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2006-05-24

Study Alleging Dominant Influence of Israeli Lobby Sparks Heated Fallout

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In the recent study "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy", two distinguished political science professors charge that the United States has willingly set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of Israel. In addition the study accuses the pro-Israeli lobby, particularly AIPAC of manipulating the U.S. media, policing academia and silencing critics of Israel by labeling them as anti-Semitic. Media critic Michael Massing joins us to talk about the fallout from the study. [includes rush transcript]

The "Anti-Hamas bill that passed in the House yesterday was heavily supported by AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In fact, one critic of the bill, Congresswoman Betty McCollum of Minnesota, accused AIPAC of threatening her because she voted against the bill. She said an AIPAC activist called her office to say that her "support for terrorists will not be tolerated."

We turn now to look at a recent study that has caused an uproar in the academic community and in the media. The study is titled "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy." The authors of the paper, Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard University and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, charge that the United States has willingly set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of Israel. In addition the study accuses the pro-Israeli lobby, particularly AIPAC of manipulating the U.S. media, policing academia and silencing critics of Israel by labeling them as anti-Semitic. Well, a new article in the New York Review of Books examines this controversial report and the reaction to it. It’s titled "The Storm over the Israel Lobby". It was written by media critic Michael Massing who joins us our in the Firehouse studio.

  • Michael Massing, contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He frequently writes for the New York Review of Books, the American Prospect and the Nation.

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Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A new article in the New York Review of Books examines the controversial report and the reaction to it. It’s called "The Storm Over the Israel Lobby." It was written by media critic Michael Massing, who joins us now in our Firehouse studio. Michael is a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and frequently writes for the New York Review of Books. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

MICHAEL MASSING: Good to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you summarize the paper and the response?

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, the paper by the two professors, it’s a very strongly argued case that U.S. foreign policy has been sort of taken into a counterproductive direction by the power of the Israel lobby, and they define the Israel lobby in very broad terms. They include not only groups like AIPAC, but Christian Zionists, neoconservatives, media monitor groups from a pro-Israel perspective, and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: And people like, well, the former House majority leader, Tom DeLay.

MICHAEL MASSING: Tom DeLay and other people like that. Dick Armey, and so on and so forth. And they sort of put them all together. That’s one thing that became controversial. Are Christian Zionists, for instance, part of the Israel lobby, or is that yet another type of pressure group? And so on.

But they basically argued that from a strategic and moral standpoint, the U.S. really — it’s not in America’s interest to be backing Israel as strongly and unwaveringly as it does. And the main reason that the U.S. does back Israel is because of the power of this lobby. And they attempt to show that not only has it sort of skewed U.S. policy on Israeli-Palestinian relations, but has effected U.S. policy on many other regional issues, particularly the war in Iraq. They claim that U.S. would not have gone to war against Iraq had it not been for the threat that Iraq posed to Israel and had it not been for the support for Israel in this country through the Israel lobby. And the reaction, you know, was just tumultuous.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we get to the reaction, explain who these authors are of this piece, which makes it so significant.

MICHAEL MASSING: Right. Well, the senior person is a John Mearsheimer, who is a professor of International Relations, International Security at the University of Chicago, and his colleague Stephen Walt, who is at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and has been the administrative dean there for the last three years. So these are two very eminent professors. More so, they’re sort of rather — I don’t know, they’re realists basically. They come out of this sort of Brzezinski school of international relations, that international policy should be based on national interest, and they are writing from the perspective that U.S. policy in the Mid-East, particularly U.S. support for Israel to the extent it’s been, has not been in the U.S. interest. So very impeccable establishment credentials, which was one reason why their taking such a strong position created such a stir.

AMY GOODMAN: And the piece went up on the Harvard University website.

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, it’s interesting. It originally was commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly, and they wrote it for the Atlantic, but the Atlantic ultimately rejected the piece, and it made its way circuitously to the London Review of Books, which said, "We want this. We want you to have even more about the Israel lobby in it." And so the piece appeared there in March and simultaneously went up on the website of the Kennedy School. And the Harvard connection has added an element. It has brought much more attention, just because of the Harvard brand name.

AMY GOODMAN: The response in the media?

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, the response — the media is part of the response, but, in general, many, many people have attacked this with a venom that has been extraordinary. Actually, the New York Sun has been in the lead. They ran several front-page articles of a really extraordinary nature. I mean, one of them, their lead story one day in March was about how David Duke endorsed this paper and claimed it had vindicated what he’s been saying all along about U.S. policy, that sort of Israel was behind the war in Iraq, and so on and so forth.

They claimed, based on Alan Dershowitz’s assertions, that Mearsheimer and Walt, the two professors, got some of their information from neo-Nazi websites; that became a front-page article in the New York Sun. I mean, I was actually surprised the New York Sun went as far as it did. These articles with so unbalanced, even for a conservative newspaper like the Sun. Alan Dershowitz got the Kennedy School to post his own rebuttal, 40-some pages long, in which he attacked various parts of the paper.

And let me say that the paper itself made a lot of strong arguments about Israel and its history that struck many people, even supporters of their general argument, as one-sided and harsh. It went into a whole history of Israel’s crimes, as they call them, against the Palestinians, without really talking about the violence that has come from the Palestinian side against Israel. So, as I argued in my own paper, they sort of invited some of the criticism that they got.

AMY GOODMAN: Ha’aretz is taking this very seriously, some interesting discussion in the Israeli newspaper.

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, you know, Amy, it’s long been considered that the Israeli press has a more vigorous debate about sort of relations with the Palestinians than you can have here, in part, I think, because of pressure from the lobby. But Ha’aretz, for instance, said that whatever one thinks of the merits of the paper, the storm it’s kicked up, the issues it’s raised, the fact that two professors like this of such credentials have raised these issues should be taken as a warning sign about sort of the limits of American tolerance for Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michael Massing, contributing editor, Columbia Journalism Review, board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, has written the piece "The Storm Over the Israeli Lobby." Noam Chomsky has also critiqued this from a different perspective.

MICHAEL MASSING: Right, from the left. Some people, Chomsky and others, feel that it basically takes an ennobling view of America and what its interests in the world are, that America had a — if it were not for the power of the Israel lobby, would conduct itself in a much more sort of Wilsonian way, when in fact, Chomsky argues, if you look at U.S. policy around the world, the type of — that Israel has, in fact, served U.S. interests very well, smashing Arab nationalism, protecting U.S. access to oil and other natural resources, and that Israel has helped U.S. policy in places like Central America in providing sort of military assistance to some of the regimes the U.S. propped up there in the 1980s.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute. So, your summary now of where the debate goes and how significant this is? Despite the debate there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of attention to this in the U.S. media.

MICHAEL MASSING: Right. I mean, for instance, the New York Times ran an open-ed piece by Tony Judt, which was very strongly backing the professors, but beyond that, their news coverage has been very minimal. Washington Post, if you look at the sort of main outpost of our top media, it’s been very scant coverage. And to some people, that’s an indication that the truth — that it is hard, in fact, to debate these issues, because of the pressure on the press.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you were at the AIPAC meeting, the big annual meeting —

MICHAEL MASSING: I didn’t go. I sort of tried to reconstruct it based on interviews.

AMY GOODMAN: In March, where, in fact, the bill we just debated was a major topic. But the power you see of AIPAC in determining policy?

MICHAEL MASSING: I think it’s very strong. I think that, as I quoted — what I tried to do in my article was do some of the reporting that I thought the paper itself lacked, on the actual power of AIPAC. How strong is it? And I found that, in fact, it’s very strong, particularly in Congress. They create what one former Clinton official told me was background noise, that like right now, in terms of the administration. You showed President Bush’s comments. That’s all made against the background of this tremendous operation that AIPAC has, where they can take hundreds of activists to Congress and meet, put pressure on Congressmen. If they do not got way they do, as Betty McCullom found out, the congresswoman from Minnesota, they can brand you this way and that way. The local press will pick it up. And also the money factor is very strong. AIPAC helps to guide people, both PACs as well as individuals, in terms of their money giving. The fundraising aspect’s very big, all which means that AIPAC is not indomitable, but it has a very strong influence in creating the context in which U.S. policy toward Israel gets made.

AMY GOODMAN: Among the most powerful lobbies, next to the N.R.A.?

MICHAEL MASSING: Yeah, it’s up there with the N.R.A. and A.A.R.P.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Michael Massing, contributing editor, Columbia Journalism Review, board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His piece, "The Storm Over the Israel Lobby," appears in the current issue of the New York Review of Books.

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