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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 November 2007, 10:31 GMT
Text: Mearsheimer and Walt interview
US academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt speak to the BBC News Website about their controversial new book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.

What do you think of the way your book was received in the US?

Stephen Walt: It is striking and it is probably something one would predict, having read our book, that virtually all of the mainstream reviews in the United States have been either somewhat negative or harshly negative.

And many have included many personal attacks on us - not all but the vast majority. For example, the Washington Post has run four separate pieces on our book and three of the four are harshly negative, and a couple of them raise the anti-Semitism charge quite explicitly - that's just the Washington Post.

But you would also predict from the book that the reviews outside the United States would be much better. There have been, I think, about eight or nine reviews now in the United Kingdom and virtually all of them are very positive...

Again, this in some way confirms our basic argument that it's much easier to talk about this subject, and that we get a much fairer hearing outside the United States than we do inside the US - which does not surprise us at all.

John Mearsheimer: There is no question that the book has been savaged in the mainstream media in the United States, which is to be expected. But one should also recognize that we have travelled widely in the United States to talk about the book, and everywhere we go, we find that the audiences are clearly on our side, although there are always a few people at each event who harshly criticise us.

Moreover, we have received a huge number of e-mails, letters, and phone calls since the original article appeared in March 2006 and I would estimate that 80% of them are supportive. There is even widespread support for our views in policy-making circles in Washington...

It is worth noting that we have received lots of excellent reviews from readers on I believe we now have 97 reviews and 63 of them are 5-star reviews, which is the best review a book can get. The bottom line is that I think a huge number of Americans agree with what we have to say.

Were you not surprised by the accusations of anti-Semitism? In the book - knowing perhaps that you were on thin ice - you strongly condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

John Mearsheimer: We went out of our way to make our arguments perfectly clear, so that they would not be misunderstood. Nevertheless they have been misrepresented time after time in the United States.

But that is not because we are on thin ice, it's because the arguments of the other side are so weak. They can't beat us with facts and logic, so they misrepresent our arguments and then attack the arguments that we did not make.

Do you not play down the determination of Israel's enemies in the book? You portray them as people who can be reasoned with. Isn't that a rosy view?

John Mearsheimer: We made it clear in the book that Israel has enemies. But there are ways that Israel can deal with most of those enemies and significantly improve its security situation.

Syria would be a good example. In 2000, the Israelis and the Syrians came very close to cutting a deal where Syria would get back the Golan Heights and in return it would make peace with Israel, which would include a Syrian agreement to end its support of Hezbollah and Hamas.

However, it was the Israelis who foolishly walked away from the deal, not the Syrians. Israel certainly has some enemies, but most of those enemies could be effectively dealt with if the Israelis pursued different policies than the ones they're now pursuing.

Stephen Walt: I would add that none of those enemies poses an existential threat to Israel at present. Israel has the strongest military in the region, and it has several hundred nuclear weapons of its own. Israel is not going out of business, and we think that's a wonderful thing.

To the extent that Israel does face threats, like from say Hamas or Hezbollah, those are threats that do not jeopardise Israel's existence. They don't have the capabilities to threaten Israel in that way.

And even if a country like Iran were some day down the road to have nuclear weapons, it could not threaten Israel's existence without committing national suicide. So yes, Israel has security problems but they are manageable ones."

What about Iran? Many argue that it has lied about its nuclear program, and the only way to deal with it is to play hardball. Not all of those who hold this view are susceptible to the US Israel lobby.

John Mearsheimer: First of all, we do not deny that the possibility Iran might acquire nuclear weapons is a problem. The question is: how best to address that problem? With regard to the point that Iran has lied to the US and the international community, as you know states sometimes lie.

And in fact, the Israelis lied to the United States about their nuclear program in the 1960s. So it is not altogether surprising that there is evidence that Iran has lied, and the United States and this international community should take that into account when they deal with Iran.

With regard to your point that the United States and other countries should play hardball with Iran, that strategy effectively means keeping the military option on the table. However, as long as that option remains on the table, you are in effect giving the Iranians powerful incentives to acquire nuclear weapons of their own...

The best way, we argue, to deal with Iran's leaders is to try to negotiate with them and try to work out a modus vivendi where they develop a nuclear capability but not a nuclear weapons capability. And to be more specific, the best way to achieve that outcome is to take the military threat off the table.

Many would agree that the Bush administration has made mistakes in Iraq. But why attribute those mistakes to the influence of a lobby? They could have been honest mistakes, or the result of incompetent planning.

Stephen Walt: There have obviously been many mistakes made and some elements could be attributed to incompetence. We do not let the Bush administration off the hook at all. We point out that the final decision to go to war in Iraq was made by President Bush, and he obviously deserves his share of the blame.

But Bush did not think this idea up by himself. In fact, the entire idea of toppling Saddam was originally conceived by the neoconservatives, who are a key component of the Israel lobby.

The lobby has also pushed the United States to adopt a confrontational policy towards Syria, Iran, and Israel's other enemies. Instead of focusing on defeating Al Qaeda and working in an even-handed way to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -which would make Bin Laden's message less attractive - the United States went after Iraq instead and gave Israel a free hand towards the Palestinians.

And the results have been a complete failure, and a disaster for the United States and Israel alike.

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