Stephen Walt’s Expanding Definition Of The Israel Lobby

July 31, 2012 § 5 Comments

When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their controversial article on the “Israel Lobby” in the London Review of Books in March 2006, they defined the lobby as follows:

We use ‘the Lobby’ as shorthand for the loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. This is not meant to suggest that ‘the Lobby’ is a unified movement with a central leadership, or that individuals within it do not disagree on certain issues. Not all Jewish Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them…

Jewish Americans have set up an impressive array of organisations to influence American foreign policy, of which AIPAC is the most powerful and best known. In 1997,Fortune magazine asked members of Congress and their staffs to list the most powerful lobbies in Washington. AIPAC was ranked second behind the American Association of Retired People, but ahead of the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association. ANational Journal study in March 2005 reached a similar conclusion, placing AIPAC in second place (tied with AARP) in the Washington ‘muscle rankings’.

When their argument was published in book form one year later, the definition remained the same, although “Lobby” was switched to the less conspiratorial looking “lobby” and “steer” was changed to “shape.” The point was clear though; the Israel lobby is made up of groups and empowered individuals who seek to influence the foreign policy process. Mearsheimer and Walt swore up and down that they were not indicting Jews or Jewish voters wholesale, but were seeking to expose the activities of a select “loose coalition.”

With that background information in mind, Walt wrote a blog post yesterday purporting to put Mitt Romney’s various remarks over the weekend while in Israel into context. According to Walt, Romney was engaging in a time honored bipartisan tradition of pandering to the Israel lobby, but -

The good news, such as it is, is that both Romney and Obama are probably lying. No matter how many times each of them talks about the “unshakeable commitment” to Israel, or even of their “love” for the country, they don’t really mean it. They are simply pandering to domestic politics, which is something that all American politicians do on a host of different issues. Of course, they will still have to shape their policies with the lobby’s clout in mind (as Obama’s humiliating retreat on the settlement issue demonstrates), but nobody should be under the illusion that they genuinely believe all the flattering stuff that they are forced to say.

None of this is new or surprising, since Walt writes variations on this theme regularly. What is noteworthy about this particular Walt missive is that his definition of the lobby is far more expansive than usual. He opens by saying, “Pandering to special interest groups is a time-honored American political tradition, especially in an election year…Whether we are talking about the farm lobby, the NRA, the AARP, Big Pharma, Wall Street, or various ethnic lobbies, it’s inevitable that politicians running for office will say and do lots of stupid things to try to win influential groups over.” So the expectation is that what will follow is an exegesis about how Romney has been trying to win over the groups, or even people, that Walt has previously identified as making up the Israel lobby.

That is not, however, what Walt does. Instead, Walt explicitly states that he is talking about Jewish voters. In the second paragraph, right after the sentences about lobbies that I quoted above, he states about Romney, “He wasn’t trying to win over Israelis or make up for his various gaffes in London; his goal was to convince Israel’s supporters in America to vote for him and not for Barack Obama. Most American Jews lean left and will vote for Obama, but Romney would like to keep the percentage as low as he can, because it just might tip the balance in a critical swing state like Florida.” Lest there be any confusion that Walt is conflating the Israel lobby with American Jews, after referring to Obama and Romney tailoring their policies “with the lobby’s clout in mind,” he spends the rest of the piece talking not about ways in which “the lobby” punishes politicians who deviate from the party line by raising money for their opponents or running ads in their districts, but about how presidents Carter and Bush 41 saw their percentages of Jewish votes drop after pressuring or confronting Israel. He is not telling a story about what he has previously defined as the Israel lobby, but is telling a story about American Jews that he is calling a story about the Israel lobby.

Remember this next time someone claims that Mearsheimer and Walt are not indicting all American Jews with their theory, or are only focusing on a finite and defined set of groups. Walt’s defenders here will claim that because he and Mearsheimer argue that the Israel lobby influences public opinion, this is an extension of that argument, and that by pandering to the Israel lobby Romney and Obama know that they will affect how American Jews vote. Unfortunately, that argument won’t fly in this case. There is simply no way around the fact that Walt defines all American Jewish voters as “the Israel lobby” in his latest piece, and when he indicts Romney for pandering to the Israel lobby he means that Romney is pandering to Jewish voters. There is nothing wrong with pointing out what Romney is doing, but Walt is going to have a difficult time going forward explaining that when he references the Israel lobby, he is talking about “Zionists” or “pro-Israel groups” rather than Jews.

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§ 5 Responses to Stephen Walt’s Expanding Definition Of The Israel Lobby

  • Mearsheimer and Walt’s thesis is problematic and I try to avoid Walt’s blog as a rule. It is too often full of generalizations and paeans to realism. Realism is of course defined as “whatever Stephen Walt thinks should or should not have happened.” This latest post reads the same way: Walt dislikes unconditional support for Israel and has tried to craft a theory to explain it.

  • Aidan says:

    I notice that you omitted Walt’s very next sentence about Romney’s Israel pandering as an attempt to increase turnout among evangelical Christians and “Christian Zionists.” Yep, he’s totally just talking about Jewish voters. Nice catch!

    • Jon K says:

      Aidan – wouldn’t that further Michael’s point that Walt is using a very expansive definition of “lobby” that is very different from the one he defined back in 2006?
      Michael didn’t argue that Walt was referring strictly to Jewish voters but only that Walt truly believes that all Jewish voters are part of “the Israel lobby.” I do not see how Walt’s next line regarding Evangelicals and “Christian Zionists” refutes, contradicts or mitigates this point.

      • Aidan says:

        So what does he mean by “Walt is conflating the Israel lobby with American Jews” and “There is simply no way around the fact that Walt defines all American Jewish voters as ‘the Israel lobby’ in his latest piece” and “he indicts Romney for pandering to the Israel lobby he means that Romney is pandering to Jewish voters” and “Walt is going to have a difficult time going forward explaining that when he references the Israel lobby, he is talking about ‘Zionists’ or ‘pro-Israel groups’ rather than Jews”? To me that indicates that Michael did in fact argue that Walt was referring strictly to Jewish voters. That Walt says that most American Jewish voters lean left and will not be persuaded by Romney’s pandering to the Israel lobby seems to me to suggest that American Jewish voters are not ideologically homogenous, consistent with his previous statement that “not all Jewish Americans are part of the Lobby.” Would you suggest that Walt defines all evangelical Christians as the Israel lobby or that when he talks about the Israel lobby he is only talking about evangelicals?

  • […] has in recent years heavily emphasized the role American Jews in “the Lobby,” deemphasizing the initial gesture toward […]

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