Saturday, November 10, 2007

Delayed Reaction

Blogging about a Mearsheimer and Walt lecture a couple of weeks after the fact is a little odd, I know. The atmosphere surrounding this controversial and vaguely filial scholarly pairing usually elicits rapid fire rejoinders (think Alan Dershowitz on the Kennedy School website), easy labels, and point-by-point refutations. In my case, I’ve delayed posting my reaction to the talk Amos and I took in recently at Boalt Hall, Berkeley’s law school, not only because I’m busy, but because I’m rather uncomfortable with the blitz-style polemics one hears from some of M&W’s opponents.

Emotion, not dispassionate, scholarly curiosity, sells these professors’ book -- and prolongs their fifteen minutes of fame. And, frankly, I didn’t walk out of their talk very emotional. (Though the cry of, “Don’t taze me,” from an unruly audience member who was escorted out by the police, and the dark epiphany of a committed Darwinist during Q&A insured that I wasn’t unfazed). Much of what was said was reasonable, and, when young Walt spoke, well reasoned. That the pro-Israel lobby in Washington is a singularly efficacious interest group, with an enormous budget, and access to the inner circles of the Bush administration, isn’t something worth debating. These are the people who were eating at now disgraced – once wildly successful – lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s D.C. restaurant, and, sometimes, from his trough. As a case study in the sociology of the Beltway, The Israel Lobby, will probably read well. Then again, Mearsheimer did accuse the “Lobby” of driving former Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee from office. As Walter Russell Mead points out in an excellent review of the book in Foreign Affairs, these guys tend to display a surprisingly naïve view of the American political system. Chafee was a moderate Republican from the northeast in the age of Karl Rove and Tom Delay, the men who've polarized politics. The evaporating congressional Center pushed him out, not the machinations of pro-Israel hawks!

That particular accusation is one that sexes up, even if it doesn’t strengthen M&W’s message. Moreover, it’s symptomatic of a larger attempt at inflating their story. They’re on much shakier ground as they move from their description and analysis of the “Israel Lobby,” broadly construed, to greater claims about the history of US foreign policy and contemporary international relations – this despite the fact that the two are eminently qualified to discuss those matters. One of their weakest claims has always been that the Israel Lobby got us (Americans) into Iraq. From what I understand, this is a claim that was toned down considerably along the way from article to book, but I still left their lecture utterly confused. The state of Israel and the Lobby – notice the conflation – were “two of the main driving forces” behind the war, they told the crowd in Berkeley. Their evidence? The Israeli population was gung-ho, with polls bearing out their support for the invasion. And the Lobby? Well, they brag – a lot. M&W place an inordinate weight on the boasts of AIPAC, et al., who claim to have had the ear of key neocons in Bush’s inner circle, (this being a major criticism of Mead).

Thankfully, in my opinion, the whims of the Israeli populace, in search of their psychological reprieve, and the puffed-up ambitions of a few Washington lobbyists aren’t enough to produce the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history. This country is having a hell of a time facing up to the debacle of Iraq. With so many culpable, it’s shocking how few are owning up. Those responsible are not just those who cheered on, nor only those who gave the Administration a pass out of political cowardice, but all those who lay down because they thought it would be easy. The most disheartening thing about M&W’s book is that it offers all these people amnesty, the comfort of a villain with real agency. AIPAC took us to war, not the Hillary Clinton’s of the world or the average American. We didn’t do it! Cindy Sheehan’s cry of, “My son died in Iraq for Israel” gets an academic imprimatur.

Finally, and here I’m indebted to a real political scientist, Asaf, M&W came off a bit disingenuous in their claim to be undermining with this book years of work that advanced “realist” theories of international relations. For Mearsheimer, this was something of a punch line: our book discredits us! In a way, the profs provide here an answer to the question, “Why this issue?” They didn’t take it on out of malice. They have no axe to grind. The absurdity of the matter is self-evident. According to realist orthodoxy, as I understand it, states operate rationally, and the United States, in the case of its relationship with Israel, has long been acting like an entirely irrational player in the world system. I don’t think M&W risk losing many realist diehards with this book. On the contrary, this is what Greek rhetoricians called auxesis – amplification. In a world of rational relationships this irrational alliance has no place. The most important challenge of M&W’s serious critics thus won’t be stubbornly making “the case for Israel,” but making anew the case American-Israeli cooperation in a brave, scary new world.


Anonymous said...

I think you summed up the main significance of W&M very nicely: "The most disheartening thing about M&W’s book is that it offers all these people amnesty, the comfort of a villain with real agency."

W&M's recent popularity is not at all incidental. America has had many failures recently, and the American establishment/elite (embodied by the two academics) need someone to blame.

We saw this kind of scapegoating after the Versailles Treaty of WWI, and also during the persecution of Alfred Dreyfus. It doesn't really do anything to improve the strategic situation of the USA, but it does provide a much-needed outlet for frustration and anger.

The purpose of W&M is not so much about foreign policy, as it is about rearranging the power distribution in the USA. W&M give voice to a large part of the population that is uncomfortable with Jews exercising any kind of political role or having a voice in decision-making.

W&M help to create an environment where Jews are turned into second-class citizens by making them unwelcome in the political arena. Anyone who speaks up for Jewish rights in the Middle East is labeled as part of "the Lobby", while someone speaking against Israel would be called an "activist" or "journalist" or "independent thinker".

ariel said...

It just won't do anymore to claim antisemitism whenever someone offers criticism of Israel or Jewish organizations. Noah is right that laying the blame for the Iraq War at the so-called Israel Lobby's feet smacks of scapegoating, but it makes no sense to assume that this is part of an effort to marginalize all Jews. Scapegoating is a regular part of politics because whenever fuck-ups occur someone has to get blamed. The attribution need not be correct, but it has to have some measure of plausibility. No one held Israel responsible for Hurricane Katrina, Abu Ghraib, or Alberto Gonzalez.

You write, "W&M give voice to a large part of the population that is uncomfortable with Jews exercising any kind of political role or having a voice in decision-making." I'm curious as to who exactly this large part of the population really is, and where its members have been for the past hundred years or so, a time in which Jews have steadily increased their representation among the country's top decision makers. If this group has not found its "voice" until now, I don't think there's much to worry about.

I agree with Noah that M&W's claims about Israel's influence on the US's wider Middle East policy are totally overblown. But this does not justify drawing comparisons to the Dreyfuss Affair or to Nazism. That kind of refusal to deal with the merits of their arguments only lends credence to the idea that Jewish groups are trying to suppress discussion on this matter. Instead, we should face M&W's claims head on, refute and discard the ones that are unconvincing, while learning something from the ones that are. Among the latter, I think, is the contention that the US's basically unconditional support of Israel is not particularly beneficial to either party.

It is unfortunate, but hardly surprising, that those American Jews who are most active in Jewish groups are extremely reluctant to listen to any kind of criticism of Israel. Near where Amos, Asaf, Noah and I sat at M&W's talk were three young members of Jews for Israel (I think that was the name of their organization). Before the talk began they were handing out fliers that engaged in line-by-line comparison of the M&W book and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (this, of course, is ridiculous). During the talk itself these kids were absolutely beside themselves. Afterwards I chatted with them briefly. The only issue they were willing to consider was whether W&M's book was antisemitic or could be used by antisemites. They dismissed the notion that we discuss, for example, whether Israel will dismantle the settlements without US pressure to do so. Questions like this, however, are what we should really be concerned about.

Asaf said...

Noah, I later thought a bit more about Mearsheimer's "confession" as if their very own realist approach has been undermined by their research on the Lobby. This might be an overly charitable interpretation, but it seems to me that Mearsheimer was perhaps attempting a subtle jab at the Bush administration's foreign policy. The subtext of Mearsheimer's words, on this interpretation, is something like: "Bush's FP is so outlandish that one of the following must be true: either all the realist theories we've been developing all our life are completely false; or Bush's FP is totally out of sync with the most fundamental features of the contemporary international scene. Since it would be absurd for us to renounce our own theories so easily, we're inevitably left with the latter option." It's interesting to see how the realist approach, usually associated (within political science) with the conception that empirical inquiry has to do exclusively with an "objective" analysis of the "facts" of international relations "as they actually are" (a kind of polisci equivalent of Ranke), -- this same realist approach now functions at the hands of M&W as a value-standpoint from which to mete out a critique of political actors and their lines of policy. In this sense, maybe M&W do undermine their own realism after all...

Amos said...

Excellent post, Noah. I agree with much of what Ariel and Asaf have to say as well.

Nevertheless, I think that Anonymous's concerns, while perhaps exaggerated, are not completely unfounded. I don't know if it's antisemitism. But I think there are people in the foreign policy establishment and in the American academy as well who are genuinely uncomfortable with the role played by transnational, let us say "diasporic," minorities in the political systems of nation-states. I do not raise this in order to smear M&W; I simply think we should monitor some of the consequences that their intervention might have for members of such groups. Basically, their loyalty to the nation-state is going to be regarded as suspect, as somehow not representing real American interests. No one would say something like that about non-ethnic environmental lobbyists or corporate lobbyists.

Anonymous said...

Ariel, thanks for the response.

If you notice, I did make any moral judgments about W&M as people, I merely explained what I think is their cultural and political significance.

If W&M are going to make the argument that American and Jewish interests do not coincide, then the only logical conclusion is that they are opposed to Jewish interests (assuming they are loyal Americans).

I'm no psychologist, so I don't really care what motivates W&M (like some deep-seated personal hatred). However, I will say that their political agenda is one that does huge damage to Jews in the USA.

I find this notion of "stifling criticism" by "claiming antisemitism" completely bogus. The fact is, antisemites (however you want to define that) have just as much right to express an opinion or a criticism as anyone else.

I stand by my point that W&M are a product of the same instinct that led to the Dreyfuss Affair and blaming Jews for Versailles, even if you think it sounds extreme.

Also, I speak only for myself as an individual, and not on behalf of any "Jewish groups" that you mention. I am not affiliated in any way with ADL, or AIPAC, or AJC.

Noah S. said...

M&W's confession that their research on the Lobby undermined their realist approach does not strike me as disingenuous or merely rhetorical. Asaf, there's nothing subtle about their jab against the Bush administration. I see the article and the book not as an attack on Israel per se (and certainly not on Jews in general), but rather primarily as a critique of the U.S. regime. M&W have not abandoned their realism. They seem to be begging U.S. FP-makers to get back onto a realist course, away from the ideologically driven madness we've seen post-9/11.

Nonetheless, all of Amos's misgivings remain valid, as I see it.

By the way, can we finally standardize our shorthand? One could make a case for both W&M and M&W. When you say the names in their entirety, "Walt and Mearsheimer" clearly sounds better, which would seem to lead logically to the abbreviation W&M. On the OTHER hand, "M&W" conjures up both M&M chocolates AND A&W rootbeer, lending it a connotation that rings true in an age of academic branding. Though as I write this, I realize that W&M sounds kind of like H&M. Maybe we can't go wrong.
I still vote for M&W.

Redel said...

Your comment on "diasporic" populations made me wonder if a comparison of M&W's picture of the "israel lobby" to the cuban lobby is appropriate. There the U.S. has done some ridiculous things which seem vastly out of whack with the rest of their policies and not really in anyone's best interest. The only explanation I've heard for this is power lobbying and the expatriate population.

To me this seems a better fit to M&W's model than Israel, since most the actions they bring up with Israel seem less clearly against U.S. interests.

Amos said...

How does "Walt & Mearsheimer" sound better than "Mearsheimer and Walt"? Clearly, the latter rolls off the tongue more easily. Hence, Noah, as you intuited, M&W is the most logical choice.

Realism - I do wonder about Mearsheimer a little bit. He seemed to be wavering at some points in his commitment to the kind of realism he advocated in the past, perhaps because he's so fired up by the polemics against their book. At least to me, it seemed that he was more comfortable than Walt pandering to an audience that would have rejected many of the premises of his past work (this is, btw, not a critique of that rejection).

Redel - I think M&W do refer to the Cuban exiles. I saw a reference to this in their original paper and I believe they mentioned this comparison in their talk. They cite this as evidence for the power of diasporic groups (though they don't use that terminology) to influence US policy on key issues.

ariel said...

Finally some vigorous discussion. Where's Hazbani? I vote for M&W on the grounds that I've been using it. Incidentally, Noah's claim that the other option sounds better was, frankly, imperialistic.

As you said, you only tried to explain M&W's cultural significance. I therefore tried to point out that whomever they may be giving "voice" to is far from a looming silent majority. Amos's contention that there is general unease regarding diasporic peoples I find more cogent. But again I warn that keeping on eye on such unease--which, after all, is only sensible--is not at all the same thing as claiming that the "main significance" of M&W is their covert support, whether intentional or not, of people hostile to "Jewish interests." In fact, Anon, when you write "If W&M are going to make the argument that American and Jewish interests do not coincide, then the only logical conclusion is that they are opposed to Jewish interests," you make precisely the mistake I think we shouldn't make. You assume that because M&W criticize the uncritical American stance toward Israel that they must be opposed to "Jewish interests." Not only does this confuse Israel with world Jewry, but it ignores M&W's statement that, in their opinions, the US's policy doesn't even serve Israel's interests. Now for all I know that's nothing but rhetorical ass-covering, but I, for one, happen to agree.

On the realist question, it seems to me that interest group politics should be easily accommodated within a realist framework. I suppose the polisci realist approach generally focuses on large geopolitical concerns, but obviously internal politics, institutional arrangements, social conditions, etc. must play an important role. I like Asaf's idea that M&W seem to be criticizing Bush' foreign policy to the degree that it deviates from what a realist would term "objective" US interests. To me M&W most demonstrate this kind of thinking when they call on the US to treat Israel "just like any other country." This prescription implies that the US's relationship with all countries that aren't Israel is based on some dispassionate assessment of American interests, but of course the US maintains special relationships with many countries, for example Japan and Britain. A more apt comparison might be Taiwan. Now that the Cold War is quite over, what is the pressing US interest in guaranteeing Taiwan's safety? As Redel pointed out, Cuba comes to mind as well.

Anonymous said...

... Add America's special relationships with Canada, Australia and New Zealand (to a lesser extent).

Danny said...

The idea that there was some sort of "lobby" distorting US policy in favour of Israel is actually quite an old one. All M&W have done is somehow give it an academic patina.

One of the more interesting things to do with M&W's original article and book is look up the footnotes(I highly recommnd doing it, it is tedious but it will shine a light into the quality of their work). The original article read like a undergrads last-minute essay with most of the "references" being to op-eds and anti-Israeli polemics. We had Bin Laden taken at his word that Israel bombing of Beirut "radicalised" him, despite the fact he was in and out of Afghanistan from 1979 onwards. A more interesting angle is if you read the book in the chapter on the Palestinian refugee issue they rely heavily on Benny Morris. This is Chutzpah of the highest order since Morris made a vicious attack on M&W's original article for misquoting him and for not having "an honest bone in their body".

To my mind, there is nothing original in M&W. Their modus operandi is the same as all other anti-Israeli polemics. Write up an article that attacks Israel and blames it for US/West/Middle East/Arab/World(delete as appropriate) woes. It gets praised as "brave" - why? Are any at risk of losing their jobs? Imprisoned? Targeted by the Mossad? Executed by the government? Sued and forced to pulp their books?(All of these are REAL actions that have happened to people who have criticised pretty much any other group in the Middle East.). Hopefully, it will get attacked by pro-Israeli groups. If you are really lucky the article will fail to get published in any decent journal - not because it fails to meet the even the bare minimum of academic rigour, of course not - but because it is "being silenced" by the "lobby". Because it is "impossible" to criticise Israel(Someone better tell Said, Chomsky, Massad, Judt, Shlaim, Pappe, etc etc). Then you can get away with discussions about the political views of the players and not the fact that M&W's thesis has zero basis in reality. Isn't this more fun, more lucrative and far, far less effort than doing real research?

M&W are not anti-semitic. I would have more respect for them if they were - to quote the Big Lebowski "Nihilists? Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, at least they had an ethos". They are simply lazy academics in the twilight of their careers leaping on a bandwagon. They are yet another symtom of why Modern Middle Eastern History has collapsed as an academic field, driving out most real researchers and leaving behind the children who spend all day calling each other names.

Danny said...

Ariel says "no one held Israel responsible for ... Abu Ghraib":

Note Eugene Bird's accusation.

Well maybe you'd expect it fro Al-Jazeera but CNN?

Nuff said, methinks.

J. said...

The same accusations of Israeli complicity in Abu Ghraib were made by Zaki Chehab, an Arab journalist, in his book "Inside the Iraqi resistance.." (2004)

ariel said...

These reports are minor and scattered. They only speculate as to the presence of a few Israeli interrogators (not necessarily so shocking), but don't suggest that Israel should be held responsible in any way for the prisoner abuses. These reports (excluding Al Jazeera, which is beside the point) don't come close to warranting your "nuff said" conclusion. Anyone who was around for the Abu Ghraib media coverage knows that any suggestion of significant Israeli involvement was marginal at most.

Danny said...

Dear Ariel,

Actually they weren't "scattered", there were reports in every single major UK media outlet including the BBC. This was then amplified and "enhanced" in Middle East and anti-Israeli sites.

For example, read the BBC report and tell me with a straight face that it does not "suggest" Israel was involved in prisoner abuses:

I will also bet if I tried hard and maybe did searches in arabic I could find sources blaming Israel for the other items you quote.

I'll give you one more example which I found interesting. The man responsible for the USS Cole bombing, Abu Jandal a senior member of Al-Qaeda, was arrested by the Yemeni police just before 911 on suspicion("you know suspicion" was their explaination to the FBI officier). The FBI officier showed him videos of the twin towers - this was on 9/11 - and Abu Jandal said it wasn't Al-Qaeda, that he knew Shaikh Bin Laden well and he would never do such a thing and that it was a Mossad operation. The point being it doesn't require any basis in truth, if it did people like Ilan Pappe would never have academic jobs.

Noah S. said...

Danny, thank you for those links. I read through the BBC article of July 3, 2004. It is certainly the kind of story that left-of-center British media loves to break. They interviewed an American close to the scene who spoke of an Israeli interrogator at A-G. That's newsworthy. And not surprising, as Ariel says, given a) the dearth of Arabic-speakers among U.S. ranks; b) the interests of Israel; and c) the close working relationship between U.S. and Israeli intelligence. And to be honest, given Israel's historical track record on torture, I wouldn't necessarily leap out of my breeches in surprise if I heard that a handful of Israelis had been using some non-kosher interrogation methods in A-G or anywhere.

In any case, this story never "got big," either in the U.S. or in Europe. Ariel I obviously agree with you completely that keeping news coverage in perspective is the key to any good media analysis.

Amos said...

As far as I know the reports about Israeli interrogators in Iraq have been totally debunked. The fact that they are perpetuated or seen as beyond dispute by large numbers of people is something that should arouse concern. Actually, many of these myths derive from the same kind of projections that lead so many people in the Arab world to blame Israel for 9/11. I would expect to see Jordanian, Egyptian, or Saudi interrogators at places like A-G before Israelis.

And just for the record: Israel's historical "track record" when it comes to torture is probably better than that of the US; maybe that is not saying so much. But do some research on the legal decisions.

Danny said...

Dear Noah,

It never "got big" in the english-speaking media because it is a lie. My point was that far, far from the Israel lobby being able to "silence" criticism of Israel, criticism of Israel is run of the mill and it is almost acceptable to pin misdeeds on her. An example is you and Ariel who in the space of a day have gone from "No one held Israel responsible for ... Abu Ghraib" to a complete lack of surprise that "handful of Israelis had been using some non-kosher interrogation methods in A-G or anywhere" and from your postings it is obvious neither you nor Ariel are anti-Israeli nutjobs so try and imagine the impact these stories had on people who are less positively inclined. I will reiterate this was in all the major news outlets in the UK and US. As an Israeli I am happy to have Israel's history of tolerance of "torture" measured against any other country facing a remotely similar situation - I am thinking UK in Northern Ireland, Spainish against Eta, French in Algeria etc etc yet I will bet money if I claimed that Brits were carrying out torture in A-G I would be asked for evidence(a few have gone to prison for it in Iraq).

One has to compare the influence of the "Israeli lobby" with, for instance, the Saudis. They got a Serious Fraud investigation in the BAe deal squashed and there was not even the pretence of it being due to the case having no merit. There are at least four books connecting Islamic terrorism with "charities" that got pulped because a Saudi Prince went around threatening the publishers. The Arabs in the 70s put so much pressure on US company's to divest from Israel and to not have Jews in senior positions that a law had to be passed in the US banning this behaviour. The Iranians spent the 80s going around killing ex-pats who criticised the regime. So for people to claim any sort of "bravery" criticising Israel is simply laughable. I wish someone had asked if the Israel lobby is so powerful, that M&W were able to get so much traction with no [negative]impact whatsoever on their careers?

PS If you had asked an Israeli the question "whether Israel will dismantle the settlements without US pressure to do so", one they had wiped the tears of laughter off their faces, come out of the operation to have their sides sewn back together and regained control of their urinary tract they might have suggested reading a newspaper around August 2005..... or was that another "minor and scattered" incident?

Noah S. said...

Amos - yes, you are right that that is not saying much. (Also, it cannot be "just for the record" if it is "probably.") Since you have done the research on the legal decisions, I'd like you to tell me about Israel's track record on torture until 1999.

Danny - thank you for granting me exemption from the category of anti-Israeli nutjobs. That's a good start for our dialogue. Let's begin from where we seem to agree. First of all, I think you are right to say that "the Lobby" has not silenced criticism of Israel in the U.S.; the U.S., despite all the developments of the past six years, remains a bastion of free press, and no AIPAC or any other interest group can silence critics. While Tony Judt and others are not totally off their gourd when they talk about an atmosphere of fear -- fear of being called antisemitic -- in certain arenas, this point is often exaggerated by the critics themselves for effect. Likewise, I agree with you that it should not be considered "brave" to criticize Israel.

Further, I agree that Israel should not be "singled out" among the community of nations for particular criticism. I, personally, write more about Israel than Uzbekistan because I feel a vested interest in Israel -- as I do in the U.S., my homeland -- and believe that both should be held to the highest standards possible.

Now: It seems clear that the Israel-Abu Ghraib story was not substantiated. I merely meant to say: had it been, I would not have been surprised, just as I am not surprised that torture takes place in ANY country, be it Uzbekistan or even Canada. And to your point about comparisons, as you probably know, B'Tselem did compare the practices of the Israeli gov't with the Brits and the IRA. Conclusion was that the Israeli record was much worse.

Danny said...

Dear Noah,

I would be surprised if we differ on substantial matters as opposed to degree. It seems we all learn something new every day. I didn't realise that Btselem had compared Israel with Britain and if they had I would be surprised at their conclusion. Any chance you have a link to the report, a brief look at Btselem's site gave no joy.



ariel said...

Your comment about the settlements is disingenuous and doesn't require much response. You know full well that the departure from Gaza was only a baby step on the way to really figuring out how to undo the mess the settlements have caused. All the while construction continues in the West Bank.

As to the rest of your contention, Arab and European media are beside the point. The issue is the US. The CNN article is a brief report of some unknown general who thinks she may have seen some Israeli at AG. The news clip is five minutes long with about 10 seconds on Israel's supposed involvement. I repeat that anyone who was here when the AG story broke or, for that matter, anyone with even cursory knowledge of the new Attorney General's recent confirmation struggle, knows that the blame for AG was almost universally placed squarely on the shoulders of the Bush administration (where, of course, it should be).

M&W's book may demonstrate poor scholarship. I wouldn't know because I haven't read it, as, by the way, most people won't have (I'm certainly not going to spend my time following their footnotes). The details of their argument are undoubtedly important in various ways, but the main ideas are readily apparent. The bottom line is this: they start from the premise that the US lends virtually unconditional support to Israel--is this not a reasonable description of the current relationship? Next, they ask why. Their answer is hardly surprising: whatever the various justifications normally claimed, a great deal of responsibility for the close relationship lies with pro-Israel lobbyists. There is nothing remotely shocking about this. In fact it seems rather self-evident when one thinks about it. It in no way discounts the likelihood of other lobbies working in various ways, for example the Saudis. Again I also state that M&W's larger argument ascribing to the Israel Lobby responsibility for the US's entire Middle East policy is ridiculous.

For such self-sure, tough-minded people, Israelis, like Arabs, have notoriously weak stomachs for criticism. I know because I'm
the same way. Throughout most of M&W's talk I had to compose myself in order not to refute them point by point. But in this case that would not be the right approach. Can you really argue with Walt's contention that we should all be asking ourselves where this whole thing is going? Asaf convinced me that we must have an endgame in mind in order to avoid a series of ad hoc, flailing responses to events as they come; critically, we must be ready to make use of new opportunities when they present themselves. While it is hardly M&W's place to tell Israelis what ultimate goals to work for, it is certainly appropriate for them to suggest that the US start thinking about reaching a final settlement of this problem, and that doing so may require a modified and less uncritical support of Israel.

Danny said...

Dear Ariel,

Maybe over in the US the disengagement was a "baby step" but it was a major big deal in Israel. Again the point was that your initial absolute statement that Israel simply cannot/will not dismantle settlements without US pressure is simply untrue.

As for "uncritical support" for Israel, again that is simply untrue. One has to look at the previous war in Lebanon. It had to be one of the most open and shut cases of self-defence, there is no occupation of Lebanon, the attack was carried out on indisputably Israeli land, was utterly unprovoked and was the culmination of 5 previous failed attempts. Israel was forced to stop and start and in the end ceasefire before it wanted to. I remember amongst many of the units - including mine - there was a near mutiny because we wanted to finish the job. The ceasefire happened when it did solely due to US pressure and against the will of the vast majority of Israeli people. Yes we get alot of aid but it comes with strings attached(quite rightly, it is US taxpayers money it should further their interests). Certainly Israel is not given anywhere near the free hand it might wish and that it had back in the day. So before we even start, M&W's premise is wrong. Given that is false, it is hardly surprising that the "evidence" they provide is weak to false as well. If it was any other topic except Israel, this article would have disappeared without trace as it is totally without merit. But it is about Israel which means few to no one cares about the argument, few to no one cares about the data they use to back their argument up or even if there is an "anomaly" to be explained in the first place. This is why I suggested looking at the footnotes because a brief glance will show the quality of their work. The sole interesting question about M&W is why such appalling bad research has not ended their careers - when a Korean senior biologist made fake claims about human cloning he was rightly forced to resign. Why is Israel - and to a lesser extent other topics in Modern Middle Eastern History - so heavily politicised that anyone can write the most patent lies and the argument will be over the the political stance of the author and not the content of the article(for instance, you haven't even bothered to read it). This applies to some pro-Israeli authors although anti-Israelis seem to be more brazen. This is the really interesting question in Modern Middle Eastern History and polsci.

Amos said...

Although I am not opposed to Ariel's ultimate conclusions, I want to back Danny up on one thing. I haven't read M&W's book, but I have gone through their original essay, including the footnotes. I have to agree with Danny that it was garbage; the references were often ridiculous or incredibly vague, and there seemed to be a lot of factual distortions and mistakes. I realize of course that you (Ariel) have resisted this tendency to focus on small points and to make line-by-line rebuttals, and I am somewhat okay with that. I just find it amusing when people praise these guys as amazing scholars - just as I find it incredible to read people calling Norman Finkelstein that.

ariel said...

We seem to be talking past each other a little. The quality of the scholarship is not what concerns me because I am discussing this as a political issue, not an academic one. I don't care to waste my time reading the book; I did attend the lecture because I wanted to get the main points (which are the only ones anyone will pay attention to anyway) and get a feel for the reaction. The footnotes, although I trust your and Amos's judgment that they are garbage, are largely immaterial to a public discussion of policy. You may be entirely right that M&W are not worth a lick as scholars, but what concerns me here is M&W as polemicists and public intellectuals. In this arena I would like to suggest that they are somewhat more formidable, their footnoting notwithstanding.

You are of course correct that leaving Gaza was a very big deal in Israel. But that hardly invalidates my point that Israel lacks the political will to dismantle the settlement project as a whole (which is not to say that Israel must give up literally every neighborhood on the other side of the Green Line). Similarly, it is of course true that the US does not give 100% unconditional support to Israel, but it's about as close as the real world is likely to permit. There is little point in debating these facts, which most people will readily agree to. Incidentally, if you read my previous posts you'll see that I don't think there's anything unusual about the US having especially close ties to certain countries.

"About Israel which means few to no one cares about the argument, few to no one cares about the data they use to back their argument up or even if there is an 'anomaly' to be explained in the first place." This is either self-pity or paranoia. It is absurd to suggest that, in the US, no one cares about the "argument" or the "data" only when it comes to Israel. On the one hand people regularly ignore the data respecting all kinds of topics; on the other hand, to the extent that this is the case with Israel, the data being ignored is as likely to be continued construction in the West Bank as anything else. I am well aware, having indulged in the game myself, that a favorite Israeli pastime is to scan the world's media coverage for disparaging, reductive, or generally unsympathetic accounts of Israel's difficulties. I am equally well-aware that Israel has very real difficulties that are of great concern. Precisely for this reason I suggest that you stop trying to refute M&W to your own satisfaction, and start thinking about how their views will tend to operate in the American political arena.

I'm sorry to say I can hardly agree with your characterization of the recent war with Lebanon. Of course Israel was provoked and had every right to respond. However I do not see how one can justify the IAF's aerial campaign, which very quickly revealed itself to have no chance of achieving its aims, unless those aims were to (1) make life absolutely miserable for Lebanese civilians and/or (2) destablize the Siniora government.

Danny said...

Dear Ariel,

Yes we have been talking past each other. I assumed that the fact that M&W "research" was fraudulent would bother you. In terms of how it will play out in the US my guess is that in real terms it will have no effect, people who want to believe that without Israel Al-Qaeda members would be visiting Disneyland will carry on believing so - except now they can pretend they have "impartial" "research" to back their prejudices up - those who wish to believe Israel is a horrible country will have yet another "academic" to quote and those who have a clue will dismiss them. Therefore I don't think this is an interesting problem

My question is why such poor research is not only tolerated but extolled. It does seem to me you can write a good, well-researched monograph on Russia or Asia or EU or US or Africa and people will engage with the substance of your argument. Conversely, you will need to reach a certain level of academic rigour to get work published on these subjects in refereed journals and if you fail it will be assumed it was because your work wasn't up to scratch. This is almost the opposite case in Modern Middle East History and in particular Israel. One of M&W's initial sources of "credibility" was that it failed to get published in any refereed journal! Can you imagine a Sinologist using this as "evidence" to back up his argument? I am utterly amazed the collapse of rigour in an entire field is of no interest to you - here I am assuming you are student/academic - that you are perfectly happy with "OK, it's a pack of lies but interesting. How do we engage?", the obvious answer to me is to deal with them the same way deal with "intelligent design" people which is to repeatedly point out the lies and distortions.

PS We elected a government whose sole common platform was further withdrawals from the West Bank and dismantling of blocks there. You can thank Hamas/Hizbollah for why there is zero appetite for withdrawal. The US support or otherwise has minimal impact on this topic.

PPS We destroyed most of their long-range missiles, blew up most of their bunkers and killed alot of their soldiers. The result being we have had a year+ of complete silence on the Northern border, something that hasn't happened since 2000. Again over the US this may not be a big deal.

Danny said...

Dear Ariel,

I have thought of another case where there seems to be a similar process going on and that is in environmental studies. Somehow any discussion of climate change deteriorates into whether the talker has connections with the oil/car/green lobby and I would suggest that the underlying data is ignored by most, fabrications seem acceptable and the substance and data seems to be lost. I give this example because hopefully detaching the Israel component will make it clearer why the "It's a pack of lies but how do engage with their points raised" is so shocking to me.

ariel said...

I see you won't give an inch. But I'm not convinced either. You're probably right that M&W's impact in the long-run will be insignificant; on the other hand, if the only thing worth saying about their work is that it's trash, there's not much to discuss there either. I don't find the question of the state of environmental or Middle East academic research so interesting, because it goes without saying that hot political issues will lead to politicized academics which, almost by definition, will then be subject to criticism for lack of rigor. I'm not sure why you're so shocked by my position, but I'll try to explain more clearly why I think it makes sense to focus on M&W's central claims rather than the details of their research.

Let's think of M&W as polemicists. Although some people find polemics distasteful and even dishonest, they are fundamentally necessary in a complex world where no one can be an expert on more than just a very small portion of pressing questions. A good polemicist, having found a salient point to make about current policies, politics, conditions, etc., should then focus his rhetoric to keep that point front and center of his audience. Obviously with you, M&W failed miserably in this goal. But for many people, and certainly not just the raving conspiracists and Israel haters, I think they have had more success. What are M&W's central, salient points? (1) The US's current relationship with Israel is not in American interests. (2) A big reason for that relationship is pro-Israel lobby groups. Neither of these main theses, when you get down to them, should sound particularly controversial. They are really quite reasonable, which is why Amos, Noah, Asaf and I left the M&W talk with the impression that these people were not intellectual charlatans. And yet I think it is true that it is difficult to air such views in the current political environment without meeting pretty furious opposition from pro-Israel groups. You may be right that it is hardly a virtue to claim rejection from academic journals, but this is clearly a hot potato of a political issue and it would not be surprising if those rejections were largely political. Sinologists don't normally have to deal with such a situation. I'll say one last time that my reason for wanting to engage with the underlying arguments is that, regardless or how M&W got to them, they make a good deal of sense.

I'm quite tired of this condescending "here in Israel we really feel it" rhetoric. For the record, I was in Israel for the entire Lebanon War. Also for the record, I haven't served in the IDF. Neither of these facts, however, should prevent me from commenting on the situation. With my father, brother, and many childhood friends living in Israel, I have enough at stake not to dismiss lightly the every-day realities of Israelis.

Sharon's program was hardly as well-intentioned as you seem to imply, and leaving Gaza in no way signaled that Israel had a real plan to dismantle the much bigger West Bank settlements. Unless, of course, you consider the current location of the separation wall a reasonable and fair border.

As for our supposed tactical successes over Hezbollah, I recall quite vividly that rockets continued to poor into Israel until the last days of the conflict. I don't doubt that Hez suffered significant losses, but I wonder on what information you're relying when you say that we destroyed "most" of their long-range missiles and bunkers. I can't imagine anyone knows this with certainty. But even if true, one has to wonder whether it makes any strategic difference so long as Hez continues to receive new supplies. By the way, the successes you claim seem odd given the almost universal belief among Israelis that the war was a failure of one kind or another.

Danny said...


I am not conceding points because you don't seem to be prepared to back your arguments up with any facts. I don't know if you are being deliberately obtuse.

My understanding of your assertions are:

1) The "Israel lobby" is obviously able to divert the US's ME policy even though it not in the US's interest(of course, you have failed to give a single example of this and you have claimed that when M&W have given examples which are fake you have stated you simply don't care they aren't true).

2) Moreover when you are presented with examples where other lobbies have diverted US policy against it's interests, you basically say you also don't care.

3) You have made comments that Israel gets near unconditional support. To back this up you made the claim that no settlements are being dismantled and this must be due to the "fact" no US government can pressure Israel on the fact. When it is pointed out this is patently untrue you then dimiss this(Israel also pulled out of the Northern West Bank at the same time). The US did and has refused to pay for the separation wall and Israel went ahead anyway. Bush the elder cut off Israel from aid because of settlement building and it didn't stop settlement building Israel signed the Oslo accords pulling out from Palestinian populated areas with no US pressure(or even involvement), Israel dismantled Gaza and northern WB settlements with no US pressure - just internal pressure - and Israel elected a government made up of Kadima whose sole unifying idea is withdrawal and moving of 100,000 settlers from the WB. You are dismissive of withdrawal to the separation wall dispite the fact this mean withdrawal from at least 91.5% of WB including East Jerusalem. There is of course today no real discussion of further withdrawal from the WB - Annapolis to the contrary - and this is solely due to the results of the pullout from Lebanon and Gaza I cannot see, short of military intervention by the US, how the US could force Israel to withdraw - and it would take forcing. I am not even sure that "most people" would think your two claims are uncontreversal. You care to back that statement up with stats? Or are you simply asserting - again - with no evidence. PS that "most people" believe it, doesn't make it true, in fact it clearly isn't. But again as you have repeatedly stated whether statements are true or false means nothing to you("not interesting").

4) I don't understand what you mean by Sharon's disengagement plan not being "well-intentioned". You mean he was lying about doing it?(he did it). That it wasn't done with the Palestinians interests at the core?(He is an Israeli PM, do you expect Ismail Haniyeh to only do things because it helps Israel because I don't and don't condemn him for it, he should be looking after his people). Not only did Ariel Sharon "intend" to dismantle the larger settlements - the figure bandied about was 1/3 to 1/2 of all settlers - but he formed a new party whose sole platform was just that a party that got the highest level of Israeli support in the last election.
4) You claim that that it "would not be surprising" that the rejection from academic journals is mainly political, despite being told by me and one of your friends that the original article was full of lies, distortions and fraudulent claims. Not only do you make this assertion but you make whilst being proud of the fact you don't know what you are talking about(repeated ly expressing disinterest in even reading the article let alone checking its statements) and even are perfectly happy for it to be a pack of lies(it's truthful content apparently is not "interesting" to you). One can only assume this is because one fall in the category of people who believed this thesis anyway and can now pretend you aren't simply ignorant or prejudiced but have an "academic " imprimatur.
5) My assertion that Hizbollah medium and long range stocks were depleted is down to copious videos taken by aircraft showing rockets being hit(most are and were at the time publically available), intelligence and finally because in August the number of medium and long-range rockets went dramatically down.
6) My "rhetoric" about not being in Israel was actually me trying to be generous, that given US media's rather superficial coverage of the ME it may simply be ignorance(this isn't criticism of the US media, we are just as superficial and parochial about non-Israeli matters and down right wrong alot of the time). If you were there last year then you must know that the sense was that the war was stop-start, that Israel didn't use it's full might(due to US pressure not to) and that the UN pulled Hizbollah's chestnuts out of the fire. This has nothing to do with Israel losing just that we weren't able to finish the job, just like 1973 when the Arabs also claimed "victory" and there was a similar sense of malaise.

Finally I think you miss the point, why is Israeli conflict so heavily politicised? Why can you write "polemics" masquerading as "research" and despite many serious academics and people in the know stating - and backing up with facts - that M&W is getting away with fraud? From reading your responses the answer is clear, because M&W are preaching to the utterly converted. Because you believed what they had to say anyway, are oblivious to any facts - and apparently PROUD of it. Now I don't know Amos but based on his post here refering to their original article as "garbage" hardly suggests he agrees with your claim he did not find them "intellectual charlatans". But then again - unlike you - he seems to care about the facts.

ariel said...

Your accusation that I don't care about the facts and am proud of this is nonsense. Since you admit that US coverage of the Middle East is likely to be superficial, why don't you agree that it's with such superficial assessments that we have to deal with? If you look at my earlier posts you'll see that I have plenty of criticisms of M&W and that I suggested that supporters of Israel point them out. My original point was that implying that M&W are antisemites or have some secret anti-Israel agenda is not the best way to go.

You continue to poo poo the idea that pro-Israel lobby groups have a "distorting" effect on US policy towards Israel (not the Middle East as a whole--I explicitly wrote that carrying M&W's assertions that far is ridiculous). But it is an axiom of American politics that lobby groups affect, i.e. distort, policy decisions. I don't feel the need to back up this general point with "evidence" because it's so self-evident and axiomatic. (However if you must have references, a good place to begin is with Theda Skocpol, who has written extensively on the historical impact of various interest groups.) As a person who takes an interest in Israeli and Middle East politics but is neither professionally bound to this topic nor fascinated by it above all else, I don't have the time to investigate all aspects of the debate. I'll take you at your word that M&W's scholarship is not great. However I would be very surprised to find out that AIPAC has no appreciable impact on US policy.

At no point have I been defending M&W personally or "extolling" their work. What I have been doing is trying to point out what I think is a politically sensible way to deal with their points. My whole emphasis has been on how to "handle" M&W, which means that, far being their already-converted, I'm not in their camp at all. My feeling is that the general educated reading audience will not have the expertise to assess M&W's research anyway. What will come through to them are M&W's points, some of which are not entirely off the wall (the ones that are deserve full refutation, of course). If you believe that M&W's impact will be nil and that therefore my concern is not particularly pressing, that's fine. But don't lecture me about facts and evidence and my "shocking" moral laxity in not inquiring into the academic rigor of everything I read before I deign to discuss its substantive content. I am satisfied that I am sufficiently rigorous in my own limited area of expertise. Beyond that my disputations are undoubtedly shallower. But that's our world: we are always called upon to have meaningful opinions on things we really don't know enough about. M&W's arguments, to my mind, are directed at the public and at policy makers. Neither of those groups is known for its close scrutiny of footnotes.

This thread has run on too long already, so I won't address all of your numbered points. I do just want to agree with you that an Israeli PM need not look after the Palestinians' interests. But it is my belief that if, in the long run, reasonable Palestinian interests are not accounted for, there will be no durable solution. This is precisely the reason why a negotiated settlement, rather than a unilateral withdrawl, is so necessary. I of course do not suggest that Haniyeh is the person to talk to at the moment.

Danny said...


Lets start with where we agree. I like most Israelis would be perfectly happy to withdraw to the mm to 1949 borders in return for a true and durable peace. Israelis have repeatedly supported some sort of territorial compromise - Rabin, Barak, Sharon and Olmert. The only problem is the number of people who believe that we can today write a cheque called land and buy peace is next to zero and no amount of US pressure will change that. For the record I would also be perfectly happy for the Israeli government to talk to however will talk back - this would theoretically include Hamas or Hizbollah. I also believe Israel needs to have a strategic vision of where it is going so it can know what day to day decisions to make. As the Cheshire Cat once said: "If you don't know where you want to get to, it doesn't matter which way you go"....

The second point is that I - like you - don't believe that M&W are anti-semites or anti-Israeli. I personally doubt they believe their nonsense because they are undoubtedly smart and they simply must know that the evidence they are quoting is flakey at best and if they don't it has been pointed out by virtually every single serious historian. I cannot think of a single serious historian that backs them up. I think they are charlatans. I think they know that they can write any old nonsense about Israel and people will back them. Further more they will be able to claim they are "brave" for tackling the all powerful lobby who will silence them with claims of anti-semites!(Has a single person ever been shut by this accusation?) - a claim which is patently untrue.

They will have no effect because like you next to nobody is going to bother checking their assertations - although I somehow doubt there are that many people dumb enough to claim "lobbies distort policy" is an "axiom" that is "obvious", "uncontreversal", I suspect they will try and defend them by attacking the people who are attacking M&W(as they are doing right now). After all given the number of serious historians who have attacked their work doesn't that "prove" there is a lobby? It also clearly doesn't bother you that their "axiomatic", "obvious" statements require fraud to back up. One would think if it was so clear they'd have tons of evidence - and so would you.... Again only those already converted will let themselves be preached at by M&W.

As for caring about facts, lets quote you:

"M&W's book may demonstrate poor scholarship. I wouldn't know because I haven't read it, as, by the way, most people won't have (I'm certainly not going to spend my time following their footnotes)" - does this imply a concern that their statements are factual based?

"The quality of the scholarship is not what concerns me" - again, nuff said.

"The footnotes, although I trust your and Amos's judgment that they are garbage, are largely immaterial to a public discussion of policy. You may be entirely right that M&W are not worth a lick as scholars, but what concerns me here is M&W as polemicists and public intellectuals." - they are neither; they are simply deeply cynical propagandists.

"I'll say one last time that my reason for wanting to engage with the underlying arguments is that, regardless or how M&W got to them, they make a good deal of sense." - in other words, it doesn't matter that they cannot back up their argument with any facts because I believed it anyway.

Anyway, given you can't be bothered to argue your case I will take "Beyond that my disputations are undoubtedly shallower." and leave you to discuss whether it should be M&W or W&M.... Presumably closer to area of expertise!

ariel said...

It was fun to argue with you for a while, but it's becoming a chore. I've repeatedly given reasons for why I think a superficial reading is what's called for. You've simply ignored these. Having now characterized me as "dumb," I wonder why you've carried on the conversation for so long. Congratulations, you've hammered your way to a victory of sorts, never mind that I conceded your main contention--that M&W's scholarship was no good--from the very start. You have now revealed me for the shallow, dogmatic, intellectually dishonest thinker and commentator that I really am.