This is an excerpt of Noam Chomsky and Omar Baddar debate on the Israel lobby at Boston University, April 12, 2008.
Omar Baddar is the Director of the ADCMA (American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of Massachusetts)
Omar Baddar: Let me first start by saying that it was exposure to Professor Chomsky’s analysis―probably roughly 9 years ago at the age of 17―that sort of got me to begin to think critically about the world affairs. So, I have tremendous respect and admiration for him. I’m actually honored to be sharing a panel with him.
I got a message recently from a student at Brandeis University, somebody who clearly knows nothing about either my views or Professor Chomsky’s views about the Israel lobby. And basically, he was outraged at the thought that I would be debating Professor Chomsky, saying “a debate is supposed to be between people who disagree with each other. And here you have Professor Chomsky debating some guy from an Arab organization. Yeah, right, some debate,” which I guess is a really good point giving the fact that there is a monolithic view that all Arabs subscribe to at birth or something, which apparently Professor Chomsky happened to get on the wrong line at that subscription process or something.
Within people who actually understand the Israel-Palestine conflict and who share critique of US policy towards it, there is a debate over what actually guides the policy. On one end of the spectrum, you have people like Professors Mearsheimer and Walt, who argue that the Israel lobby essentially overrides independent US policy preferences to the detriment of US interest. And they go as far as to say that the invasion of Iraq was in a large part due to the Israel lobby’s influence. And on the other end of the spectrum, you have people like Stephen Zunes and Professor Chomsky and others who basically say that the Israel lobby really hardly has any independent influence and that it only appears to be powerful because its agenda happens to mesh pretty well with that of the centers of the power and the US; and furthermore, those policies are not basically harming US interests as defined by those centers of power.
Now, I think that neither perspective is entirely accurate in that while Mearsheimer-Walt definitely exaggerate the extent of the Israel lobby’s influence on foreign policy, I still do think that a strong argument could be made that the Israel lobby has driven policy in a way that was harmful to US interests.
Now, when I talk about the Israel lobby, I basically accept a variation of the definition of Mearsheimer-Walt of it, not the original one that came out of their paper; that was a bit too broad and vague and for that matter, a broader tautology in that it basically said anybody who has ever lobbied for their interests of Israel is part of the lobby. But they take a more sophisticated definition of that in their book, which is the one that I sort of like to think somewhat accurate.
So, when I say the lobby, I’m talking about national organizations whose primary and explicit purpose is the promotion of Israel’s interests in the United States. So, we’re talking about groups like AIPAC, the Zionist Organization of America, the Israel Project, Christians United for Israel, as well as media watch dog groups whose basically primary purpose is to tilt media coverage in Israel’s favor, groups like CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) and HonestReporting and others. Then on top of that, there are allied groups to the lobby. Those are groups or organizations whose… even though the interests of Israel are not their primary focus, they nevertheless happen to basically mesh with those of the main organizations. And here, I’m talking about the broader right wing Christian evangelical movement, think tanks, who basically... their views and analysis on world affairs are tinted through Israeli eyes, like the Washington Institute of US Policy and other organizations that basically happen to share the views and the interests of major pro-Israel organizations.
And in mainstream political science literature, basically, the determinants for success for interest groups have been fairly outlined. They include things like membership size, financial resources, unity, institutional complexity, access to power, coalition building and so on. And I don’t really have time to get into how the Israel lobby measures up to each one of these, but suffice to say that it measures up very well; and in fact the Israel lobby is extremely powerful in a way that basically every mainstream political scientist does acknowledge. If you want those details, basically you can read, for example, the Mearsheimer-Walt book.
And then you look at US policy towards Israel. You see that Israel is the single largest recipient of US foreign aid, receiving roughly 3 billion dollars each year, two thirds of which is military aid. And that’s about to be converted in its entirety to military aid as well. You also see that Israel is the only country that receives that aid all in one allocation at the beginning of each fiscal year; it is not basically required to account for it. Israel receives privileged intelligence from the United States and it’s allowed to develop nuclear weapons when many other countries are obviously under the threat of force over the thought.
Then you look at US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To reiterate something that Professor Chomsky just said, essentially there has been a practical solution on the table―not a perfect one but a practical one―for over 20 years now, which calls for Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians accepted this, so did the Arab League and virtually the entire international community through the United Nations. And Israel is single-handedly essentially blocking the solution and the US is backing them up, I mean even, not just with continued military and financial support but also diplomatically. The US has vetoed over 40 UN resolutions that are critical of Israel’s violations of international law and human rights which is, to put that into perspective, is greater than the number of vetoes used by all other permanent members of the UN Security Council combined on all matters. So, it is kind of an obscene figure.
So, you look at the Israel lobby, and you say it’s powerful. And then you look at US policy towards Israel, and you see unrestrained support. And people might feel tempted to come to the conclusion that the Israel lobby is responsible for this policy.
But it’s not quite that simple because there are other forces that could account for that policy as well. For example, Israel has been of extreme strategic utility to the US; they defeated Nasser’s nationalism in 1967, which the US really needed; they protected King Hussein’s regime during the events of Black September from Syrian intervention; they supplied weapons to Apartheid South Africa and the Contras in Latin America at a time when it would look bad for the US to do that directly, and in fact, illegal.
Basically, Israel is the dominant military force in the Middle East and it’s a stable one. So, that makes it extremely important for the United States strategically. So, even the US grand strategy could also account for US support for Israel.
Furthermore, US military aid that goes to Israel―basically huge parts of it, something close to 78%―comes back to US military corporations. So, in essence, US military aid to Israel is a formal subsidy to US military corporations. So, you can see that the defense establishments would also be in favor of this strong relationship. So, given the fact that the defense establishment, the US grand strategy and the Israel lobby all advocate a policy, when you have multiple players, it becomes a bit difficult to isolate and assess the influence of one particular player; and in this case, that’s the Israel lobby.
And the way to resolve this is to look at cases where the Israel lobby alone contradicted―basically was in conflict with the other forces that support this foreign policy. Now, unfortunately, the record does not resolve this problem because the record shows mixed results. So, for example, Professor Chomsky and others have pointed to the 2005 incident when Israel sold sophisticated military technology to China against US wishes. The US essentially humiliated Israel and the lobby didn’t say a word. They forced Israel to apologize publicly, which they did.
In 1993, there was the incident where Israel was working out a deal with North Korea by which North Korea would cease to provide long-range missiles to Iran in return for Israel’s investment in North Korea, which―when you’re talking about missiles to Iran, this is something of serious strategic national security interest for Israel. And the US, in an effort to isolate North Korea, was basically able to compel Israel to end the deal. And in both of those cases, the lobby didn’t say a word.
Even in cases where the lobby did get active protesting. For example, there was the case of 1981, when the United States wanted to sell, the Reagan administration wanted to sell advanced radar systems to Saudi Arabia: the Israel lobby did essentially threw a fit and they got very active and gave the administration a very difficult time and they almost cancelled the deal. Only here, the defense industry, namely Boeing and United Technologies, basically who had hundreds of millions of dollars on the deal, basically got together and said that they were not going to allow this to happen. And sure enough, you know, in corporations with the Saudis and with the administration that was bent on getting this through, they were able to crush the lobby’s opposition; and the deal actually went through. So, all of these cases demonstrate the limits of the Israel lobby’s influence.
But on the other hand, Mearsheimer and Walt can point to cases where the Israel lobby did overcome administration opposition. So, for example, in 2002, Ariel Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, killing hundreds of Palestinians at a time when Bush basically was trying to gather up support for the Iraq War, so he did not want to be on bad terms with the Arab world. So, he demanded that basically Israel end its incursion. A couple of days later, he clarified that he meant Israel should end it immediately; and a day after that Condoleezza Rice got on TV, quite upset saying “immediately” means “now,” we expect Israel to end the incursion “now.” And in response, the Israel lobby essentially swung into action: there were 100,000 emails that were sent to the White House from Christian evangelical coalitions. Basically, AIPAC applied pressure on Congress, and the next thing you know, Congress is passing resolutions basically supporting Israel’s incursion in defiance of the administration’s requests for the opposite. And eventually Bush essentially caved; he realized this is not worth the fight. He said that Israel had responded satisfactorily to his calls but Israel actually had done no such thing. So, this is one example of the lobby overcoming US administration opposition.
Another would be the settlement building that goes on. Virtually every president, up until the second George W. Bush, opposed settlements quite explicitly. And in the case of George Bush the first, the opposition was so intense that he actually threatened to cut off loan guarantees to Israel; and there are heated comments on the record from James Baker and Bush the first that basically showed that they were quite upset about this. But in the end, the settlements continued, and settlements continue until today.
So, I think that pattern that you see emerging is that when we’re talking about the Israel Palestinian conflict, the Israel lobby seems to be able to get its way over administration opposition. But when you’re talking about broader strategic issues, the lobby does not stand a chance in the face of more powerful players.
And what’s important to know here is that one might say, “Well, the Israel Palestinian conflict is not a strategic interest so the US doesn’t care that much.” But the problem here is that this is not entirely true, is that US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been very costly for the United States on many fronts, the obvious ones being national security and the United States image in the world, and then, of course, in terms of strategic positioning in the Middle East, and for that matter, in more details about access to oil and things like that. So, on this particular issue, you can say that the Israel lobby does override independent US policy preferences on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the detriment of the United States. We’re running out of time, so we can talk more about that.
Chomsky: Well, there isn’t going to be much of a debate because I basically agree with almost everything you’ve said and I’ve written it many times. I think you’re right in taking the narrower definition of the Israel lobby. Even in the book, Walt-Mearsheimer sometimes define the lobby so loosely that it becomes close to tautologous. But if we keep to organized groups, like, for example, the Christian evangelicals, who―as you say were instrumental, your claim and I don’t agree―were instrumental in overcoming administration opposition to Operation Defensive Shield, destruction of Jenin, yeah, that’s a big group.
Christian evangelicals are probably, you know, a third of the Republican vote, maybe. A quarter of the population, a huge electoral bloc. But the government does not go along with them. Their position is that the US should support every Israeli action―everything, blow up the Temple Mount, which they’ve tried to do. The US government doesn’t do that. Their reason for doing it is because they are dedicated anti-Semites. Their position probably is the most extreme. They want… you know, a lot of them accept the particular interpretation of the rapture, interpretation of revelations, which says what’s going to happen and there is going to be a war, gog and magog and all that business; then there’ll be a great war in Armageddon, everybody will be slaughtered and those who are saved, namely us, will arise to heaven. What happens to the Jews? Well, they are not saved, OK? So that’s anti-Semitism at its most extreme level. And yes, they do want to support Israeli policies because they’ll lead to war. But the US government doesn’t go along with that.
In the case of Operation Defensive Shield, notice that if that’s used as an example, then the lobby argument is in a serious self-contradiction. Walt and Mearsheimer, as you point out, tried to claim that Israel drove the United States to the Iraq War. On the side, that’s completely contradicted even by their own evidence. But suppose we accept that it is true. The logic that you outlined is that the lobby harmed US interests by forcing the US to accept the Jenin Operation, even though it’s undermining support for going to war with Iraq. But you can’t have both positions; either the lobby drove us to the war with Iraq or the lobby harmed the effort to go to the war with Iraq, but not both.
So, I don’t think that example shows much. In fact I don’t know any evidence that the US cared one way or another whether Israel smashed up Jenin. Yeah, it caused a lot of problems in what―to adopt the standard racist terminology―what’s called “the Arab Street.” We don’t talk about the British Street or the French street but the thing called “the Arab street,” namely the population. And yeah, the population didn’t like it. In fact, Bush is much more unpopular in, say, Saudi Arabia than Ahmadinejad or Osama bin Laden. But the question is whether anybody cares about that. I mean as long as the US-backed tyrannies are able to completely control their own populations, then the US government doesn’t care much about the populations. And they have been able to do that. The most valued and oldest ally of the United States in the region is actually Saudi Arabia, that’s where most of the oil is: source of the most extreme fundamentalist tyranny in the world.
And if you look at what harms US policy, we know, not just now but way back. Back in the 1950’s, in 1958, President Eisenhower asked his staff: why there is a campaign of hatred against us in the Arab world? And the National Security Council, the highest planning agency, had just given him an answer. They said there’s a perception in the Arab world that the United States supports harsh, brutal, tyrannical regimes and impedes development and democracy, and does so because it wants to control their oil. It went on to say the perception is true. That’s the way we should do it. So, yeah, that harms US interests if you think that the so-called “Arab Street” is something that the US cares about. And that’s persisted till today.
Right after 9/11, the Wall Street Journal did a study of the kind of the Arabs that they cared about, what they called “moneyed Muslims,”― rich guys: you know, directors of multinational corporations, bank managers, that sort of thing, people very much embedded inside the US-dominated system―and asked them why they were antagonistic to the US. Maybe they gave basically the same reasons. They did add the sanctions against Iraq as a major reason and also repression of the Palestinians, but they focused on the same reasons: the US supports harsh and undemocratic regimes, tyrannies, blocks democracy and development, and does so because it wants to control their oil. OK, it’s not the US-Israel lobby that’s pushing that. That’s the way the US has determined its strategic goals not only in the Middle East but the same everywhere else, the same policies around the world, nothing special about the Middle East.
As far as, just one factual comment, as far as the scale of the lobby, in the sense that you correctly define it in political science terms―money, membership, that sort of thing―that’s been analyzed and detailed by Stephen Zunes. And I advise that you look at it. And it turns out that’s one of the smaller lobbies; it’s dwarfed. I mean it’s totally dwarfed by the business lobby which is totally overwhelming and even by things like lawyers lobby, real estate agents lobby and so on. I mean it’s influential but it’s influential I think largely because, as you say, it conforms mostly to US policy.
I don’t consider the cases that you mentioned very… let’s take the George Bush 1 case, which is an interesting one which is seriously misunderstood. That’s the other example which is standardly given for the power of the lobby.
George Bush No.1 and his Secretary of State James Baker took the most extreme position against the Palestinians in support of Israeli expansion of any president. But they did it in secret so they weren’t getting any lobby’s support or pressure for it. I mean we now know because – actually documents are known but they were kept quiet. They took the position, they supported the Israeli coalition government (Shimon Peres/Yitzhak Shamir) position, that there can be “no additional Palestinian state” between Jordan and the sea, meaning there already is a Palestinian state, namely Jordan. And there can’t be an “additional Palestinian state” and the fate of the territory, they said, “has to be implemented in accord with the wishes of the government of Israel.” That was endorsed in what was called the Baker Plan, the December 1989 Baker Plan, which endorsed exactly that position. That’s the harshest position, anti-Palestinian position that has been taken by any American president. That was George Bush the first. No lobby pressure. The lobby probably know about it. But yeah, that’s the position they took. It’s kind of like saying that the Jews don’t need Israel because they already have New York, so there doesn’t have to be an additional Jewish state. It’s very much like that. If anybody would say that, he’d be called a Nazi, you know. But that’s the position that George Bush the first and James Baker took. No pressure from the lobby. The conflict was over something else.
Yitzhak Shamir happened to be unusually abrasive. He would wait until James Baker showed up in Jerusalem and right at that moment, brazenly announce we are setting up a settlement on such and such a hill top. OK, you don’t treat the godfather that way. You have to be more polite. You have to do it the way Shimon Peres does. You say, “Thank you master, we will not settle any more settlements, just like you say,” and a week after you leave, we’ll put up the outpost and build it and everybody is happy; exactly what happened with Condoleezza Rice on her last trip. That’s the way you’re supposed to behave. If you behave too abrasively to the master, he’s not going to like it. So, therefore they made a weak threat to withhold funds, which of course they didn’t live up to. But I don’t really think this had anything to do with the lobby.
However, this entire discussion illustrates two points. One, for me personally, it illustrates that I don’t want to get into this discussion. I haven’t even written about it. I think one paragraph somewhere because there’s something mildly or maybe seriously distasteful about the whole discussion in my opinion.
As I said, a nation is dying in front of our eyes. OK? And we are focusing on an abstract discussion which maybe appropriate for some seminar somewhere about – the various factors that influence policy which overwhelmingly coincide but sometimes differ. And we’re asking which one is more influential in the few cases that they differ. Actually, I basically agree with you where―for this abstract discussion―where major US interests in the sense of interests of those who matter, where they are involved, the Israeli lobby has no effect. On issues that don’t matter much to the United States, yeah, the lobby can have an effect just like the Armenian lobby can have an effect. I mean the Armenian lobby came very close to, a couple months ago, to seriously harming US relations with one of its most important allies, Turkey, over the Armenian genocide. But they came pretty close. Yeah, that’s what lobbies can do, but where any serious interest is concerned, they just totally get lost.
That was true on the China case 2005, which was particularly striking. And again in 2000 the North Korean case was a very important case. North Korea had agreed to stop sending any missile technology or any other advanced military technology to the Middle East, the entire Middle East, in return for Israeli recognition. And the Clinton administration simply told them no. And for Israel, that has a very serious significance.
There was a big fuss a couple of months ago, about Israel’s allegedly bombing some site in northern Syria, which was supposed to―the US claimed it had North Korean support. Well, whatever tiny element of truth there might be to that, there would be nothing at all like that or even any threat if Israel hadn’t bowed to US pressure. When we get a real issue, I think you’ll find that’s what happens; so as far as the “Arab street” is concerned, the US doesn’t care any more than Saudi Arabia does.
However, there’s another point that should be made. Let’s take this abstract discussion which personally I find distasteful about which factor in policy, which of the many factors and policies that almost always coincide has more weight. Let’s ask does it have any practical consequences, how the discussion turns out.
So suppose we decide with Walt/Mearsheimer that in cases, you know that there are cases of serious concern to powerful American interests where the US backs off because of the lobby. Well, if that’s true, there is a consequence, a tactical consequence.
For me, it would be terrific. I can stop writing books, I can stop writing articles, stop giving talks all over the place, stop getting vilified, and yeah, nothing. All I’d have to do or you’d have to do or anyone else concerned with the problem would have to do is put on our ties and jackets, go to the corporate headquarters of Lockheed Martin, Intel, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Warren Buffett, Exxon Mobil and so on and politely explain to them that their interests are being harmed by a lobby that they can put out of business in 30 seconds with their political clout and economic force. OK, game’s over, we’ve won.
Does anybody do it? I mean does anybody even bother to laugh? Well, no. I mean it’s laughable. If the few being interested in looking out for themselves didn’t like what was happening, they’d do something about it. What they are doing about it is investing in Israel, not under pressure of the Christian evangelicals or AIPAC, but because they find it useful to have the most powerful state in the region, actually with military forces that are more—with air and armor forces that are larger and technologically more advanced than any NATO power, let alone the region outside the United States.
And it’s totally subordinate to the United States; Israel made a decision a long time ago that it would sacrifice security for expansion which makes it totally subordinate to the United States: it has to do as the US wants, very loyal, performs any task it wanted, right on the periphery of the major oil producing regions. The tyrannies who run the oil producers really don’t mind as long as they can control their own populations. So it’s the system that works for the interests of the few big interests who look out for themselves. And we see it in their behavior.
If we think they are being misled, well, we should explain it to them so that they will change their behavior and put the lobby out of business. But far as I can see, that’s the only practical consequence to this discussion. Otherwise, it’s an abstract discussion. It’s what you can have often in some seminar room about relative weight of two factors and policy formation that almost always coincide but sometimes conflict. Well, that’s maybe an intellectually interesting discussion. I can’t get much involved in it when we see a nation being killed under our eyes.