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Washington, DC - March 7, 2014 8AM-5PM at the National Press Club

"..a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils."

-George Washington, Farewell Address


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  The "special relationship" and what has changed since publication of The Israel Lobby book
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by Stephen Walt  is professor of International Affairs at Harvard University; previously taught at Princeton University, University of Chicago; consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the National Defense University. He presently serves on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies.

Walt also serves as Co-Editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. Author of The Origins of Alliances, which received the 1988 Edgar S. Furniss National Security Book Award and, with co-author John J. Mearsheimer of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

It's a pleasure to be here today, and I want to thank all of you for coming to this important and timely gathering. I'm going to talk primarily about how things have changed since 2006. In 2006, almost eight years ago, John Mearsheimer and I published an article in the London Review of Books entitled "The Israel Lobby."


By that summer, it had been downloaded about 300,000 times, had generated a firestorm of criticism, including some intense personal attacks on John and myself. And although most of the criticisms were without foundation and the personal smears were predictable, by mid-summer, the tide actually had begun to turn a bit. The Journal of Foreign Policy organized a symposium on the article, and, by fall, we had a book contract.


We wrote the article and we wrote the subsequent book because the Israel lobby was a taboo subject that many people knew about but hardly anybody talked about openly, and we wanted to challenge that taboo and open up a broader discussion.


So, again, I want to take the opportunity today to look back and reflect on what's changed since 2006. And to do that, first I'm going to summarize briefly what we said in the book and also what we didn't say. Second, I want to consider what's changed since 2006 but also what hasn't changed. And, lastly, I want to offer some recommendations based on our experience, at this point what course of action would I prescribe going forward.


So what we said. Our core arguments were actually very straightforward and not especially surprising. First, we argued there was a special relationship between the United States and Israel that was unlike any other bilateral relationship in American history. We gave it enormous economic, military, and diplomatic support and did so almost unconditionally. Moreover, Israel was largely immune from criticism by American politicians. In fact, American politicians routinely expressed a level of devotion they would never utter toward any other foreign country.


Second, we argued you couldn't explain this on either strategic or moral grounds. Israel might have been a strategic asset during the Cold War, but the Cold War was over and it was increasingly a liability. The moral case was undermined by Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and especially by the occupation. Yet, the special relationship kept getting deeper and deeper, and the question was why?


Third, the answer was the political influence of the lobby. We defined the lobby as a loose coalition of individuals and organizations that actively worked to promote that special relationship. And those groups didn't agree on every issue, but all of them worked to convince American politicians to support Israel no matter what.


We emphasized that these activities were, in most respects, no different than other interest groups, like the NRA, the financial industry, the farm lobby, other ethnic lobbies. They just happened to be particularly good at it. And we showed in considerable detail how groups in the lobby worked within the political system to get sympathetic people elected or appointed to key positions, to keep those who might have different views out of power, and to pressure politicians to embrace their policy preferences.


We also documented how individuals and groups in the lobby tried to control discourse on this subject by writing books and articles themselves, by funding think tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, by putting pressure on other media organizations whenever they published or broadcast things that were critical of Israel or critical of the lobby. Some members of the lobby also tried to smear opponents, usually by accusing them of being anti-Semitic, even when this was completely false.


Fifth, we argued that the special relationship and the other policies pushed by the lobby were not in the American national interest or, for that matter, in Israel's interest either. The lobby's influence made it impossible for the United States to be an honest broker, which is why American efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had failed and the settlements had grown steadily for more than 40 years. The lobby and especially the neo-conservatives within it played a key role in convincing the Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2003. And the lobby had also worked to thwart any possible detente with Iran, a policy, by the way, that had failed to halt Iran's nuclear program and it increased the risk of war.


And so we argued the United States should have a normal relationship with Israel, not a special relationship. We said the United States should come to Israel's aid if its survival were at risk, but we should also use American leverage to get a two-state solution. And, in fact, in the conclusion, we even suggested that a powerful pro-Israel lobby would be a good thing if it was supporting smarter policies that were in America's and Israel's interests.


Now, we weren't saying anything that other writers hadn't said before, people such as Paul Findley, Edward Tivnan, George Ball, Michael Massing. What we wrote was also common knowledge inside the Beltway. Bill Clinton had said that AIPAC was "better than anyone else lobbying in this town." Politicians as diverse as Lee Hamilton, Fritz Hollings, Barry Goldwater, Newt Gingrich, and Richard Gephardt had written or spoken about AIPAC's power in the past. Even passionate defenders of Israel, like Jeffrey Goldberg and Alan Dershowitz, had written proudly about the lobby's clout.


Yet, we provoked an extreme reaction, partly because we provided more detail about the lobby's influence, partly because we were both rather middle-of-the-road boring figures from well-known universities, partly because we weren't left wing, we weren't Muslim, we weren't Arab, we weren't married to Palestinians, and partly because it was obvious in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War that something had gone badly awry in U.S. Middle East policy.


Now, let me turn now to what we didn't say. The rather hysterical reaction to our work confirmed one of our main points: it was very difficult to have a calm, reasoned, fact-based discussion on this topic. Because most of our critics could not find fault with our logic or fault with our evidence, they accused us of saying many things we hadn't said and, in most cases, things that were the exact opposite of what we had actually written.


Now, I'm not going to bore you with all the false accusations. But just for the record, here's what we didn't say: we didn't say that the Israel lobby was a cabal or a conspiracy, part of some deep plot to control the world. In fact, we said over and over it was nothing of the sort, it was an interest group like so many others here.


We did not question Israel's legitimacy or right to exist. On the contrary, we explicitly defended it. Third, we didn't blame Israel for all the problems that trouble the Middle East, and we didn't say that a normal relationship with Israel and a two-state solution would immediately solve all of them. We said it would help, but it wasn't a magic bullet or anything like that. We did not say the lobby controlled every aspect of U.S. Middle East policy or argue that it was the only reason the United States invaded Iraq or has a bad relationship with Iran. We didn't accuse members of the lobby of disloyalty, and we neither argued, nor hinted, that something should be done to limit the lobby's political power or marginalize its supporters.


Finally, we did not connect Israel or the lobby to the 9/11 attacks themselves. We didn't say any of these things because we didn't think they were true, and that's important. We were accused of saying all those things, of course, and people in the lobby made repeated and sometimes successful efforts to silence us. Virtually every place we were invited to speak told us that they had been pressured to cancel our appearances, and a number of places, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Google Headquarters, the City University of New York succumbed to this pressure.


But the campaign to silence us failed. The book sold well. It's been translated into over 20 languages, and John and I have remained active participants in the debate on this and other foreign policy issues.


The real question is what impact did any of this have? What's changed and what hasn't?


I think the most dramatic and obvious change since 2006 has been an opening up of discourse on this general topic. Discussions of Middle East policy and U.S. - Israeli relations are more open. A wider range of views is now being expressed. Let me just give you some of the evidence behind this claim.


Media figures, such as Tom Friedman, Nick Kristof, Roger Cohen, and Andrew Sullivan now write openly and, at times, very critically about Israeli policy, about American support for that policy, and the lobby's role in promoting it. Even Jeff Goldberg has written a couple of pieces that sound a bit like us, although I doubt he'd admit it.


Articles about American Middle East policy more generally increasingly mention AIPAC's influence. It's just no longer a big secret or stuck in the background of the piece. Jon Stewart, if you watch Comedy Central at all, Jon Stewart has done a number of segments making fun of AIPAC, as well. Books like Peter Beinart's Crisis of Zionism, Dan Fleshler's Transforming America's Israel Lobby, John Judis' recent Genesis have followed in our footsteps, documented the role the lobby plays in driving U.S. policy.


Other people, like MJ Rosenberg, have emerged as articulate and knowledgeable critics. Writers, like Max Blumenthal, have published critical accounts of anti-democratic trends in Israel itself. Websites, like Mondoweiss, MuzzleWatch, Electronic Intifada, and others now provide alternative perspectives. And groups, like J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace, Code Pink, Americans for Peace Now, and many others have become more visible and effective in presenting an alternative view to the traditional lobby organizations. Now, note these groups are not homogeneous. They don't all agree on every single issue. My point is simply that there is a much wider range of views out there now, and they are getting noticed.


This development is, of course, not entirely our doing because a number of events in the real world have made the lobby's power hard to miss: the complete failure of Barack Obama's push for a two-state solution and a settlement freeze in his first term; the craven American response to Operation Cast Lead, including the American trashing of the Goldstone Report; the spectacle of the 2012 election when the GOP candidates looked like fools trying to out-pander each other in the GOP primary season and where Sheldon Adelson spent $100 million trying to buy the election first for Newt Gingrich and then for Mitt Romney. Because discourse was more open and people were now aware of the role of the lobby, more people noticed these things and could put two and two together.

A second development, the accusation of anti-Semitism is losing its power to intimidate. And let me be very clear about this: like all forms of bigotry, anti-Semitism is a despicable practice. Every one of us should condemn it whenever it appears. At the same time, using false charges of anti-Semitism to stifle debate and destroy people's reputations is an ugly tactic that has no place in a democracy, and people who use it in that way should also be called to account. And I think, fortunately, this tactic has been so overused and used against so many people who are obviously not anti-Semites that it's no longer able to stifle reasonable discussion. And that's going to make it easier to have an honest conversation going forward.


The third change is that some of the policies the lobby has promoted are increasingly hard to defend. Instead of a weak Israeli David surrounded by a hostile Arab Goliath, we have a powerful nuclear-armed Israel maintaining a brutal occupation for more than four decades using its military power to dominate a Palestinian population denied political rights.


Fourth, AIPAC and other groups in the lobby have lost several important fights in recent years. They could not convince the Bush administration to use force against Iran or support an Israeli attack on Iran. They could not derail the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, although some hard-line groups tried to do so in especially ugly ways. Earlier this year, they could not convince Obama to bomb Syria. And, more recently, AIPAC could not get the Senate to pass a resolution threatening greater economic sanctions on Iran because it was widely recognized this would immediately derail any possibility of a diplomatic deal.


These episodes remind us that the lobby does not control U.S. Middle East Policy, does not get every single thing it wants, especially when what it wants might push the United States closer to war. That's a lot for any lobby to ask for, and it takes very special circumstances to pull something like that off. Those events I think also tell us that AIPAC and company are not invincible.


Now, those setbacks have led a number or observers to conclude that AIPAC's in deep trouble, that the lobby's influence has been broken. Let me say why I think that is premature because there are a number of things that haven't changed.


First of all, the special relationship is still intact. We still give generous economic and military assistance, even though Israel is a wealthy country and has clear military superiority over its neighbors. And we give this aid unconditionally. There's no hint we might reduce our assistance to get Israel to stop building settlements or to allow creation of a viable Palestinian state.


Second, that's, of course, why the peace process continues to go nowhere. Remember, Obama came into office promising a two-state solution in his first term and called for a settlement freeze in his famous Cairo speech in June 2009. He's been in steadfast retreat ever since. He basically gave up on this in the first term and handed the problem over to John Kerry. But there's little evidence that Kerry's efforts are going to succeed. The settlements have been expanding all the while.


Notice, by the way, that a two-state solution may well be impossible at this point. But politicians in the District of Columbia continue to pretend that it is the only American goal. I'm a two-state person myself, but I'm also a realist. And at some point, one does have to at least start acknowledging the possibility that we're not going to get a two-state solution.


Third, the lobby still gets enormous deference from American politicians. A few weeks ago, the left wing progressive mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, was recorded telling an AIPAC group that defending Israel was part of his job description as mayor of New York. If you were paying attention, earlier this week a number of prominent American politicians, including Secretary of State Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and John McCain all gave the usual flowery speeches at the AIPAC policy conference. And even today, there's really no other lobbying group that gets this kind of deference and attention here in Washington.


Fourth, although discourse is more open now, it is still, I think, extremely risky for young, ambitious foreign policy wannabes to question key elements of U.S. Middle East policy and especially the "special relationship." You can if you have tenure at a university, if you don't have your heart set on working in the U.S. government, or if you're retired. But it's hard to find people inside the foreign policy establishment who are willing to say what they think on this issue out loud. Just look at how Chuck Hagel and Samantha Power had to contort themselves during their confirmation hearings, and you see the lobby's continued influence.


And please don't forget that we're still a long way from a deal with Iran or a two-state solution. And the lobby will be working 24/7 to make sure that the United States doesn't do anything Israel doesn't want. In short, reports of the lobby's demise have been greatly exaggerated. And given that fact, what do I think we ought to do about it? I'll just give you, I think, four basic lessons here.


Lesson number one: it's just politics, stupid. The first lesson I would emphasize is this is all about politics. The Israel lobby is powerful because it has all the features that make an interest group powerful, and it uses all the tools available in a democracy: direct lobbying, financial contributions, grassroots organizing, pressure on the media, etcetera. There is nothing magical, nothing conspiratorial about this.


They're also influential because they haven't faced strong and well-organized opposition. And if they are facing greater headwinds today, say on Iran, it's because others are starting to play that political game more effectively.


Lesson number two: it's going to get worse before it gets better. The lobby's main goal is protecting the special relationship, and that's going to be harder to do as Israel moves rightward and as it becomes obvious that there's not going to be a two-state solution. Israel's control over the West Bank will be recognized more and more as apartheid. Pressure to give the Palestinians political rights is going to grow. One person, one vote is easy for Americans to understand. And if you saw the recent poll by Shibley Telhami, that's what Americans overwhelmingly favor if they believe a two-state solution is no longer possible. Then they favor one state democracy.


Getting the United States to back a state that privileges one ethnic or religious group over others is going to be an increasingly hard sell over time. And to try to make that sell, groups like AIPAC are going to have to do even more to try and influence discourse, to try and discredit critics. But in my estimation, the more strident and heavy-handed their tactics are the more resentment it will sow and the more people will be turned off over time.


Lesson number three: be realistic and build a big tent. Reversing policies that have been in place for decades does not happen overnight, and you don't do it by writing a single article or a single book. What one needs is a big tent for people who want a normal relationship with Israel and a Middle East policy that conforms to a broad conception of the American national interest. That doesn't mean that everybody in this room has to agree on everything. The Israel lobby is a loose coalition united by a couple of shared goals, and we should take a page from their playbook, while making sure that our ranks are not filled with those who sow hatred or spread discredited conspiracy theories.


Lastly, if we were to write the book today, how might it be different? Well, it would have to be a lot longer because a lot of new information has come to light since 2007. And you could even argue that the entire Obama administration is a case study of the lobby's continued influence. So, you know, we'd have to do volume two and it would have to be just as long as the first edition was. But to be perfectly honest, I don't think John or I would change our central arguments at all because events since 2006 - 2007 have vindicated almost all of what we wrote.


To repeat, we wrote the book to encourage a more open discussion of these issues because we thought a more open debate would bring a lot of additional truths to light and would be better for everybody in the end. And I think that's precisely what has happened, though, again, we do not take all the credit for it.


I just want to close by thanking those of you who have worked for many years, long before we got into this, to counter the lobby's arguments and hasten the day when the American relationship with Israel is guided primarily by strategic interests and moral principles and not by domestic politics. When that day arrives, it's going to be better for us but also better for Israel and also for its neighbors, as well.


Thank you very much.

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