US Professors Face Hostile Reception in Jerusalem
The American professors whose bestselling book, The Israel Lobby, provoked a media storm are bracing themselves for a hostile reception when they speak this week at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv.
Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer faced a barrage of criticism for their work, released last September as an expansion of an article published by the London Review of Books in 2006. They argue that the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US has enormous influence on US foreign policy - operating, they say, against the American national interest and also the interests of Israel. While some describe the claims as a welcome contribution to debate on America's relationship with Israel, others denounce them as the work of Jewish conspiracy theorists.
"Their decision to come here means they are looking for a good fight," said Akiva Eldar, columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. "Most Israelis who have heard of the professors believe that they are antisemites, anti-Israeli, biased and wrong." But the authors hold that, unlike the US, Israel is willing to engage in a discussion on the subject.
"Israelis are much better able to talk about Israeli policy and the US-Israeli relationship in a critical way," said Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. "They have a much more open and vibrant debate in Israel."
He said that several speaking engagements in the US had been cancelled due to "pressure from the lobby".
The professors argue that the US pro-Israel lobby is similar in its operation to other interest groups, such as the farm lobby. The problem, they suggest, is its effect: unconditional support of Israel as policy.
"It would make eminently good sense if the United States could criticise Israel when Israel was pursuing policies that American leaders thought were foolish," said Mearsheimer. He cites as an example the continued existence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, despite it being official US policy to oppose them. "Would it not have been better for Israel if the United States had long ago put serious pressure on Israel to stop building settlements?"
One topic of the professor's speaking tour will be Aipac, the pro-Israel lobby group whose annual conference in Washington this month was dominated by discussions on Iran as a nuclear threat. "Aipac is one of the principal driving forces pushing the United States to use military force against Iran," said Mearsheimer, adding that the group is "the most important and certainly the most powerful" component of the pro-Israel lobby.
Eldar said: "Israelis are very proud of their power. It's seen as something we should brag about, not something to defend."
The academics' Middle East tour includes a visit to Birzeit University in the West Bank.