In S.F., authors restate case against Israel lobby

The controversy surrounding “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” has been exponentially more fiery than the San Francisco appearance by the book’s authors.

Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer — two of America’s more renowned political scientists — argued in San Francisco Sept. 20 that it is against America’s best interest to support Israel so unconditionally. They contend that U.S. support for Israel has helped fuel terrorism against the United States, and is one of the reasons the country went to war in Iraq.

One would have expected blistering and passionate outbursts from the audience. But because their appearance was tightly orchestrated by the sponsoring World Affairs Council, it was a fairly tidy evening.

The event was recorded for the KQED weekly radio show “It’s Your World,” so audience members could not ask questions aloud. Instead, people wrote questions on a half-sheet of paper; a moderator then sorted through the stack and selected those to be read.

Walt and Mearsheimer came to the Bay Area in support of their new book (which followed a less detailed but related essay published last year). They spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of 450 at the Fairmount Hotel.

The authors each spoke for about 20 minutes, then answered questions for another 20 minutes. Crowd reaction was an even mix of applause and sharp gasps.

“America’s unconditional support for Israel is one of the reasons we have a terrorism problem,” Walt said. “It’s hard to make a case that unconditional support of Israel is making the U.S. safer and more secure. Israel has become a strategic liability.”

Walt, a professor at the University of Chicago, said the United States historically wields its influence by withholding financial or military support to nations that act inhumanely or unjustly. Not so with Israel. For instance, he said, the Jewish state continues to occupy the West Bank, a policy the U.S. says it doesn’t support. Yet Israel continues to receive billions of dollars in U.S. aid, in large part because of the tremendous power of the Israel lobby (which he defined as a loose coalition of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, including AIPAC).

“Past crimes to the Jewish people do not justify giving Israel a blank check now,” he said.

“The U.S. should use its considerable leverage to get Israel to change its behavior just as they would any other country that hurts our national interest,” added Mearsheimer, a Harvard University professor.

They said that the lobby has so influenced Congress and mainstream media that there is rarely debate — in the U.S. government or in the public domain — about America’s Israel policies, because people are afraid of being labeled anti-Semitic if they question support for Israel.

That climate helped create the circumstances to go to war in Iraq, the authors contend.

“It’s hard to imagine that war happening in the absence of the Israel-U.S. relationship,” Mearsheimer said.

The two stressed they were not anti-Semitic, and when they blamed the U.S.-Israel relationship for terrorism and the Iraq war, they repeatedly added, “it’s not the only cause, but a major one.”

When the authors fielded questions, one audience member had written: “Do you deny Hezbollah? Hamas? Do you not recognize the threat Israel lives under?”

Mearsheimer called those threats “manageable.”

“The image of Israel as a besieged state bears little resemblance to reality … Israel has been wildly successful and it’s not about to fall off the cliff. This is good news.”

He added that “terrorism would largely disappear” if a Palestinian state was established.

Afterwards, Yitzhak Santis, an expert on Middle East affairs for the S.F. Jewish Community Relations Council, said he was disturbed by how the authors minimized the threat of Israel’s neighbors.

“Israel no longer occupies Lebanon, but Hezbollah still exists. That turns their argument on its head,” said Santis, one of dozens of local Jewish leaders to attend the event.

Numerous U.C. Berkeley students were there as well. Brendan McSherry, a doctoral student of political science, said he agreed with most of the authors’ points. However, “I think their book underestimates the power of Christian Zionists and overstates that the Israel lobby has caused terrorism in the U.S.,” he said.

McSherry and his peers said the book was important if only because it has sparked discussion. But Santis disagreed.

“Does it advance public discourse? No,” Santis said. “It makes Jews feel threatened and it stirs up anti-Semitism, even though they say that’s not their intent.”

Stacey Palevsky