In a series of lectures last week, Norman Finkelstein, a noted political scholar and a former professor at DePaul University of Chicago, presented a lecture titled, “A Critique on the Walt-Mearsheimer Thesis,” which focuses on the “core” thesis of a work that touches on Israeli lobby ties with American foreign policy.
“His case shows the difficulty of making wise decisions about teachers and students who work in political areas of scholarship,” said Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Harry Hellenbrand, who invited Finkelstein to speak at CSUN.
The thesis comes from a working paper titled, “The Israel Lobby,” written by John Mearsheimer, a professor from the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, a professor from Harvard University.
Finkelstein explained why he only focused on the thesis of the paper. “I wanted to avoid all of the nuances because I think a lot of the nuances are not really nuances, but efforts to detect themselves in the politically correct environment,” Finkelstein said. He later explained why he does not support the thesis.
“I should be supporting (it), but the (fact of) the matter is, I don’t determine my allegiances by ethnicities,” he said. “I determine my allegiances by where the facts take me and in looking through the (working paper) and reading it very carefully, I simply was not convinced by the core thesis.”
Finkelstein explained the argument both Mearsheimer and Walt have discussed in the thesis.
“The thrust of their argument was there is this powerful lobby in the United States,” he said. “It is, they called it, the Israel lobby, but that in itself is an euphemism of sorts because clearly they believe the core of that lobby is American Jews or some American Jews. There qualification is important?they’re promoting Israel’s agenda.”
Finkelstein said promoting Israel’s agenda is “half of the problem,” but the other half of the problem is that Israel’s agenda is contrary to the best interest of the United States?so in promoting Israel’s agenda, they are effectively underlying what they call U.S. national interests in the world.”
The first argument that Finkelstein focused on was of the beginning of the main thesis made by Mearsheimer and Walt, which is “U.S. support of Israel does not serve U.S. national interest.”
“They say that Israel was a strategic asset for the United States during the Cold War,” he said stating that he was using Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s words and not his own. “Mainly it acted as a check on soviet expansion in the Middle East.”
Finkelstein said he disagreed with Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s argument because it is “not what Israel’s utility was to the U.S.” He added that the main concern of the U.S. in the Middle East was anti-western nationalism and not soviet expansion. “That is, the U.S. was fearful that an independent autonomous power may emerge in the Middle East that will threat its strategic interests, most notable, oil,” Finkelstein said.
“Secondly, Israel offers advantages to the west or to the U.S. which cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the Middle East,” Finkelstein said. “You often hear the argument, ‘Why is the United States investing so much in Israel and alienating the Arab regimes?’ Doesn’t it make much more sense for the United States to work with the neighboring Arab countries rather than work with Israel, from the point of view of our national interest?”
Finkelstein said the problem behind Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s argument is that it “completely misunderstands the special utility and the special value of Israel.”
“Israel’s special value for the U.S., which can’t be duplicated anywhere in the Middle East is that fundamentally, Israel was a creation of the Western world,” he said. He added that since 1967 Israel has been culturally, economically and politically in parole to the United States. “Unlike anywhere else in the Arab world, where you may have a regime which is committed to the U.S., you don’t have populations committed to the U.S. and therefore the support of those countries can disappear overnight,” Finkelstein said.
The political scholar disagreed with Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s claim that the “U.S. allies with Israel.”
“Now to demonstrate that the U.S. allies with Israel distorts the American national interest, which is what Mearsheimer and Walt claim,” Finkelstein said. “You have to show that U.S. policy in the Arab world would be different were it not for Israel. That seems to me an obvious requirement.”
“If you’re claiming that Israel is distorting U.S. policy in the Middle East then you would have to show that whether or not for Israel, U.S. policy would be fundamentally different,” Finkelstein said, “but if you look at the historical record, there’s just no evidence for that.”
Finkelstein said he disagreed with Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s claim that “the U.S. supports Israel despite its powerful impact due to the Israel lobby.”
“As I’ve already said, fundamentally I think that’s mistaken,” he said. “The U.S. supports Israel when it’s useful to U.S. fundamental interests. However, and here I have to be a little bit more settle in the argument because that’s what the evidence requires, I do think it’s the case that the U.S. supports Israeli policy in the occupied territories due to the lobby.”
Finkelstein clarified his statement, saying, “When it comes to broad regional fundamental interests, Iraq, Iran, South Arabia oil, it is U.S. national interests that take priority,” he said. “When it comes to a local question like Israel and occupied territories, there I think it is a true that it’s the lobby that is destroying U.S. policy because the obvious question you would ask yourself is, I think, ‘What does the U.S. stand to gain from the settlements that Israel is building?’ The answer quite obviously is nothing.”
Later in the lecture, Finkelstein argued Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s claim that the Israel lobby was the “driving force behind the Iraq War.” “The main architects of the war are always said to be Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney,” Finkelstein said. “Well everyone in this room knows Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney are not Jewish and they don’t fit the profile of these Jewish neoconservatives. So how do Mearsheimer and Walt reconcile? (Rumsfeld and Cheney) are obviously not Jewish neoconservatives, and yet you say it was the Jewish neoconservatives who caused the war?”
A question-and-answer session followed after Finkelstein’s lecture. James Morris, 44, said he agreed and disagreed with Finkelstein’s arguments.
“I think some of his arguments about the Palestinian situation and the lobbying influencing what happens in occupied territories are accurate,” Morris said, “but then again if he uses the same argument with the lobby and how it influences our policy and occupied territories. And about that time the attack on the USS Liberty happened and that’s been covered up ever since.”
“Also, you had 9/11 that happened,” Morris said. “If you look at the paperwork that’s out there and the scholarly publications?our support of Israel resulted not only the attack on the World Trade Center in ’93 but in 9/11. So that’s not in our national interest. So when he’s trying to say that we can’t define that term, it’s not in our national interest, right? So supporting Israel…was a direct result for the plotters of those attacks.”
Morris commented on Finkelstein’s arguments about Jewish neoconservatives. He wanted to rebut Finkelstein’s argument that Rumsfeld and Cheney were supposedly not part of the neoconservative moment, said Morris.
“They’ve been associated with it for years,” he said.
Morris said he was upset because he was “cut off” while asking a question to Finkelstein.
“I have a great deal of respect for Provost Hellenbrand, how he hosted this event, but he cut me off when I was trying to make my points to rebut,” Morris said. “I didn’t get a chance to finish my question. He cut me off. He said let’s take one
point at a time. I was cut off and I never came back to be able to make the rest of the question.”
Mujahidul Haque, a political science major, said the lecture was informative to him and that some of Finkelstein’s arguments caught his attention.
“What he said pretty much about the Jewish neoconservatives,” Haque said, “I think all the neoconservatives are pretty much the same. I don’t think I would want to separate the Jewish and Christian neoconservatives (from each other). The all have the same agenda. Other than that, I pretty much agreed with everything else he said.”