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Levy On Mearsheimer/Walt

Finally, via Yglesias, a sensible, critical and intelligent response to Mearsheimer/Walt by Daniel Levy.  This is exactly the kind of thing I have been hoping to see, and I applaud Mr. Levy for it.  It will certainly not satisfy the book’s critics over here, but neither is it a full endorsement or apology for every claim the authors make.  Levy makes some excellent preliminary remarks in this post that also includes his book review:

Some of the commentary, by the way, has just been plain shoddy – a word hurled too often at Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer. Leslie Gelb, reviewing the book in the NY Times is the most disappointing and inexcusable example of this [bold mine-DL]. Gelb for instance claims that the official American policy against settlements and in favor of a Palestinian state proves the limitations of the lobby. Hardly! If anything it suggests the opposite – 40 years and over 400,000 Israelis living beyond the green line later – there is perhaps a disconnect and might this not require an explanation.

Quite.  I’m glad Mr. Levy drew attention to the Gelb review, since it is considered by more than a few of the book’s critics to be some gold standard of serious engagement with the book’s arguments.  Levy also draws attention to what is actually very confused terminology in the entire debate, namely the designation “pro-Israel”:

Without himself being an Israeli, my friend MJ Rosenberg probably captures the essence of this position best when he writes: “There is nothing pro-Israel about supporting policies that promise only that Israeli mothers will continue to dread their sons’ 18th birthdays for another generation.”

To which one might add parenthetically along the same lines that there is nothing pro-American about foreign policy decisions that continually expose us to increased hostility overseas and put our soldiers into unnecessary wars.

He makes an important point on the Iraq war:

Understandably, Walt and Mearsheimer’s chapter about the Iraq war has drawn the most fire and ire – and with no small degree of justification. Yes, as Leonard Fein argues, the book does go too far in conflating the Israel lobby with neocons. But that act of conflating does not exist only in the minds of Walt and Mearsheimer.  As I argue, the mainstream lobby allowed itself to be co-opted and it moved so far to the right and made such dubious alliances, that the co-option gave the impression of being almost seamless [bold mine-DL].

In his Haaretz review Levy notes:

Their more shrill detractors have either not read the book, are emotionally incapable of dealing with harsh criticism of something they hold so close (certainly a human tendency), or are intentionally avoiding a substantive debate on the issues.

As Levy makes clear from the beginning, his review is going to be very different, and it is.  He also cuts to the heart of the question of Israel-as-strategic liability:

It is not Israel per se that is a liability, but Israel as an occupier: “If the conflict were resolved, Israel might become the sort of strategic asset that its supporters often claim it is.” The distinction should be on the radar screen of Israel’s strategic planners.

Levy makes a number of good points, and you should read the entire review, and he makes a subtle but, I think, basically correct distinction here:

Walt and Mearsheimer place them four-square inside the Israel lobby. The reality seems more complicated than that. Many leading neocons, by their own admission, care greatly about Israel, but they want to impose their policy, not follow Jerusalem’s. Unlike, for instance, AIPAC, which takes its lead from the Israeli government, and then tends to give it an extra twist to the right, the neocons adhere to a rigid ideological dogma and are not afraid to confront a government in Jerusalem they view as too “soft.”

This is another place where the general term “pro-Israel” obscures too much, since it can include both those, like the neocons, who support Israel-as-it-ought-to-be (or as they imagine it to be), and those who support the policy of the existing state.  However, Levy does say (as he also suggested in his post):

It is more likely that the neocons co-opted the Israel lobby, and Israel itself, to their own vision of regional transformation. Still, most of the Israel lobby were willing accomplices, and this represents their historic error.

And again:

The picture is complete when the role of Ariel Sharon, then Israeli premier, is added. Sharon was a hawk, but no neocon. He viewed dreams of regional transformation, democratization and regime change with scorn and disdain, but he could spot a useful political ally when he saw one. The neocons would be his bulwark against being dragged into a negotiating process with the Palestinians or Syrians, as America re-calibrated its approach to the Middle East post-9/11. Negotiations were Sharon’s “Room 101.” The Dov Weissglas-Elliott Abrams channel saved him the trouble. Walt and Mearsheimer describe a damning end product, policies that are a disaster for America and Israel alike, but in over-conflating the neocons with the Israel lobby they overlook a dynamic and nuance that might have implications for the future.

As Mr. Levy argues, disastrous Near East policy of the last few years was the result of a combination of factors:

Another way to look at it would be: This is the first Republican administration since the Christian evangelical Zionists emerged as a potent force in the GOP; since the mainstream pro-Israel community planted itself firmly on the Likud right, and with an executive that contained a sizeable and senior neocon presence. At the same time a hawk was ensconced in the Israeli Prime Minister’s residence (Sharon). Then came the shock of 9/11, followed by the swagger and hubris that followed an apparently easy military victory in Afghanistan. This was a potent mix. These actors can all be described with some accuracy as pro-Israel, but they are also all different, and charting a future course is helped by recognizing that difference.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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