At Haaretz, Chemi Shalev has posted a long, hostile, and fascinating interview with Stephen Walt that raises the question of why Walt has never been offered such a platform in the U.S. to expound on his views.
Under a redbaiting headline– “I’m not anti-Israel” says the author of the “notorious” book on the Israel lobby — it includes one great moment, when Shalev asks the question I’ve always want to ask Walt, about the cost of taking on the Israel lobby, and the Harvard professor answers sincerely that he had to rule out service in government, and higher academic appointment, too.
[I]t’s made it impossible for me to serve in the U.S. government, because it would be just too politically controversial. Even if someone wanted me, say, to work on U.S. policy in Asia, it would just be not worth it. I’m not so valuable that a president or a secretary of state would want to deal with the political fallout. It has probably had some impact on my upward mobility in academia – if I wanted to be a dean or something like that.
So a black ball at Harvard, too.
Shalev is openly angry at Walt for even identifying the lobby as a problem, and his piece rehashes familiar criticisms of the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis from years ago. When he says that Walt makes the lobby out to be an octopus with tentacles, he displays his ignorance of recent and sharper criticisms of the lobby in this country. Tom Friedman has said that Congress is “bought and paid for by the lobby” and that George W. Bush courted the lobby because his father had taken it on and lost the presidency in ’92 (and just two days ago: “the Israel lobby in Washington has effectively shut down any pressure from the White House or Congress”). John Judis writes in his new book that Zionist lobbyists with racist views of Arabs overcame Truman’s instincts to oppose a Jewish state and oppose Israel’s landgrabs in ’48 — a pattern repeated, Judis says, when Obama declared that settlements should stop and promptly caved to the lobby.
Shalev’s response to Walt is frankly emotional; the book “upset” him, he needed to beat Walt up lest readers say he was too “cozy” with him. Walt triggers Shalev’s anxiety about Jewish safety in the west. Thus the bizarre epiphany at the end, when Shalev says he had just spent time with an anti-Semite who pretended not to be one:
On my way back to New York, I suddenly remembered my mother, of blessed memory, who grew up in the Sudetenland, in Czechoslovakia, before World War II in a very small Jewish community in a German-speaking town. In those circumstances, she would say, Jews developed a sixth sense that allowed them to detect both Jews and anti-Semites who may have been pretending to be something else. It is a shame, I thought, that I have not inherited her gift.
Here are some other excerpts from the piece.
Shalev keeps going after Walt’s conclusion that without the neoconservatives, there wouldn’t have been an Iraq war:
Walt: “We documented pretty carefully that AIPAC quietly supported going to war, and the [executive director] of AIPAC, Howard Kohr, said as much. That that was one of his major accomplishments in 2002. This is in the period where I think Bush has already made the decision, right? But he’s got to get public support for it, he wants to get congressional approval, and the interesting question is what if all these [Israel lobby] organizations had been completely neutral? Or, God forbid, what if a few of them had opposed the war?”
There still would have been a war.
“Not so sure.”
Not so sure is one thing, writing a book is another.
“I have to pound this into your head: We do not say the Israel lobby was solely responsible for the Iraq war. We say it would not have happened if the lobby had not existed and had not pushed forth.”
That’s very close.
“No, excuse me. If 9/11 had not happened, I don’t think we would have invaded Iraq. If we’d had more trouble when we went into Afghanistan, if that campaign had gone badly from the beginning or if we’d had the kind of trouble we had later in Afghanistan, I think Iraq would have been put off. Major decisions like this involve a whole series of things coming together….”
There’s this exchange about whether Israel lobbyists can work inside.
“Paul Wolfowitz, four days after 9/11, at Camp David, said that our first response should be to overthrow Saddam Hussein. So the idea is put in front of – “
But Paul Wolfowitz is part of the administration. He’s the deputy secretary of defense. Why is this the Israel lobby?
“Wolfowitz is part of the Israel lobby. It’s been clear throughout his career.”
Here I would note that there were several Zionist lobbyists inside the Truman administration, per Judis. And Louis Brandeis was lobbying for President Wilson to endorse the Balfour Declaration when he was on the Supreme Court. And Dennis Ross is co-chair of the pro-Israel Jewish People Policy Institute and has served in countless administrations, including Obama’s, as Israel’s lawyer.
There is some Israel-centric provincialism in Shalev’s comments. This is amusing:
“I would make American support for Israel much more conditional on an end to settlement construction. A more serious willingness to engage with the Palestinians before it’s too late to actually get a peace deal.”
But the Israeli people may have chosen a government that is not amenable to those demands.
“Countries don’t always have the same interests, and if our interests are in [there being] a two-state solution, and if Israel decides it wants to go a different way, so be it. That’s Israel’s choice, and they can do that. But then the United States should be able to make its own choices, too.”
Shalev has to check Walt’s visa:
Do you support the two-state solution?
“Yes. Which unfortunately means that I’m now a supporter of something that I think is less and less likely. And I don’t know quite what to do with that.”
This is the best part. How has writing this affected Walt’s life?
“It was literally going to bed one night and getting up the next morning in a rather different world. I didn’t fully anticipate that.
“How has it affected my life? I think it has altered the trajectory I might have had. I think it’s made it impossible for me to serve in the U.S. government, because it would be just too politically controversial. Even if someone wanted me, say, to work on U.S. policy in Asia, it would just be not worth it. I’m not so valuable that a president or a secretary of state would want to deal with the political fallout. It has probably had some impact on my upward mobility in academia – if I wanted to be a dean or something like that.
“But it has not a major impact on my friendships or my relations with other scholars.”
This is also a good exchange. Does it bother you that people call you an anti-Semite?
“Nobody should like being accused of being an anti-Semite, so I don’t enjoy that aspect, but I know it’s false, so I’m sorry that people have a mistaken view of my attitudes. That’s all I can do. I can’t correct them. I’ve said what I’ve said, and if they have an erroneous view of what my character is really like, that’s unfortunate.”
Good honest bracing answer. We don’t control our reputations, that’s a basic law of a democratic discourse; and anyone who takes this issue on must accept the risk that he or she will be labeled an anti-Semite at some point. That was always the courage of these endowed profs for me: they accepted that risk out of a larger understanding of civic and global duty.
The excellence of Shalev’s interview is that he comes off as petty and Walt seems big. You get to hear a highly-intelligent man who has obviously been deeply wounded but doesn’t take it personally; it hasn’t made him bitter. No, he is out there willing to make his case to doubters in a forceful but polite and good-natured manner. Read his comments on the Ukraine. Very in tune with Stephen Cohen’s.
So: When is the American press going to give him such a platform? When will Americans get to reckon the loss of Walt’s service as another cost of the special relationship?