It’s Not Just the Lobby

The US supports Israel because it furthers American interests in the Middle East — not just because of pressure from the Israel Lobby.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir with President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1973. Marion Trikosko / Library of Congress

In March 2006, the Harvard Kennedy School posted a working paper by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt on its website. Shortly after, the London Review of Books ran a condensed version titled “The Israel Lobby.” And in 2007, it came out in book form. The rare academic work to redefine popular discourse, “The Israel Lobby” broke in grand fashion the taboo against discussing the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its allies.

But the paper exaggerated the lobby’s power. The inevitable charges of antisemitism drowned out the substantive criticism from people like Noam Chomsky, who, while giving Mearsheimer and Walt credit for broaching the topic, debunked their thesis. He pointed out that the United States’ interests usually aligned with Israel’s and that US policies in the Middle East were “quite similar to those pursued elsewhere in the world, and have been a remarkable success.”

Chomsky’s argument is even more persuasive today as President Obama negotiates with Iran over its nuclear program despite the furious objections of Israel’s government. Obama has previously defied the Israel Lobby on other issues, from the Chuck Hagel nomination to sanctions on Iran. So much for American subservience. And while the US government supports Israel’s domination of Palestinians, this continues to serve American interests in the region.

Because US support for Israel is rooted in cold, geopolitical calculus, anger in the White House over Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s election-time politicking won’t lead to a shift in US policy. Never mind the tougher rhetoric; the US government won’t put real pressure on Israel — not without a political sea change that, while perhaps approaching, is still far away.

This isn’t to deny the power of the Israel Lobby, which punches well above its weight and which benefits from the absence of any significant countervailing force. For congressional members, defying the Lobby has no political upside. The possibility that Senate Democrats may kill Obama’s deal with Iran is fresh evidence of its clout. It enforces loyalty through its ability to defeat candidates and through its amazingly successful propaganda.

Spearheaded not just by Jews but also conservative Christians and anti-Muslim activists, the Israel Lobby has used the “war on terror” to turn Israel into a cultural issue, creating a climate in which to support justice for Palestinians is to be suspect, soft on terrorism, and jihadist-supporting.

Relatedly, the Lobby has made unconditional support for Israel a marker of conservative bonafides. As such, the cause draws financing from right-wing billionaires, including ones not usually focused on foreign policy. The Koch Brothers, for example, have contributed to the campaign to quash the ascendant Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the United States. The Lobby is a lot broader and more powerful than a list of Jewish funders.

Yet it’s less powerful than some observers claim. Why do many people believe that AIPAC & Co. have a stranglehold on the most powerful government in the world? Antisemitism surely plays a role: despite its diversity, the Lobby is still widely regarded as a Jewish entity, and the image of Jews pulling the strings is irresistible to some.

Much more significant, though, is ignorance about what the United States is up to in the Middle East. To some observers, support for Israel is so harmful to the United States — sparking such widespread hostility — that they assume the Lobby is leading American policymakers astray. “AIPAC undermines American support for democracy movements in the Arab world,” writes CODEPINK cofounder Media Benjamin, advancing the strange but popular belief that the Israel Lobby is corrupting an otherwise well-intentioned enterprise.

The mistake of the blame-AIPAC contingent is believing that American elites want what you and I want. To be sure, US policy toward Israel isn’t good for Americans, much less humanity — but the same can be said of US foreign policy as a whole.

To examine American policy in the Middle East is to reveal the rationality of US support for Israel. A proxy state, Israel aids America’s longstanding effort to control the world by controlling oil.

A 1945 State Department memo pointed out that Saudi “oil resources constitute a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the great material prizes in world history.” That same year, President Roosevelt — who had established a close bond with Saudi Arabia — wrote to King Ibn Saud, assuring him that the US would take no hostile action against Arab nations and would not back the formation of a Jewish state without first consulting him.

Roosevelt died a week later, and his replacement, Harry Truman, was also reluctant to side squarely with the Zionist cause. But in 1947 — here it seems AIPAC’s forbearers had an impact — Truman supported a UN partition plan that called for the creation of a majority Jewish state covering 56.47% of “Mandatory Palestinian.” Truman faced dissent from the State Department, which feared that such a stance would threaten the country’s core interests.

Here’s how the State Department’s Office of the Historian describes its view under Truman:

The State Department, concerned about the possibility of an increasing Soviet role in the Arab world and the potential for restriction by Arab oil producing nations of oil supplies to the United States, advised against U.S. intervention on behalf of the Jews.

So the American interest in controlling the Middle East’s economic resources — and preventing other countries from doing so — was clear; unclear was whether American support for a Jewish state served that interest.

Resistance to Zionism in the US political establishment began to melt away with Israel’s victory — and land grab — in 1948. Its strength impressed officials like Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg, who wrote in a memo that “the power balance in the Near and Middle East has been radically altered,” and that Israel “has demonstrated by force of arms its right to be considered the military power next  after Turkey.” He concluded that “as the result of its support to Israel, the United States might now gain strategic advantages from the new political situation.”

Still, US government support was relatively tempered — it gave its ally virtually no military assistance in the fifties — until Israel’s next big military victory, in 1967. Arab nationalism — particularly in the form of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser — threatened American hegemony in the region, as did the Soviet Union, which backed Egypt and Syria in the war. By defeating a coalition led by Egypt, Israel performed a valuable service for the United States (and for Saudi Arabia, which was fighting a proxy war against Egypt in Yemen.)

It’s widely accepted that the Six-Day War birthed the special relationship between Israel and the United States. No less significant, however, was Black September — the 1970–71 civil war in Jordan, which became another proxy battle in the Cold War. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger would call it “a test of our capacity to control events in the region.”

In July 1970, a US-backed plan called for the West Bank to come under control of King Hussein of Jordan, who already presided over a majority-Palestinian state. This, along with repression, triggered a Palestinian uprising spearheaded by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and, to a lesser degree, the Palestine Liberation Organization. “The President’s instincts are to crush the Fedayeen now,” Kissinger said.

Particularly concerning to the US was the prospect of intervention by a Soviet-aligned country, which might alter the balance of power in the region. “If the Syrians or Iraqis intervene in Jordan,” President Nixon said, “there are only two of us to stop them, the Israelis or us.” But the US military had a couple hundred thousand troops in Vietnam. So when Syria sent tanks into Jordan, it relied on its ally.

The determined solution was to employ Israel as a regional enforcer of American interests. Unlike the United States, Israel was not constrained by an enormous military commitment to Southeast Asia. While the United States lacked the manpower, the bases, the supply lines, and the public support to effectively intervene in Jordan, Israel was ready and willing.

Israel flew warplanes over Jordan, sending an unmistakable message to Syria. Afraid of suffering another defeat to Israel, Syria’s defense minister, Hafez Al-Assad, refused to provide air cover to Syrian troops, which were forced to withdraw. Jordanian troops proceeded to slaughter thousands of Palestinians, mostly civilians.

In case there’s still doubt about this event’s importance to Israel’s emergence as a vital American proxy, from 1970 to 1971, US military assistance increased by more than 1700%, from $30 million to 545 million.

This increase in arms shipments reflected a change in US foreign policy initiated by the Nixon Doctrine, which deemphasized direct US invention in favor of reliance on American proxies. US arms assistance to Iran and Saudi Arabia also shot up, with those countries and Israel becoming what Defense Secretary Melvin Laird called “cops on the beat.”

The American strategy of using both Israel and its putative Arab opponents created complications, especially during the 1973 October war. US support for Israel in its battle against Egypt in the Sinai prompted Saudi Arabia and other oil producers to impose an embargo on the United States, and that led to the oil crisis. If ever there was a time that the United States would have altered its stance toward Israel, this was it. It didn’t.

Later, the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led the United States to reconsider its reliance on proxies. President Carter’s 1980 State of the Union address repudiated the Nixon Doctrine and paved the way for direct US intervention in the region. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America,” Carter said, “and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Still, the United States continued to use allies to impose its “stability.” It sent billions of dollars in arms to Egypt, which had signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979. Egypt joined Saudi Arabia and Israel as legs of the stool. Throughout the nineties — as Israel’s settler population grew by more than 150,000 — Saudi Arabia and Egypt lent support to a US-brokered “peace process” that wouldn’t have led to true Palestinian sovereignty. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was particularly active in trying to work out a deal unacceptable to most Palestinians.

Today, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia help the United States by seeking to check Iran and quash democratic ferment in the region. They helped the Obama administration ensure that the uprisings of 2010–11 didn’t alter the basic order of the Middle East. Despite widespread turmoil, and despite a period in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was president of Egypt, the stool is intact. And Netanyahu was reflecting the views of the US government when he warned about the Arab Spring in 2011: if that wasn’t obvious at the time, it should be now.

The sort of tensions that arose between Israel and America’s Arab allies in the seventies are rare today. In fact, Israel is a de facto ally of both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Although Morsi made only tentative moves to help Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, they were enough to threaten Israel, which supported the coup that brought General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. Sisi has bolstered the blockade, destroying tunnels that serve as lifelines and closing the border crossing at Rafah during Israel’s rampage in Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel and Saudi Arabia find common cause in their opposition to Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.

Recently, for instance, Netanyahu’s biggest cheerleaders east of the Weekly Standard have been Saudi-funded outlets. As’ad AbuKhalil goes as far as to write, “On every issue in Arab politics, the Saudi regime is aligned with Israel.”

And as the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt compete to see which can more brutal, the United States sends each best wishes, and weapons. If AIPAC accounts for America’s support for Israel, then what explains its similar — and perhaps even cozier — relationship with Saudi Arabia? If American domestic political pressure is the reason the United States bankrolls Israel’s brutality, then why does it prop up Egypt’s military dictatorship?

Vox’s Zach Beauchamp gets it basically right when he says the United States believes it’s “strategically worthwhile to support states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, which [see] themselves as benefitting from an essentially conservative US approach to Middle Eastern regional politics.” But he says more here than he seems to realize, linking Israel’s faux-democracy to formal dictatorships. For the police chief in Washington, the beat of the “only democracy in the Middle East” is to be a bulwark against democracy.

The reason behind US support for Israel becomes clear if you consider what would likely happen if Palestinians became autonomous or if they became the majority in a democratic, multi-ethnic state. Either development would upend American-enforced “stability.”

Palestinians in Jordan and elsewhere would attempt to exercise their right of return. Repressed peoples across the Middle East would rise up to demand the kind of freedom from dictators that the Palestinians secured from Israel. Palestinian liberation would trigger a chain of events that could entirely free the region from the American grip as people demand that they — not monarchs and not Western corporations — benefit from their oil.

That’s why the US government’s proclaimed support for Palestinian liberation is as unbelievable as Netanyahu’s. Anything more than a severely attenuated Palestinian state would jeopardize America’s seventy-year old — never-altered — priority. And that prospect, not The Lobby, is the primary reason that the United States stands virtually alone against the rest of the world in unconditionally supporting Israel’s violence against Palestinians.

The US government doesn’t sacrifice a geopolitical priority because a lobby group wants it to — or, for that matter, because the Israeli president angers his American counterpart. Those hoping that Obama-Netanyahu spat alone augurs a major policy shift will be disappointed.

Still, cracks in the special relationship are helpful. BDS and other components of the Palestinian liberation movement can exploit them in its effort to isolate the Israeli government and turn it into a pariah in the United States. The movement keeps growing, and now comes a new generation of Americans amenable to its aims.

It’ll be a long, vicious fight. Ultimately, this is about challenging the ruling class. To break US support for Israel, we need to wrest control of the government from corporations and banks. But hey, we need to do that anyway.