Do the American people support the 'special relationship?'

Article by Stephen Walt.


A couple of weeks ago, Americans were treated to a remarkably clear demonstration of the power of the Israel lobby in the United States. First, Barack Obama gave a speech on Middle East policy at the State Department, which tried to position America as a supporter of the Arab spring and reiterated his belief that a two-state solution is the best way to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The next day, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rejected several of Obama’s assertions and lectured him about what “Israel expects” from its great power patron. Then Obama felt it was smart politics to go to AIPAC and clarify his remarks. It was a pretty good speech, but Obama didn’t offer any ideas for how his vision of Middle East peace might be realized and he certainly never suggested that — horrors! — the United States might use its considerable leverage to push both sides to an agreement. And then Netanyahu received a hero’s welcome up on Capitol Hill, getting twenty-nine standing ovations for a defiant speech that made it clear that the only “two-state” solution he’s willing to contemplate is one where the Palestinians live in disconnected Bantustans under near-total Israeli control.

Not surprisingly, this display of the lobby’s influence made plenty of people uncomfortable, and some of them — such as M.J. Rosenberg at Media Matters offered up some personal tales of their own run-ins with Israel’s hardline backers. In response to Rosenberg’s sally (and the hoopla surrounding the Netanyahu visit), Jonathan Chait of The New Republic has fallen back on a familiar line of defense. After conceding that there is a lobby and that it does have a lot of influence, he argued that “the most important basis of American support for Israel is not the lobby but the public’s overwhelming sympathy for Israel.” In other words, AIPAC et al don’t really matter that much, and all those standing ovations on Capitol Hill were really just a genuine reflection of public opinion. He also said that John Mearsheimer and I believe the lobby exerts “total control” over U.S. foreign policy, and that we claim groups in the lobby were solely responsible for the invasion of Iraq.

To deal with the last claim first, this straw-man depiction of our argument merely confirms once again that Chait has not in fact read our book. I don’t find that surprising, because a careful reading of the book would reveal to him that we weren’t anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, had made none of the claims he accuses us of, and had in fact amassed considerable evidence to support the far more nuanced arguments that we did advance. And then he’d have to ponder the fact that virtually everything The New Republic has ever published about us was bogus. So I can easily see why he prefers to repeat the same falsehoods and leave it at that.

But what of his more basic claim that the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel is really a reflection of “the public’s overwhelming sympathy?” There are at least three big problems with this assertion.

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