John Mearsheimer Konuşma Metni


“The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy under Obama”



It is a pleasure and an honor to be here at Koc University.  I would like to thank President Inan for his welcoming remarks as well as the various groups that are sponsoring my talk today.  I would especially like to thank Professor Sener Akturk for inviting me to Turkey, and, of course, all of you for coming out to hear me speak this afternoon. 


I am going to talk about a very important subject not just for Americans, but for people all around the world, and that of course includes Turkey.  My topic is the Israel lobby and U.S. Middle East Policy under Barack Obama.


My core argument today is that the Israel lobby is a remarkably powerful interest group within the American political system and it shapes US Middle East policy in profound ways.  Specifically, it is the principal reason that no American government – including the Obama administration – has been able to put meaningful pressure on Israel to stop building settlements in the Occupied Territories; and allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own.  The lobby is also the main reason that the US is contemplating using military force against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Absent the lobby, Israel would not be able to push the US toward another war in the Middle East, as it is now trying to do.  Regarding the future of US Middle East policy, little is going to change, whether President Obama gets a second term or Mitt Romney moves into the White House and takes his place.


Let me begin by describing what I mean when I talk about the Israel lobby.


The lobby is a loose coalition of individuals and groups who work openly to influence American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.  It is not a centralized organization, and the groups that make up the lobby do not agree on every issue.  It includes organizations like AIPAC, ADL, the Conference of Presidents, ZOA, and Christians United for Israel, just to name a few.  It also includes think tanks like the AEI, the Brookings Institution and the WINEP as well as publications like the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard.


It is not a cabal or conspiracy that “controls” US foreign policy.  Rather, it is an especially powerful interest group like the NRA, the farm lobby, the Cuban lobby, or the AARP, and it operates the same way that those other interest groups do.  It is very important to recognize that the American political system is configured in ways that allow well-organized and well-funded interest groups or lobbies to wield enormous influence on public policy.  And they have done so since the founding of the United States, although one could argue that lobbies wield more influence today than they have at any time in the past – mainly because of the importance of money for winning political office.  Regardless, the key point to keep in mind is that the actions of the Israel lobby are as American as apple pie.


Very importantly, the lobby is not synonymous with Jewish-Americans.  Surveys suggest that about one-third of American Jews do not care much about Israel, others do not support the lobby’s positions, and some groups that work on Israel’s behalf, such as the so-called Christian Zionists, are not Jewish.  In short, the lobby is defined by its political agenda, not by ethnicity or religion.


The lobby also does not include individuals who simply have a favorable attitude toward Israel; rather, one has to actively work to try to shape US policy in a pro-Israel direction.  Obviously, some groups and individuals are more active and influential than others, although there is no question that – overall – the lobby has gotten the relationship between the US and Israel that it wanted.


As many of you know, Steve Walt and I wrote a famous book about the Israel lobby, which has been translated into Turkish.  Almost all of the critics of our book acknowledge that there is a lobby, but they either argue that it is not very powerful or they say that Steve and I are claiming that it is “all-powerful” and that it “controls” US foreign policy. 


To be clear, we explicitly say that the lobby is not all-powerful and that it does not control US Middle East policy.  Instead, we argue that the Israel lobby is extremely powerful and has a marked influence on American foreign policy.  Indeed, when you look carefully at the evidence, there is little doubt that our description is accurate.  The Israel lobby is an especially powerful interest group – which again, is perfectly legitimate in American politics.   


Consider AIPAC, which is just one of the many organizations in the lobby, although surely the most influential one.  Bill Clinton said that AIPAC is “better than anyone else lobbying in this town,” and Newt Gingrich, who rarely agrees with Clinton about anything, said it is “the most effective general interest group across the entire planet.”  Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who served in Congress for 34 years, said: “there’s no group that matches it. They’re in a class by themselves.”  Former Senator Fritz Hollings said as he left office that “you can’t have an Israel policy other than what AIPAC gives you.”


Steven Rosen, the AIPAC official who was indicted a few years ago for passing classified information, once put a napkin in front of Jeffrey Goldberg, who was then a journalist for the New Yorker, and said: “in 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin.” And Goldberg, who wrote one of the most vicious reviews of our book, calls AIPAC “a leviathan among lobbies.”  Speaking of our critics, I might note that Alan Dershowitz said that, “My generation of Jews … became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy.”  Thus, it is hardly surprising that the former Israeli PM – Ehud Olmert – said as he was leaving office in early 2009: “Thank God we have AIPAC, the greatest supporter and friend we have in the whole world.” 


And again, AIPAC is just one part of the Israeli lobby.


The best evidence, however, of the lobby’s influence is America’s “special relationship” with Israel, which is the direct result of relentless and effective pressure that the lobby puts on politicians and policymakers of every political persuasion.


To put it succinctly, the US has a relationship with Israel that has no parallel in American history.  Indeed, as the late Israeli Prime Minister – Yitzhak Rabin – once said, US support for Israel is “beyond compare in modern history.” 


What makes the relationship between America and Israel special is the sheer amount of support that we give Israel and the fact that we give it unconditionally.  The Jewish state is the largest recipient of US economic and military aid – about $500 per year per Israeli – even though it is a prosperous country with a per capita income that the International Monetary Fund ranks 27th in the world.  Since the end of World War II, Israel has received more foreign aid from Washington than any other country. 


Israel also gets consistent diplomatic backing from the US and we almost always take Israel’s side in regional disputes.  For example, since 1972, the US has vetoed 43 UN Security Council resolutions that were critical of Israel, which is greater than the combined total of all the vetoes cast by the other Security Council members for the same period. 


Most importantly, however, that aid is given unconditionally. In other words, Israel gets this aid even when it does things that the US opposes, like building settlements in the Occupied Territories.  Furthermore, Israel is rarely ever criticized by US officials, and certainly not by anyone who aspires to high office. 


It is very important to understand the full magnitude of the special relationship, so let me say a few more words about it.  As I am sure everyone here recognizes, no two countries always have the same interests, and of course that includes Israel and the US.  However, the special relationship means that when Israel pursues policies that are detrimental to America’s interests, the lobby invariably sides with Israel and puts enormous pressure on US policymakers to support Israel no matter what.   It is extremely difficult for any American president to get tough with Israel when it takes actions that harm the US.  This is a truly remarkable situation, and again, unprecedented in world history.


To illustrate this point, let’s look at the historical record.  Every American president since 1967 has opposed settlement building in the Occupied Territories.  Yet no president has been able to put serious pressure on Israel to stop building settlements, much less dismantle them.  Perhaps the best evidence of America’s impotence is what happened in the 1990s during the Oslo peace process.  Between 1993 and 2000, Israel confiscated 40,000 acres of Palestinian land, built 250 miles of connector and bypass roads, doubled the number of settlers, and established 30 new settlements.  President Clinton did hardly anything to halt this expansion.  Indeed, the United States continued to give Israel billions of dollars in foreign aid each year and to protect it at every turn on the diplomatic front.


One might think that Obama has been different from his predecessors, but there is hardly any evidence to support that view and much to contradict it.  Consider that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama responded to charges that he was “soft” on Israel by pandering to the lobby and repeatedly praising America’s special relationship with Israel.  Of course, he is doing the same thing now in the 2012 election.  In the month before he took office, he was silent during the Gaza massacre – when Israel was being criticized around the world for Operation Cast Lead – its brutal assault on that densely populated enclave.


Since he took office in January 2009, President Obama has clashed with Prime Minister Netanyahu four times on the Palestinian issue, and in each case Obama backed down and Netanyahu won the fight.  For example, shortly after the administration came to power, the president and his principal foreign policy advisors began demanding that Israel stop all settlement building in the Occupied Territories, to include East Jerusalem, so that serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians could begin. 


After calling for “two states for two peoples” in his Cairo speech in June 2009, President Obama declared, “it is time for these settlements to stop.”  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made the same point one month earlier when she said, “We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth – any kind of settlement activity. That is what the President has called for.”  George Mitchell, the president’s special envoy for the Middle East, conveyed this straightforward message to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his advisors on numerous occasions.


In response, Netanyahu made it clear that Israel intended to continue building settlements and that he and almost everyone in his government opposed a two-state solution.  He made but a single reference to “two states” in his own speech at Bar Ilan University in June 2009, and the conditions he attached to it made it clear that he was talking about giving the Palestinians a handful of disconnected, apartheid-style Bantustans, not a fully sovereign state.


Netanyahu naturally won this fight. The Israeli prime minister not only refused to stop building the 2500 housing units that were under construction in the West Bank, but just to make it clear to Obama who was boss, in late June 2009, he authorized the building of 300 new homes in the West Bank.  Netanyahu refused to even countenance any limits on settlement building in East Jerusalem, which is supposed to be the capital of a Palestinian state.  By the end of September 2009, Obama publicly conceded that Netanyahu had beaten him in their fight over the settlements.  The president falsely denied that freezing settlement construction had ever been a precondition for resuming the peace process, and instead meekly asked Israel to please exercise restraint while it continued colonizing the West Bank.  Fully aware of his triumph, Netanyahu said on September 23, 2009: “I am pleased that President Obama has accepted my approach that there should be no preconditions.”


Indeed, his victory was so complete that the Israeli media was full of stories describing how their prime minister had bested Obama and greatly improved his shaky political position at home.  For example, Gideon Samet wrote in Ma’ariv: “In the past weeks, it has become clear with what ease an Israeli prime minister can succeed in thwarting an American initiative.”


Perhaps the best American response to Netanyahu’s victory came from the widely read author and blogger, Andrew Sullivan, who wrote that this sad episode should “remind Obama of a cardinal rule of American politics: no pressure on Israel ever.  Just keep giving them money and they will give the US the finger in return. The only permitted position is to say you oppose settlements in the West Bank, while doing everything you can to keep them growing and advancing.”


The Obama administration has engaged in three more public fights with Prime Minister Netanyahu over the Palestinian issue, and has lost all three times.  The last spat was in May 2011, when Obama called for creating a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.  Although the President used rhetoric that had been employed by his predecessors, Netanyahu and his American supporters were furious with him.  They responded by lambasting the president, to include a televised meeting where the Israeli prime minister lectured the president about the flaws in his thinking about the peace process.  Subsequently, Netanyahu went to Capitol Hill, where he was treated like a conquering hero.  Obama, facing a tough election in 2012 and deeply fearful of losing support in the American Jewish community, quickly backed off from pressuring Israel and instead decided to support Israel unreservedly.  Not surprisingly, the Obama administration hardly talks about the Palestinian issue these days, much less tries to put pressure on Israel to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own.


One might think that Obama would prevail over Netanyahu every time they clashed, since the US is the most powerful state on the planet and it gives Israel so much material and diplomatic support.  In fact, we should have massive bargaining leverage in our dealings with Israel.  But we do not.  Instead, Netanyahu has the upper hand over Obama.  The reason for this unusual situation, of course, is the lobby, which invariably sides with Israel against the United States when the two states have conflicting interests.  And because the lobby is enormously powerful, no president will pick a fight with it.  Remember that Alan Dershowitz said it “is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy.”


And by the way, there is no chance that Governor Romney will stand up to Netanyahu if he is elected president next month.  Consider that in a debate during the Republican primaries last year, Romney responded to a question asking him how he would deal with Iran, by saying: “I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, ‘Would it help if I said this?  What would you like me to do’?”  I must say that I find it incomprehensible that a man running for the presidency of the most powerful state in the world would even contemplate taking his marching orders from a foreign leader when an issue of great strategic importance is at stake.

Israel’s supporters in the United States often claim that the special relationship is not due to the lobby’s influence, which they say is not very powerful anyway.  They have an alternative argument.  The American people, so the argument goes, identify closely with Israel – because we share common values—and therefore the American people put significant pressure on their leaders to support Israel generously and unconditionally.


There are two problems with this argument.  First, at the deepest level, we do not share common values.  The United States is a liberal democracy that goes to great lengths not to discriminate against any of its citizens on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity.  It is certainly not a Christian state, and Jews are treated no differently than Christian or Muslims, or any other religious group for that matter.  Israel, on the other hand, sees itself as a Jewish state, and it discriminates against those who are not Jewish both in theory and in practice.  As for the claim that Israel is a democracy, yes, Israel is a democracy, but so are many other countries and none gets anywhere near as much support, and certainly not unconditionally.   Plus, Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens and Palestinian subjects is sharply at odds with US values. 


Second, there is abundant evidence showing that the American people have a generally favorable attitude toward Israel, but do not feel any special attachment to it.  For example, a survey of public opinion in the US published just last month by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, found that 65 % of Americans think that the US should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Only 30 % favor taking Israel’s side.  In that same survey, 50 % of Americans said that the US should not defend Israel if it were attacked by its neighbors, and 52 % think that US government leaders should be ready to meet and talk with Hamas.  When asked what the US should do if Israel bombs Iran and Iran retaliates against Israel, 59 % of Americans say we should not enter the war on Israel’s side; only 38 % say we should come to Israel’s aid.  I could point to numerous other surveys that tell a similar story.  In short, there is no evidence that the American people have a special attachment to Israel.  If anything, most Americans want to treat Israel like a normal country.


Let me now turn to the question of what US Middle East policy is likely to look like after the November elections.  Let me focus on two issues: the Palestinian issue and Iran’s nuclear program.


There is no question that America’s support for Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians is a huge strategic problem for the United States.  Of course that is why both Republican and Democratic presidents have worked so hard to implement a two-state solution.  And that includes President George W. Bush as well as his father, and certainly President Bill Clinton.


To be more specific, there is no hope of ending our terrorism problem and improving America’s standing in the Middle East if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved.  But that will only happen if there is a two-state solution; it certainly will not happen if the special relationship remains firmly in place and Israel continues to colonize the West Bank and creates a Greater Israel that is an apartheid state.

Not surprisingly, Israel’s backers maintain that US support for Israel had nothing to do with 9/11.  But this claim is simply not true.  Consider the motivations of Khalid Sheik Muhammed, who the 9/11 Commission describes as the “principle architect of the attacks.”  According to the Commission, “KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experiences there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.”  Numerous independent accounts have also documented that Osama bin Laden was deeply concerned about the Palestinians’ dire situation since he was a young man, and the 9/11 Commission reports that he wanted the attackers to strike Congress, because he saw it as the most important source of support for Israel in the United States.  The Commission also tells us that bin Laden twice wanted to move up the date of the attacks because of events involving Israel – even though doing so would have increased the risk of failure. 


Former President Bill Clinton has speculated that the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides the impetus for about half of our terrorism problem.  And President Obama, Vice President Biden and General David Petraeus have all made comments that make clear that Israel’s colonization of the Occupied Territories is doing serious damage to American interests in the greater Middle East. 


There is also a powerful moral rationale behind the two-state solution.


What has happened to the Palestinian people since November 29, 1947, when the UN put forth its plan to partition Mandatory Palestine, is one of the great crimes of modern history.  The Zionists and Israelis ethnically cleansed about 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 and then expelled roughly another 200,000 Palestinians when they captured the West Bank in 1967.  Israel has not only refused to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own, but prominent Zionists like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Chaim Weizmann have gone so far as to argue that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people. 


Palestinians who live inside Israel today are treated like second-class citizens, while those in the West Bank and Gaza effectively live in an apartheid state.  It is worth noting that a number of South Africans who have visited the Occupied Territories have said that the Palestinians live in worse conditions than blacks did in white-ruled South Africa.  And let us not forget that the Goldstone Report, which was a UN-sanctioned assessment of Operation Cast Lead, concluded that Israel committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. 


The bottom line is that it is imperative for both strategic and moral reasons for the US to push forward a two-state solution.  But that is not going to happen, mainly because Israel has no interest in a two-state solution and its leaders are determined to control both the West Bank and Gaza for the foreseeable future.  Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is going to be able to prevent a Greater Israel, simply because Israel’s supporters in the US will not allow any American president to pressure Israel into giving up the West Bank and allowing for the creation of a viable Palestinian state.


This means that in all likelihood the Palestinians will end up confined to a handful of impoverished enclaves inside Greater Israel, which will look a lot like the Bantustans in white-ruled South Africa.  I believe that this outcome will prove disastrous for Israel, since it will be impossible to justify an apartheid state over the long term, as South Africa came to discover.  Indeed, two former Israeli prime ministers have made this very point.  Ehud Olmert, who was Netanyahu’s predecessor, said in late November 2007 that if “the two-state solution collapses,” Israel will “face a South-African-style struggle.”  He went so far as to argue that, “as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.”  Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is now Israel’s defense minister, said in February 2010 that, "As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic.  If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state." 


Turning Israel into a full-blown apartheid state will also do serious damage to US foreign policy for years to come, will foster instability throughout the Middle East, and will obviously have horrible consequences for the Palestinians.  I might add that it will continue to poison relations between Israel and Turkey.  Again, that depressing outcome is likely whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is sitting in the White House.


Let me now turn to the matter of Iran’s nuclear program. 

Iran is developing a nuclear enrichment program – which is its right as a signatory to the NPT.  There is no hard evidence, however, that it is developing nuclear weapons, and indeed, the consensus view in the American intelligence community is that Iran is not now pursuing nuclear weapons.


Nevertheless, the Israeli government and the lobby have done an excellent job of creating the impression in the US and the West more generally that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.  Moreover, they have worked assiduously over the past two years to make the case that the only way to deal with the problem is with military force, and the sooner Iran’s nuclear facilities are bombed the better.  In particular, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that he is prepared to turn the Israeli air force loose to strike Iran if the Obama administration would simply give him a green light.  However, it is also clear that he would much rather have the more capable American military do the job for Israel.


Consequently, President Obama has been under enormous pressure from Netanyahu and his friends in America to tell Tehran that if it does not shut down its nuclear enrichment capability immediately, the US will use force to eliminate it.  The Obama administration has no interest whatsoever in starting another war in the Middle East – or anywhere for that matter.  Indeed, save for Israel’s hardline American supporters, there is hardly any interest in the US in starting a war against Iran.  That is especially true in the Pentagon, where the wear and tear of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 11 years have taken a heavy toll.  I might add that the recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey that I mentioned earlier found that 70 % of Americans oppose a unilateral American strike against Iran if it continues its enrichment program.   


Fortunately, the Obama administration has been able to resist the pressure from Israel and the lobby to attack Iran, while at the same time telling Netanyahu that under no circumstances can the IDF attack Iran before the election.  Thankfully, it now seems clear that neither Israel nor the US will attack Iran this year. 


But the issue is likely to come up again in 2013, whether Obama remains in the White House or Romney replaces him.  This means that the US is likely to be under great pressure in the next few years to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Of course, the smart policy for the US would be to negotiate seriously with the Iranians to work out a grand bargain that allows them to enrich uranium, while providing the necessary safeguards to ensure that they do not secretly develop nuclear weapons.  And if that doesn’t work, the US should seek to contain a nuclear Iran, similar to the way it contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and the way it contains nuclear-armed North Korea today.


But Israel and the lobby will go to great lengths to thwart a diplomatic solution to the crisis, as they have consistently done over the past two decades, and President Obama has already said that he will never agree to a containment strategy for dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran.  All of this means that whoever is sitting in the White House next year is likely to be under great pressure to go to war with Iran; or at least give Israel permission to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. 


I believe that neither Obama nor Romney will have any interest in precipitating a war with Iran, because it would have disastrous consequences for US foreign policy and it would create great turmoil in the Middle East for many years to come.  Moreover, attacking Iran would not prevent Iran from eventually getting nuclear weapons.  As even the war hawks admit, it would only delay the process for a few years.  And remember, we have no good evidence that Iran is now pursuing nuclear weapons.  However, a military strike by either Israel or the US would surely give the leadership in Tehran powerful incentives to quickly acquire a nuclear deterrent. 


I believe that these considerations will cause either President Obama or President Romney to resist Israeli pressure to strike Iran.  The lobby, of course, will side with Israel in this tug of war, and make it very difficult for the man in the White House to say no to war.  But the lobby is not omnipotent.  It does not always get its way, as Barack Obama has demonstrated in recent months by refusing to sanction an Israeli attack on Iran and not caving into Netanyahu’s pressure to draw red lines and strike Iran if it crosses those lines.


But even if neither Israel nor the US attack Iran after the election, relations between Tehran and Washington are likely to be awful and there will always be a possibility that a crisis will break out and lead to war.  And, of course, one cannot completely rule out the possibility that the president, be it Obama or Romney, will cave into pressure from Israel and the lobby and attack Iran.


All of this is to say that there is little reason at this juncture to be optimistic about resolving either the Iranian nuclear problem or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.   In fact, the situation with regard to the Palestinians is likely to get worse over time as Israel turns itself into a full-fledged apartheid state.  The United States obviously has a deep-seated interest in resolving both of these problems as soon as possible, but it cannot, mainly because the Israel lobby makes it impossible to do so.  The sad truth is that if there were no lobby, the US would pursue different and smarter policies in the Middle East.  Of course, there would still be problems, but on balance, the US, and all of the players in this region – to include Turkey and Israel itself – would be better off without the lobby.  Thank you.