First of two columns
A Gallup poll released last month puts American support for Israel at near-record levels. When asked for their views on the Middle East, 59 percent of Americans say they sympathize with the Israelis, while just 15 percent favor the Palestinians. Pro-Israel sentiment rises with increased knowledge -- 66 percent of those who follow international affairs "very closely" support Israel, compared with 52 percent of those who don't pay close attention.
Other findings are comparable. More than two-thirds of Americans say their overall view of Israel is favorable; only 11 percent have a favorable opinion of the Palestinian Authority. While 22 percent of the public wants Washington to conduct diplomatic relations with the Hamas-controlled Palestinian government even if it refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist as a sovereign state, 44 percent say recognition of Israel must be a precondition to relations with the United States. And another 25 percent -- one American in four -- oppose any US dealings with Hamas at all.
Staunch American support for Israel is not a new development. In February 2005, Gallup reported similarly lopsided findings -- 69 percent of the public viewed Israel favorably vs. 25 percent unfavorably. In 2004, when Israel was being denounced in Europe and the United Nations for its assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound leader of Hamas, 61 percent of Americans said Israel was justified in killing him. In 2002, when a CBS News poll asked whether Israel's actions against Yasser Arafat and his forces were equivalent to US actions against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, 59 percent agreed that they were.
In short, solidarity with Israel is an abiding feature of American public opinion. Because the American people are pro-Israel, the American government is pro-Israel. And because Americans so strongly support Israel in its conflict with the Arabs, American policy in the Middle East is committed to Israel's defense.
Only someone far outside the American mainstream, then, would insist that "Israel's past and present conduct offers no moral basis for privileging it over the Palestinians." Or that US policy is engineered through a Zionist "stranglehold on Congress." Or that "neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America's support for Israel," leaving only one possible explanation: "the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby."
Those aren't the words of American neo-Nazi David Duke -- though Duke has ringingly endorsed them. They aren't the words of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the granddaddy of Islamist radicalism -- though a top Brotherhood official praises them. They aren't the words of the PLO -- though the PLO is actively distributing them.
The source of those words, and many more like them, is a bitter anti-Israel screed masquerading as academic scholarship. Co-authored by Stephen Walt, academic dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy" was released last week as a "working paper" on the Kennedy School website. But so slipshod is the paper's research and so extreme its bias that within days the Harvard and Kennedy School logos were stripped from the title page. "It clearly does not meet the academic standards of a Kennedy School research paper," said Marvin Kalb, one of the school's best-known scholars.
The idea that the American public and US policy makers dance to a tune played by an all-powerful "Israel Lobby" is an old canard. Neo-Nazis like Duke have long described Capitol Hill as part of the ZOG, or Zionist Occupation Government. Right-wing nativist Pat Buchanan notoriously charged "the Israeli defense ministry and its 'amen corner' in the United States" with "beating the drums for war" in 1990, when the first President Bush resolved to roll back the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.
If the truth be told, it isn't hard to understand why America's ardent support for Israel might strike some people as odd, or even suspicious. In so much of the world -- Europe, the Middle East, the UN General Assembly -- Israel is despised. Even if Americans don't share the anti-Semitism that is rife in other lands, wouldn't it be more practical for them to stop taking Israel's side? After all, there are 500 million Arabs in the world, and they control one-third of the world's oil supply. Why should Americans alienate them by continuing to support Israel, a country with no oil and just 6 million people?
As a matter of plain economic common sense, the United States would seem to have every reason to turn against the Jewish state. What accounts for its refusal to do so? If it isn't an "Israel Lobby" pulling hidden strings, what on earth can it be?
The answer, of course, is something more powerful than economics: the kinship of common values.
Next: An "America" in the Middle East
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)