A recent study entitled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" should serve as a wake- up call on both sides of the ocean. It is authored by two respected academics - John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government (it appeared first on the Kennedy's School's Web site, and was then published in the London Review of Books).
The tone of the report is harsh. It is jarring even for a self-critical Israeli. It lacks finesse and nuance when it looks at the alphabet soup of the world of American-Jewish organizations and at how the "Lobby" interacts with both the Israeli establishment and the wider right-wing echo chamber.
The study sometimes takes the purported omnipotence of AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee) too much at face value, disregarding key moments when the United States and Israel were at odds. The study also largely ignores AIPAC's run-ins with more dovish Israeli administrations, most notably when it undermined Yitzhak Rabin, and how its excessive hawkishness is often out of step with mainstream American Jewish opinion.
Yet the case built by Mearsheimer and Walt is a potent one: Identification of American with Israeli interests can be principally explained by the impact of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington in limiting the parameters of public debate, rather than by the fact that Israel is a vital strategic asset or has a uniquely compelling moral case for support (beyond, as the authors point out, the right to exist, which in any case is not in jeopardy).
The study is at its most devastating when it describes how the lobby "stifles debate by intimidation" and at its most current when it details how America's interests (and ultimately Israel's, too) are ill-served by the lobby's agenda.
The bottom line might read as follows: defending the Israeli occupation of Arab territory has done to the American pro-Israel community what living as an occupier has done to Israel - muddied both its moral compass and its rational self-interest compass.
The context in which the report is published makes of it more than passing academic interest. Similar themes recur in several influential books, including, recently, "The Assassin's Gate," "God's Politics" and "Against All Enemies."
In Congress, the AIPAC-supported Lantos/Ros- Lehtinen bill, which places unprecedented restrictions on aid to and contacts with the Palestinians, is stalled. Moderate American organizations such as the Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) - each with its own policy nuance - have led opposition to the bill. Two former AIPAC lobbyists face trial on charges of communicating national security information
All this is not yet a tipping point, but certainly time for a debate.
Sadly, if predictably, response to the Harvard study has been characterized by a combination of the shrill and the smug. Avoiding a candid discussion is unlikely to either advance Israeli interests or the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Here are some talking points that can already be suggested for this debate:
First, efforts to collapse the Israeli and neoconservative agendas into one have been a terrible mistake. The turmoil in Iraq and Al Qaeda's foothold there; growing Iranian leverage and the strengthening of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority are only a partial scorecard of the products of this collaboration.
Second, Israel would do well to distance itself from our "friends" on the Christian evangelical right. When one considers their support for Israel's extremists, the depiction of our prime minister's physical demise as "punishment from God" and their belief in our eventual conversion, or slaughter, this alliance is exposed as sickening irresponsibility.
Third, Israel must not be party to the bullying tactics used to silence policy debate in the United States, such as the policing of academia by groups like Daniel Pipes' Campus Watch. If nothing else, this is deeply un-Jewish. It would in fact serve Israel if the open and critical debate that takes place over here, in Israel, was exported to the United States.
Fourth, the lobby denies Israel something many other countries benefit from - the excuse of external encouragement to do things that are politically tricky but nationally necessary.
The signs that Israel and the pro-Israel lobby are not on the same page are mounting. For Israel, the withdrawal from Gaza and future evacuations in the West Bank are acts of strategic national importance; for the pro-Israel lobby, they are an occasion for confusion and foot-shuffling. For Israel, the election of Hamas raises complex and difficult challenges; for the lobby it is a public-relations home run and an occasion for legislative muscle-flexing.
The lobby's influence, write Mearsheimer and Walt, "has discouraged Israel from seizing opportunities...that would have saved Israeli lives and shrunk the ranks of Palestinian extremists....
"Using American power to achieve a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians would help advance the broader goals of fighting extremism and promoting democracy in the Middle East."
This is not about appeasement; it's about smart, if difficult, policy choices that also address Israeli needs and security.
In short, if Israel is indeed entering a new era of national sanity and de-occupation, then the role of the pro-Israel lobby in U.S.-Israel relations will have to be rethought, and either reformed from within or challenged from without.
Daniel Levy served as a policy adviser in the Israeli prime minister's office in the government of Ehud Barak. He was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative. This article first appeared in Haaretz.
© 2006 the International Herald Tribune