Bizzare Mearsheimer and Walt Self-Defense:

It will probably be some time before I get around to reading the new “Israel Lobby” book, but the book’s web page links to a response to critics by Mearsheimer and Walt written late last year. The defense makes some reasonable points, especially with regard to some of their more emotive critics, but in general reflects M & W’s unwillingness to give even an inch to their critics, or to correct even their most egregious misstatements.

The defense also reflects the same general blindness regarding the scope and power of the “Israel Lobby” as in their original paper. In particular, M & W assume that not only are all neonconservatives part of what they call the Israel Lobby, but, truly odiously, they clearly believe that any position taken by any neoconservative with regard to the Middle East, including neoconservatives serving in the Bush Administration, reflects solely or primarily his or her desire to help Israel (e.g., “we said that it was groups in the lobby, and especially a number of prominent neoconservatives, that played key
roles in driving the decision for war”). Yet, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, M & W fail to show how the neocons’ aggressive attitude toward Iraq and Saddam Hussein differs in any material way from their aggressive attitude toward every other perceived American enemy (or, in the case of Yugoslavia, even some non-enemies) for the past thirty-five years. I’m still waiting for the explanation of how neocon support for U.S. military action against Serbia was meant to serve Israel’s interest, as if intervening on behalf of Serbian Muslims and the formerly generally pro-Nazi Croats was high on the pro-Israel agenda. Or are neoconservatives only acting as part of the “Israel Lobby” when it suits M & W’s thesis?

At some points, M & W’s defense of their position, even on tangential matters, is simply risible, to wit:

The myth that we referred to is the famous claim that the Palestinians voluntarily fled from Palestine and that they did so because their leaders in institutions like the Arab Higher Committee asked them to leave. The leaders’ alleged aim in ordering this flight was to clear the way for the attacking Arab
militaries to destroy the fledging Jewish state. Once that task was completed, the
Palestinians would be able to return to their homeland…. No serious scholar accepts it… To be sure, some Arab commanders did instruct Palestinian civilians to evacuate their homes during the fighting, either to make sure that they did not get caught in a firefight or to [protect them from Israeli forces]…. However, [orders of this kind] are not related to the myth of a voluntary or elite-directed evacuation that we discussed in our article. [I’ve warned of ellipses before, not to mention paraphrasing, so you can check the original yourself, I’m not distorting the meaning here.]

So what is the difference between ordering Palestinians to flee “to clear the way for the attacking Arab militaries to destroy the fledging Jewish state” and ordering Palestinians to flee to “make sure they did not get caught in a firefight”? How would they have gotten “caught in a firefight” except via the war launched by the Arabs against the new Israeli state? And how is the latter concession by M & W not evidence supporting the purported “myth” of an elite-directed evacuation?

When authors have to engage in such (il)logical somersaults to avoid conceding that they merely overstated their point on a tangential issue, one has to wonder to what extent they have become so wedded to defending every minor detail of their thesis that they have no intention or desire to make their work academically respectable.

UPDATE: Courtesy of Google books, you can see precisely what Israeli historian Benny Morris says about the issue. According to M & W, Morris agree with them, at least in his historical work on this issue. As you can see, this is false. Morris writes, for example, “starting in December 1947, Arab officers ordered the complete evacuation of specific villages in certain areas, lest the inhabitants ‘treacherously’ acquiesce in Israeli military rule or hamper Arab military deployments.” This is a far cry from M & W’s claim that there is a historical consensus, joined by Morris, that Arab leaders only ordered the population to flee to avoid a (looming?) crossfire or to forestall massacres. Morris, in fact, is clearly stating that Arab officers ordered Arab civilians to flee to prevent them from living peacefully under Israeli rule.

FURTHER UPDATE: Some commentors are arguing that the “myth” referred to by M&W is not that Arab leaders urged the local Arab population of Palestine to leave, but their motives in doing so. This interpretation is belied by what M & W wrote in the original paper: “Israeli officials have long claimed that the Arabs fled because their leaders told them to, but careful scholarship (much of it by Israeli historians like Morris) have demolished this myth. In fact, most Arab leaders urged the Palestinian population to stay home, but fear of violent death at the hands of Zionist forces led most of them to flee.” The alleged myth, then, is clearly that “the Arabs fled because their leaders told them to,” which M & W now acknowledge is true to some extent. (Not to mention that part of the alleged “myth” has always been that part of the propaganda effort by Arab leaders urging the local Arabs to flee is that they spread lurid and generally false propaganda about “Zionist massacres”; there is no contradiction between saying that the Arabs left because their leaders wanted them to, and saying they left because they feared for their lives, if the fear itself was stoked by their leaders.) Instead of conceding the point, which they could have done while still maintaining that this was not the main factor causing the Arabs to flee, M & W engage in casuistry.