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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next we'll continue our conversations on the influence of supporters of Israel. We heard yesterday from two scholars who say the Israel lobby is far too powerful in Washington. They say it has distorted U.S. policy again and again and even contributed to starting the war in Iraq.

Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer provoked widespread criticism with a paper earlier this year. Those responding include Dennis Ross, a Middle East envoy in the first Bush administration, then in the Clinton administration. He's now with the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy.

Ross downplayed the Israel lobby's power in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine.

Mr. DENNIS ROSS (Washington Institute for Near-East Policy): I can tell you that from an administration standpoint, through two administrations, we never took a step because we felt the quote "lobby" was insisting we do it. We never shied away from taking one because we knew they were against it.

INSKEEP: Tell me something that you did that - and let's say the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, to name one huge organization that's seen as part of the Israel lobby - something you did that they strongly, strongly opposed.

Mr. ROSS: I'll give you an example. In 1990, the Israeli government wanted loan guarantees, and the lobby was determined to push for the loan guarantees without condition. It was after the first Gulf War. And the first Bush administration made the decision that we would not provide those loan guarantees unless, in fact, there was a freeze on settlement activity. In the end, when it went ahead with loan guarantees, it did it on the basis of an understanding with Israel which the administration felt was appropriate. So it wasn't the lobby that determined what the administration did. That was from the first Bush administration.

In the Clinton administration, I can assure you that the - when we put on the table a proposal that would have divided East Jerusalem, that was not something that the Israeli government wanted. In the end they were prepared to accept it if it was going to produce an agreement.

INSKEEP: When you were special envoy to the Middle East, would APEC, the main Israeli-American lobby group, would they call you up, ask for meetings?

Mr. ROSS: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Did you meet them?

Mr. ROSS: On occasion. But I would also see American groups as well. But the Mearsheimer-Walt assumption is that they distort American policy so that it doesn't serve our interests. And I would suggest what's wrong with their thesis is not that APEC has influence. What's wrong with their thesis is that they exaggerate the character that they influence and they somehow imply that it leads to a cost for American foreign policy. I don't see that.

Where its weight is mostly felt is on the Congress. Much more so than in the executive branch.

INSKEEP: What is APEC's influence on the Congress?

Mr. ROSS: I think they have considerable influence in terms of education. They bring lots of Congressional people to Israel. They are active in terms of individual races. There is certainly...

INSKEEP: Campaign contributions and that sort of thing?

Mr. ROSS: Yeah. I mean, they - its pretty clear that they are a significant force on the Hill. They're obviously not the only force on the Hill, but they're a significant force on the Hill, and that shouldn't be underestimated.

INSKEEP: Why do you think it is that large swaths of the world look at U.S. policy toward Israel and say the U.S. is just overly devoted to Israel, has overlooked so many things that in the point of view of many Arabs are terrible things that Israelis have done, that this is a huge liability for the United States.

Mr. ROSS: Sure. Well, part of the reason is because there isn't anybody else in the world who has consistently supports the Israelis as we do. And one of the reasons there isn't the same kind of consistent support is because the other countries that might provide that support know that we'll do it. And because they know that we'll do it they have the luxury of not doing it. And if they think it curries favor with some in the Middle East, then why not?

INSKEEP: Whatever you think of U.S. support of Israel, is it not a liability that the United States has allowed itself to be so closely associated with Israel over time as a major supporter, a liability in the Arab world?

Mr. ROSS: You know, I basically don't think so, for the following reason. When Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, he said, you know, I could fight Israel but I can't fight the United States. When Hafez al-Assad focused on the United States, he focused on the United States because he said, no way to get my territory back unless I work through the United States.

INSKEEP: You're talking about Egypt and Syria, which both lost territory in the '67 war.

Mr. ROSS: That's right. The fact that the United States has a special relationship with Israel means that the United States also has influence with Israel, and others don't have it. So the U.S. having a special relationship with Israel is a benefit at times, because no one else is seen as having the influence, and it's a detriment at times, because many in that part of the world aren't necessarily going to like it.

If tomorrow Israel wasn't there, would we still have a problem with al-Qaida? With the Jihadists? You bet. They object to who we are. What needs to govern us is what we think is right. And if we're doing what we think is right, in the end you're going to find that you have a relationship that works with both sides.

INSKEEP: Dennis Ross, former U.S. envoy to the Middle East. Thanks very much for coming by.

Mr. ROSS: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Ross is responding to a critique of the Israel lobby put forth the by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, and you can hear them, and read them, at npr.org.

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