Perspectives on Politics

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The “Israel Lobby” and American Politics

Robert C. Liebermana1

a1 Department of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. E-mail: rcl15@columbia.edu

Abstract

In their recent book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argue that American support for Israel does not serve American interests. Nevertheless, they observe that American foreign policy regarding the Middle East, especially in recent years, has tilted strongly toward support for Israel, and they attribute this support to the influence of the “Israel lobby” in American domestic politics. Their book is principally an attempt to make a causal argument about American politics and policymaking. I examine three aspects of this argument—its causal logic, the use of evidence to support hypotheses, and the argument's connection with the state of knowledge about American politics—and conclude that the case for the Israel lobby as the primary cause of American support for Israel is at best a weak one, although it points to a number of interesting questions about the mechanisms of power in American politics. Mearsheimer and Walt's propositions about the direct influence of the Israel lobby on Congress and the executive branch are generally not supported by theory or evidence. Less conclusive and more suggestive, however, are their arguments about the lobby's apparent influence on the terms and boundaries of legitimate debate and discussion of Israel and the Middle East in American policymaking. These directions point to an alternative approach to investigating the apparent influence of the Israel lobby in American politics, focusing less on direct, overt power over policy outcomes and more on more subtle pathways of influence over policy agendas and the terms of policy discourse.

Robert C. Lieberman is Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs and Chair, Department of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University (rcl15@columbia.edu).

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