Why Does This Man Want to End the U.S.-Israel Special Relationship?

In a no-holds barred conversation, Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev talks at length with Prof. Stephen Walt, coauthor of the notorious 'Israel Lobby,' about accusations of anti-Semitism and U.S. foreign policy.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prof. Stephen Walt.
Prof. Stephen Walt.Credit: Asia Kepka
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

A few minutes after this interview got under way, Stephen Walt began to lose his patience with me. You’re wrong, he snapped. You didn’t read carefully. You are repeating yourself. You keep on interrupting. Why don’t you let me finish? Do you want to hear my answer or are you only interested in your question?

When I listened later to the recordings, I had to admit that Walt had a point. My questions were at times unpleasant, even rude, and I did keep cutting him off, uncharacteristically, if I may add. It’s true that I had warned myself that some readers wouldn’t appreciate a cozy interview with a man who has been widely described as an Israel-hater, if not an anti-Semite, but I assumed that any feigned belligerence on my part would be largely symbolic. As far as I could recall, my own views were not all that distant from his.

My attitude changed in the 48 hours before the interview, especially during the last four hours, on the train to Boston, when I finished re-reading the book that Walt had written with his colleague John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” I did not remember that the book had upset me as much when it was first published in 2007, but maybe I only skimmed it then. By the time I walked the two blocks from the Harvard Square subway station in Cambridge to the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where Walt teaches, I was already seeing red.

The essence of the book – and I’m sure Walt could provide quotes to correct any misrepresentations on my part – is that there is a multi-faceted and all-powerful “Israel lobby,” as the authors term it, that plays a decisive role in forging American foreign policy toward the Middle East. Were it not for this lobby, the United States would not have gone to war in Iraq in 2003, a decision that most people now view as a strategic and tragic mistake. The dominance of the lobby is the reason for the “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S., which not only harms wider American interests in the region but is also a prime motivator of jihadist terrorism aimed at the U.S., including the attacks of September 11.

Walt and Mearsheimer’s lobby is an omnipotent octopus with countless tentacles that deters Congress, controls the media and runs rings around the White House. It includes not only the usual suspects, such as AIPAC, the ADL and the Conference of Presidents and all of its constituent members. According to Walt, even J Street, which was created after the book was published and which is shunned by the Jewish establishment, is part of the Jewish lobby. The lobby encompasses not only Jewish and Christian groups that support Israel, but also a nation-wide web of individuals who are part of a “community,” in one way or another, that works “to defend, advance or protect” the special relationship between Israel and the U.S. in any way, shape or form. This includes not only journalists such as the conservative Charles Krauthammer, but also Thomas L. Friedman, who has criticized the lobby and would no doubt be surprised to be listed as one of its active members.

“So are you a part of the anti-Israel lobby in America?” I ask Walt.

“There is no anti-Israel lobby,” he replies.

“But you say it doesn’t need to be an organization, only a community of interests, and you are actively engaged in trying to undermine the special relationship between Israel and the U.S.,” I insist.

“No”, he answers again, “I actively work in favor of what I think would be a normal relationship between the United States and Israel, which would be better for both countries. That’s not anti-Israel, that’s pro-Israel.”

“But that’s what Safire and Krauthammer and all the rest of the people that you place in the lobby also believe. They work to support the special relationship and you work to undermine it,” I persist.

“Excuse me,” Walt says, raising his voice, “Don’t accuse me of being anti-Israel, because I’m not. We don’t use those terms. Our point was to try and explain why the U.S. and Israel have this very unusual relationship, with enormous amounts of support, that no American politician will criticize in public. One way to explain it is to say that this is domestic politics, and maybe it’s the operation of a very powerful interest group that is skewing American policy, making it different than our relationship with France or Japan or other democracies.”

Walt says that one should not overstate Israel’s strategic importance to the United States, “which is not to say that Israel isn’t occasionally useful, but the idea that it is this island of stability that helps us in all sorts of ways is overstated.” He also claims that the support of the American public doesn’t explain the “special relationship,” because that support is “very soft.” Most Americans, he says, don’t really care one way or another.

So there are Congressmen walking around with a belly full of complaints about Israel that they are too afraid to utter out loud?

“Absolutely. If I were a Congressman, I’d be very reluctant to do it. It just buys you trouble.”

Maybe it’s not that important to them. They don’t go around criticizing France or Britain either.

“We don’t give France and Britain $3 billion a year, and we don’t have people flying planes into buildings because of them.”

That’s an offensive claim. The fact that Osama bin Laden may have asserted that he was standing up for the Palestinians doesn’t mean that I have to believe him. I don’t believe that the U.S. is a ‘Crusader’ country either. Most researchers don’t think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was an essential part of his worldview.

“Well, then, we disagree on the literature. I think most researchers who have looked carefully at bin Laden’s career and his thoughts would argue that his concern for Palestine was a key motivation for him. Not the only one, but one of them.”

Do you propose that if one neutralized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American support for Israel, there would be no conflict between radical Islam and America? Is the Arab Spring connected to Israel?

“No. It is not a magic bullet. We say explicitly in the book that if the United States had a different relationship with Israel and if you solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would not end all problems in the region. Nonetheless, despite the Arab Spring, the Palestinian issue continues to resonate in the Arab street, which makes it harder for the United States to get their cooperation. That’s what the last two U.S. commanders of CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command, which oversees the military theater of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia] told Congress – that the Palestinian conflict handicaps America’s efforts to deal with other problems in the region. This is a direct result of our remarkable relationship with Israel. It’s a puzzle that has to be accounted for. Something peculiar is going on here.”

‘Modern blood libel’

Walt and Mearsheimer’s quest to solve the “peculiar puzzle” began in 2002, when the Atlantic Monthly approached Walt, then the academic dean at the Kennedy School, and Mearsheimer, co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, to research the sensitive topic. “After 9/11, everyone kind of understood at some vague level that there was something wrong with America’s relationship with this part of the world, but there was a part of that story that wasn’t being talked about very openly,” Walt says. But after almost three years of work with the Atlantic, its editors decided to dump the project, possibly because they anticipated the kind of storm that broke out in 2006, when Walt and Mearsheimer’s paper was posted on the Harvard website and published in the London Review of Books. And even that storm was only a prelude to the typhoon of controversy and the torrents of condemnation that engulfed the expanded book version that was published by Farrar, Straus Giroux in the summer of 2007.

One of the main reasons for the outburst of protests against the book was the eminent academic credentials of its authors. Both Walt and Mearsheimer are considered to be leading theoreticians of the realist school of international relations. Walt created the concept of “balance of threats,” which modified the prevailing rule of “balance of power” in explaining the behavior of nation-states, while Mearsheimer is credited with the theory of “offensive realism,” by which states tend to try to realize the maximal power that their relative position in the world enables.

“We didn’t ask to do this – we were asked,” Walt says of his sudden interest in the domestic aspect of U.S. foreign policy, an angle of observation usually shunned by contemporary realists. “But we felt that we were in an unusual position to do this. One, we were a couple of boring, mainstream academics. We weren’t Noam Chomsky. We weren’t Norman Finkelstein. We weren’t easy to dismiss. We weren’t married to Palestinians. We’d never taken any money from the Saudis. We had a certain amount of credibility in the sense that we had nothing to gain from doing this. And therefore, if we weren’t willing to, with tenure at two major universities, who would?”

The timing of the publication of both the article and the book also played a major role in both the publicity and the notoriety that it achieved. In the summer of 2007, the American public had already realized that it had been misled by the Bush administration over the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The cost of that deception, intentional or not, was 4,000 American dead and 22,000 wounded, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties, a staggering financial cost measured in the trillions and the emergence of the U.S. as the most hated country in the world.

And then these two well-respected academics show up to pin the blame squarely on the shoulders of Israel and its (mostly Jewish) lobby. To put it crudely, Osama bin Laden destroyed the Twin Towers because of the “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S., and George Bush crippled America because of that relationship’ssupporters.

Walt’s Harvard colleague Alan Dershowitz described the findings as a “modern blood libel.” Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel called the paper “the same old anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist drivel.” Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg blasted its “malignant and dishonest spirit.” Political science professor Eliot Cohen, of Johns Hopkins University, declared it anti-Semitic, plain and simple. The ADL’s Abe Foxman published an entire book to undermine Walt and Mearsheimer’s “myth of Jewish control.” Even Chomsky and Finkelstein said that Walt and Mearsheimer were exaggerating.

Walt dismissed the many criticisms that I insisted on reading out to him, saying that most of them “were not serious” and had either distorted what was written in the book or actually invented things that were the complete opposite. The Nation’s Eric Alterman “didn’t read the book very carefully,” the objections of The New Yorker’s David Remnick were “silly,” and Chomsky “is wrong on this, as he is on many things.”

“It’s laughable when we’re accused of saying there’s some kind of conspiracy going on. This isn’t a conspiracy – it’s American politics, pure and simple. The entire political system in America is set up to empower interest groups of all kinds. The United States has had an embargo on Cuba since 1960. Everybody understands this embargo is a complete and utter failure, that our policy toward Cuba is a joke, right? But we still have it. Is that because the American people are overwhelmingly hostile to the aging Castro family and want to maintain this embargo forever? No. It’s because for a long time, we have had a well-organized community of Cuban-Americans who care greatly about this particular issue, and nobody else in America cares at all.”

“Another example: The National Rifle Association. Why is there no gun control in the United States, even in the wake of school shootings and other disasters? It’s because there’s a very powerful, well-organized lobby. Every year in the United States, they pass a farm bill. Every agricultural economist in America knows it’s not a very good piece of public policy, but it’s what the political system produces. Or take the finance industry. Why is it so hard to regulate the finance industry in the United States, despite what happened in 2008? Because financial organizations give enormous contributions and are well wired into the political system. “

I’m sure you understand that accusing the lobby of responsibility for the war in Iraq is in a different league than these other issues that you’ve mentioned. Don’t you think the neoconservatives in the Bush administration wanted to go to war without any connection to the Israeli lobby?

“We made it abundantly clear that we didn’t regard AIPAC or even the neoconservatives as solely responsible, and we say in several places that under different circumstances they would never have been able to get the administration to go to war. We also make it clear that [President George W.] Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney played a critical role. But the neoconservatives had been pushing for some kind of military action against Saddam since the late 1980s, and they hadn’t convinced [President Bill] Clinton and they hadn’t convinced Bush until after 9/11. Then we have a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances. The Iraq War wouldn’t have happened absent the lobby’s influence, but the lobby alone could not get the United States to go to war in Iraq.

“But once the campaign for war begins in 2002-2003, other organizations and other individuals that we would call part of the lobby weigh in to help sell it. The Israeli government itself was quite ambivalent about this idea when it first came out of the United States, and actually was more worried about Iran, as I think it remains more worry about today. It was only after Bush and company said, look, we’re doing Baghdad first, and then we’ll turn our attention to these people in Tehran, that the Israelis got on board.”

But you know very well that some parts of the Israel lobby won’t do something that’s connected to Israeli security unless they’re not sure the Israeli government supports. Were they more gung-ho than the Israeli government? That hardly sounds credible.

“We documented pretty carefully that AIPAC quietly supported going to war, and the [executive director] of AIPAC, Howard Kohr, said as much. That that was one of his major accomplishments in 2002. This is in the period where I think Bush has already made the decision, right? But he’s got to get public support for it, he wants to get congressional approval, and the interesting question is what if all these [Israel lobby] organizations had been completely neutral? Or, God forbid, what if a few of them had opposed the war?”

There still would have been a war.

Not so sure.

Not so sure is one thing, writing a book is another.

“I have to pound this into your head: We do not say the Israel lobby was solely responsible for the Iraq war. We say it would not have happened if the lobby had not existed and had not pushed forth.”

That’s very close.

“No, excuse me. If 9/11 had not happened, I don’t think we would have invaded Iraq. If we’d had more trouble when we went into Afghanistan, if that campaign had gone badly from the beginning or if we’d had the kind of trouble we had later in Afghanistan, I think Iraq would have been put off. Major decisions like this involve a whole series of things coming together. Nine-eleven, which was a shocking event for the United States, gets the Bush administration to think about alternatives. They happen to have a number of people who are big advocates of invading Iraq in key positions. Then the apparent success in Afghanistan convinces Cheney and Bush and Rumsfeld that we have this magic military that can go in and do wonderful things on the cheap, and so there’s not much risk involved. It makes it very hard for potential critics to object.“

So we’re talking about an administration that was hawkish, influenced by its success in Afghanistan, with a tendency to solve things by force, with this unsettled account with Saddam, whom it believes has weapons of mass destruction. It doesn’t seem like Bush and Cheney needed a lot of persuasion, so the Jewish lobby played, at best, a supportive role.

“But, isn’t it peculiar that after the United States is attacked on 9/11 by Osama bin Laden, who is located in Afghanistan, that we respond to that by attacking Iraq? A country that had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11?”

So, you’re saying the Israel lobby made that connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11?

“They didn’t come up with the idea themselves.”

Do you have proof of that?

“Paul Wolfowitz, four days after 9/11, at Camp David, said that our first response should be to overthrow Saddam Hussein. So the idea is put in front of – “

But Paul Wolfowitz is part of the administration. He’s the deputy secretary of defense. Why is this the Israel lobby?

“Wolfowitz is part of the Israel lobby. It’s been clear throughout his career.”

Aren’t you absolving the American hawks, who ruled this country for at least eight years, of any responsibility? Are you saying that Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were just putty in the hands of the Israel lobby? Are they simpletons?

“Well, if you’ve read the book and I haven’t persuaded you, then I haven’t persuaded you. And we’ve spent almost all of our time talking about one chapter of the book.”

Israel has won

So we moved on to the Palestinians. Walt says that Israel has, in fact, “won the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” because when the Palestinians accepted Israel’s existence, “they were essentially saying you guys won.” But Israel failed to be magnanimous in victory, as Winston Churchill counseled, because it only offered them “a small statelet” which they couldn’t hope to sell to their own public.

Walt believes that future historians will look back at the 1990s, to the Oslo Accords and Bill Clinton’s terms in the White House, and reach the conclusion that a golden opportunity to make peace was missed. When I ask him to assess responsibility for the failed peace talks in Camp David in 2000, he gives Israel and the U.S. 40 percent each, and the Palestinians 20 percent, “because they are the weaker party.” When I make the remark that weaker parties don’t necessarily resort to terrorism, he agrees that the Palestinians “committed crimes” but says that “they were doing it in the context of Israel failing to fulfill its commitments.” When I suggest that the book is rather skimpy about Hamas, Palestinian terrorism or Arafat’s machinations he replies: “Both sides have done things that we would regard as objectionable, reprehensible, whatever.”

You say that terrorists use the U.S.-Israeli relationship, of which you are highly critical, to justify their terrorism and then you say that it should be scrapped. Aren’t you both justifying terrorism and succumbing to it?

“Of course not. Killing innocent people is always a bad thing. The point is to understand why something is happening. If there’s a phenomenon that you don’t like, and you want it to stop, one of the ways of figuring out how to get it to stop is to figure out why it’s occurring. So, if people are engaging in anti-American terrorism because of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, and we have 10,000 troops in Saudi Arabia, we ought to ask ourselves: How badly do we need those troops? Is terrorism a price we ought to pay, or if that’s what’s causing this, maybe we could do something else with those troops. Similarly, if in fact some people are committing acts of terrorism because they have become convinced that the United States is backing Israel, and Israel is doing horrible things to the Palestinians, we ought to understand that, and ask ourselves what that means for our policy.”

Let’s move on to Iran. You compare it to the Soviet Union in the Cold War, but Israelis will tell you Tehran is nothing of the sort. How can you dismiss the Israeli concerns?

“I think that the Israelis and some in America have exaggerated the danger that a nuclear Iran would pose. Of course, I think it would be better if Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. But people have been worried about every country that has acquired nuclear weapons. When Russia got it, we thought it would be horrific. Ultimately it wasn’t. When China got a weapon in the 1960s, people were saying that Mao was an acknowledged mass murder, who had real contempt for human life, who had written things about nuclear wars. So, he got nuclear weapons, not much happened. I see no evidence that Iran’s leadership is suicidal and there’s no reason to believe that if they ever got a nuclear weapon that they would actually use it against Israel or anyone else, because to do so would be an act of national suicide.”

Do you think you might feel different if you were living in Jerusalem in 2002, and every two or three weeks there was a suicide bomber?

“There is no question that I might feel different, but one of the things that we’re paid to do is step back and ask, does that really tell us very much about what Iran’s leaders might do? They might send soldiers to die, as they did in the Iran-Iraq war, often in some pretty gruesome ways, but that doesn’t mean they will do something that puts their entire regime at risk.

“So, Israelis and Americans and plenty of other people recognize that Iran’s nuclear program is a problem. Where the disagreement has been is over what’s the best way of dealing with this problem. Do we try to work out a diplomatic arrangement with them, or do we use military force to try and disarm them?

“I’d make two points. One is that you can’t really solve this problem with military force, and you’re more likely to make it worse. And second: This is a beautiful illustration of a point we tried to make in our book, which is that the Israel lobby doesn’t control everything. They have been the most persistent and loudest advocates of a military response to this problem, but they’ve been unable to persuade the Obama administration. And the AIPAC-sponsored sanctions bill never got out of the Senate, because the Obama administration said look, this is not helpful to us right now.”

But that’s can also be an illustration of the idea that the Israel lobby only succeeds in persuading administrations to do what they’re predisposed to do.

“I think that’s too simple. Lobbies often have an impact, not just by getting their preferred outcome, but by making sure there are some policies that never even get considered. You can move the range of debate, the set of acceptable options, partly out of the way, even if you don’t get all the way to your preferred outcome. So, Congress has raised the bar for what a deal with Iran will have to be and that puts some constraints on what Obama is able to negotiate. But needless to say, our experience in Iraq, and in Afghanistan now have also made it harder to persuade anybody in the United States to get into another war in that part of the world.”

I ask Walt whether he is disappointed with Obama’s performance, given his advocacy against the special relationship with Israel.

“Yes,” he says, “but I think he’s been more of a disappointment to himself. His goal when he took office was to get a two-state solution and to end the war in Iraq. He very much wanted to diminish the amount of bandwidth the Middle East was taking up. He failed completely on the two-state solution, and while he did get out of Iraq, he can’t be particularly happy with what’s happened there. And then I think he was blindsided by the Arab Spring, and he discovers that the Middle East is still taking up enormous amounts of time and attention.

“There has been some unusual friction between the United States and Israel,” Walt says approvingly, “although there have been bumpy moments in the past. I think the administration did not think long and hard what its strategy was going to be. Going back to 2009, when Obama was really riding high, he gave the Cairo speech, and he tried to put pressure on Netanyahu, but I don’t believe the administration ever thought through what they would do if Netanyahu dug in his heels and said no, which is essentially what he did. They had no plan B, and they began to realize that the political costs here in the United States were considerable.

“At that point, Obama made a decision that it was really only the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth issue on his agenda and that there were other things that mattered more. But if that’s what you were going to do, why start down that road?

“He underestimated how hard it was going to be. There has been this view in American politics, and it harkens back to [Yitzhak] Shamir and [George H.W.] Bush, that it’s absolutely important for an Israeli prime minister to have a good working relationship with the U.S. president, and that it can cost an Israeli prime minister a lot if that relationship looks bad. That may have been true 20, 30 years ago, but I’m not sure it’s true anymore. Netanyahu became more popular in Israel the more he quarreled with Obama. I don’t think Obama handled this issue well.”

I ask Walt what he would do if it were up to him: “I’d be having a much more blunt conversation with our Israeli friends about where we think our interests are aligned and where I think our interests differ. I wouldn’t try to cut off the aid package, because it would go through Congress regardless of what I wanted to do. But if that were in my hands, I would make American support for Israel much more conditional on an end to settlement construction. A more serious willingness to engage with the Palestinians before it’s too late to actually get a peace deal.”

But the Israeli people may have chosen a government that is not amenable to those demands.

“Countries don’t always have the same interests, and if our interests are in [there being] a two-state solution, and if Israel decides it wants to go a different way, so be it. That’s Israel’s choice, and they can do that. But then the United States should be able to make its own choices, too.”

Understanding Putin

Do you agree with John Kerry’s assertion that the U.S. is engaged in 21st-century diplomacy while Vladimir Putin is pursuing 19th-century imperialism?

“I think we have focused far too much attention in the United States on Putin’s personality and far too little on the basic geopolitical interests at stake. If you’re Russia, and you’ve been invaded three times in a couple of hundred years, at extraordinary cost, and you’ve watched the West expand NATO eastwards, you have seen the United States put ballistic missile defenses in Poland, and they tell you that it’s about Iran, but you know that Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons yet, and doesn’t even have long-range ballistic missiles yet... And then, finally, if you’d seen what happened in 2008 when the Bush administration proposes an action plan for Ukraine and Georgia, and the next thing you know, we get the Russian-Georgian War. Why we didn’t think there was going to be a reaction is beyond me. I think it’s quite clear they were – the administration was completely blindsided. As were the Europeans.”

Is there a common thread of naiveté here?

“I don’t think it’s naiveté. It was certainly a failure to think through what the basic interests were. And I think when the Ukrainian revolt against [former President] Yanukovych began, we were too quick to side with the demonstrators and too slow to reiterate that our long-term interest was in a neutral Ukraine. Not really in their sphere. Not necessarily in our sphere. And some combination of collaboration and reassurance, as well as a warning to the Russians back several months ago, was probably the best way to approach it, as opposed to what we did.”

Is the Obama administration conducting a “realist” foreign policy?

“They certainly they have not approached Ukraine in a way that I would regard as particularly realist. But if realism means pragmatic, then I think they have been fairly pragmatic in their dealings with the Middle East. There’s no clear unifying principle in their response to the Arab Spring, for example: It’s different in Libya than in Bahrain, and Egypt is another matter altogether. I wrote a book on revolutions, and the thing about major social upheavals is they are really hard to read. A lot of people, me included, have some egg on our faces for trying to forecast where Egypt was going, for example.

“I think Morsi himself was surprised by the outcome he got, and the fact that the [Muslim] Brotherhood screwed up as badly as they did is partly a reflection of a movement that had lived for 70, 80 years as essentially a dissident, underground or quasi-underground movement suddenly being asked to run the country, and failing very badly.”

Israelis think events in the Middle East have proven them to be realists, and everybody else to be idealists.

“With the exception of the attempt to incorporate the West Bank, and all of the demographic problems that that creates, I would argue that the Israelis were sort of the ultimate realists, at least during the first 25-30 years of the existence of the state. Israelis like to say, understandably, that they are in a very difficult neighborhood and they can’t be too sentimental: You had to cut deals where deals needed to be cut, and you had to be ruthless when things needed to be ruthless. If I were to be critical of Israeli strategic judgment, it would be that after the miracle of ’67, strategic judgment got worse over time. And so you get the Lebanon War in 1982, and the occupation, which becomes an enormous headache later on.”

Do you support the two-state solution?

“Yes. Which unfortunately means that I’m now a supporter of something that I think is less and less likely. And I don’t know quite what to do with that.”

Generally speaking, after the reaction to the Bush administration that brought about the election of Obama, is the pendulum now swinging the other way?

“I actually think that the continuities in American foreign policy after the Cold War ended are quite striking. The aberration, which I do not attribute solely to the Israel lobby, is the first four years of the George W. Bush administration. It’s the only time the United States takes huge risks. Clinton was very busy in foreign policy, but he was very careful not to put ground troops in any place where they might get hurt. He wanted to use air power. And Obama’s been very similar. Obama’s willing to send Special Forces and drones and a few more ground troops to Afghanistan, but by and large, he does not want to do anything big and expensive. But the continuity of America wanting to be the indispensable nation, wanting to exercise global leadership – that really hasn’t changed.”

But Republicans accuse Obama of diminishing America’s aspirations to be dominant.

“I don’t think that’s correct. I think he’s given plenty of speeches in which where he’s made it clear that keeping the United States number one is an important priority. I think you couldn’t come out of the financial crisis and Iraq and Afghanistan without getting some adjustment. You make a bunch of big mistakes, you pay a price. But we’re still very busy in lots of parts of the world. We still have military power deployed, you know, on every continent. We still have the world’s largest, most capable military. The one thing we may have learned is that we’re not very good at occupying and running other societies. Nobody’s very good at doing that.”

No regrets

We are reaching the end of the interview, which has become much calmer – or perhaps we are both just worn out. I ask Walt whether he had anticipated the ferocious response to his article, and how it affected his life.

“We knew that we would face a firestorm of criticism, because we had seen what had happened to a few others who said similar things in the past,” he says. “The precise nature of it, and the speed, the immediacy of the response, did surprise me. It was literally going to bed one night and getting up the next morning in a rather different world. I didn’t fully anticipate that.

“How has it affected my life? I think it has altered the trajectory I might have had. I think it’s made it impossible for me to serve in the U.S. government, because it would be just too politically controversial. Even if someone wanted me, say, to work on U.S. policy in Asia, it would just be not worth it. I’m not so valuable that a president or a secretary of state would want to deal with the political fallout. It has probably had some impact on my upward mobility in academia – if I wanted to be a dean or something like that.

“But it has not a major impact on my friendships or my relations with other scholars. I don’t think I’ve lost any truly close friends as a result of this, including people who might have disagreed with me, and who have talked about it with me. And it opened up a whole set of new professional connections contacts, many of them in the American Jewish community... So there were some friends out there I didn’t know I had until after this got written.”

Does it bother you that people think you’re an Israel hater or call you an anti-Semite?

“Nobody should like being accused of being an anti-Semite, so I don’t enjoy that aspect, but I know it’s false, so I’m sorry that people have a mistaken view of my attitudes. That’s all I can do. I can’t correct them. I’ve said what I’ve said, and if they have an erroneous view of what my character is really like, that’s unfortunate.”

As we get ready to say goodbye – to the relief of us both, I think – Walt says that he has no regrets about the book and that besides updating it, his perceptions haven’t changed with the passage of time. He thinks that his book with Mearsheimer did indeed “break the taboo” about the Israel lobby and I tend to agree. I think it’s also true to say that the lobby itself has significantly downsized its public profile as a direct result of the book and the ensuing controversy.

But I also tend to agree with political commentator and scholar Walter Russell Mead’s observation that, “Although Mearsheimer and Walt make an effort to distinguish their work from anti-Semitic tracts, the picture they paint calls up some of the ugliest stereotypes in anti-Semitic discourse. The Zionist octopus they conjure – stirring up the Iraq war, manipulating both U.S. political parties, shaping the media, punishing the courageous minority of professors and politicians who dare to tell the truth – is depressingly familiar.” And I agree with the many critics of the real-life pro-Israel lobby who have written that there is a book to be done about its influence and the possible damage that it has caused to both the U.S. and Israel – but this book isn’t it. In my view it is one-sided, tendentious, distorted and, yes, prejudiced.

On my way back to New York, I suddenly remembered my mother, of blessed memory, who grew up in the Sudetenland, in Czechoslovakia, before World War II in a very small Jewish community in a German-speaking town. In those circumstances, she would say, Jews developed a sixth sense that allowed them to detect both Jews and anti-Semites who may have been pretending to be something else. It is a shame, I thought, that I have not inherited her gift.

Netanyahu speaking at a previous AIPAC conference.Credit: AP
Bush in Iraq.Credit: Reuters

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בן גוריון

'Strangers in My House': Letters Expelled Palestinian Sent Ben-Gurion in 1948, Revealed

The Orion nebula, photographed in 2009 by the Spitzer Telescope.

What if the Big Bang Never Actually Happened?


AIPAC vs. American Jews: The Toxic Victories of the 'pro-Israel' Lobby

Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic speaks during a press conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia in May.

‘This Is Crazy’: Israeli Embassy Memo Stirs Political Storm in the Balkans

Hamas militants take part in a military parade in Gaza.

Israel Rewards Hamas for Its Restraint During Gaza Op

Palestinians search through the rubble of a building in which Khaled Mansour, a top Islamic Jihad militant was killed following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza strip, on Sunday.

Gazans Are Tired of Pointless Wars and Destruction, and Hamas Listens to Them