The best books on US-Israel Relations

recommended by Stephen Walt

The international relations professor tells us about the special relationship between America and Israel – how it came about, what it means, and how it should change

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So, we’re trying to understand how the US has come to identify so closely with Israel in recent decades, and your first book is The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, which you wrote along with John Mearsheimer. Why is that at the top of your list?

The only way to understand the special relationship that now exists between the United States and Israel is to understand the critical role that a number of organisations have played in actively promoting that relationship over the last 60 years. The US has supported Israel since its founding in 1948, but it did not have the same sort of special relationship for the first 20 or so years after Israel’s creation. The US backed it in certain ways, but was also willing to put lots of pressure on it in other circumstances and didn’t provide a lot of economic or military assistance until after 1967. But today the US backs Israel no matter what it does and American politicians are careful never to say anything that is very critical of Israel, even when it is acting in ways that are contrary to US interests and values. The key to understanding this ‘special relationship’ is the operation of various groups in the Israel lobby, and our book lays out in great detail how that works, and why it’s not good for the US or Israel.

So are you saying that this closeness can be entirely attributed to a staggeringly successful public relations campaign by various organisations and lobbying groups?

The existence of a special relationship – one of nearly unconditional and generous American support – is due almost entirely to the activities of the Israel lobby. The United States and Israel would probably be friendly and might even be de facto allies if there were no lobby, but they wouldn’t have nearly as profound a relationship were it not for the activities of AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, or the Anti-Defamation League, as well as the so-called ‘Christian Zionists’ and a number of other groups and individuals. There’s no other relationship like it in all of US foreign policy, and even in the entire history of American diplomacy.

But these organisations don’t like it when you make this claim – indeed, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League wrote an entire book, The Deadliest Lies, refuting yours.

That’s another reason I chose our book. I’d normally be reluctant to include my own book on a list of this kind – it’s immodest. But our book did go a long way toward breaking the taboo about even talking about this subject in mainstream foreign policy circles. Prior to our writing our original article in the London Review of Books and the subsequent book, the Israel lobby was a phenomenon that many people understood but nobody really wanted to talk about, because they understood they’d get in trouble if they did.

Do you feel it’s no longer taboo or do you feel slightly isolated as a result of having written your book?

I think the taboo has been substantially weakened. For people who want to have significant foreign policy careers, it’s certainly still an issue they don’t want to get too close to. Inside the Beltway, in Washington DC, you still get a lot of self-censorship and dishonest discourse. But I think the subject is now much more out in the open than it was before, which is all to the good.

Your next choice is Leon Uris’s blockbuster, Exodus. Why is that on your list of books to understand US-Israel relations?

Exodus is a book that had a profound impact on how many Americans thought about Israel. It was originally published in 1958, and was soon made into a hit movie starring Paul Newman and a number of other stars that had a far-reaching cultural impact. I even remember learning the Exodus theme song in my childhood piano lessons. People who didn’t know anything about Middle Eastern history or the creation of Israel took Uris’s story to be an accurate depiction of what had really happened in the years just before Israel’s founding. And, of course, it is, as we would say in the US, a rattling good yarn: an engaging story with lots of interesting characters that adds up to a wonderful page-turner. But it’s a terrible version of history: one in which virtually all of the Zionists/Israelis are noble and heroic and all of their supporters, whether Jewish or not, are equally praiseworthy. At the same time, all of those who oppose them, and especially the Arabs, are dirty, conniving and vicious. Due to its popularity, this book helped shape a certain image of Israel in the minds of many Americans, particularly Americans who otherwise weren’t engaged by this issue. So it played a key role in fostering a favourable image of Israel, based on a very inaccurate depiction of what really happened in 1947-8. I don’t think one can overstate the book’s importance in contributing to a broadly sympathetic portrait of Israel in mainstream America.

Your next choice is The Holocaust in American Life. Has the Holocaust always been a big part of American-Jewish life?

The basic argument that Peter Novick, a historian at the University of Chicago, makes, is that the prominence of the Holocaust as a central feature in American Jewish identity increased significantly in the late 1960s and afterwards. It’s partly connected to the Six Day War, but it’s also connected to concerns about secularism and assimilation and the declining role of religious devotion as a source of Jewish identity. And he shows, I think quite convincingly, that efforts to use the Holocaust as a common thread linking Jews together and, in particular, cementing a connection between American Jews and Israel were consciously constructed, or consciously manipulated by American Jewish organisations. In other words, the growing emphasis on the Holocaust and the increased focus on Israel was not something that happened by accident: this was the result of some deliberate choices of things to emphasise. It’s a fascinating account of how American Jewish identity shifts over time and becomes much more focused on Israel than had been true even in the 1950s.

Does it look at the practical ways that the connection is promoted? American Jewish groups sending large groups of youngsters on trips to Israel for example?

Those activities are not the main focus in the book: it is focused much more on how the tragic experience of the Holocaust begins to be used for essentially political purposes, and becomes a more powerful element of American Jewish identity after 1970 than it was in the 1950s.

Why did you select this next book, Peace Process?

The US has been actively involved in trying to promote peace for the last 50 to 60 years and having some understanding of that is pretty important. The book I chose is by William Quandt, who is a former government official and also a distinguished academic. His book is a careful, detailed, systematic and objective look at American involvement in the Israeli-Arab peace process from the 1960s onwards. So if someone is looking for a comprehensive history of America’s efforts to try and bring peace to the Middle East, this is about the best one I know. Quandt does not have an axe to grind; he’s not writing it from a perspective that’s particularly sympathetic to either side. And he was actively involved in the process during the Carter administration when he was a deputy on the National Security Council, so he knows how the policy process works. For someone who wants to know what the US attempted to do and why all of these efforts ultimately failed, it’s the best single book that I could recommend.

There’s another book I should mention here that is more personal, and in a sense gets more into the politics of the relationship. That’s Aaron David Miller’s book, The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Middle East Peace. Miller was directly involved in negotiations for six different Secretaries of State, and he does have a certain axe to grind and certain scores to settle. Nonetheless, it’s a fairly objective, fair-minded, self-critical book and, although he disagrees with our book in some ways, his discussion contains a lot of evidence showing how important the lobby has been in shaping American policy towards the conflict. Together these two books will tell you a great deal about why there is still a conflict going on and why American efforts have failed thus far.

What is the take-home from these two books? What can we learn going forward?

For me the central lesson is that historians in the middle of the 21st century will look back upon America’s failure to broker a Middle East peace, particularly during the Oslo period, as a great tragedy. There was an opportunity in the 1990s to put this conflict finally to rest, and that opportunity was squandered by mistakes made by the US, and by Israel and by the Palestinians. The result is a very bleak future for Israelis and Palestinians alike. I think people have to begin to recognise that the two-state solution may no longer be possible, and that time is rapidly running out. And if you don’t get a two-state solution, then all the other alternatives look substantially worse.  And the United States bears much of the blame for this.

Wasn’t progress made towards Oslo, towards peace, when George Bush senior was stricter with Israel, for example threatening to withhold loan guarantees? Do these books make that argument, that when the US draws a line in the sand and says, ‘OK, you can’t do this!’ to Israel, that it’s a lot more productive than when the US just lets Israel do whatever it likes?

Yes. In fact, Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was Israeli foreign minister in the late 1990s, says in his own book on the conflict, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, that the two American presidents who did the most for Israeli-Arab peace were Jimmy Carter and George Herbert Walker Bush. He goes on to explain that the reason they were able to make progress is that they didn’t pay as much attention to Israel’s supporters in the United States, and they were able to put pressure on both sides as a result. They were not able to do it hard enough and long enough to produce a final peace deal, but I think there’s no question we made more progress when the US was acting in an even-handed way and willing to twist both Israeli and Palestinian arms.

There’s that quote from James Baker, George Bush Sr’s Secretary of State: ‘F**k the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway.’ But why Carter? I wonder why those two presidents took a different approach.

Ben-Ami has a revealing passage where he says something like Carter was a ‘rare bird’ among politicians, because he just wasn’t all that sensitive to domestic lobbies. He wasn’t connected to the American Jewish community, he came from Georgia, and he just didn’t care as much about placating them. And I think Bush Senior and Baker were operating from a world-view that said, ‘We’re just going to push the American national interest here, and this is going to be good for Israel too.’ They believed that in the aftermath of the first Gulf War that the US was in a very powerful position to make some progress, and they used that position effectively. Now, if you compare Carter and Bush Sr to both the Clinton administration and the more recent Bush administration, the latter two presidents tended to be very deferential to Israeli sensibilities. The result, unfortunately, was a total of 16 years with virtually no genuine progress, except that the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank nearly doubled. The Clinton administration did try to make progress but, as Aaron Miller notes in his book, ‘too often the US acted as “Israel’s lawyer”’. That’s why Oslo failed, and that’s why the situation got even worse under George W Bush. And we are now in a much deeper hole.

Lastly, On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals became Israel’s Best Friend. So it’s no longer just American Jewish groups that are vested in this conflict?

The other key to understanding US-Israeli relations is the role played by so-called Christian Zionists. These are Christian evangelicals who have particular theological beliefs that not only lead them to be very supportive of Israel, but supportive of a territorially expansionist Israel. This is based on a theology known as dispensationalism, which actually has its origins in the United Kingdom, in the 19th century. It suggests that the second coming of Christ can be anticipated through a series of signs. These signs are supposedly spelled out in Old Testament prophecy and in the Book of Revelations, and Christian Zionists think Christ’s return is being foretold by various steps. One of these supposed steps is the return of Jews to the Holy Land, so dispensationalists saw the creation of Israel in 1948 – and in particular the conquest of all of Jerusalem in 1967 – as a critical event foreshadowing the Second Coming. In their view, Israel must retain all of the West Bank and all of Jerusalem in order to eventually bring about Christ’s return. So they have essentially theological reasons for favouring Israeli expansionism, which led to a tactical alliance between hardline groups in Israel, particularly the Likud party, and a whole series of Christian evangelicals, beginning in the 1980s.

So part of what cements the ‘special relationship’ is the political activities of predominantly Jewish groups like AIPAC, but that is reinforced by a subset of Christian evangelicals, who have what I would regard as quite wacky views about how to run foreign policy. In my view, Old Testament prophecy is not a very sound basis for foreign policy decision-making.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that in their theology, the Jewish population of Israel will ultimately face the choice of converting or not surviving. That’s a part of the story that they tend not to talk a lot about…

It does sound wacky. But how influential are they?

They are not as important to shaping US-Israeli relations as groups like AIPAC are, which are much more active on Capitol Hill, inside the executive branch, and inside different parts of the government. But I do think that in some parts of the country there are Congressmen – including some fairly influential Congressmen – who are, to some degree, influenced by these ideas, or who have constituents who are.

And the key to understanding American politics is to understand that if a small group of people care passionately about some issue, and everybody else in the population doesn’t care one way or the other, the small group of very passionate people will have a disproportionate impact. So far, there have been several groups in the US who are working 24/7 to promote this special relationship between the US and Israel, and to back Israel to the hilt. Most other Americans don’t care very much about this issue, and there is no comparable set of groups, of equal political clout and equal ardour, weighing in on the other side. So American senators and congressmen, and American presidents, look at the array of forces and conclude: ‘If I back Israel I won’t get into trouble: I may even get some help and nobody will criticise me. So that’s what I’ll do.’ Even if doing that is actually not good for the US, and not good for Israel either.

And that’s why you have these overwhelming votes in Congress, for example rejecting the findings of the Goldstone report [which came out of the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict]?

Yes, even though 90 per cent of the people voting to reject the Goldstone report have probably never read a word of it. But an AIPAC representative shows up in their office, says: ‘We’d like you to sign this, here’s a list of ten “talking points” explaining why you should…and, of course, if you don’t, people in your district are going to call up and complain. No one’s going to support you more if you oppose us, and a lot of people are going to be annoyed with you, so you decide what you think the smart choice is…’

And I suppose that also explains the US inability to take a stand on the expansion of Israeli settlements into Palestinian territory. It’s against international law, it’s hugely detrimental to peace, you’d think it would be a no-brainer. And yet the US doesn’t seem able to do anything about it.

What’s remarkable about it is that the settlement enterprise has been deeply harmful to Israel as well. It’s cost billions of dollars, it has cost thousands of Israeli lives in the last 20 to 30 years – through terrorism and the intifadas – and it is rapidly creating a situation where Israel will be controlling territory which has upwards of 5.5 million Palestinian Arabs on it. Eventually the Jewish population of greater Israel is going to be smaller than the Arab population. So you could argue that Israel may be in the process of driving itself off a cliff, or at least creating massive problems for itself. And the US, as its closest ally, is doing absolutely nothing to stop it, which is not an act of friendship. The tragic irony in all of this is that some of the groups and individuals that claim to be trying to protect Israel, and which are often the loudest voices defending the ‘special relationship’, have in fact been unintentionally causing it great harm.

January 4, 2010

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Stephen Walt

Stephen Walt

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where he served as academic dean from 2002-2006. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago. Professor Walt is the author of Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (W. W. Norton, 2005), and, with coauthor J.J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). He writes a blog at the Foreign Policy website.
Stephen Walt's Blog at Foreign Policy
Stephen Walt on Wikipedia

Stephen Walt

Stephen Walt

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where he served as academic dean from 2002-2006. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago. Professor Walt is the author of Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (W. W. Norton, 2005), and, with coauthor J.J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). He writes a blog at the Foreign Policy website.
Stephen Walt's Blog at Foreign Policy
Stephen Walt on Wikipedia