Q&A: Trump's Jerusalem policy driven by groups who 'see themselves as defenders of a greater Israel'

  1. 'The silver lining here is it reduces the amount of hypocrisy in American policy'
  2. 'It’s embarrassing for the Saudis, it’s embarrassing for the Egyptians - if your goal is to isolate Iran this was a step in the wrong direction'
  3. 'I don’t think Trump himself actually cares about Israel very much one way or the other'

President Donald J. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, breaking with decades of U.S. policy, has been met with alarm in some diplomatic circles, and unrest in Israel.

WikiTribune spoke to Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor of political science and controversial critic of the influence of pro-Israeli lobby groups on U.S. policy, by phone about the decision.

In a 2006 essay in the London Review of Books and book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy the following year, Walt and his colleague John Mearsheimer wrote that U.S. policy in the middle east has either run counter to U.S. interests, or has disregarded U.S. interests in favour of Israel. 

Walt and Mearsheimer used “the lobby” as a catch-all for a loose coalition of individuals and organisations that they said drive U.S. policy in a direction that consistently and disproportionately favors Israel. This lobby does not represent the views of all, or even the majority of American Jews, but does tend toward the most pro-Zionist of the population, they said. What most distinguishes the lobby from other interest groups, they said, is its success.

The essay and book caused controversy and Walt and Mearsheimer were met with a tide of criticism, mostly labelling them anti-Semites.

Jeffrey Goldberg, now editor in chief of The Atlantic, reviewed the work in New Republic, calling it “malignant” and criticised the authors’ methodology, pointing out that they had not interviewed any members of Congress. Writing in the Washington Post, political scientist Eliot Cohen called their work “bigotry”, as well as simply “a wretched piece of scholarship”.

In a more positive critical appraisal in the New Yorker, David Remnick wrote that the book was a “phenomenon of its moment”, providing answers that were probably too simplistic to public frustrations in U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Iraq and the wider Middle East.

Q: Can you talk about how Trump’s announcement fits with the long-term trend of favourable policy towards Israel you found in your research?

A: It demonstrates the continued political clout of at least some elements of the pro-Israel community. Moving the American embassy has been a staple request or demand that these groups have made in the past, and many previous political candidates have promised that they would do something like this once they got elected, and once they were elected they all found ways to back away from it because of possible consequences in the region.

In this case Trump was clearly encouraged by people like Sheldon Adelson and others. So I don’t think this is a demonstration of these groups becoming more powerful, I think it’s just an indication of the type of influence they’ve long had.

Steve Walt, co-author of "The Israel Lobby" Copyright owned.
Steve Walt, co-author of “The Israel Lobby” Copyright owned.

Q:What does Trump gain from the policy change?

I’m not sure, to be perfectly honest. I think that most people that are skeptical about this change don’t see enormous benefits.

Obviously it will make the people, like Adelson, who were pushing him to do this, happy, and this guarantees their support. You could argue this nails down support among the evangelical community and the right wing parts of the American Jewish community. By taking this largely symbolic step he solidifies that base a little bit.

You could also argue that this shows he’s a man of his word – he made a promise in the campaign and now he’s going to fulfil it.

But in a larger sense it’s not clear what the United States or really anybody actually gains from this, or why he chose to do it at this moment.

Q: What is the view of the “Israel lobby” to an issue like Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – is it purely symbolic/ideological?

A: I don’t think it’s purely symbolic – well it depends which parts of the Israel lobby you’re talking about. In the last 10 years or so since we wrote the book you’ve seen a greater divergence of opinion among those groups. So groups like J Street who are very much in favor of the two-state solution and a peace settlement are not happy with this decision because they understand that it will make any effort at a peace agreement even more difficult.

But groups like AIPAC or the Zionist Organization of America are very supportive of this because they tend to be very sensitive towards what the Israeli government wants, but also because they see themselves as defenders of a greater Israel and if Israel ends up controlling all of the territory, including all of Jerusalem, they’re fine with that.

Q: How do you think the recognition will affect other areas of U.S. policy, particularly in the region?

Well it’s not gonna help. Though I think people can disagree about how much damage it will do.

It’s not going to affect the peace process very much as there isn’t really much of a peace process under way.

As I said it’s not clear what the U.S. gains here. Trump has been trying to support a broad coalition of Middle Eastern forces, and as far as there’s been any clear Trump Middle East policy it’s been to focus on Iran and collaborate with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and others.

The problem is this [recognition] makes that hard to do. It’s embarrassing for the Saudis, it’s embarrassing for the Egyptians, Turkey has already spoken out against it very vehemently. So if your goal is to isolate Iran and form a broad coalition against them this was a step in the wrong direction.

Q: How do you think the “Israel Lobby” viewed Trump before this, particularly in comparison to Obama?

A: Well Obama was very unpopular, certainly with the right wing portion of the Israel lobby because his relationship with [Israel’s Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu was bad and of course he had tried on several occasions to slow down or stop the settlement building. A couple of times he was critical of Israeli policy and at the very end of his presidency he allowed a UN Security Council resolution that was very critical of Israel to go through without a veto.

So groups like AIPAC aren’t happy with Obama even though many of his policies were supportive of Israel – he increased military aid to them for example. The idea that Obama was anti-Israel is laughable.

[Under Trump] I think the lobby groups have been mixed. I think groups like J Street have been alarmed by Trump’s actions and statements and his rather cavalier attitude towards the whole problem. Groups on the right have been more supportive of Trump in part because he has been so publicly supportive of Israel.

I don’t think Trump himself actually cares about Israel very much one way or the other. I don’t think this is an important issue that he is personally invested in – if there’s never any progress towards peace that’s not gonna bother him at all.

The silver lining here, the only positive feature of this is it reduces the amount of hypocrisy in American policy – for the last 25 years or more the U.S. has pretended to be really devoted to the peace process and trying to pretend as though we were even-handed, although of course we never were.

This decision, as well as other things, really underscores that the United States is not even-handed on this one. When it comes to any choices between the Israelis and Palestinians we will side with the former and I think Trump has made that clear, or hard to miss.

This interview has been edited for clarity. The full transcript can be read here.

 

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