This study by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt on the pro-Israel lobby makes two claims. First, that from a realist perspective, U.S. policy toward Israel is inconsistent with U.S. interests. Second, that this counterproductive policy is the result of a well-organized and very effective "Israel lobby."
As for the first claim, I think the authors are clearly correct. I've never heard a convincing realist case for the billions of dollars which the U.S. shovels at Israel, and the close relationship between our two countries has unquestionably damaged U.S. interests in the region. I think there was a reasonable case for the alliance during the Cold War, but that does not exist now. The only two justifications for the U.S.-Israel alliance that I see now are 1) to show other countries how well our friends make out, and 2) that security guarantees which Israel receives from the U.S. act as a constraint on Israel. Both are rather weak.
As to the moral case for supporting Israel, which as a liberal I think is worth considering, the U.S. does have an interest in supporting and strengthening democracies, and Israel is a democracy. This doesn't mean that Israel gets a colonize-your-neighbors-for-free card just because it holds regular elections, just that U.S. support for the right of Israelis (all Israelis) to live as free, equal citizens within secure, internationally recognized borders should be unequivocal, as it also should be in regards to the rights of Palestinians. It is entirely appropriate to question whether U.S. policy toward Israel furthers these goals. In my opinion it does not, but even if Israel were the greatest democracy ever this would not explain the staggering sums of money the U.S. provides it every year.
As to Walt and Mearsheimer's second claim, I think it's somewhat less clear. Scott Lemieux is right that it's difficult to really quantify the effectiveness of a particular lobby, although as the authors mention Fortune magazine attempts to do just that, regularly placing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in the top two or three most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington based on polling of lawmakers, lobbyists, and congressional and White House aides. This is by no means definitive, but at the very least I'd suggest that the fact that lawmakers, lobbyists, and congressional and White House aides perceive AIPAC as extremely powerful and effective strengthens, rather than weakens, Walt and Mearsheimer's argument that AIPAC is extremely powerful and effective.
As does this Fox News report from four years ago, though of course it presents the power of the Israel lobby in overwhelmingly positive terms. The Fox story also makes the laughably inaccurate historical claim about the "strong U.S.-Israel alliance dating back to Israel's 1948 foundation," which could itself be taken as proof of the effectiveness of the lobby's mythmaking. On the other hand, it could be taken as proof that Fox News replaced its fact checkers with a Coke machine years ago.
Another story that I think underlines Walt and Mearsheimer's argument is that of Larry Franklin, the Pentagon analyst who was recently sentenced to twelve years in prison for passing classified information on Iran to Israeli lobbyists:
Franklin said he passed the information because he was "frustrated" with the direction of U.S. policy and thought he could influence it by having them relay the data through "back channels" to officials on the National Security Council.
Here we have a Pentagon analyst who concluded that he could have more effect on U.S. policy by working through the Israeli lobby than by working within his own chain of command. So was Franklin just prone to conspiracy theories, or did this twenty-five year defense policy veteran actually have an accurate idea of how to get things done in Washington?
Scott also links to this question from Dan Drezner:
If "The Lobby" is as powerful as Walt and Mearsheimer claim, why hasn't there been a bigger push in the United States for more fuel-efficient cars, alternative energy sources, and the like? After all, the only strategic resource that Israel's enemies possess is large quantities of oil. If "The Lobby" is so powerful and goal-directed, wouldn't they have an incentive to reduce the strategic value of their adversaries?
This is wafer thin. I see Drezner making this argument:
X is in Israel's interest. The fact that the pro-Israel lobby has neither advocated nor achieved X is evidence against the power of that lobby.
There are number of things which are clearly in Israel's interests which the lobby (as M&W define it) does not advocate, the most obvious being the withdrawal of the settlements and the end of the occupation, but I think this misunderstands the aims of the lobby, which is not concerned with a genuine appraisal of Israel's security needs but rather with defending the particular policies of the Israeli government and with keeping American taxpayer money flowing to it. It also seems rather weak to claim that the lobby's effectiveness is called into question by their (entirely understandable) decision not to confront another set of extremely powerful lobbies (oil and automobile) on an issue which is much more relevant to a much larger number of Americans than U.S.-Israel policy.
Finally, briefly, you simply must read the bilious reactions by right-wing bloggers who seem intent on proving Walt and Mearsheimer's assertion that "anyone who merely claims that there is an Israel Lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-semitism." This would almost be funny if weren't so heinous and transparent an attempt by these clowns to distract from the actual issue at hand. Agree or disagree with it, there is nothing in Walt and Mearsheimer's argument that suggests anything close to anti-Semitism on the part of the authors, unless of course you consider the very act of examining U.S. policy toward Israel to be inherently anti-Semitic, in which case...yeah, okay. You'll notice that the Fox News report, which made many of the same claims as Walt and Mearsheimer regarding the power and effectiveness of the Israel lobby, was not met with similar accusations of conspiratorial Jew-hatred.
It's just a sad reality that anyone who chooses to get involved in discussions relating to Israel and Palestine must be prepared to have their motives and background constantly questioned. I have been condemned at various times as both a Zionist stooge (for suggesting that Arab governments have behaved reprehensibly in regard to the Palestinians, and for suggesting that Palestinian terrorism is both morally wrong and politically counterproductive) and an anti-semite (for suggesting that Israel should actually be held to the standards of international human rights conventions which it has signed.) It's no fun, but the upside is that such accusations can generally be taken as proof that those making them have a weak argument.