Happy Anniversary, Walt-Mearsheimer

March 24, 2011 1:31 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

It is five years since Professors Stephen Walt (Harvard) and John Mearsheimer (Chicago) published their groundbreaking article (followed by a best-selling book) which argued that it is the Israel lobby, more than any other factor, that determines U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.

Their argument, now known as the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis, was not new. For two decades various journalists and scholars had made the case that the lobby (AIPAC and its satellites) intimidates Presidents, Members of Congress and the media into knee-jerk support for Israeli policies, often with little regard for U.S. interests. But none of the previous proponents of the thesis had the standing of Walt and Mearsheimer, two of the most prominent political scientists in the world.

Five years later, the uproar caused by these two professors seems staggering. Never before had the lobby and its friends (especially in the media) devoted so much energy to discredit an academic work. Particularly eager to prove that the professors were wrong about the lobby's efforts to suppress debate, they (great irony here) succeeded in getting the two authors kept out of numerous venues. Book stores which had scheduled events with either of the authors suddenly had scheduling problems. Lecture halls that had previous been booked suddenly were being utilized for other events. Reviewers used AIPAC talking points to prove that AIPAC did not have undue influence.

Five years ago, it appeared that the situation Walt and Mearsheimer described would never change. And, to an extent, it hasn't. Congress remains thoroughly intimidated by AIPAC's threats to cut off campaign contributions to critics of Israeli policy. Of 535 Members of Congress, fewer than 100 ever dissent from the AIPAC line (although that number keeps growing). As for the White House, it is no better. There is little difference between George W. Bush and Barack Obama in their approach to Israelis and Palestinians, and the reason is AIPAC.

On the other hand, the media is changing. As the neocon Commentary blog noted with horror yesterday,  the media is starting to put Middle East violence in context. Coverage of yesterday's explosion in Jerusalem included references to Israel's attacks on Gaza earlier in the week. Stories about Palestinian reluctance to negotiate with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu noted his refusal to freeze settlement expansion during negotiations. And, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, two of the most popular figures on television routinely ridicule the Israeli government's intransigence to sustained applause.

In general, support for Israeli policies is no longer uncontroversial. Opposition to those policies no longer makes one an outlier. Ultimately, this will affect policy. 

Credit for the change goes to Professors Walt and Mearsheimer but not exclusively. Credit also belongs to the internet. Unlike the mainstream media, the blogosphere is dedicated to the free exchange of ideas. No subject is taboo, not even Israel. In fact, Israeli government policies are generally criticized on the web, which is why the Israeli government has hired ringers to propagandize for Israel on the web for pay. The terrain has changed, which is good for Israel, Palestinians and our own country. It's getting better all the time. 

Happy anniversary, Professors Walt and Mearsheimer.