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ISR Issue 49, SeptemberOctober 2006
This is the first of a regular bi-monthly column
The watchdog bites
By PHIL GASPER
Israel's brutal attacks on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and on Lebanon have resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths, hundreds of thousands of refugees, and billions of dollars of damage to vital infrastructure. In both cases the Olmert government used attacks on Israeli military targets and the seizure of Israeli soldiers as a pretext to launch its well-planned offensives, with the aim of destroying Hamas-the elected government of the Palestinian Authority-and Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese Shiite organization. And in both cases, Israel was fulfilling its longstanding role as Washington's watchdog in the region-pursuing its own plans for regional dominance while simultaneously attacking threats to U.S. control of the wider Middle East, with scant regard for the cost in Arab lives.
Israel's role as a U.S. watchdog was spelled out in the influential Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz in 1951, only three years after the Jewish state was created:
Israel is to become the watchdog. There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive policy towards the Arab states when this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the U.S. and Britain. But, if for any reasons the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied upon to punish one or several neighboring states whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible.Recent events fit this pattern. The Bush administration has openly backed the Israeli attacks. It cheered on the assault on Gaza and the months of siege and assassinations that preceded it. After Israel expanded its war into Lebanon, Washington refused to call for a ceasefire and instead speeded up delivery of jet fuel and precision-guided bombs to the Israelis. The Washington Post reported, “For the United States, the broader goal is to strangle the axis of Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran, which the Bush administration believes is pooling resources to change the strategic playing field in the Middle East, U.S. officials say.” According to a former senior administration official, Bush wanted to take the “opportunity to really grind down Hezbollah … even if there are other serious consequences that will have to be managed.”
The U.S. occupation of Iraq has turned into a disaster for the Bush administration. Not only is it unable to defeat the largely Sunni resistance, it has been forced to accept a majority Shiite government, with close ties to the Iranian regime. Iran's position has thus been strengthened by the removal of its long-time adversary Saddam Hussein, and Washington would like nothing more than to bring about “regime change” in Tehran as it did in Baghdad. That is why the Bush administration has tried to create an international crisis over Iran's nuclear program and the Pentagon has drawn up plans for a military attack on the country's nuclear facilities. But leading U.S. military figures are worried that such an attack would backfire and strengthen the Ahmadinejad government.
That is why Washington is so enthusiastic about Israel's attack on Gaza and, especially, Lebanon. Iran, along with Syria, is Hezbollah's main backer. The Iranian government also rushed money to Hamas after the U.S. and the European Union cut their funding to the Palestinian Authority earlier in the year. The Bush administration, together with leading figures in the Democratic Party, hope that Israel's onslaught will thus indirectly weaken Iran and strengthen U.S. imperialism in the region, whatever the cost in innocent lives. It's necessary to weaken Hezbollah and Hamas and deprive Iran of allies who could hit back against the U.S. or Israel in the event of a U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran-or so the argument goes.
Israel's role as a protector of imperialist interests has its roots in the ideology of the Zionist movement that created it. From its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, Zionism promoted its goal of a Jewish state as a way of securing the interests of the world's major powers. Theodore Herzl, the movement's founder, wrote that such a state in the Middle East would be “a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” In other words, the proposed state would be part of the system of colonial domination. Herzl compared himself to Cecil Rhodes, the most prominent representative of British imperialism in southern Africa.
Before the First World War, Herzl and other Zionists approached the German kaiser and the Russian tsar, among others, offering to protect their interests in the Middle East. But when it became clear towards the end of the war that Britain would control Palestine, the area the Zionists wanted to colonize, their focus shifted. The Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann promised, “A Jewish Palestine would be a safeguard to England, in particular in respect to the Suez Canal.” The argument was attractive to the British ruling class. The war had underlined the importance of the Middle East, which guarded the sea routes to the Far East and contained the highly profitable and strategically vital Persian oilfields. In November 1917, the British foreign minister Lord Balfour (a notorious anti-Semite) issued a declaration pledging his government's support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
After the war, Britain was granted a colonial “mandate” to rule Palestine by the League of Nations. Sir Ronald Storrs, the British governor of Jerusalem in the early 1920s, wrote that a Jewish homeland in Palestine would be “for England a 'little loyal Jewish Ulster' in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”-a reference to Britain's creation of a separate Protestant majority Northern Ireland in order to maintain its dominance over the rest of Ireland. From the 1920s onwards, the British used the Jewish settlers permitted to immigrate to Palestine to help suppress mass Arab demonstrations against landlessness and unemployment, and for Palestinian independence, including a massive general strike in 1936.
The Second World War brought the barbarity of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe. Zionism, which had previously only been accepted by a minority, became the majority view among Jews. The war also greatly weakened Britain, which was forced to withdraw from Palestine. With the support of the major postwar powers in the United Nations, including the U.S. and the USSR, both of which were trying to expand their influence in the region, the Zionists declared their own state. But Israel was born on the basis of its own enormous crime against humanity-brutal massacres and the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinian Arabs in 1948, which resulted in the destruction of hundreds of Arab villages.
Israel also learned the lesson in 1948 of portraying its own aggression as acts of self-defense against hostile neighbors. But it was only after Israel had launched its attack on the Palestinians that other Arab countries mobilized a token force, largely in an effort to mollify their own populations rather than as a serious military threat. The Arab states did nothing to reverse the expulsion of Palestinians and by the time the 1948 War ended, the Zionists were in control of 78 percent of historic Palestine.
In his diary, Moshe Sharett, Israeli prime minister in the 1950s, admitted that the Israeli political and military leadership never believed in any Arab danger to Israel. Rather, Israel sought to maneuver the Arab states into military confrontations that the Zionist leadership was certain of winning so Israel could destabilize Arab regimes and occupy more territory. Israel's aim has been to “dismember the Arab world, defeat the Arab national movement and create puppet regimes under regional Israeli power” and “to modify the balance of power in the region radically, transforming Israel into the major power in the Middle East.”
When Israel was created, there was some concern in the U.S. that it might be drawn into the Soviet orbit, but it soon gravitated towards the wealthier Western powers. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Israel was closest to France, fighting its own bloody colonial wars in Vietnam and Algeria at the time. But with the rise of Arab nationalism in opposition to Western domination of the region, the U.S. began to regard Israel as a crucial ally. A 1958 National Security Council document argued that Washington should “support Israel as the only strong pro-West power left in the Near East.”
The 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel easily defeated its Arab neighbors and conquered more Arab territory, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was the turning point for the United States. By the early 1970s, U.S. economic and military aid to Israel had skyrocketed, amounting since then on a conservative estimate to almost $100 billion. About one-third of the entire U.S. foreign aid budget goes to an economically advanced country of only six million people. As a result, Israel has the highest per capita military expenditure in the world and possesses the most advanced military technology. It is also the only nuclear power in the Middle East.
The value of this investment was explained by right-wing Democratic senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson in 1973, who pointed out that Israel had “served to inhibit and contain those irresponsible and radical elements in certain Arab states, who, were they free to do so, would pose a grave threat indeed to our principle sources of petroleum in the Persian Gulf.” Former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig reportedly called Israel “the largest American aircraft carrier in the world.” More recently, the Israeli analyst Yoram Ettinger has argued, “Without Israel, the U.S. would have been forced to deploy tens of thousands of American troops in the eastern Mediterranean Basin, at a cost of billions of dollars a year.” Instead, the U.S. has backed Israel's repression of the Palestinians and its frequent attacks on its neighbors, including the 1982 invasion and occupation of Lebanon, which killed 20,000.
But Israel has not only defended the interests of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. As Lance Selfa notes, over the past half century “every pro-U.S. repressive dictatorship in the world has received some kind of overt or covert Israeli aid,” including apartheid South Africa, every murderous military regime in Latin America, and the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia during its genocidal occupation of East Timor. Washington “funnels weapons and aid through Israel when it wants to evade congressional bans on aid to repressive regimes.” This history refutes the idea, popular among some on the Left, that the U.S. supports Israel because of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. In fact, U.S. political and economic elites back Israel because they see this as a way of promoting their own interests.
Whether or not the current round of U.S.-Israeli aggression will succeed in achieving Washington's and Tel Aviv's goals, however, is another question. Within a few days of the attack on Lebanon it was becoming clear that Hezbollah was a more formidable foe than the Olmert government had expected and that the war was increasing Hezbollah's support. The danger is that failure in Lebanon may lead Bush and Olmert to expand the conflict even further, with all the horrific consequences that would entail. The only way to bring real peace and stability is to oppose Washington's support for Israeli violence, and to support justice for the long suffering people of Palestine and Lebanon.
Phil Gasper teaches at Notre Dame de Namur University in California. He is editor of The Communist Manifesto: A Roadmap to History's Most Important Political Document (Haymarket Books, 2005), a contributor to The Struggle for Palestine (Haymarket Books, 2002), and The Encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Lynne Reinner, forthcoming).