Two authors from the elite of American academia, an attempted answer to the what-went-wrong-for-the-U.S.-in-the-Middle-East question, and a controversy that has been brewing for over a year no wonder this book is on the New York Times Best-Seller list. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's book is far more expansive in scope, detailed in argument, and thoroughly sourced ?(106 pages of footnotes?) than their 2006 article on the same subject, although their methodology still eschews firsthand interviews. This is a difficult and challenging book. It is also an important book that deserves to be keenly debated.

The book has generally elicited three types of response since its release. The first: Ignore it. Controversy, after all, breeds attention, debate and even sales, all of which, for some, are undesirable. Second: Take it seriously and deal with the substance, something this review will do in a moment.

But before that, one must note the third type of response: To vilify, delegitimize and discredit the book and its authors. "Anti-Jewish bias" ?(Jeff Robbins, Wall Street Journal?); "inspired by the Nuremburg Laws" ?(Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times?); "a bigoted attack" ?(Alan Dershowitz?) ? these are just a few of the Pavlovian responses to the book.

Despite the accusations, this a not a hateful screed. Painful, yes. Prejudiced, no. As the authors close off each possible avenue of anti-Semitic intent or effect, they come across as thorough, not ritualistic or tokenistic. According to Walt and Mearsheimer, both political scientists, the former at Harvard, the latter at the University of Chicago, "the Israel lobby is the anti-thesis of a cabal or conspiracy." Interest group politics, including ethnic lobbies, are for them central to America's democracy and pluralistic society "as American as apple pie." Multiple loyalties are also very American, and not confined to Jews. To specifically question the dual loyalty of Israel's supporters would be "wrong," say the authors, as they "have every right to advocate their positions."

Walt and Mearsheimer argue that, far from controlling the media, the Israel lobby has to work hard to ensure that its position wins out. Perhaps unexpectedly, the authors even describe themselves as "pro-Israel," and declare, "we are not challenging Israel's right to exist, or questioning the legitimacy of a Jewish state." Hardly very radical stuff. Their gripe is with where the lobby, effective as they claim it is, has taken U.S. foreign policy. Yes, they recognize it would be easier and more comfortable to discuss the pharmaceutical, gun or Free Cuba lobbies. Alas, their theme is the Middle East. Their more shrill detractors have either not read the book, are emotionally incapable of dealing with harsh criticism of something they hold so close ?(certainly a human tendency?), or are intentionally avoiding a substantive debate on the issues.

The authors' challenge is "to convince readers that the United States provides Israel extraordinary material aid and diplomatic support, the lobby is the principal reason for that support, and this uncritical and unconditional relationship is not in the American national interest."

Proving the first point does not make for particularly arduous labor. Israel became the largest single annual recipient of U.S. foreign assistance in 1976 and has topped the league ever since. We receive approximately $500 every year for every Israeli ?(it's $5 per Pakistani?). All this is rather nice. In fact, it is a remarkable achievement that few Israelis would prefer to do without. But is it a consequence of the Israel lobby's work? Rather than replying with an "obviously it is," and moving on, Walt and Mearsheimer treat us to an unforgiving debunking of the alternative explanations. This entails holding a mirror up to Israel and highlighting all the warts. We all know they exist, but still, it's not a pretty sight.

Punch to the gut

Chapter Three, "A Dwindling Moral Case," is their punch to the gut of any Israeli claim to extraordinary U.S. support on the basis of merit alone. It is hardly unfair that they give us the most egregious examples of Israel behaving badly - that is precisely what clinches their argument. Just for good measure, the vast majority of their sources are Israeli. Many will recoil at this chapter, especially when the criticism comes from outsiders.

By the time the authors ask "which group [Israelis or Palestinians] now has a stronger moral claim to U.S. sympathy?," the question is clearly rhetorical. But what about Israel's value as a strategic ally? Walt and Mearsheimer are having none of it, and here the American elite consensus is probably on their side. If Israel was of "limited strategic value" during the Cold War, it has become a veritable "liability" in the war on terror. The alliance with Israel does not serve American Middle East interests as defined by these authors: It doesn't help keep Gulf oil flowing to markets; doesn't discourage the spread of weapons of mass destruction; and certainly doesn't reduce anti-American terrorism originating in the region.

Last year's bipartisan Iraq Study Group of wise American policy elders may have put it more politely, but they essentially reached the same conclusion. For Walt and Mearsheimer, support for an Israel that is at war with its neighbors "has fueled anti-Americanism ... gives Islamic terrorists a powerful recruiting tool, and contributes to the growth of radical Islam." It is not Israel per se that is a liability, but Israel as an occupier: "If the conflict were resolved, Israel might become the sort of strategic asset that its supporters often claim it is." The distinction should be on the radar screen of Israel's strategic planners. The authors argue that current Israeli policy is a liability to the U.S., and many would argue ?(the authors actually do?) that it is also a liability to Israel itself.

This is the first half of their argument − often debatable, sometimes flawed, always compelling. I would argue for instance that they understate at least three factors in popular culture that embellish U.S. support for Israel. First, there is a significant element of emotion, sentiment and identification in the way Americans relate to Israel; manufactured or not, it exists. Just witness the response to Shahar Peer at this year's U.S. Tennis Open. Second, they refer to but underestimate the role of the Christian evangelical Zionists and their impact at the local level, especially in the media. The main Christian pro-Israel lobby group, Christians United for Israel ?(CUFI?), has grown exponentially in recent years. It is fanatical in its devotion and politically way over to the right, channeling millions annually to support settlements.

A third and not unconnected phenomenon requires a closer look at America's warts − namely, the prevalence of popular Islamophobia. Pro-Israel sentiment is strengthened not by Israel's moral case, but by an immoral negative stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims by many mainstream media outlets since 9/11. But Walt and Mearsheimer are less good at seeing America's warts, and totally overlook this trend.

Having set out their own stall, that this extraordinary state of affairs is explained by the influence of the Israel lobby, the authors then describe what the lobby is and how it operates. The lobby, they say, is a "loose coalition of individuals and organizations," not all of whom are lobbyists, with "fuzzy" boundaries. Their definition is interesting and probably over-inclusive, ranging from obvious groupings, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee ?(AIPAC?), and Christian Zionists, to think tanks, certain journalists and scholars, and the neoconservative movement ?(neocons?), of whom more in a moment. It is not synonymous with American Jewry. Their description of how the policy process is "guided" would have most interest groups green with envy, and makes for entertaining, if at times disturbing reading. Former House Speaker Richard Armey's eminently quotable "my number one priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel," from 2002, does get you thinking how it would be received were the Speaker of the Knesset to opine that "my number one priority in foreign policy is to protect America."

The tools and tactics used include: draft legislation, speeches, talking points; tours of Israel for politicians and radio talk-show hosts; cultivation of congressional staffers; campaign contributions. Their analysis of campaign financing is weak and leaves one feeling somewhat short-changed.

Finally and not surprisingly, given their own treatment, the authors turn the spotlight on the ugliest face of supposedly pro-Israel activism − smear campaigns and silencing tactics, often perpetrated by organizations masquerading as watchdog groups. The attacks, for instance, on Kenneth Roth and Human Rights Watch, after they criticized Israel's offensive activity in Lebanon in 2006, were not only unjustified, undemocratic and un-Jewish, they are also a big turn-off for an increasing number of young American Jews.

Bad for U.S., bad for Israel

The second half of the book is devoted to concrete examples, with which the authors make their case that the lobby influences foreign policy in ways that are detrimental to the U.S. national interest, "and," the authors add, "although these policies were intended to benefit Israel, many of them have damaged Israeli interests." All of the examples are taken from the Bush era, post 9/11 − and this brings us to the book's core weakness. Walt and Mearsheimer see too much continuity and not enough exceptionalism in this period. At the center of their argument stand the neocons, and their interplay with the Israel lobby.

The neocons are a tight-knit group of ultra-hawks, favoring unilateral projection of U.S. power as a benign hegemon. They are predominantly, though not exclusively, Jewish, congregate around certain think tanks and publications ?(notably the American Enterprise Institute and The Weekly Standard, respectively?) and are most associated with the Project for a New American Century ?(PNAC?), which set out their goals in the 1990s. After 2000, neocons took up key positions in the Bush administration. Walt and Mearsheimer place them four-square inside the Israel lobby. The reality seems more complicated than that.

Many leading neocons, by their own admission, care greatly about Israel, but they want to impose their policy, not follow Jerusalem's. Unlike, for instance, AIPAC, which takes its lead from the Israeli government, and then tends to give it an extra twist to the right, the neocons adhere to a rigid ideological dogma and are not afraid to confront a government in Jerusalem they view as too "soft." The view that sees neocons as spearheading the Israel lobby position under Bush has serious flaws. It is more likely that the neocons co-opted the Israel lobby, and Israel itself, to their own vision of regional transformation. Still, most members of the Israel lobby were willing accomplices, and this represents their historic error. The gradual and consistent ideological drift to the right of key Israel lobby elements since the 1970s, and the hawkish excess of mainstream groups, made this cooperation not only possible, but natural, almost seamless.

The picture is complete when the role of Ariel Sharon, then Israeli premier, is added. Sharon was a hawk, but no neocon. He viewed dreams of regional transformation, democratization and regime change with scorn and disdain, but he could spot a useful political ally when he saw one. The neocons would be his bulwark against being dragged into a negotiating process with the Palestinians or Syrians, as America re-calibrated its approach to the Middle East post-9/11. Negotiations were Sharon's "Room 101." The Dov Weissglas-Elliott Abrams channel saved him the trouble. Walt and Mearsheimer describe a damning end product, policies that are a disaster for America and Israel alike, but in over-conflating the neocons with the Israel lobby they overlook a dynamic and nuance that might have implications for the future.

Outsourcing regional policy

In recent years the Israel lobby, and even Israel itself, largely outsourced regional policy to the neocons, and this is crucial for better understanding all the issues that "The Israel Lobby" looks at: Iraq, Iran, Syria, the Palestinians and the Second Lebanon War. Walt and Mearsheimer devote a chapter to each of these, but there is no space here for a detailed discussion of the entire region. "Removing Saddam Hussein from power" was, to quote Walt and Mearsheimer, a neocon "obsession," and it is more likely that Israel and the lobby fell into line in promoting the Iraq war than that they drove the agenda.

Israeli leaders much too publicly went to bat for the war in American media outlets, and this is well documented in the book, even embarrassingly so ?(Ehud Barak, in The Washington Post: "Once he [Saddam] is gone there will be a different Arab world?"), but there are also suggestions of senior Israelis urging caution in private. Democratic support for the war was propelled by the post-9/11 mood and a political fear of appearing weak on national security issues, and if the Israel lobby played a role it was not the leading one.

On Iran, the authors draw our attention to two missed opportunities, both under former-president Mohammad Khatami, for a comprehensive U.S.-Iranian dialogue, and suggest a diplomatic way forward out of the current impasse. They contend that Israel and the lobby are driving policy in the opposite direction. If that is true, and evidence is certainly out there, then it suggests the neocon world view is still in the driver's seat, and that Israel and the lobby have learned nothing from the last years. Israel, declaratively at least, prefers a diplomatic solution, and both Israel and her friends should be pushing actively for enhanced diplomacy, not the ratcheting up of military threats that so play into the hands of Ahmadinejad.

Syria is the arena in which the neocon-inspired U.S. position and the Israeli position seem most at odds: a policy of promoting regime change versus one that says, we are ready to negotiate with you ?(when we're not conducting military missions inside your territory?). The book also makes the case that in the Second Lebanon War, the Israel lobby helped prevent early U.S. intervention to end the war. If that is true, it would present a particularly glaring example of the lobby working against the Israeli interest, and another reason why Israelis should follow this issue closely. Analysis of key ministerial testimonies to the Winograd Committee and the Interim Winograd Report itself suggests that very senior Israelis based their calculations and decisions on an expectation that the U.S. would pursue an early diplomatic solution. The neocons implacably opposed this, the lobby fell into line and Israel "reaped the rewards," all the way to the cemeteries.

Walt and Mearsheimer explain Bush Middle East policy as Israel-lobby driven. Another way to look at it would be: This is the first Republican administration since the Christian evangelical Zionists emerged as a potent force in the GOP; since the mainstream pro-Israel community, which contained a sizable and senior neocon presence, planted itself firmly on the Likud right; and a hawk was ensconced in the Israeli Prime Minister's Residence. Then came 9/11 and the swagger and hubris that followed an apparently easy military victory in Afghanistan. This was a potent mix. These actors can all be described with some accuracy as pro-Israel, but they are also all different, and charting a future course is helped by recognizing that difference.

What next?

Prescriptions on what to do next are precisely how Walt and Mearsheimer end their book. They come from the realist school of American foreign policy, and their policy advice combines off-shore balancing ?(deploy militarily only when under direct threat; maintain a military presence in, but do not own, the region?) with broad diplomatic engagement and a push to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This last point is crucial, given the conflict's mobilizing and recruiting role for radicals, and its potency as a symbol for anti-American PR in the era of the Internet and Al Jazeera. On addressing the lobby, the authors consider four options. They reject weakening the lobby via campaign finance reform as impractical, and countering it via an anti-Israel lobby as unwelcome, given that it might lead to anti-Semitism. They prefer countering the lobby with a more open debate on the Middle East and encouraging the evolution of a more moderate Israel lobby ?(building, for instance, on the work of Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek veShalom and the Israel Policy Forum?). For liberal American Jews who care about Israel, that means ending the outsourcing contract with neocons and right-wing evangelicals. It also means disowning the McCarthyite hate-mongering tactics used by groups like Campus Watch, and accepting dissenting voices. On his delightfully named and popular blog, "Rootless Cosmopolitan," Tony Karon has spoken of the beginnings of a "Jewish glasnost." It will take though a greater commitment of time and resources from liberal Jews who pursue multi-issue agendas. This debate would become acutely relevant were the Democrats to re-take the White House in next year's election.

And finally, what about our role, in Israel? Three powerful conclusions emerge. First, as exposed in the Lebanon war and understood by the Winograd Committee, there is a dire lack of Israeli strategic planning capacity. How to respond to a weakened America in the region, occupation or peace with the Palestinians and Syrians, whether to outsource our policy to the neocons? For Israel, the answer seems to be: No comment. Israel lacks a definition of strategic objectives and their articulation to our friends across the pond.

Second, alongside the undoubted benefits, the agenda pursued by the lobby in America has come at a great cost to Israel. NIS 45 billion could not have been wasted on settlements without U.S. complicity. As the book's authors argue, "Washington has helped insulate it [Israel] from some of the adverse consequences of its own actions," and that is a very dubious luxury indeed.

Finally, while the right was busy investing in building allies and alliances in the U.S., the left was asleep or intimidated or both. A small number of center-left Israel politicians display an active interest in events States-side, but very few display sufficient courage and conviction to challenge the self-defeating orthodoxy of the current mainstream Israel lobby. It is an absence sorely felt. Walt and Mearsheimer suggest that "it is time to treat Israel like a normal country." Presumably unintentionally, they echo the classical Zionist goal of creating a normal country. The two are linked. Absent a different discussion with the U.S. and our friends there, Israel is unlikely to become normal. Perhaps this difficult book can help advance that discussion.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, was previously an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.