In Israel, polarizing authors find friend and foe alike

American professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of a critical book on the pro-Israel lobby, had just finished their lecture last week in a packed Tel Aviv hall when audience members rushed the stage, engulfing the pair with a mix of accusation and praise.

First up was a woman who shook Walt’s hand and called him a hero. Then came a student with a video camera asking Walt how he felt about the book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” being on a Hamas Web site and having been endorsed by former Ku Klux Klan member and politician David Duke.

It was the authors’ first trip to Israel since the publication last year of their controversial book, which has been assailed by the American Jewish establishment as a poorly researched and falsely reasoned report with an anti-Israel agenda that taps into age-old, anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jewish power.

Walt said he and Mearsheimer did not encounter a markedly different reception in Israel.

In addition to the Tel Aviv event, the two spoke at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Walt spoke at al Quds University, an Arab school in eastern Jerusalem.

“Some people come who agree with us and some people come who don’t agree with us, and we have a lively conversation,” Walt, a professor of international affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, told JTA. “I think some people who don’t know Israel very well would think it radical or brave or controversial to come to Israel, but there is a vital discussion here in Israel, and I don’t find it surprising that we’ve had a very interesting and enjoyable time.”

In their talk in Tel Aviv, which was organized by the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom, the two authors took turns defending the central thesis of their book: that a coalition of pro-Israel groups succeed in pushing through policies in the United States that often are at odds with America’s and even Israel’s best interests. They cite the Iraq War as one example, a claim critics have called patently untrue and poorly argued.

Echoing that claim, the pair argued in Israel that the same forces are now pushing the country into attacking Iran.

“There is only one country in the world that is putting any pressure on the U.S. to attack Iran, and that is Israel,” Mearsheimer told a packed lecture hall at Hebrew University, according to the Jerusalem Post. “And it is putting enormous pressure on the U.S.

“Inside the United States, it is pro-Israel individuals and groups who are almost wholly responsible for pressure being brought to bear on Bush and Cheney to use military force on Iran. The idea that the lobby and Israel don’t put huge amounts of pressure on the U.S. is contradictory to the evidence.”

Walt said he believed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be wiped off the map is not actually a call for genocide. “I don’t think he is inciting to genocide,” Walt said in Jerusalem, according to Ha’aretz.

The authors maintain that the United States coddles Israel. They reject accusations that their work is unfair, addled with poor scholarship or anti-Semitic.

As an example of his thesis, Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, talked in his Tel Aviv lecture about how Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, though contrary to U.S. policy, continues because no U.S. president has the temerity to stand up to Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in Washington to stop it.

The head of Gush Shalom, Uri Avineri, who invited the two to Israel, said, “We want to start a discussion in Israel about whether or not the Israel lobby is good for us or not.”

At both the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv talks, members of the pro-Israel advocacy group Stand With Us passed out glossy booklets denouncing the professors’ book, citing critical reviews and providing four pages of counterpoints to the authors’ claims.

“They are very convincing in terms of presentation because they are very articulate, but their argument that Israel has caused so much damage to America does not stand up and is causing anti-Zionism around the world,” Michael Dickson, director of the group’s office in Israel, said. “They used the academic freedom Israel provides to all to attack Israel and those who support her. So we made sure we were there to speak up against their lies.”

The authors say they have learned to shake off such criticism.

“When you cannot attack someone’s facts or evidence, you call them names,” Walt said.