Back to home page
ISR Issue 52, MarchApril 2007
Israel, the “lobby,” and the United States
The watchdog, not the master
By SHERRY WOLF
THE DEBATE about the relationship between Israel and the U.S, in particular about the power of the Israel lobby, has been raging since spring 2006 when two respected academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, published a paper, “The Israel lobby and U.S. foreign policy.” This led to a flood of articles, a well-publicized debate at Cooper Union in New York, and now a book by James Petras, The Power of Israel in the United States.
Mearsheimer and Walt are University of Chicago and Harvard political scientists who represent the “realist” school of American foreign policy; that is, they advocate policies they believe are in the best interests of the U.S. ruling class. Their paper is well researched and has—despite or perhaps as a result of the Israel lobby’s attacks—forced an important argument about the U.S.-Israel relationship into the mainstream. They write:
This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the U.S. been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the U.S. provides.Despite some valid arguments Mearsheimer and Walt make about the role of the pro-Israel lobby in squelching debate about U.S.-Israel relations, their central contention, that an all-powerful lobby dictates U.S. policies in the Middle East that run counter to the interests of the United States, must be rejected. This “tail wags the dog” argument reverses the dynamic of the relationship between the United States (the dog) and Israel (the tail), and flies in the face of any logical assessment of how the United States determines its own foreign policy. It is simply not credible to argue that the American Empire is being hoodwinked into acting against its own interests by the Israeli state in cahoots with a powerful lobby in Washington and their latest converts to Zionism, evangelical Christians. Multibillion-dollar yearly aid to Israel, military intelligence, political cover for Israel’s ongoing terror against the Palestinians, and America’s pugnacious Middle East policies all serve U.S. imperial interests. Israel is the watchdog, not the master.
Instead, the overall thrust of U.S. policy in the region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the “Israel Lobby.” Other special interest groups have managed to skew U.S. foreign policy in directions they favored, but no lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical.1
However, the right-wing attacks on the authors and their argument as anti-Semitic must be rejected outright as attempts to silence any debate about the U.S-Israel relationship and Israel’s brutal policies toward Palestinians and Arabs throughout the region. Many mainstream newspapers weighed in on the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis denouncing it as anti-Semitic. In a typical diatribe, the Washington Post published the following under the headline, “Yes, it’s anti-Semitic”:
If by anti-Semitism one means obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews; if one accuses them of disloyalty, subversion or treachery, of having occult powers and of participating in secret combinations that manipulate institutions and governments; if one systematically selects everything unfair, ugly or wrong about Jews as individuals or a group and equally systematically suppresses any exculpatory information—why, yes, this paper is anti-Semitic.2But nowhere in their paper do Mearsheimer and Walt attack Jews as a group; in fact, they repeatedly point out the differences among Jews in their attitudes toward Israel, citing for example that 36 percent of American Jews are “either ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ emotionally tied to Israel.”
The same, disturbingly, cannot be said of the latest book to weigh in on the debate by left-wing professor and writer, James Petras. The Power of Israel pulls a thread of the argument about the disproportionate power of what he consistently refers to as the “Jewish Lobby,” and it unravels into a curious obsession with who is and is not a Jew on Capitol Hill, with unsubstantiated contentions such as, “[Madeline] Albright…benefited from her newly-discovered Jewish ancestry.”3 He goes on to say that the wealth of American Jews is a root cause of the relationship, citing for example, “60 percent of Democratic Party funding and 35 percent of Republican Party funding comes from pro-Israeli Jews.”4 Petras ends up dismissing anti-Semitism and argues that “Jews are the most influential ethnic group.”5
Many assertions that Mearsheimer and Walt make about Israel and the lobby are accurate and undeniable. Israel is by far the largest recipient of U.S. military and financial aid, receiving $3 billion a year in grants and billions more in loan guarantees. In grants alone, it averages out to a whopping $500-a-year per-capita subsidy to Israel.
The “lobby,” as Mearsheimer and Walt explain, is “shorthand for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.” The prestige in official Washington and deep pockets of groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are real. Their staffers do draft position papers for some members of Congress, they have used their weight to influence policy—as all lobbyists attempt to do—and they have unleashed torrents of propaganda to support or condemn people and ideas that aid or impede their cause. The ongoing character assaults against the authors and the fact that even Harvard places a disclaimer on its own research paper are ample evidence of this. The pro-Zionist organizations in the United States spend a great deal of time and money to cow into submission anyone who criticizes Israel, accusing anyone who does of rank anti-Semitism.
But more importantly, the argument that the continued backing of Israel by the U.S. after the Cold War serves to undermine and even imperil the interests of the American state lets the empire and the capitalist system it serves off the hook. The argument fails to grasp the real sinister aims and methods of imperial policy. It posits the notion that a tiny state of under seven million inhabitants along with their satraps on Capitol Hill have hijacked the policies and treasury of the most powerful economic and military might in the world. Because this argument is echoed by many on the pro-Palestine Left, it is important to take on some of the most important aspects of this position.
While Mearsheimer and Walt speak of “national interests,” socialists reject that notion outright. On one side, there are the interests of the ruling class—power and profit. And on the other, there are the competing interests of the ruled—good jobs and schools, decent health care, respect, etc.
In addition, there is a naïve assumption about how U.S. policy is shaped that underlies this argument. If all it takes to manipulate U.S. policy is a well-financed and articulate team of lobbyists, then surely the nine union political action committees that rank in the top twenty contributors to federal candidates ought to have more to show for their money and effort than eviscerated labor laws and three decades of unrelenting assaults on the working class.6 The very assumption the U.S. government can be reasoned into abandoning anti-labor policies fails to understand the underlying economic interests that guide its policies. Implicit in the all-powerful lobby argument is a similar lack of understanding of the central role Israel has played for the U.S. in the Middle East.
The power of the Israel lobby
AIPAC, Mearsheimer and Walt contend, “has a stranglehold on Congress.” With a $47 million a year budget and more than 100 full-time staffers, it is no doubt a formidable advocate for Israel’s interests. But as Columbia professor Joseph Massad writes in Al-Ahram Weekly:
Is the pro-Israel lobby extremely powerful in the United States? As someone who has been facing the full brunt of their power for the last three years through their formidable influence on my own university and their attempts to get me fired, I answer with a resounding yes. Are they primarily responsible for U.S. policies towards the Palestinians and the Arab world? Absolutely not.7Citing the lobby’s phalanx of media-savvy staffers who have the heads of American TV networks and editors of major newspapers on their speed dials, advocates of the Mearsheimer-Walt position ignore a central fact. The interests of American capital coincide with most of the interests of the Israeli state. If Israel pursued policies systematically contrary to U.S. interests, they would lose Washington’s support.
Without any major league lobby, the state of Colombia has managed to snag more than $5 billion in aid from the U.S. since 2000, starting with the $2.2 million per day Plan Colombia.8 Under the guise of fighting a war on drugs, the U.S. government has shored up support for an important ally in a region of the world where popular opinion and some governments have clearly turned hostile. In what the U.S. has long considered its “backyard,” buying off a loyal—and heavily militarized—government is deemed crucial. Like support for Israel, continued Colombian aid doesn’t even warrant serious debate on the floor of Congress, despite the shocking rise in murders, kidnappings, and escalation of human rights abuses.9
As Noam Chomsky aptly points out, despite the brutal dictatorships in Suharto’s Indonesia, or for that matter in Saddam’s Iraq, the U.S. government poured billions in aid into those countries’ coffers. He writes, “What was the Indonesia Lobby? The Saddam Lobby?”10
If it were simply a matter of shoveling hard cash and lots of it into Congressional slush funds or government coffers, then surely Venezuela’s government-owned oil giant Citgo—with 2005 revenue in excess of $30 billion—could have diverted U.S. aid and military might in its direction by now. Widely viewed as a tool of the leftist anti-imperialist Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, even Citgo’s offer to give away oil at a 40 to 60 percent discount to America’s poor has been rejected by many American politicians and local governments.11 Far from embracing Venezuela as an ally, the U.S. has twice tried to overthrow its democratically elected government.
Why have a lobby at all if it doesn’t steer U.S. policy, Bill and Kathleen Christison former CIA analysts turned anti-Zionists ask.12 The lobby does in fact play an important role in attempting to squelch any meaningful debate about U.S.-Israeli relations and Israel’s racist domestic policies. The recent barrage of attacks by the lobby on former President Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, where his argument that Israel is an apartheid state has been slandered as anti-Semitic, is only one of many examples. The Washington Post weighed in on January 19, 2007, citing the lobby’s defamation in their hit piece, “Jimmy Carter’s Jewish problem.”
The yearly pilgrimage to AIPAC conferences by leading politicians from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush provides a forum to rally the organization’s base of a reputed 100,000 members to finance and give a “progressive” pro-Jewish sheen to America’s hawkish Middle East policies.
President Bush, speaking at the annual AIPAC conference in May of 2004, said, “You’ve always understood and warned against the evil ambition of terrorism and their networks. In a dangerous new century, your work is more vital than ever.” In a war where Bush finds himself increasingly isolated and discredited, the lobby furnishes enthusiastic financial and ideological support to Bush’s phony “war on terror.”
These politicians’ frequent nods to the Jewish Holocaust and historic suffering of the Jews to justify an aggressive stance against Iran, for example, provide a veneer of legitimacy to U.S. plans for reshaping the Middle East. Bush and Co. can present any potential strike against Iran’s purported nuclear sites as a security measure for Israel. When, in fact, Iran “possesses a combination of energy resources, strategic location, economic potential, and political weight (as witnessed recently by its support of Hezbollah during the war on Lebanon) that no other country in the region can match,” as the ISR’s Saman Sepehri wrote late last year.13
Simply put, the American Empire economically supports and provides political cover for its allies. Israel gets more booty than the others because it plays a crucial role in defending U.S. interests in the part of the world containing global capitalism’s most indispensable natural resource—oil.
It is widely accepted on the left that the U.S.-Israel alliance is a Cold War relic. With Arab-Soviet relations deepening after the Second World War, especially with the rise of Arab nationalist leader Gamel Abdel Nasser in Egypt in the fifties, U.S. economic support for Israel was a counterweight to that relationship. And while the ties have deepened in the years since, it is not true that the relationship’s survival “causes nothing but trouble,” in the words of anti-Zionist author Michael Neumann.14
Having a “watchdog” (as Israel’s daily Ha’aretz described the country), “a ‘little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of hostile Arabism,”15 has paid off handsomely. Israel shares an irreplaceable historical, cultural, and political connection to the United States that no other Middle East country can claim. Nearly 23 percent of its population was born in the U.S. or Europe.16 Moreover, while other erstwhile regional allies—Iran, Iraq, and Syria, for example— have fallen into the hands of regimes hostile to the United States, Israel has never wavered. So long as it is a virtually owned subsidiary of the U.S., it never will.
Israel proved itself to be an indispensable strategic asset to the U.S. starting in 1967. After provoking its neighbors into war, Israel routed Nasser’s forces and took control of the Sinai Peninsula; defeated the Syrians, and seized the Golan Heights, which it occupies to this day; and it beat back Jordanian forces to take control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, also under occupation today—all in six days. For thwarting the rise of Arab nationalism and flaunting its muscular posture to the regional powers and the world, Israel went from being one of a team of crucial allies of the U.S. in the Middle East to being the undisputed heavyweight. U.S. aid ratcheted up from $13 million per year to $600 million and never let up.17
As Lance Selfa explained in an earlier ISR article:
Democratic Sen. Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson, nicknamed the “Senator from Boeing” for his hawkish views, pronounced in May 1973 that “the strength and Western orientation of Israel on the Mediterranean and Iran on the Persian Gulf safeguards U.S. access to oil.” They have “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.”18Opponents of this perspective point to incidents like the Gulf War of 1990–91 where Israel was kept on the sidelines because its involvement would have alienated Arab regimes in the American coalition. But not deploying a weapon in the American arsenal isn’t the same as rendering it useless or counterproductive to the overall military project. Nobody would argue that the decade of bombing missions by the U.S. in Iraq throughout the nineties carried out with F-16s rendered its tanks and ground troops ineffective. They weren’t needed for that mission.
Even historical examples such as the Suez crisis in 1956 when Israel, Britain, and France launched a secret war to take over the Egyptian Suez Canal after Nasser had nationalized it is a poor argument that Israel is a liability to the United States. When the U.S. forced its imperial allies to back off, it was positioning itself to dominate the region unimpeded by France and Britain. If on occasion the watchdog gets overly ambitious or acts in ways that the U.S. finds problematic, they yank the leash, and force a correction, as the U.S. did then.
Today, having a nuclear-armed Israel as its gendarme in the region is a means of threatening potential regional powers like Iran, the world’s second-largest repository of oil. As the Bush Doctrine makes plain, a primary goal of U.S. foreign policy is “deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” The fact that Israel could strike out at Iran—or Syria—with either conventional or non-conventional weapons hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the heads of the region’s rulers, an ever-present peril that could befall them if the empire commands.
Though Mearsheimer and Walt argue from the right that support for Israel threatens the “war on terror,” those on the left like Petras argue that a U.S.-Israel strike on Iran would produce a “pyrrhic victory.” It would endanger U.S. troops in Iraq, destabilize the entire region, and disrupt oil supplies, he argues. His point appears to be that since the U.S. might not succeed, it is not in its interests to attack Iran at all. But as the last few years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown, the U.S. ruling class is willing to endure troop losses, regional chaos, and even a disruption in oil flows if it believes that in the end it will come out as the undisputed power in the region. If one applies Petras’s reasoning to the disastrous loss in Vietnam in retrospect, then virtually any imperial adventure appears too risky to attempt and therefore imperialism itself is against the interests of the empire. For a socialist, this is a rather bizarre teleological argument to make.
The unfolding disaster of the Iraq War bears out that the economic necessity for the American ruling class to control oil and expand its reach breeds an arrogant belief that despite its own experts’ claims, it can prevail, in fact it must—no matter the human and political costs. For this, it depends on both direct military intervention, and on reliable allies in the region. And Israel, because of its unique history, is Washington’s most dependable ally.
Any casual observer of Israeli armed might must marvel at the extraordinary fact that a country comprising a mere .001 percent of the world’s population has “the fifth most powerful war machine in the world.”19 This obscene arsenal is not just used for territorial control and “security,” Israel acts as a bully-for-hire to many of the dictatorships, death squads, and undemocratic allies of the United States. When Iran’s democratically elected leader Mohammed Mossadeq nationalized the oil fields there in 1951, the daily Ha’aretz laid out the role Israel could play for its Western backers:
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.20There is a well-documented history of Israel’s relations with apartheid South Africa, and its ongoing role of helping to prop up almost every pro-U.S. repressive regime in the world.
Israel defied the global arms embargo on the white-minority South African government to supply it with nuclear technology and helped train its notoriously brutal police and armed forces—imparting its expertise after 1967 of “suppressing a captive population and keeping hostile neighbors off balance.”21 As one Israeli newspaper put it, “It is a clear and open secret known to everybody that in [South African] army camps one can find Israeli officers in not insignificant numbers who are busy teaching white soldiers to fight Black terrorists with methods imported from Israel.”22
The U.S. is able to funnel weapons and aid to its unsavory allies abroad through Israel. When the exposure of human rights abuses in countries like Guatemala made it politically untenable domestically for the U.S. to continue to back this murderous regime, it outsourced the job to Israel. From the 1970s to the 1990s,
a civil war pitted a populist but, in this case, mainly Indian left against a mainly European oligarchy protected by a brutal Mestizo Army. As Guatemalan President Carlos Arana said in 1971, “If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so.” The Israelis supplied Guatemala with Galil rifles, and built an ammunition factory for them, as well as supplying armored personnel carriers and Arava planes. Behind the scenes, they were actively involved in the bloodiest counter-insurgency campaign the hemisphere has known since the European conquest, in which at least 200,000 (mostly Indians) were killed.23In the past Israel has supplied arms and training to: the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia for its genocide of 200,000 East Timorese; the Nicaraguan contras for its killing of at least 50,000 oppositionists; Chile’s Pinochet dictatorship; the military dictatorships of Brazil, Argentina, El Salvador, and the list goes on.24
But Israel’s role as America’s bully-for-hire is not just a thing of the Cold War past—though the statute of limitations on prosecuting these crimes against humanity should never run out. “I learned an infinite amount of things in Israel, and to that country I owe part of my essence, my human and military achievements,” wrote the former (and now deceased) head of the largest right-wing paramilitary group in Colombia, Carlos Castaño. As recently as 2002, the Guatemala-based Israeli company GIRSA supplied Colombian death squads with 3,000 Kalashnikov rifles and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition.25
The American Empire will always have a need for these types of covert black ops services from a reliable ally. Israel continues to play this role efficiently and discreetly.
Finally, last summer’s invasion of Lebanon by Israel was effectively a proxy war against Syria and Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, on behalf of the Americans who were—and continue to be—bogged down in a losing war in Iraq. The goals were to stop Hezbollah, control Lebanon, and contain Syria. Israel’s short war destroyed much of Lebanon’s infrastructure, killed more than 1,000 civilians, and created an internal refugee crisis, in addition to leaving behind thousands of unexploded cluster bombs—“killing fields in a canister” as the London Times aptly put it.26 Though Israel was unable to politically and militarily defeat Hezbollah, the aim of the war was to help their imperial patron. That’s why leading Democrats like Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) rushed to outdo Republicans in showing support for Israel in that war. As the Washington Post argued, “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.”27 Right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer summed up the invasion as, “Israel’s rare opportunity to demonstrate what it can do for its great American patron.”28
Is the occupation of Palestine in the interests of the United States?
As foreign policy realists, both Mearsheimer and Walt essentially promote a form of liberal imperialism. They argue that Israel’s dispossession of half the Palestinian population and occupation of the other half enrages and destabilizes the Middle East and therefore conflicts with U.S. interests, in particular with the “war on terror.” There is some truth to this claim, but pointing out contradictions in the U.S.-Israel relationship doesn’t dispel the overarching reality. As Gush Shalom’s (Israeli Peace Bloc’s) Uri Avnery aptly put it, “The U.S. uses Israel to dominate the Middle East, Israel uses the U.S. to dominate Palestine.”29
While Israel’s day-to-day brutality toward Palestinians and ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands are not dictated by their imperial overlords, neither do they impede U.S. oil interests in the region or relations with Arab leaders of Egypt and the Gulf States, for example. Despite the rhetoric these regimes regularly employ against the complicity of the U.S. in Israeli crimes against the Palestinians, these are largely used for domestic consumption to distract from their own cozy dealings with the American Empire. If and when the occupation hampers U.S. interests, they would force an end to it.
Instead, the U.S. has been the driving force behind three decades of “peace” negotiations between the parties, which have been detailed by many writers, including in this magazine. The point is that these negotiations act as a mechanism to derail any resolution of the conflict that would bring real justice to the Palestinians, while providing the appearance that a process is in place to provide an equitable solution for both Jews and Palestinians somewhere down the road.
While Israel’s domestic policies don’t always mesh with every desire of the U.S. government, this isn’t proof of an independent policy that imposes its will on the empire. Instead, the watchdog has taken its training as brutal and racist killers all too well. Few would argue that the U.S. supported every act of terror by the death squad governments in Latin America, though the U.S. trained them, financed them, and even supplied intelligence on “state enemies”—but it didn’t draw a roadmap or blueprint for every act of aggression against their own populations.
The “excesses” of the guardians of the empire aren’t always punished or even actively opposed because they serve to normalize the brutalization, in this case of an occupied Arab people. In a sense, Israel’s assault on Jenin begat Fallujah; Israel’s Guantánamo, Facility 1391, compares well with Abu Ghraib; and Israel’s 400-mile apartheid wall evokes the 700-mile border wall the U.S. is constructing to bar Mexicans and other Latin Americans from emigrating. Despite the fact that it was Israeli terrorists who first hijacked an airplane,30 generations of Westerners have grown up accustomed to the impression of Arab peoples as terrorists—unpredictable, untrustworthy, inferior, brutal, and with a nature that is either exoticized or made to seem bizarre and other-worldly.
The wholesale assault on Gaza since June and the daily torments of Palestinians may not follow the empire’s script, but nobody is pacing the White House halls at night tormented by the terrorization of Palestinians either. Certainly the widespread human rights abuses practiced by American troops in the Middle East are made more acceptable in the context of Israel’s ongoing war with its indigenous population.
Is Israel to blame for the Iraq War?
Perhaps the most dubious claim of the Mearsheimer-Walt argument, echoed in the pages of the Nation and elaborated on by Petras and others, is that the U.S. war with Iraq is not only due to the Israeli lobby’s sway over U.S. policy but against the interests of Big Oil. “The consensus among U.S. critics of the Bush administration is that ‘9/11 provided the right-wing Zionist zealots with a unique chance to harness U.S. Middle East policy and military power in Israel’s interest and succeeded in getting the United States to apply the doctrine of pre-emptive war to Israel’s enemies.’”31 And elsewhere: “The Bush administration planned its campaign against Baghdad without input from these companies [Big Oil], and apparently without a clue about the basics of oil economics.”32
Four years into this losing war, the jury’s still out on who will be the ultimate beneficiaries. But the arrogance of the American ruling class and their racist assumptions about Arabs played no small role in them believing their own hype: Iraqis would greet them as liberators after “regime change” was accomplished, oil money would pay for the reconstruction of Iraq, and a puppet government could be left behind to cut lucrative deals with Corporate America. In other words, you can’t say that something’s “against U.S. interests” because it was unsuccessful. Iraq is a “strategic blunder” because it isn’t working, but what it is meant to do if it worked—enhance U.S. military and economic presence and power in the region—is a goal agreed upon by all parties in Washington.
Back when the war began, the prospects for Big Oil were enormous: “Regime change in Baghdad would reshuffle the cards and give U.S. (and British) companies a good shot at direct access to Iraqi oil fields for the first time in thirty years—a windfall worth hundreds of billions of dollars,” said Michael Renner, a researcher at WorldWatch Institute in March of 2003.33 As Bush ally Patrick Clawson put it before the war, “U.S. oil companies would have an opportunity to make significant profits. We should not be embarrassed about the commercial advantages that would come from a reintegration of Iraq into the world economy.”34
It seems worth mentioning that oil prices in 2003 were just under $25 a barrel, they have risen to well over $60 a barrel since August 2005, and last summer reached their peak so far of $78. American corporations have hauled in record profits since the war began, with no end in sight. As Tariq Ali explains, “The conquest of Iraq is partially due to this assertion of raw imperial power, and to say to the rest of the world and the Far Eastern bloc, China, Japan, South Korea, which is very dependent on oil, ‘We control the oil. You can have it, of course, because we’ve got enough of our own, but we control it. And any time you step out of line, we can cut it off.’ That was the aim. It’s not happened as yet, and it may never happen. But that is the way they are thinking.”35
It’s become clear that no one in the Bush administration anticipated the kind of opposition to war and occupation they have received from the Iraqis. But it’s in this light that we need to view Israel’s disastrous summer war on Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah with full U.S. backing. Fears of a regionwide resistance fueled that war and lie at the heart of the latest saber-rattling at Iran and Syria. If the U.S. does attack Iran via Israel, as many are predicting, it will be as a result of a collusion of interests, not Israel dragging a defiant U.S. into its local battles.
More importantly, though, at the root of this argument is the notion that U.S. corporate interests are somehow inimical to war and the instability that often follows. Blaming the Israel lobby for the war lets the system of capitalist competition off the hook. Imperialist competition between nations compels them to go to war over the control of resources and to extend their power over competitors, even when they risk short-term instability. Even when they risk imperial ruin.
The special relationship between the U.S. and Israel
Socialists ought to acknowledge that while Mearsheimer and Walt have drawn conclusions we cannot agree with, they have identified a special relationship that does indeed exist between the U.S. and Israel. While the U.S. government (including the Pentagon and CIA) steers the relationship, it is by no means without contradictions and disagreements. But those contradictions don’t undermine the core support for Israel, a loyal ally like none other.
It may be true that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people is a constant festering wound that has at times interfered with Israel and the U.S. developing better relations with neighboring Arab states, and which could potentially threaten Arab ruling classes from below. Hence all the attempts to broker a “peace” settlement that makes the problem go away. All of these settlements involve pressuring the Palestinians to accept rotten compromises in order to create a space for Arab states to establish firmer economic relations with the U.S. and Israel, but which do not fundamentally challenge Israel’s position. However, the U.S. also benefits from the “Spartan” quality of the Israeli state. It has an unparalleled military machine and a solidly pro-U.S. population mobilized in support of its policies unlike any other in the region. It is in this sense a very special ally. It can play this role, moreover, precisely because it is a settler-colonial state, a garrison-state based on the expulsion of the Palestinian people. Norman Finklestein, writing in Counterpunch, summarized the point well:
The claim that Israel has become a liability for U.S. “national” interests in the Middle East misses the bigger picture. Sometimes what’s most obvious escapes the eye. Israel is the only stable and secure base for projecting U.S. power in this region. Every other country the U.S. relies on might, for all anyone knows, fall out of U.S. control tomorrow. The U.S.A. discovered this to its horror in 1979, after immense investment in the Shah. On the other hand, Israel was a creation of the West; it’s in every respect—culturally, politically, economically—in thrall to the West, notably the U.S. This is true not just at the level of a corrupt leadership, as elsewhere in the Middle East but—what’s most important—at the popular level. Israel’s pro-American orientation exists not just among Israeli elites but also among the whole population. Come what may in Israel, it’s inconceivable that this fundamental orientation will change. Combined with its overwhelming military power, this makes Israel a unique and irreplaceable American asset in the Middle East.36Former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig reportedly called Israel “the largest American aircraft carrier in the world.”37 Without it, the U.S. would have to spend additional tens of billions of dollars to police the Middle East with its own troops. While it is understandable that those who oppose the oppressive and muscular policies of the U.S. and Israel blame the lobby for justifying and promoting these actions, anti-Zionists need to accept that it is the capitalist system and the American Empire that create the facts on the ground for the Israel lobby to defend.
Sherry Wolf is on the editorial board of the ISR.
1 John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “The Israel lobby and U.S. foreign policy,” Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government, March 13, 2006, http://ksgnotes1.harvard.edu/
2 Eliot A. Cohen, “Yes, it’s anti-Semitic,” Washington Post, April 5, 2006.
3 James Petras, The Power of Israel in the United States (Atlanta, Georgia: Clarity Press, 2006), 49.
4 Ibid., 36.
5 Ibid., 57.
6 “Top 20 PAC Contributors to Federal Candidates, 2005–2006,” Top PACs, Opensecrets.org, http://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/topacs.asp.
7. Joseph Massad, “Blaming the lobby,” Al-Ahram Weekly, March 23–29, 2006, http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2006/787/op35.htm.
8 “Take action for Colombia,” Latin America Working Group, June 5, 2006, http://www.lawg.org/countries/colombia/fy07action.htm. Also see, Marc Cooper, “Plan Colombia,” Nation, posted March 1, 2001, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20010319/cooper.
9 “Top ten reasons to oppose military aid to Colombia,” Global Exchange, March 2002, http://www.globalexchange.org/countries/americas/colombia/topten.html.
10 Noam Chomsky, “The Israel lobby?” Znet, March 28, 2006, http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=9999.
11 David J. Lynch, “Has Citgo become a political tool for Hugo Chávez?” USA Today, January 11, 2006.
12 Kathleen and Bill Christison, “The power of the Israel lobby,” Counterpunch, June 16/18, 2008, http://www.counterpunch.org/christison06162006.html.
13 Saman Sepehri, “Targeting Iran?” International Socialist Review issue 50, November–December 2006, http://www.isreview.org/
14 Michael Neumann, The Case Against Israel (Petrolia, California: CounterPunch, 2005), 173.
15 Quoted in Arie Bober, ed., “The radical case against Zionism,” The Other Israel, http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/mideast/toi/intro.html#n18.
16 “Israel,” The World Fact Book online, last updated, November 30, 2006, https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/is.html.
17 Lance Selfa, ed., The Struggle for Palestine (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2002), 32.
18 Reprinted in Ibid.
19 Frida Berrigan and William D. Hartung, “Who’s arming Israel?” Foreign Policy in Focus, July 26, 2006, http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/3387.
20 John Rose, Israel: The Hijack State, July 1986, Socialist Workers Party (UK).
21 Jane Hunter, “Israel and South Africa,” excerpted from Israeli Foreign Policy (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press,1987), http://www.
22 Quoted in Selfa, 34.
23 Jeremy Bigwood, “Israel’s Latin American trail of terror,” June 5, 2003, http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Israel/Israel_LAmer_TrailTerror.html.
24 Selfa, 34.
26 Simon Jenkins, “Cluster bombs: these are landmines by any other name,” London Times, October 26, 2001.
27 Robin Wright, “Strikes are called part of a bold strategy,” Washington Post, July 16, 2006.
28 Charles Krauthammer, “Israel’s Lost Moment,” Washington Post, August 4, 2006.
29 Uri Avnery, “Who’s the dog? Who’s the tail?” Gush Shalom, April 22, 2006, http://zope.gush-shalom.org/home/en/channels/
30 “Israel: The first skyjacker,” Financial Times, October 12, 1985, http://www.marxmail.org/facts/skyjacking.htm.
31 Quoted in Petras, Patrick Seale, “A costly friendship,” Nation, July 21, 2003.
32 Quoted in Petras, Yahya Sadowski, “No war for whose oil?” Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2002, 23.
33 Quoted in Eric Ruder, “The scramble for oil and empire,” Socialist Worker, March 28, 2003.
34 Quoted in Ruder, “The ‘Israel lobby’ controversy,” Socialist Worker, May 19, 2006.
35 David Barsamian interviews Tarq Ali, ISR 33, January–February 2004.
36 Norman Finklestein,“The Israel Lobby,” Counterpunch, May 1, 2006.
37 Yoram Ettinger, “Two-way independence,” Yediot Aharonot, quoted by Toufic Haddad, “The Reversal of the AUT boycott,” counterpunch.org/haddad05282005.html.