- Israel's Armor: The Israel Lobby and the First Generation of the Palestine Conflict by Walter L. Hixson
The presidency of Donald Trump has cast an unusual spotlight upon the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel. The attention is not novel: every US president since Harry Truman has faced at least one Middle East crisis that has required him to balance what are assumed to be the competing needs of Washington's Arab and Israeli alliances. The crises are always big news, as the president of the day strives to reconcile his twin claims to be Israel's top international backer and, at the same time, an honest broker in the Arab-Israel conflict. Most presidents have wanted to retain both mantles. What is new about Trump is that he seems to care only about the former, as shown, for instance, by his appointment of a two-state solution opponent as ambassador to Israel and his announcement that the US would move its embassy to Jerusalem.
For most scholars, the salient question is not where US sympathies lie—in the end, and well before Trump, it has usually been with Israel—but why. The literature engendered by this question is sparser than one might think, given the emotions that the subject stirs, though as seen below it has grown richer of late. For decades, it broke down into three broad, sometimes overlapping categories: 1) books stressing that Israel, as "the only democracy in the Middle East," is the natural US ally in the region; 2) books emphasizing Israel's usefulness to US strategic goals; and 3) books arguing that support for [End Page 662] Israel has little to do with the US national interest and is rooted instead in American domestic politics, chiefly the pro-Israel lobby's influence in Washington. In 2006, political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt caused an uproar with an article—later expanded into a book—contending that the pro-Israel lobby had led the US astray into "policies in the Middle East that make little sense on either strategic or moral grounds."1
Walter Hixson, a historian of US foreign relations, clearly wishes to defend Mearsheimer and Walt against their critics, some of whom unfairly accuse them of poor scholarship, perhaps tinged with anti-Semitism. But to the stock defense he adds an intriguing twist: "The major weakness of the Mearsheimer-Walt book," he writes, "was not its argument that the lobby influenced US policy in a lopsided pro-Israeli direction, to the detriment of the national interest, but rather their inability to acknowledge the broader cultural and historical dimensions of support for Israel" (p. 9).
Israel's Armor thus sets out to prove that the lobby's influence, while "monumental," would have been smaller were it not for deeper affinities between the US and Israel, among them the fact that both are settler societies. It is a bold thesis—Hixson posits a "dialectical relationship" between the political and cultural factors—but the book does not quite follow through in illustrating it.
The bulk of Israel's Armor is straightforward diplomatic history seeking to demonstrate the lobby's clout in Washington from before Israel's birth in 1948 through the 1967 war. Hixson bases his account upon presidential and State Department archives, as well as the papers of Isaiah Leo Kenen, a little-known figure whom he calls the "workhorse" of the lobby's first organizations (p. 4). He cites Kenen, noting the "watershed" 1944 presidential campaign, when the lobby's efforts helped push the Democratic and Republican parties to outdo one another in expressing support for unlimited Jewish immigration to Palestine (p. 36). From that year onward, and particularly on the congressional level, stalwart support for Israel has generally been a political strength for candidates of both parties and criticism of Israel a weakness.
This bipartisan consensus did not usually translate into reflexive or unquestioning US endorsement of Israel's every action. As Hixson shows, Kenen and his peers...