Six Questions for Stephen Walt About the Middle East and Whether Israel is an Apartheid State

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Stephen Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He serves on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies.

Professor Walt is the author of numerous books, including “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” co-written with John Mearsheimer, and, most recently, “The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy.” I recently asked him six questions about Israel and the Middle East.

1.  You and John Mearsheimer co-authored “The Israel Lobby,” which argued that Israel has a good deal of political influence in the U.S. Both of you were swiftly attacked by much of the foreign policy elite. How do you think the arguments made in the book hold up?

I’m not an objective judge, of course, but I think we have been almost entirely vindicated.  No one seriously challenged the evidence we presented, and the power of groups such as AIPAC was an open secret even before we published our book.  Instead, our critics either misrepresented what we wrote—for example, by claiming we said the lobby was a cabal that “controlled” all of U.S. Middle East policy—or they simply smeared us with false charges of anti-Semitism.  

The Obama years drove home how right we were—although Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry worked overtime to try to get a two-state solution, they were unable to put any significant pressure on Israel and they got nowhere. Instead, Bibi Netanyahu addresses a joint session of Congress and gets more standing ovations than the U.S. president did!

Everyone now acknowledges the power of the Israel lobby, and I think more and more people understand that its more hardline elements—groups like AIPAC, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, JINSA, big donors like Sheldon Adelson, and also some Christian Zionists–have had a very negative impact on U.S. policy.

2/ Is it extreme to label Israel an “apartheid state?”

“Apartheid” is obviously a highly loaded term, which is why Israel’s supporters react so strongly when it is used.  But what other term should we use when one group of people in a position of total dominance imposes a separate legal and administrative regime on a national group that is under its complete control, denies them any meaningful control over their own destiny, gradually takes away their land, and encourages its own people to settle in lands that were conquered in war?  

The term does not apply to Israel proper (i.e., inside the old “Green Line”), although Israel’s Arab citizens have always been second-class citizens. But it does fit the situation in the occupied territories and in Gaza. And as Israel continues to expand settlements and consolidate its control over the West Bank, the term “apartheid” becomes more and more appropriate each day.  

3/ Is there any realistic hope of there ever being something that can accurately be called “Middle East peace?” If so, how do we get there in three easy steps.

Peace is always possible if the parties involved decide that is what they want and are willing to make the adjustments necessary to allow everyone to achieve their minimum goals. I am not optimistic, however, because I believe a two-state solution is now impossible and the alternatives to it (e.g., a binational state or additional ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from “Greater Israel”) will be difficult and violent.  Moreover, there are plenty of other rifts in the entire region—including the war in Yemen, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, the civil war in Libya, etc.—which are unlikely to end anytime soon. Unfortunately, Middle East peace will remain an elusive goal for some time to come.

4/ You have spoken of “The Repeated Failures of the US Foreign Policy Elite.” How is it that so many members of this elite — William Kristol, for example — fail upward and are never held accountable for the disastrous policies they advocate for, and often help get implemented?

Elites rarely hold their fellow members accountable, because they don’t want to be held accountable themselves.  This isn’t a new phenomenon; the “Best and Brightest” who failed in Vietnam ended up in prominent positions of responsibility afterwards and never paid any significant price for their arrogance either.  

Holding people to account requires moral courage, and it means passing judgment on people who may be long-time associates or even close friends. Today’s elites all inhabit extensive networks of like-minded allies, and that guarantees that they will always get new opportunities no matter how wrong they have been in the past.  F. Scott Fitzgerald had it exactly backwards: when it comes to foreign policymaking, there are an infinite number of “second chances.”

To be sure, accountability can be taken too far.  Everyone makes mistakes, and many people learn from them and do better over time. But when people cannot admit their errors and keep repeating them—I’m thinking of John Bolton or Elliot Abrams here—we should look for someone else to do the job.  Either that, or get used to disappointment.

5/ You were a critic of U.S. intervention in Syria, which much of the foreign policy elite — and media — uncritically supported. Why did you oppose intervention?

The Syrian tragedy was awful to behold, and I understand why reasonable people wanted the United States to do more.  It is worth remembering, however, that the United States did not stand aloof. The Obama administration called for Assad to step down, we gave extensive support to some of the opposition, and we blocked multilateral efforts to negotiate an early end to the conflict by insisting Iran could not be involved in them.  I opposed military intervention because I did not think vital U.S. interests were engaged and because I believed that greater U.S. involvement would make a very bad situation even worse. In particular, toppling Assad would have created complete anarchy—much as we saw in Libya—and provided new opportunities for various jihadi groups.  The Assad regime, bad as it is, is preferable to them.

6/ What is your standing within the foreign policy establishment? You have very unpopular views, yet you are well regarded, you are a Harvard professor and write for prestigious publications. Have you been punished or suffered in any way for taking unpopular positions?

I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career, and so have very little to complain about. But there’s no question that I paid a price for some of my views—for example, publishing The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy—made me radioactive for a few years. It meant that I could never serve in government, which I would have liked to do, and there were some other opportunities for which I was nominated that vanished quickly due to opposition from people who didn’t like what I had written.  

But on balance, I’ve been able to write and say what I thought and find audiences for it, even within a system that I have sometimes criticized. And my sense is that more and more people are coming around to the views that I and others have been articulating for some time, on the need for the United States to conduct a more restrained, sensible, and modest foreign policy. Greater restraint would be good for us and good for most of the world, and I believe the country is moving steadily in that direction. Donald Trump isn’t the president who will get us there—despite what he promised in 2016—but perhaps his successor will.

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