Questioning U.S.-Israel ties

April 18, 2006|By G. JEFFERSON PRICE III

There's never really a comfortable time to speak or write critically of the extraordinary relationship between Israel and the United States.

The topic arouses passionate reaction. The suggestion that to criticize the relationship implies ill feeling toward Israel and, at its worst, anti-Semitism is almost inevitable. At the same time, criticism provokes the accusation that it means support for the Palestinians against Israel, meaning support for acts of terrorism inflicted on Israeli civilians, such as the suicide bomber attack that killed more than half a dozen people and wounded scores of others in Tel Aviv yesterday.

So one always approaches the subject with some trepidation. I have a lot of experience with this as a columnist and former foreign editor and Middle East correspondent for The Sun. One has to be very careful not to make mistakes when writing about Israel.

This need for caution came to mind in reviewing an article published recently by two of this country's most prominent academicians, John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard.

The article, which was published March 23 by the London Review of Books and appears in unedited form on the Web site of Harvard's Kennedy School for Government, is deeply critical of the U.S.-Israel relationship. It blames the relationship and all of its consequences on the huge domestic political influence of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its partners among America's Christian right and the neoconservative elite.

In the beginning of the article, the two academics succinctly lay out the extraordinary dimensions of the relationship:

"Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing that given to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance since 1976, and is the largest recipient in total since World War II, to the tune of well over $140 billion (in 2004 dollars). Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance each year, roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli ... especially striking since Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to that of South Korea or Spain.

"Other recipients get their money in quarterly installments, but Israel receives its entire appropriation at the beginning of each fiscal year and can thus earn interest on it. Most recipients of aid given for military purposes are required to spend all of it in the U.S., but Israel is allowed to use roughly 25 percent of its allocation to subsidize its own defense industry. [Israel] is the only recipient that does not have to account for how the aid is spent, which makes it virtually impossible to prevent the money from being used for purposes the U.S. opposes, such as building settlements on the West Bank. ... Finally, the U.S. gives Israel access to intelligence it denies to its NATO allies and has turned a blind eye to Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons."

Most people who pay attention to the U.S.-Israel relationship know this, though it's not much discussed. And if Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt had devoted themselves to that part of the truth and its consequences, with full support and documentation, it would have been a very worthwhile study.

But they went too far in many ways, the most important of these being the blame they lay on "the Lobby" for taking America to war against Iraq and for today's frightening relationships between the U.S. and Syria and the U.S. and Iran.

A large section of the article is devoted to the Iraq-Iran-Syria proposition. The flaw lies in what I see as the absurdity of the notion that it took the Israel lobby to persuade President Bush to invade Iraq or to take on Iran and Syria the way he is doing now. Certainly, Israel is a beneficiary of this posture and would encourage it. Certainly, the advocates of war against Iraq included some of this country's leading pro-Israel hawks. But they didn't need any pushing from Israel on this issue.

The article has generated a torrent of reaction. The attacks against the professors focus on this flaw and others in the article, instead of the undeniable imbalance of America's historic financial and diplomatic support for Israel. Too bad, really, for, as the professors assert, it is a point very much worth discussing.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun. His e-mail is

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