Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Walt Gets It Wrong On US-Israel Relationship

Professor Stephen Walt's smackdown of the new WINEP report on Israel is a perfect example of why he and Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago lack credibility on Israel.

Professor Walt is legitimate to broach the subject of the US-Israel relationship, and to make criticisms of the costs it incurs for the US. But in several places in the post his arguments contradict themselves, or claim two slightly different things at the same time. These missteps undermine the overall credibility of the piece.

For example, Walt contends that, "Today, Israel is the only country in the world that mainstream U.S. politicians (and most members of the foreign-policy establishment) cannot openly criticize. It is the only country in the world that U.S. presidents cannot pressure in any meaningful way."

These statements are dramatic, but they are also demonstrably false. Open criticism from such as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, has been met with righteous indignation from the traditional pro-Israel community, but occurs nonetheless. Clearly, there is a difference between criticism being unpopular and being impossible. Walt admits this fact himself earlier in the piece but equivocates on which he believes to be the case.

While their absolute ability to pressure Israel indeed is limited, President Bush and President Obama (thus far) have both successfully pressured Israel to refrain from attacking Iran. Once again, Walt conflates his own argument, equating "difficult to pressure" with "cannot pressure." More importantly, to say Israel is the only country Presidents have trouble exerting pressure is just not the case. Analysts of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for example, would be very surprised to hear such a statement.

Perhaps the weakest of Professor Walt's arguments, however, is that the special relationship between the US and Israel is a lightning rod for terrorism, claming that there is an "enormous body of evidence suggesting that U.S. support for Israel was a key cause (though not the only one) of our terrorism problem."

The argument has some validity in that a shift in US policy towards a more neutral position would probably delegitimize the claims of some Islamic insurgent groups. If this were to facilitate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that would also defang these claims. But Walt also expresses support for a "normal" US-Israel relationship at the same time. So what exactly is motivating terrorism, the special relationship or US-Israel relations in general? Yet again, Walt's piece claims both at the same time.

And while there is evidence US-Israel policy raises the ire of Islamic insurgent groups, to say there is an "enormous" body of evidence that US support for Israel is a "key" cause of terrorism against the US is a stretch. US killing of Muslims, humiliation of prisoners in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the occupation of Muslim lands in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and support for "apostate" regimes are far more salient grievances for terrorists than US support for Israel.

While bloggers making exaggerations is nothing new, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one rife with misinformation and misrepresentation. Professor Walt's attempt to expand the debate on US-Israel policy is likely earnest and well-intentioned. However, representing the truth as a larger-than-life set of talking points only delegitimizes the otherwise strong points he raises in response to the WINEP report. Challenging the dominance of one point of view on Israel is a worthy and legitimate task, but those who raise this challenge undermine themselves by devolving into half-truths and sound bytes. The pro-Israel left must come to terms with the fact that it will be most successful when it simply lets the truth speak for itself.

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