Rupert Cornwell: At last, a debate on America's support for Israel

You hear nothing of this - least of all in Congress. Criticise Israel and you are branded an anti-Semite

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To John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, heartfelt thanks are due. They are a pair of very eminent academics, from the University of Chicago and Harvard respectively, and the authors of a recent treatise entitled The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.

To most European ears, their case is familiar and persuasive. Israel, they argue, has become a liability in Washington's war on terror, that has reduced America's ability to deal with rogue states. There is no longer a moral or strategic case for US support for Israel, and the billions of dollars of aid it extends to the Jewish state each year, no questions asked. Yet, claim Mearsheimer and Walt, such is the stranglehold of the lobby on Congress that these policies are never seriously debated there.

The lobby itself, the authors contend, is led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee - better known as Aipac - and a host of other pro-Jewish groups. It also includes powerful gentile outriders in key positions, mostly in the neo-conservative movement, in the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill and in the media, as well as the politically influential evangelical Christian movement, which believes that a greater Israel is the fulfilment of God's will.

Predictably, the paper has provoked an almighty uproar. Their scholarship has been derided by their peers; Eliot Cohen, a celebrated historian and unabashed neo-con, declared in The Washington Post this week that it was simply anti-Semitic, displaying "obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews". But such vitriol, which contrasts with the measured prose of Mearsheimer and Walt, obscures the most important point. For once, questions asked so often in Europe and other parts of the world are being asked in America.

Is there a "Jewish Lobby" in the US? Of course there is, just as there are highly effective lobbies for gun ownership, farmers, and for ridding Cuba of Communism: how else is it that America persists in its spiteful and futile persecution of Fidel Castro's unlovely but unimportant regime? The answer, as we all know, is the critical Cuban-American vote in the electorally vital Florida.

Thus it is, writ far larger, with Aipac and other pro-Israel groups. They do a great professional job. But they are tilling very fertile soil. Americans, as poll after poll has shown, side with Israel rather than the Palestinians by a margin of roughly four to one. Suppose those figures were reversed. However well organised, Aipac and the like wouldn't have a prayer.

But America's sympathy for Israel, and the effectiveness of the Jewish lobby, have together rendered the country two giant disservices. The first is the suppression of serious domestic debate on the US relationship with Israel. It is beyond dispute that one reason - not the only reason, it is true, but a significant one - for the strife in the Middle East, and the lethally virulent anti-Americanism in the region, is America's built-in bias towards Israel, its failure to twist Israel's arm, its refusal to exert real pressure to halt settlement expansion on the West Bank, to cite just one example.

But you hear next to nothing of this, least of all in Congress - once memorably described by the old isolationist bruiser Pat Buchanan as "Israeli-occupied territory". Criticise Israel, and as the Cohen response shows, you are branded an anti-Semite.

Concentrating minds is the legend of Charles Percy, the Illinois Senator whose electoral defeat in 1984 is said to have been engineered by the Lobby in retaliation for a supposedly "anti-Israel stance". The folklore of Capitol Hill is clear: you defy Aipac at your peril.

The second disservice rendered by the "Jewish lobby" is the conflation of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians with America's war on terror, so that 9/11 is ultimately presented as no more than a gigantic, horrific specimen of the suicide bomber threat that (at least until the building of the "security fence" to which the US has also raised few serious objections) was faced on a daily basis by Israelis in their own cities.

Thus was born the theory of the indivisible nature of terrorism, bought by the neo-cons and sold by Ariel Sharon - long before the invasion of Iraq - to an American president convinced that the world was divided into simple opposite camps of good and evil, in which "you are either with us or against us". Thus the strategic interests of Israel and the US in the region were fused, with the pernicious consequences outlined by Mearsheimer and Walt.

But don't expect the tectonic plates of diplomacy to shift. The Israel Lobby makes a measured case. But it will be added - indeed it already has been added - to the long catalogue of accusations that a Jewish cabal runs European finance/American foreign policy/the world. Such theories have been around for ever.

As I embarked on this piece, I glanced at my bookshelves for inspiration. A title instantly leapt out: The Lobby: Jewish Political Power and American Foreign Policy. In it, Edward Tivnan maintains that the pro-Israel lobby had silenced debate on Capitol Hill and had become an obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Sound familiar? Yet the book was published in 1987.

Plainly, Tivnan's arguments have changed nothing. Americans like Israel, come what may. I will bet that the very similar ones of Messrs Walt and Mearsheimer make little difference either.

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