The Israel Lobby Matters

How should we explain the unflagging and disastrous Western backing of Israel? The Israel lobby plays a huge role, persuading lawmakers that support for Israel is still in the strategic interests of their countries.

American Israel Public Affairs Committee president Michael Tuchin speaking at the AIPAC Policy Summit in Washington, DC, on June 5, 2023. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

Back in 2017, an Israeli diplomat in London was recorded demanding action against Alan Duncan, then a British foreign office minister. Soon after, Duncan went to brief the department’s ranking civil servant on the revelation, recalling the exchange in his diary: “I teasingly remind[ed] him . . . of what I said to him on my first day as a minister. ‘Simon. . . didn’t I tell you? The CFI [Conservative Friends of Israel] and the Israelis think they control the Foreign Office. And they do!’”

For some on the Left, complaints like Duncan’s exemplify wrongheaded conspiratorial theories about the omnipotence of Israel and its lobby. We are told by such opponents of the Israel lobby thesis that the tail cannot wag the dog and that Israel serves American strategic interests — then, now, and forever more.

“The value to US imperial power of Israel — a dependable, militarily powerful ally in a geostrategically crucial region of the world — is perfectly obvious, and requires no lobbying to be understood,” the British commentator David Wearing writes. In a book-length study of the lobby released last year, scholar Hil Aked argues similarly. Suggestions that support for Israel is contrary to American national interests and that the lobby bears responsibility for this distortion, Aked insists, are “problematic”: misguided “progressive nationalism” at best, “potentially xenophobic in tone” at worst. These are predetermined political rehearsals, at some remove from concrete analysis of the concrete situation.

Similarly, Andreas Malm recently dedicated a significant portion of an essay — about the Gaza genocide and its antecedence in combined histories of colonial and ecological catastrophe — to repudiating the lobby thesis. He concurs with the claim of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah that “Israel used to be a tool at the hands of the British, and now it is a tool in the hands of America.” Malm counterposes “the distortionist theory of the lobby” to “the instrumentalist theory of empire and entity,” and finds in favor of the latter, arguing that it is vindicated by “evidence from the deep past, as well as from the recent past and present.”

Yet these repudiations of the Israel lobby thesis fall short both analytically and strategically. In the world conjured by such arguments, there is a preformed and basically unchanging US imperial interest, always served by unconditional support of Israel. This is the putative base, which the ideological attachment of American elites to Israel faithfully mirrors. Often this fixed imperial interest is simply taken for granted, with its articulation by US leaders standing in for anything approaching substantiating evidence or rigorous investigation. Thus can Malm take Joe Biden at his word when he parrots his long-held view that “were there not an Israel . . . the United States would have to go out and invent an Israel,” so unswervingly and effectively does the entity serve the empire.

There are many pitfalls of reading the existing interests of the American empire off cherry-picked pronunciations from certain of its leaders. Most obviously, US leaders are more than capable not only of making disastrous strategic miscalculations, but of clinging onto wrongheaded conceptions about the interests of the empire they superintend. This is not something we typically have trouble accepting. There were all variety of pseudomaterialist theories about the imperial interests that supposedly drove George W. Bush to invade Iraq, for instance, but few would now question that the war — and perhaps post 9/11 adventurism more widely — was a net-negative for American power. Here was a disastrous ideological crusade, based on self-defeating hubris about the world-making potential of shock-and-awe military interventions.

In other words: of course many American leaders, Joe Biden today foremost among them, firmly believe that Israel is an effective imperial outpost, and a worthy investment. But they could well be wrong. Questioning the strategic self-conceptions of imperial rulers is not a case, as one determined opponent of the lobby thesis has it, of “whisper[ing] to the exterminationist class that their calculus is off,” but rather a matter of insisting on a serious, integrated understanding of the enemy — generally worth more, as Perry Anderson once insisted, than “bulletins to boost doubtful morale.”

Another glaring problem with taking Biden at his word is that two can play the game of archival hook-a-duck. Take this 1975 remark from Henry Kissinger, which would seem to directly contradict arguments about Israel as a major strategic asset for America, precisely when the case was strongest, during the Cold War: “Israeli strength does not prevent the spread of communism in the Arab world. . . . So it is difficult to claim that a strong Israel serves American interests because it prevents the spread of communism in the Arab world. It does not. It provides for the survival of Israel.” Today we could point to huge dissent in the US State Department over Biden’s Gaza policy and to a chorus within the world of US “national security” expertise about the strategic perils of unflinching support for Israel.

At a more fundamental level, left opposition to the Israel lobby thesis often rests on an outmoded and mechanical view of imperial power. First: in an overdetermined political field such as that of the American imperial state, ideological forces — Biden’s aspic-preserved Zionism, for one — can have determinant material affects detrimental to the empire’s hegemonic position and its twenty-first century shelf-life. It is this realm in which Israel and the lobby exerts its force.

Second, by definition, the image of an unchanging American imperial interest always well-served by support for Israel is sustainable only in the absence of any conjunctural understanding: there is no attempt to grasp, theoretically or empirically, the contemporary workings of US empire. There are all number of reasons to question Israel’s utility to its American benefactors today. The Eastern Mediterranean, and even the Persian Gulf (though Israel was never of much value in the latter), are of greatly decreased strategic significance. Meanwhile, Washington is facing imperial overstretch by trying to compete on three major fronts at once — Eastern Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East — all against the backdrop of degraded military-industrial capacity.

Israel’s long-rogue, now genocidal, behavior renders unthinkable the kind of wider regional stability, made possible by improved Arabian Gulf relations with Iran, that America needs to comfortably “draw-down” from the Middle East militarily. In this connection, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s point in The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy about the circularity of arguments for Israel’s strategic importance seems especially pertinent: “Israel is portrayed as a vital ally for dealing with its dangerous neighbours, but the commitment to Israel is an important reason why the United States sees these states as threats in the first place.”

Lastly, the notion that the “tail can never wag the dog,” while generally a well-intended anti-conspiracist aphorism, elides decades of innovation in the historical study of empires, focused on how imperial peripheries and outposts have acted on metropolitan centers. Margins matter: the supplicants might not be omnipotent, but nor are the masters. “Who’s the fucking superpower here?” Bill Clinton despaired to advisors after meeting Isreali prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

What of the politics? Much of the lobby’s work consists in persuading — carrot and stick — Western leaders and legislators that supporting Israel is in the strategic interests of their countries. When it comes to public opinion, the lobby faces a harder task than ever: as the genocide in Gaza continues, majorities are becoming receptive to the demands of the Palestine solidarity movement. In this context, the Left nodding along as Biden repeats that Israel is a trusty guarantor of American interests seems politically foolish.

Conspiracist views about the totality of Israel’s “control” are disempowering, but so too are these stale notions of US empire as a frozen monolith — the latter often accompanied by grandiose rhetoric implying the Palestinians must await the toppling of Western civilization in its entirety for their deliverance from Zionism.

It so happens that concrete analysis points toward Israel’s increasing strategic superfluity to the American empire, and so suggests a heightened role for the lobby in ensuring continued sponsorship. But the empirical understanding one reaches about the US-Israel relationship and its nature is in a sense secondary: insofar as it is engaged in the strong and slow work of mass politics, the Left should advance ethical and strategic arguments against support for Israel regardless.

If the settler-colonial project in Palestine is to be dismantled, then defeating the Israel lobby in the West must be one of our tasks. “Truth,” Frantz Fanon wrote, “is what hastens the dislocation of the colonial regime . . . and good is quite simply what hurts them most.”