay "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," Israel has received generous and special treatment from the United States, even though it lacks both strategic value and a persuasive moral justification for continued American support. Mearsheimer and Walt conclude that the United States' policy toward Israel is due to the dominance of the Israel lobby, specifically the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Essentially, the United States' Israel policy is a case of special interest influence taken to an extreme level. The Israel lobby is a classic example of an attentive public, albeit one that has enjoyed extraordinary success in accomplishing its goals. It is a public relations machine that leverages its access to Congress and the executive branch to gain tacit American support for Israeli actions, like the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and to stifle any debate about American support for Israel.
Furthermore, entities with the power to shape public debate, including major American newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and think tanks like the Brookings Institution, staunchly defend American support for Israel. Their stance further narrows the range of dialogue. Perhaps most disturbingly, the lobby has made concerted efforts on college campuses to promote Israel's cause while simultaneously monitoring and lashing out at professors, like Columbia University's Rashid Khalidi, who are vocal critics of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Coupled with candidates' dependence on campaign donations from Jewish supporters and the high turnout rates among Jewish voters in swing states, the broad coalition that composes the Israel lobby wields an incredible and alarming amount of influence at various levels of American society, which is reflected in our tacit support for Israel in every relevant dimension.
Ultimately, the Israel lobby poses a threat to American national security because unwavering support for the Israeli cause only complicates our relationships with the Islamic world. The United States has a terrorism problem largely because it is so closely allied with Israel. The direction of American policy in the Middle East, particularly in regards to Iraq and Iran, was motivated at least in part by our desire to increase Israeli security and construct a pro-American zone of democracy in one of the world's most unstable regions.
In the roughly six years since Walt and Mearshimer's article went to press, it is difficult to find evidence that AIPAC's power within the halls of government has waned. Although President Barack Obama has admittedly been busy with other issues, his administration has largely stayed above the fray on Israel by condemning Israeli settlement blocks in the West Bank, calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and touting continued American-Israeli military cooperation. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently demanded that these settlement blocks must be part of any resolution reached. His forthcoming diplomatic visit to the United States will test just how much American foreign policy panders to Israel's interests. While we must not confuse correlation with causation, American discourse and policy may remain captive to Israel's whims.
As long as the priorities of the Israel lobby are reflected in American foreign policy, the specter of terrorism will linger and extremists will continue to use American support for Israel as a recruiting tool. Its power will prevent American leaders from pressuring Israelis and Palestinians to work out a territorial solution. Furthermore, it will make it difficult for the United States to enlist Arab allies and raise the potential for another disastrous military intervention in the Middle East. It seems that the United States will remain mired in a controversy that Americans are encouraged not to discuss.