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A Beautiful Friendship?

In search of the truth about the Israel lobby's influence on Washington

Published Sunday, July 16, 2006

All David Ben-Gurion wanted was 15 minutes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's time.


Israel's founding father, one of the indomitable political leaders of the 20th century, came to Washington in December 1941 yearning to present the case for a Jewish state directly to the American president. He took a two-room suite at the old Ambassador Hotel at 14th and K for $1,000 a month and cooled his heels for 10 weeks, writing letters and reports and making passes at Miriam Cohen, his attractive American secretary. But Ben-Gurion didn't get the meeting. Not then, not ever. Not even a pair of presidential cuff links.

Now let's fast-forward 64 years to late May and a news conference in the East Room of the White House. That tall, freckled, slightly nervous-looking man with the rust-colored hair standing alongside President Bush at matching lecterns is Ehud Olmert, 12th prime minister of Israel. The two leaders and their advisers have just spent two hours together in the Oval Office. Bush is reaffirming the "deep and abiding ties between Israel and the United States" and praising Olmert's "bold ideas" and commitment to peace. Afterward, they'll adjourn for a private session without aides or note-takers and then go to dinner together. And the next day Olmert will address a joint session of Congress, whose members will interrupt his speech with 16 standing ovations. Ben-Gurion, whose remains rest in a simple grave overlooking the Negev Desert, would be stunned.

It's not that Olmert is a more commanding figure than Ben-Gurion. Far from it. No, it's about power. And not just Israeli power. It's really about the perceived power of the Israel lobby, a collection of American Jewish organizations, campaign contributors and think tanks -- aided by Christian conservatives and other non-Jewish supporters -- that arose over the second half of the 20th century and that sees as a principle goal the support and promotion of the interests of the state of Israel.

Thanks to the work of the lobby and its allies, Israel gets more direct foreign aid -- about $3 billion a year -- than any other nation. There's a file cabinet somewhere in the State Department full of memoranda of understanding on military, diplomatic and economic affairs. Israel gets treated like a NATO member when it comes to military matters and like Canada or Mexico when it comes to free trade. There's an annual calendar full of meetings of joint strategic task forces and other collaborative sessions. And there's a presidential pledge, re-avowed by Bush in the East Room, that the United States will come to Israel's aid in the event of attack.

On Capitol Hill the Israel lobby commands large majorities in both the House and Senate. Polls show strong public support for Israel -- a connection that has grown even deeper after the September 11 attacks. The popular equation goes like this: Israelis equal good guys, Arabs equal terrorists. Working the Hill these days, says Josh Block, spokesman for the premier Israeli lobbying group known as AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, "is like pushing at an open door."

Not everyone believes this is a good thing. In March two distinguished political scientists -- Stephen Walt from Harvard and John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago -- published a 42-page, heavily footnoted essay arguing that the Bush administration's support for Israel and its related effort to spread democracy throughout the Middle East have "inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security."

The professors claim that our intimate partnership with Israel is both dangerous and unprecedented. "Other special interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest," they argue. They go on to say that the war in Iraq "was due in large part to the Lobby's influence," and that the same combine is "using all of the strategies in its playbook" to pressure the administration into being aggressive and belligerent with Iran. The bottom line: "Israel's enemies get weakened or overthrown, Israel gets a free hand with the Palestinians, and the United States does most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding and paying."

A sweet deal for Israel, in other words, but a very bad one for America.

Some of the lobby's critics hailed the essay as a much-needed breath of fresh air and praised Walt and Mearsheimer for their courage and -- dare we say it -- chutzpah. Their paper, wrote antiwar activist and media critic Norman Solomon in the Baltimore Sun, "is prying the lid off a debate that has been bottled up for decades."

But the two professors knew they were treading on delicate ground. For generations, the idea of a cabal of powerful Jews hijacking the national interest for its own purposes has fueled anti-Semitism around the world. Supporters of Israel argued that the essay echoed those claims.

Alan Dershowitz, author, lawyer, celebrity and Harvard professor, said the essay is rife with "bigoted comments" and "the smell of singling out Jews and singling out Israel." Abraham Foxman, longtime director of the Anti-Defamation League, told me the paper

essentially, and erroneously, blames the Jews for the war in Iraq. Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States, who hadn't commented publicly until our interview, called it "tainted, shallow and sloppy . . . just a compilation of old nonsense and garbage that should be rendered into oblivion, where it belongs."

Walt and Mearsheimer in response insist their facts and arguments remain valid and say the vituperative critical reaction merely affirms one of their key points: that the Israel lobby is a sacred cow and anyone who dares criticize it runs the risk of being branded an anti-Semite. "In effect, the Lobby boasts of its own power and then attacks anyone who calls attention to it," they complain in the essay.

We'll get back to the angry volleyball match between the professors and their critics a bit later. But, flaws and all, the essay has raised some compelling questions. Such as: Just how powerful is the Israel lobby? What was its role in engineering the Iraq war, and is it pushing for a repeat performance in Iran? Is it really all that nefarious? And whose lobby is it anyway?

MORRIS AMITAY IS A DAPPER MAN with a ready smile and a self-deprecatory manner. He works out of a small corner office on North Capitol Street in a building that houses lobbyists from three dozen state governments, assorted defense contractors and the American Gas Association, all of them seeking to spread knowledge and enlightenment among members of Congress and their staffs. Amitay, who operates a small lobbying law firm, blends right in. Yet even among his peers his success is something of a legend.

Educated at Columbia and Harvard Law, Amitay had spent seven years as a diplomat in the State Department and six more as a legislative aide on the Hill when friends approached him in 1974 about becoming executive director of AIPAC. The organization was founded in the early 1950s by a Canadian-born former journalist named I.L. Kenen with funding from various Jewish groups. Kenen was a tireless advocate for Israel in the 1950s and early '60s, when it had to claw for dollars and votes against a powerful and determined lobby of oil interests, Arab-oriented diplomats and lawmakers such as J. William Fulbright, the legendary chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who saw U.S. support of the fledgling Jewish state as a serious mistake that threatened regional stability.

The 1967 Six-Day War marked a turning point. Arab leaders talked confidently of driving the Jews into the sea, igniting fears of a new Holocaust, but Israel launched preemptive airstrikes on Egypt and Syria and won a smashing victory. Many American Jews rallied around their scrappy Middle Eastern cousin, as did non-Jews who saw Israel as a powerful little island of democracy in a sea of hostile Arab dictatorships.

Initially, Amitay was reluctant to take over an organization purporting to represent the forever bickering factions of organized American Jewry. "It was like herding cats," he recalls. "I took the job against my better judgment."

He eventually tripled AIPAC's staff size and budget, but his most strategic decision was to move the office from 13th and G, four blocks from the White House, to the foot of Capitol Hill. Amitay saw the State Department and the rest of the executive branch as hostile territory for Israel and Congress as a natural ally. For one thing, he could do the math: There were only two elected officials in the executive branch -- the president and vice president -- but 535 in Congress. Lots more targets and opportunities for persuasion.

Amitay had a couple of things going for him: his own experience and relationships on the Hill; a small but hard-working staff, which at one time included CNN's Wolf Blitzer; and Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute. But his biggest asset was several thousand affluent grass-roots members for whom Israel was not just a cause but a sacred mission. "The big reason why AIPAC is so effective is the enthusiasm of our people, and that's because of their affinity for Israel, the knowledge they have and the willingness to get involved politically, write a letter, send an e-mail, send a contribution and get to know their members of Congress," Amitay says.

AIPAC is the best-known of a handful of groups that have made support for Israel a centerpiece of their agendas, including the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. But when it comes to Washington, AIPAC wields the real clout.

In its early days, Israel was almost exclusively the foster child of liberal Democrats, the affiliation of most American Jews. That began to change in the late 1970s after Menachem Begin became the country's first right-of-center prime minister. He forged a practical alliance with the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other Christian conservatives who saw Jewish rule over the Holy Land as the divinely ordained prelude to the Second Coming of Christ. The Reagan administration saw in Israel a strategic Cold War ally, a balance against Soviet client-states such as Syria and Iraq. Israelis relied on the political support and financial donations that the American Jewish community provided. Still, they were ambivalent and at times contemptuous of their more affluent brethren, who were willing to give money but not willing to move to Israel or send their children there. Ben-Gurion's stated goal had been to bring Jews home from 2,000 years of exile. But the existence of Israel and its pressing needs gave American Jews a rallying cry and sense of cohesion that enhanced their political stature in American society. The late Arthur Hertzberg, a rabbi, historian and president of the American Jewish Congress, once told me that before Israel's existence Jews attended White House dinners as individuals. Afterward, they came as Jews. "In a real sense, being involved with Israel made Jewish leaders more truly American than they had ever dreamt of being," he said.

For some American Jews, the passion for Israel was born partly out of guilt: During World War II, the Jewish establishment, like the U.S. government, had been slow to respond to reports that Jews were being systematically slaughtered in Hitler's Europe. Many Jewish leaders swore they would never let such a crime happen again. They rallied around Israel, which had risen out of the ashes of the Holocaust, to protect it -- and themselves.

And that's the interesting psychological part: While American Jews may have become powerful, they don't feel powerful. A new set of pogroms or a new Holocaust? It could happen, even in America. "There's a certain dynamic to organized Jewish life as to all so-called defense organizations created to protect a supposedly vulnerable group," says Henry Siegman, who once served as executive director of the American Jewish Congress and now directs the U.S./Middle East project at the Council of Foreign Relations. "It creates a culture of victimhood, and it often attracts people who feel like they're victims as well."

AMITAY QUIT AIPAC IN 1980 TO OPEN A LAW PRACTICE that lobbies for defense contractors. But he didn't give up working for Israeli interests, forming his own pro-Israel PAC, the Washington Public Affairs Council. And AIPAC continued to grow under his successor, Thomas Dine, who presided over a massive increase in the group's size and influence during the 1980s, a decade in which the lobby claimed some significant political scalps. Pro-Israel money helped defeat Republican Reps. Paul Findley of Illinois and Pete McCloskey of California and Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois, all of whom were deemed too sympathetic to Arab causes and too critical of Israel.

Findley says he had always voted for aid to Israel even while criticizing Israeli policy. But his real sin was meeting periodically with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom he once praised as "a great champion of human rights." Findley was targeted in the election of 1982: He had served 11 terms; he didn't get a 12th. Two years after that, Percy lost to Paul Simon in a bitter contest in which supporters of Israel poured an estimated $1.8 million into direct contributions and an independent anti-Percy ad campaign. The message to incumbents was clear: Oppose Israel at your peril.

"After that," says Findley, "I really feel the cloak of intimidation was pretty secure."

Percy told colleagues he blamed Amitay personally for his defeat. "Frankly, I didn't know I was that powerful," says Amitay. "We just did what every lobbying group in this town does: It supports its friends and tries to defeat its enemies. So I don't see what the big deal was."

Nevertheless, the Israel lobby, and AIPAC in particular, gained a reputation as the National Rifle Association of foreign policy: a hard-edged, pugnacious bunch that took names and kept score. But in some ways it was even stronger. The NRA's support was largely confined to right-wing Republicans and rural Democrats. But AIPAC made inroads in both parties and both ends of the ideological spectrum.

Then one day it went too far.

THE YEAR WAS 1991, AND PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH WAS ON A ROLL. Having defeated the Iraqi army and driven it out of Kuwait, Bush and his wheeler-dealer secretary of state, James Baker, turned their attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict. They were pushing both sides toward a historic peace conference in Madrid, but first faced an issue that they feared could torpedo the session before it started.

The prime minister of Israel was a hard-liner named Yitzhak Shamir, who in pre-independence days was the gun-wielding leader of the smallest and most extreme of militant Zionist factions. Faced with a wave of Jewish immigrants from the collapsing Soviet Union, Shamir's government was throwing up new housing as fast as possible. To ease the costs of massive borrowing, it was seeking $10 billion in loan guarantees from Washington. Bush and Baker wanted Shamir's pledge that he wouldn't use the loan guarantees toward expanding controversial Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was a promise Shamir didn't want to make. He instructed AIPAC to get the guarantees through Congress over the administration's objections.

The crunch came one day that September when AIPAC dispatched more than 1,000 members to Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress. Bush retaliated at a news conference when he took direct aim at the Israel lobby, saying he was "up against some powerful political forces . . . I heard today there was something like 1,000 lobbyists on the Hill working on the other side of the question. We've got one lonely little guy down here doing it."

AIPAC's leaders had told Shamir they had enough votes to easily override the president in both the House and Senate, but Bush's remarks punctured their balloon like a blowtorch. Within days, leaders of both houses advised AIPAC to back down. Its support had melted away.

But what shocked Shamir even more was the rapid defection of his American Jewish allies. They didn't like being portrayed by the president as a shadowy but powerful force serving the interests of a foreign power. "It clobbered the Jewish community, left us in a state of shock," one American Jewish leader told me later.

Shamir and his aides derided American Jews as timid, even gutless. But Israeli voters blamed him for overplaying his hand. The following year he lost his bid for reelection to the more dovish Yitzhak Rabin. Bush paid a price as well. He got crushed in a small group of heavily Jewish precincts in states such as New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Florida in his November 1992 election loss to Bill Clinton.

When Rabin came to Washington for the first time as prime minister, he summoned AIPAC's leaders to a closed-door meeting at the Madison Hotel in which he accused them of steering Israel into a needless confrontation with the White House. From now on, he told them, Israel would drive its own relations with Washington, and AIPAC would be consigned to a back seat.

The organization's leaders learned an important lesson. "After that they adopted the Colin Powell doctrine," says Ori Nir, a veteran journalist for the Jewish Forward. "They only fought the battles that they knew they could win."

"WELCOME TO THE HEART OF THE EMPIRE," DECLARES JOSH BLOCK, director of media affairs, rolling his eyes as he ushers me into AIPAC's bustling and disheveled headquarters on First Street NW.

There's nothing very imperial about Block, a cheerful thirtysomething veteran of Democratic Party election campaigns whose wife has just given birth to their first child. Nor about his office, whose window overlooks the Washington Monument -- but also a parking lot dominated by a refuse container crammed with discarded sofas outside the D.C. Central Kitchen, a feeding center for the homeless.

The place is a typical Washington-style lobbying and public affairs shop, a warren of small offices and windowless conference rooms spread over two floors, with photocopiers, industrial-type metal bookshelves, sagging gray sofas, institutional brown carpet and drab yellow walls. The air-conditioning system seems less than robust on a steamy June afternoon. AIPAC has plans to move to a slightly grander building up the street next year.

A delegation of Japanese businessmen once took a tour, says Block, and at the end one of them turned to his guide with a polite smile and asked, "Okay, could you now show us where the real headquarters are?"

There's nothing to hide. AIPAC's size, strength and agenda are all public information, much of it displayed on its Web site: the staff of 200 lobbyists, researchers and organizers; the $47 million annual budget; the 100,000 grass-roots members, almost double the number of five years ago; and the recruitment drive on 300 college campuses.

AIPAC in recent years has parted with some of the staff members who gave it a harder edge, foremost among them Steve Rosen, its former director of foreign policy issues. Rosen and a fellow staff member, Keith Weissman, were fired last year after they were indicted under the 1917 Espionage Act for allegedly receiving classified information about administration strategy on Iran from Lawrence Franklin, the Pentagon's Iran desk officer. Their trial is scheduled for later this summer.

Lawyers for Rosen and Weissman contend their clients did only what journalists and analysts do every day in Washington -- gather information. Maybe so, but what's really intriguing for our purposes is how this little scandal came about. It wasn't Rosen and Weissman pursuing Franklin; it was Franklin seeking them out to make an end run around his superiors, who didn't share Franklin's view that the White House should crack down harder on Iran's developing nuclear program. Franklin believed enlisting AIPAC's help was the best way to ensure that his message got delivered to the White House.

These days AIPAC's staff is a mix of hired guns and true believers known for their expertise. Take Brad Gordon, co-director of policy and government affairs. Gordon, among other things a former congressional aide and CIA analyst, is a compact man with a clipped mustache, graying hair and a résumé longer than the menu at the Bombay Club, where we meet for lunch. At AIPAC he's in charge of overseeing all legislation. He appears to be careful, modest, self-confident and authoritative about the system and his role. "We have a fairly sophisticated understanding of what's doable and what's not," he tells me. "And we work in the world of the doable."

For overstretched members of Congress and their staffs, who don't have the time or resources to master every subject in their domain, AIPAC makes itself an essential tool. It briefs. It lobbies. It organizes frequent seminars on subjects such as terrorism, Islamic militarism and nuclear proliferation. It brings experts to the Hill from think tanks in Washington and Tel Aviv. It provides research papers and offers advice on drafting legislation on foreign affairs, including the annual foreign aid bill. And behind it is a vast network of grass-roots activists in each House district who make a point of visiting individual members of Congress, inviting them to social events and contributing to their reelection campaigns.

Money is an important part of the equation. AIPAC is not a political action committee, and the organization itself doesn't give a dime in campaign contributions. But its Web site, which details how members of Congress voted on AIPAC's key issues, and the AIPAC Insider, a glossy periodical that handicaps close political races, are scrutinized by thousands of potential donors. Pro-Israel interests have contributed $56.8 million in individual, group and soft money donations to federal candidates and party committees since 1990, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. (By contrast, the center says, pro-Arab and pro-Muslim groups donated $297,000 during the same period.) Between the 2000 and the 2004 elections, the 50 members of AIPAC's board donated an average of $72,000 each to campaigns and political action committees. One in every five board members was a top fundraiser for President Bush or John Kerry.

AIPAC's members often overlap with those of other pro-Israel organizations, some of which are renowned for playing hardball. In 2002, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield, a military campaign that laid siege to cities in the West Bank to counter a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Pro-Israel activists here organized letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations and boycotts against media organizations for purportedly distorted reporting of Palestinian casualties. One group, the Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America, demonstrated outside National Public Radio stations in 33 cities and cost WBUR in Boston more than $1 million in contributions.

AIPAC organizes annual trips to Israel where dozens of members of Congress and their staffs often get their first taste of the Holy Land. Rep. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who is House majority whip, has taken four AIPAC-sponsored trips to Israel over the years. "The bonding that happens, the understanding of the importance of democracy, the understanding of this miracle in Israel . . . is an incredible thing to watch," he told the organization's annual conference.

The entire AIPAC package has impressed other ethnic groups. Most recently, Indian Americans have sought to forge a network of organizations, think tanks and PACs patterned after the American Jewish model. Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now, a left-of-center lobbying group, says, "AIPAC has a trifecta of power on the Hill -- direct lobbying, tremendous grass-roots support and money from contributors who look to them for guidance."

It also helps to have the right enemies.

BRAD GORDON RECALLS WALKING THROUGH THE CORRIDORS OF CAPITOL HILL in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. "More than one member came up to me and said, 'You know, Brad, I always understood intellectually what you were talking about, but now I really get it.'"

Since 9/11, Americans have increasingly come to accept the idea that Israel and the United States share not just values but enemies. A Gallup Poll in February reported 68 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Israel with 23 percent unfavorable, and that Americans support Israelis over Palestinians by 59 percent to 15 percent.

Recent electoral victories by Islamic radicals in Iran and the Palestinian territories have only heightened the sense of us vs. them. With his sweeping condemnations and threats against the United States and Israel, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's radical new president, has quickly joined the pantheon of bad guys, alongside Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. "Ahmadinejad is worth every penny," says Morris Amitay. "He says amazing things, and the scary part is he really means it."

This year, AIPAC's two-pronged legislative agenda focuses on these enemies. The first is the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, a bill placing tough new restrictions on aid to the Palestinian Authority since the electoral victory of the militant Islamic group Hamas. Its charter calls for Israel's destruction, and its operatives are responsible for many of the suicide bombings of Israeli civilian targets. Then there is the Iran Freedom Support Act, designed to dry up foreign funds Iran can use to develop a nuclear bomb and to supply aid to anti-government groups there. No one at AIPAC, Gordon insists, is pressing for military action against Iran. Their goal is a strong diplomatic and economic response coordinated among the United States, its European allies, Russia and China.

Nonetheless, not everyone supports AIPAC's approach. The Conference of Catholic Bishops and several other charitable groups opposed the House-sponsored version of the Hamas bill, as did three liberal pro-Israel groups -- Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. Opponents argued that the bill would isolate and punish Palestinian moderates and restrict the delivery of humanitarian aid. The Bush administration issued talking points contending that the bill would tie its hands and that, in any case, it already had all the power it needed to restrict aid that might be channeled to Hamas.

At its annual conference in March, AIPAC dispatched hundreds of activists to more than 450 congressional offices to lobby for the measure. One of those targeted was Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat with a solid pro-Israel voting record who had opposed the bill in committee, citing the Catholic bishops' concerns. McCollum took offense after an AIPAC representative from Minneapolis confronted Bill Harper, her chief of staff, over her vote.

Harper said the AIPAC rep told him that "McCollum's support for terrorists would not be tolerated."

"Never has my name and reputation been maligned or smeared as it was last week by a representative of AIPAC," McCollum complained in a letter to Howard Kohr, AIPAC's executive director. She called the remarks "hateful, vile and offensive," demanded that Kohr apologize and banned AIPAC representatives from her office until he did.

Kohr requested a meeting to talk it over. The AIPAC rep denied making the remarks. No one apologized, but McCollum eventually declared the incident over.

The bill passed the House, on the day before Olmert addressed Congress, by 361 to 37. A milder version of the bill unanimously passed the Senate late last month.

Like Congress, the Bush administration has also been an easy sell. Ever since George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, took a helicopter ride over the Israeli countryside with Sharon, Bush has felt a sense of kinship and concern. When Ambassador Ayalon phones the White House, he deals with Elliott Abrams, a longtime supporter of Israel who is deputy national security adviser. Ayalon, who used to be Sharon's foreign affairs adviser, has been to dinner at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's home and is on a first-name basis with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, presidential political strategist Karl Rove and the new White House chief of staff, Josh Bolten. Both sides say relations have never been closer.

There was a glitch in 2002 when Bush declared "enough is enough" and demanded that Sharon pull back Israeli forces from their siege of the West Bank, dispatching Colin Powell, then secretary of state, to negotiate a withdrawal. AIPAC helped organize congressional resolutions reaffirming solidarity with Israel that passed the Senate by 94 to 2 and the House by 352 to 21. Supporters organized a "Stand Up for Israel" rally in Washington in April that drew tens of thousands. The crowd booed senior Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz, Bush's representative to the rally, when he told them "innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers." And they cheered Janet Parshall, host of an evangelical Christian talk show, who declared: "We will never limp, we will never wimp, we will never vacillate in our support of Israel."

Bush stopped making his plea for withdrawal, and four days after the rally hailed Sharon as a "man of peace." Powell came home empty-handed.

Some people are not happy about the close ties between the Israel lobby and the most conservative president since Ronald Reagan. They complain that AIPAC and its sister groups have moved too far to the right and grown overly cozy with former House majority leader Tom DeLay and a Republican leadership now mired in scandal epitomized by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, once a big donor to Jewish causes. These groups, it is said, have lost touch with a majority of American Jews, who still skew liberal, vote Democratic and view Christian conservatives with abiding suspicion.

But the real deal-breaker for many -- including a pair of respected political scientists at two leading universities -- was the war in Iraq.

STEPHEN WALT'S OFFICE IN THE KENNEDY SCHOOL OF GOVERNMENT IS COZY AND SEDATE, with a large desk and a set of sofas around a coffee table. There's even a fireplace in one wall, all rust-colored bricks and polished brass. Walt says he's never actually used it. Nowadays he wouldn't need to -- the essay he co-authored with fellow political scientist John Mearsheimer has created enough heat to keep the entire building at a swelter.

Tall, rangy and soft-spoken, Walt's the kind of multidimensional scholar who's as comfortable talking about the creative impulses of the Beatles as he is about American foreign policy. He's a man of gold-plated academic credentials: PhD in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, teaching positions at Princeton University and the University of Chicago before joining the Kennedy School at Harvard as professor in international relations and academic dean. He and Mearsheimer, who were fellow academics at Chicago, are leading members of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a Washington-based group of academics and former policymakers who believe the Bush administration's primary achievement has been to convince friend and foe alike that untrammeled American power poses one of the greatest threats to world peace and stability.

In the prelude to the invasion of Iraq, Walt and Mearsheimer published an article in Foreign Policy magazine in January 2003, titled "An Unnecessary War." It concluded that Iraqi leader Hussein was weak and eminently deterrable without resorting to force. They also organized a full-page ad in the New York Times in which they and 31 other scholars declared the impending conflict "a profound and costly mistake."

We went to war anyway, and many of Walt and Mearsheimer's most dire predictions came to pass. No one in government had listened to them. So what went wrong?

In previous works Walt had written about the role of ethnic lobbies in the making of foreign policy. His view: They tend to gum up the works. Israel and its lobby, he and Mearsheimer conclude, was the main factor that had sent American policy off the rails when it came to Iraq.

Their essay -- published in the London Review of Books and, in an extended version, on the Kennedy School's Web site -- thoroughly condemns the U.S.-Israel relationship. Since the Cold War ended, they contend, Israel has become a strategic liability that ignites terrorism against the West and serves as a rallying cry and recruitment poster for bin Laden and al-Qaeda. What's more, there's no particular moral reason for the United States to support Israel. Despite a well-cultivated myth, Israel has always been stronger militarily than neighboring Arab states, racist and discriminatory in treating its own non-Jewish citizens and brutal when it comes to the Palestinians. "The creation of Israel entailed a moral crime against the Palestinian people," the essay states baldly.

As for the United States, it is the "de facto enabler of Israeli expansion in the occupied territories, making it complicit in the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians."

Why does Israel enjoy such uncritical American support? The lobby, say Walt and Mearsheimer. Nothing conspiratorial or improper, mind you. "For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise the Lobby are doing what other special interest groups do, just much better."

The lobby, according to Walt and Mearsheimer, has a free run in Congress. The media also play a role because they generally demur from criticizing Israeli policy. But the essay saves its hardest shot for the neoconservatives -- that group of pro-Israel ideologues, many of them Jewish, who steered the Bush administration toward the Iraq war. The neocons sought to transform the Middle East by overthrowing Hussein and spreading their brand of democracy to the region. They may have mistakenly believed they were furthering U.S. interests, the essay contends, but they were actually implementing an Israeli agenda. "Given the neoconservatives' devotion to Israel, their obsession with Iraq, and their influence in the Bush administration, it is not surprising that many Americans suspected that the war was designed to further Israeli interest."

Listening to Walt, you get the sense that he believes there is one correct and objective foreign policy that an enlightened elite would be able to agree upon if only those grubby ethnic interest groups were not out there playing politics. When I ask him about this, he denies holding such an ivory tower view. For him it's a simple issue: "Absent the pressure from the Israel lobby, I don't think we would have gone to war with Iraq. We don't use the word 'hijack' because that's not the way policy gets done. But it wouldn't have happened without that set of institutions and individuals who had been pushing it for some time."

Still, he doesn't seem to allow for the possibility that foreign policy in a pluralistic democracy is inevitably the product of a noisy clash of interests, or that the success of Israel's supporters may stem from the country's popularity here or from American revulsion over Palestinian suicide bombings. Or for that matter that American opposition to the prospect of Iran achieving a nuclear bomb has little to do with Israel and more to do with American fears of ayatollahs with nukes.

Iran may be worrisome, says Walt, but no more so than previous threats. "My belief is we would not be contemplating preventive war if we did not have a powerful domestic interest group pushing this issue. We have lived with a number of really odious regimes having nuclear weapons, because we understood that we could deter them effectively with the weapons at our disposal."

When Walt and Mearsheimer published their essay, they were deluged with hundreds of e-mails and phone calls. Walt says the reactions he's received to the essay have been positive by a ratio of 4 to 1. Some were unwelcome: White supremacist David Duke said the essay vindicated his views, and other fringe commentators have invoked the paper to justify their claims of an American Jewish conspiracy.

Walt strongly disavows these claims. "There's a long and despicable historical tradition in the Christian West that when bad things happen, you blame the Jews, and I understand why some Jewish Americans are very sensitive on this point because I know it has a historical basis. We did our best to make it clear that is not what we were saying, that we were not accusing people of disloyalty or being part of any kind of conspiracy, that we reject those sorts of arguments and find them reprehensible.

"But I still believe that these are issues we have to be able to talk about in a calm and serious way even when there are strong passions involved. This was an issue that had been the elephant in the room for a long time, and it needed to be discussed openly."

"OKAY, SO TWO JEWS ARE ABOUT TO BE SHOT BY A NAZI SS OFFICER, and he asks if they have any final remarks. One Jew raises his hand to speak, but the other one says to him, 'Stop it -- aren't we in enough trouble already?' Well I'm not afraid of raising my hand."

The man raising his hand is Michael Oren, an American-born Israeli historian. He moved from New Jersey to Jerusalem in the late 1970s, served in the Israeli army, got his PhD from Hebrew University. He has written a bestseller, Six Days of War, is completing a history of U.S. engagement with the Holy Land and is spending the semester teaching at Harvard and Yale. He was also one of the first to condemn the Israel lobby essay in a piece published in the New Republic. Across the table at Bartley's, a Cambridge hamburger haven, is Shai Feldman, a fifth-generation Israeli who was head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, Israel's premier strategic think tank, before taking over as director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. Feldman has known Walt and Mearsheimer for more than two decades -- Walt helped hold up the ceremonial chuppah at Feldman's wedding -- and he has shied away from publicly attacking the essay, even though he finds it misguided and misinformed.

Oren's a bit to the right of center, and Feldman's a bit to the left, but they're both snugly in the Israeli mainstream. Which means they love to argue.

Feldman says he speaks more out of sorrow than anger about where his two friends may have gone wrong in their essay.

"Look, Israel didn't mobilize anybody over Iraq, and associating Israel with the neocons on this issue is preposterous," he says, helping himself to a french fry. "Israel didn't see Iraq as a danger, and, what's more, it had no interest in pushing the Bush administration's democracy agenda." The only prominent Israeli to champion that idea, says Feldman, is former cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, author of The Case for Democracy , a book that President Bush read and honored by inviting Sharansky to the White House to talk about it. But Sharansky's a lone wolf, says Feldman. "Believe me, that book has more readers in Washington than in Jerusalem."

So if Israel wasn't pushing directly for an invasion of Iraq, what about its American lobbyists?

AIPAC took no official position on the merits of going to war in Iraq, and staff members insist they did not lobby in favor of the 2002 war resolution. But, like the Israeli government, once it was clear that the Bush administration was determined to go to war, AIPAC cheered from the sidelines, bestowing sustained ovations on an array of administration officials at its April 2003 annual conference and on Bush himself when he attended the following year.

Oren, who has studied the subject for years, believes the animosity toward the Israel lobby goes deeper than policy. He even raises the possibility that Walt and Mearsheimer are anti-Semites.

"You have to differentiate between them and their argument," Feldman replies. "They're not anti-Semites even if they have slid into an anti-Semitic argument. I think it all comes from their failure to prevent the war on Iraq."

Oren: "So they come up with this truly unique notion of blaming the Jews!"

Oren sees the essay as an evil that needs to be condemned. But Feldman argues that "the ties between Israel and the United States are so robust this essay won't damage them. And to make into martyrs a couple of academics with a lousy paper would only prove their point."

What becomes clear after a while is that the differences between Feldman and Oren aren't between left and right, but between a longtime Israeli and a newcomer. "In the '50s when Israel was precarious, things might have looked different," says Feldman. "But today Israel is strong, and people can ask questions that are considered heretical here. To portray Israel as a leaf hanging in the wind is almost to say it has not succeeded."

Oren on the other hand is a first-generation immigrant who used to get chased home from school in West Orange, N.J., because he was Jewish. His Israel is more

slender and endangered and needs to be constantly vigilant, despite having one of the world's strongest armies.

"All these tanks and planes -- you couldn't use them against suicide bombers," says Oren. "Even now the president of Iran talks about wiping Israel off the map. We're still vulnerable."

SOME OF THE ANGRIEST RESPONSES TO WALT AND MEARSHEIMER COME FROM AMERICAN JEWS who are singled out in the essay as members of the lobby. Douglas Feith, a former Pentagon official and neoconservative thinker who was a strong advocate for the Iraq war, says he's furious that the essay suggests he supported the war because it helped Israel's interests rather than those of the United States.

Then there is Dennis Ross, chief Middle East peace negotiator in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, an American Jew who is deeply committed to Israel's survival yet also believes in the legitimacy of a Palestinian state. Ross was the point man for the ill-fated Camp David peace summit in July 2000, in which Clinton failed to achieve a breakthrough with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Arafat. These days he's counselor and distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, one of the think tanks Walt and Mearsheimer describe as part of the Israel lobby.

Echoing Feldman and Oren, Ross insists that the essay is wrong to claim Israel had pushed for war in Iraq. If anything, the Israelis feared such a war would divert attention and resources from the Middle East's real danger -- Iran. Some Israelis even warned that toppling Hussein would lead to chaos in Iraq that would make the neighboring Iranians stronger. Which is, more or less, what has happened.

"It might have been better if they had gotten their facts straight," says Ross of Walt and Mearsheimer. "I don't say they're anti-Semitic, just that they're ignorant."

But it's more than that. Ross devoted a large chunk of his career to trying to broker peace in the Middle East. He doesn't like being branded as part of anyone's lobby and resents being lumped together with neocons like Feith, a longtime critic. "I would be dishonest if I said it didn't make me angry," Ross says. "It's so fallacious, and it will be used by those who want to say that American policy is somehow distorted and perverted."

IT'S A TUESDAY IN EARLY MARCH, and there are 5,000 people jammed at dining tables in the Washington Convention Center for AIPAC's annual gathering, including more than 50 senators and 100 House members and dozens of administration officials. Vice President Cheney gives a keynote address, as does John Bolton, the administration's fire-breathing ambassador to the United Nations. The Israeli election is coming up in a few days, and the leaders of the three major parties all appear via satellite hookup, including Ehud Olmert, who begins with a politician's prayer of thanksgiving: "Thank God we have you; thank God we have AIPAC."

The opening video montage begins with Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip; then shows angry crowds of Palestinians burning and looting the abandoned settlements; then the electoral triumph of the radical Islamist group Hamas; then mayhem in Iraq; images of bin Laden; a parade of terror bombings in London, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan and, finally, Israel; then a reference to the stroke that felled prime minister Sharon; then the harangue of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who cries that "Israel must be wiped off the map!" Violence, flames, angry dark-skinned young Muslims.

The message seems to be: A new Holocaust? It could happen.

DAVID BEN-GURION NEVER GOT TO SEE ROOSEVELT, but that didn't stop him from pressing ahead with his lifelong mission. After he left the United States in 1942, he returned to Palestine and oversaw the creation of the Jewish state. He became its first prime minister in 1948. Ben-Gurion declared Israel's independence at 6 p.m. Washington time on May 14. Eleven minutes later, the United States became the first nation to recognize the new state.

Ben-Gurion oversaw the building of Israel's powerful defense establishment, mixed economy and quarrelsome political system. But, for all his achievements, he suggested one simple way to measure a country's success that might be instructive to Walt and Mearsheimer, as well as to their critics. "The test of democracy," he wrote, "is freedom of criticism."

Or, as Morris Amitay put it when our interview ended: "It's been nice talking to you, and I look forward to sending a very critical letter to the editor after your article appears."

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