For the past few weeks a sometimes comic debate has been simmering in the American press, focused on the question of whether there is an Israeli lobby and, if so, just how powerful it is.

I would have thought that to ask whether there's an Israeli lobby here is a bit like asking whether there's a Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor or a White House located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. The late Steve Smith, brother-in-law of Teddy Kennedy, and a powerful figure in the Democratic Party for several decades, liked to tell the story of how a group of four Jewish businessmen got together $2 million in cash and gave it to Harry Truman when he was in desperate need of money during his presidential campaign in 1948. Truman went on to become president and to express his gratitude to his Zionist backers.

Since those days, the Democratic Party has long been hospitable to, and supported by, rich Zionists. In 2002, for example, Haim Saban, the Israel-American who funds the Saban Center at the Brooking Institute and is a big contributor to AIPAC, gave $12.3 million to the Democratic Party. In 2001, the magazine Mother Jones listed on its website the 400 leading contributors to the 2000 national elections. Seven of the first 10 were Jewish, as were 12 of the top 20, and 125 of the top 250. Given this, all prudent candidates have gone to amazing lengths to satisfy their demands.

None of this history is particularly controversial, and there have been plenty of well-documented accounts of the activities of the Israel Lobby down the years, from Alfred Lilienthal's 1978 study, The Zionist Connection, to former U.S. Rep. Paul Findley's 1985 book, "They Dare To Speak Out" to "Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship," written by my brother and sister-in-law, Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, and published in 1991.

Three years ago, Jeffrey St. Clair and I published a collection of 18 essays called The Politics of Anti-Semitism, no less than four of which were incisive discussions of the Israel lobby. Kathy and Bill Christison, former CIA analysts, reviewed the matter of dual loyalty, with particular reference to the so-called neo-cons, alternately advising an Israeli prime minister and an American president.

Most vividly of all in our book, a congressional aide, writing pseudonymously under the name George Sutherland, contributed a savagely funny essay called "Our Vichy Congress." "As year chases year," Sutherland wrote, "the lobby's power to influence Congress on any issue of importance to Israel grows inexorably stronger . Israel's strategy of using its influence on the American political system to turn the U.S. national security apparatus into its own personal attack dog -- or Golem -- has alienated the United States from much of the Third World, has worsened U.S. ties to Europe amid rancorous insinuations of anti-Semitism, and makes the United States a hated bully."

So it can scarcely be said that there had been silence here about the Israel Lobby until two respectable professors, John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, the former from the University of Chicago and the latter from Harvard, wrote their paper "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," published in longer form by the Kennedy School at Harvard (which has since disowned it) and, after it had been rejected by the Atlantic Monthly (which originally commissioned it), in shorter form by the London Review of Books.

In fact, the significance of this essay rests entirely on the provenance of the authors, from two of the premier academic institutions of the United States. Neither of them have any tincture of radicalism. After the paper was published in shortened form in the London Review of Books, there was a slightly stunned silence, broken by the screams of America's most manic Zionist, Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard, who did Mearsheimer and Walt the great favor of thrusting their paper into the headlines. Dershowitz managed this by his usual volleys of hysterical invective, investing the paper with the fearsome allure of that famous anti-Semitic tract, a forgery of the Czarist police, entitled "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." The Mearsheimer-Walt essay was Nazi-like, Dershowitz howled, a classic case of conspiracy-mongering, in which a small band of Zionists were accused of steering the Ship of Empire onto the rocks.

In fact, the paper by Mearsheimer and Walt is extremely dull. The long version runs to 81 pages, no less than 40 pages of which are footnotes. I settled down to read it with eager anticipation but soon found myself looking hopefully for the end. There's nothing in the paper that any moderately well-read student of the topic wouldn't have known long ago, but the paper has the merit of stating rather blandly some home truths that are somehow still regarded as too dangerous to state publicly in respectable circles in the United States.

After Dershowitz came other vulgar outbursts, such as from Eliot Cohen in the Washington Post. These attacks basically reiterated Dershowitz's essential theme: There is no such thing as the Israel lobby, and those asserting its existence are by definition anti-Semitic.

This method of assault at least has the advantage of being funny, (a) because there obviously is a Lobby -- as noted above and (b) because Mearsheimer and Walt aren't anti-Semites any more than 99.9 percent of others identifying the Lobby and criticizing its role. Partly as a reaction to Dershowitz and Cohen, the Washington Post and New York Times have now run a few pieces politely pointing out that the Israel Lobby has indeed exercised a chilling effect on the rational discussion of U.S. foreign policy. The tide is turning slightly.

Meanwhile, mostly on the left, there has been an altogether different debate, over the actual weight of the Lobby in the deliberations of those running the American Empire. This debate was rather amusingly summed up by the Israeli writer Yuri Avneri, a former Knesset member:

"I think that both sides are right (and hope to be right, myself, too). The findings of the two professors are right to the last detail. Every senator and congressman knows that criticizing the Israeli government is political suicide. . If the Israeli government wanted a law tomorrow annulling the Ten Commandments, 95 U.S. senators (at least) would sign the bill forthwith .

"The question, therefore, is not whether the two professors are right in their findings. The question is what conclusions can be drawn from them. Let's take the Iraq affair. Who is the dog? Who the tail? . The lesson of the Iraq affair is that the American-Israeli connection is strongest when it seems that American interests and Israeli interests are one (irrespective of whether that is really the case in the long run). The United States uses Israel to dominate the Middle East, Israel uses the United States to dominate Palestine."

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2006 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.