On the ‘Israel Lobby’

Imperialism, Zionism & the Middle East

In early 2006, as the U.S. foreign policy establishment debated whether civil war in Iraq was underway or merely imminent, two prominent American academics, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard, ignited a major controversy when their paper, “The Israel Lobby,” was published in the London Review of Books. The authors asserted that most of Washington’s current difficulties in the Middle East are rooted in its alliance with Tel Aviv:

“[T]he thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the country—in this case, Israel—are essentially identical.”
London Review of Books, 23 March 2006

Mearsheimer and Walt were forced to turn to a British journal after the liberal Atlantic Monthly, which had originally commissioned the article, refused to run it, and no other major American publication was willing to pick it up. Serious criticism of Israel has long been verboten both on Capitol Hill and in the mainstream U.S. media. The Zionist lobby’s furious response was typified by an op ed piece in the Washington Post (5 April 2006) entitled, “Yes, It’s Anti-Semitic,” by Eliot Cohen, a leading neo-conservative intellectual, who accused Mearsheimer and Walt of holding “obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews.”

Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading newspaper, took an entirely different view, and commented that the article “does not deserve condemnation; rather, it should serve as a warning sign” (quoted in New York Review of Books, 8 June 2006). Ha’aretz expressed concern about a growing sentiment in the U.S. ruling class that Washington should reconsider its policy of blanket support of Tel Aviv: “the Israeli government must understand that the world will not wait forever for Israel to withdraw from the territories, and that the opinions expressed in the article could take root in American politics if Israel does not change the political reality quickly” (Ibid.).

David Duke, a well-known fascist and rabid anti-Semite, boasted that Mearsheimer and Walt’s article “validate[s] every major point I have been making since even before the [Iraq] war even started” (New York Sun, 20 March 2006). Duke raves about “Jewish supremacists who seek and support Jewish supremacy not only in the Mideast but in United States as well,” but Mearsheimer and Walt, who do not subscribe to such vile nonsense, explicitly deny that the Israel lobby is any sort of conspiracy:

“In its basic operations, the Israel Lobby is no different from the farm lobby, steel or textile workers’ unions, or other ethnic lobbies. There is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway US policy: the Lobby’s activities are not a con-spiracy of the sort depicted in tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise it are only doing what other special interest groups do, but doing it very much better.”
Op. cit.

Washington’s ‘Israel Lobby’

The linchpin of the Israel lobby is the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), with 100,000 members and an annual budget of $47 million (New York Review of Books, 8 June 2006). Other key elements are the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. The Israel lobby’s clout has been multiplied by the support of “Christian Zionist” bible-thumpers, who believe that Jewish control of the Holy Land will prepare the way for the “Rapture,” the “second coming” of Christ and “Armageddon.”

Mearsheimer and Walt begin by surveying the benefits that Tel Aviv gets from the current arrangement:

“Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance each year, roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. This largesse is especially striking since Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to that of South Korea or Spain.

. . .

“It is the only recipient that does not have to account for how the aid is spent, which makes it virtually impossible to prevent the money from being used for purposes the US opposes, such as building settlements on the West Bank.”

Israel’s status as a “wealthy industrial state” is largely a consequence of its privileged relationship with the United States, which, in addition to direct aid, has included favorable trade deals, loan guarantees and other forms of indirect assistance. American support was vital to the development of the Israeli military industry:

“the US has provided Israel with nearly $3 billion to develop weapons systems, and given it access to such top-drawer weaponry as Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets. Finally, the US gives Israel access to intelligence it denies to its Nato allies and has turned a blind eye to Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.”

While fulminating about the supposed threat of phantom Iraqi and Iranian “weapons of mass destruction,” the U.S. has consistently opposed attempts by Arab states to put Tel Aviv’s nukes on the agenda of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In the 1980s, the U.S. also ignored Israel’s pivotal role in helping South Africa’s apartheid rulers acquire nuclear weapons.

The relationship has not been entirely one-sided. U.S. subsidies to Israel are largely recycled back to American arms makers, and the Zionist military’s aggression against the Palestinians and Arab states has provided the Pentagon with valuable battlefield weapons testing. Israel’s hypertrophied arms budget has also pushed its Arab neighbors to increase their own military spending, thus expanding the market for U.S. weapons manufacturers:

“The arms industry contributes more than $7 million each election cycle to Congressional campaigns, twice that of pro-Israel groups. In terms of lobbying budgets, the difference is even more profound: Northrop Grumman alone spends seven times as much money in its lobbying efforts annually than does AIPAC and Lockheed Martin outspends AIPAC by a factor of four. Similarly, the lobbying budget of AIPAC is dwarfed by those of General Electric, Raytheon, and Boeing and other corporations with substantial military contracts.”

. . .

“This benefit to U.S. defense contractors is multiplied by the fact that every major arms transfer to Israel creates a new demand by Arab states—most paying in petrodollar cash—for additional American weapons to challenge Israel’s increased military capacity. Indeed, Israel announced its acceptance of a proposed freeze on arms exports to the Middle East back in 1991, but the Bush and Clinton administrations, under pressure from the defense industry, effectively blocked it.”
—Stephen Zunes, Foreign Policy in Focus, 16 May 2006

Israel has also provided a back door for dealing with various unsavory elements:

“during the 1980s, Israel served as a conduit for U.S. arms to governments and movements too unpopular in the United States to receive overt military assistance, including South Africa under the apartheid regime, Iran’s Islamic Republic, Guatemala’s rightist military juntas, and the Nicaraguan Contras. Israeli military advisers assisted the Contras, the Salvadoran junta, and other movements and governments backed by the United States.”

Israel may have been a strategic asset in countering Soviet influence in the Middle East during the Cold War, Mearsheimer and Walt suggest, but today the relationship has become a liability:

“The first Gulf War revealed the extent to which Israel was becoming a strategic burden. The US could not use Israeli bases without rupturing the anti-Iraq coalition, and had to divert resources (e.g. Patriot missile batteries) to prevent Tel Aviv doing anything that might harm the alliance against Saddam Hussein. History repeated itself in 2003: although Israel was eager for the US to attack Iraq, Bush could not ask it to help without triggering Arab opposition. So Israel stayed on the sidelines once again.”
Op. cit.

Noting that Tel Aviv has transferred “sensitive military technology” to American enemies, including China, they cite the U.S. General Accountability Office’s observation that Israel “conducts the most aggressive espionage operations against the US of any ally.”

But the chief concern of the two academics is Israel’s supposed role in pushing the Bush administration to invade Iraq and its continuing pressure for attacking Iran and Syria:

“As for so-called rogue states in the Middle East, they are not a dire threat to vital US interests, except inasmuch as they are a threat to Israel. Even if these states acquire nuclear weapons—which is obviously undesirable—neither America nor Israel could be blackmailed, because the blackmailer could not carry out the threat without suffering overwhelming retaliation….Israel’s nuclear arsenal is one reason some of its neighbours want nuclear weapons, and threatening them with regime change merely increases that desire.”

Mearsheimer and Walt observe that Washington’s long-standing indifference to Zionist ethnic cleansing inflames anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, and thus “makes winning the war on terror more difficult.” They also note that intransigence toward Iran and Syria “makes it almost impossible for Washington to enlist them in the struggle against al-Qaida and the Iraqi insurgency, where their help is badly needed.”

American bellicosity toward Iran does not reflect pressure from the Israel lobby, but rather the fact that the Islamic Republic constitutes a significant obstacle to U.S. hegemony in the Persian Gulf. This, not Israel’s regional designs, is why the Iranian “rogue state” remains a target for Washington.

‘Realists’ vs. Neo-Cons

The spectacular puncturing of neo-conservative fantasies about remaking the Middle East on the cheap has strengthened the hand of the “realists” within the American bourgeoisie, who think that the return on Washington’s investment does not warrant the risk, and that it is time to rebalance the portfolio. The “realists” are perfectly willing to employ military force and brutal repression if necessary, but only where essential interests of the U.S. are at stake, and then only as a last resort. They prefer, wherever possible, to project a more benign image, co-opt opposition and seek “multilateral solutions” with imperial rivals. In their view, America’s military dominance is most effective when used for political leverage.

In an earlier article, Walt sketched a “realist” framework for U.S. policy:

“[T]he United States should resume its traditional role as an ‘offshore balancer.’ This strategy assumes that only a few parts of the world are of strategic importance to the United States, such as Europe, industrialized Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Instead of controlling these areas directly, the United States would rely on local actors to maintain the regional balance of power. The United States would still stand ready to deploy its power against specific threats to its interests, but it would intervene only when absolutely necessary—when the local balance broke down and vital U.S. interests were clearly threatened by hostile forces. In short, while remaining engaged with its allies, the United States should keep its military presence as small as possible. Reducing the size of the U.S. footprint would diminish the likelihood that foreign terrorists—especially suicide bombers—would target the United States, because such responses are most often triggered by perceived foreign occupation.

“Being less directly involved on the ground would also bolster the United States’ freedom of action. Washington would be able to play hard to get, making its support for others conditional on broad compliance with U.S. goals. Other states would be less likely to take U.S. protection for granted. By diminishing global concerns about U.S. dominance, this approach would also make it easier for Washington to gain global backing on those rare occasions when it needed to use force. Playing hard to get would not win over a recalcitrant regime such as that in Pyongyang, but it would make it easier for the United States to attract broad assistance for its policies in even those cases.”
Foreign Affairs, September/October 2005

In Walt’s view, a policy of rapprochement with the Baathists could have saved hundreds of billions of dollars, given U.S. energy corporations access to Iraqi oil and preserved Uncle Sam’s image as the promoter of “freedom.” This in turn would have increased America’s capacity to put pressure on “recalcitrants” and promote social counterrevolution in North Korea (as well as Cuba, China and Vietnam).

The dispute over Mearsheimer and Walt’s view of the Israel lobby reflects a struggle within the American ruling class over Middle East strategy. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the reactionary Cold Warrior credited with initiating the policy of training and equipping the mujahedin to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan (where Osama bin Laden got his start as a jihadist), solidarized with Mearsheimer and Walt, and acidly commented:

“It is probably not an accident that the most effective lobbies are also the ones that have been the most endowed. Whether that produces the best definition of the American national interest in the Middle East or elsewhere is open to question, and worthy of serious debate.”
Foreign Policy, July/August 2006

Dimitri Simes, writing in the realists’ favorite journal, denounced the Israel lobby’s attacks:

“Mearsheimer and Walt are serious people raising serious issues in a serious way. They—and by extension all Amer-icans who want a rational discussion about U.S. foreign policy—deserve better than the virtual lynching to which they were subjected by some influential pundits.

. . .

“Predictably, the bulk of the character assassination directed at Mearsheimer and Walt has come from individuals who bear the lion’s share of responsibility for our predicament in Iraq, yet who want to use name-calling as a way of precluding any honest examination of how it happened.”
The National Interest, Summer 2006

Contrary to those who would like to blame Zionist lobbying for the U.S. predicament in Iraq, Washington’s foreign policy has always, in the end, been determined by the perceived interests of the American ruling class. The alliance with Israel, like the current colonial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, were entered into with the expectation that they would yield a dividend for American capitalism. To access the halls of power in Washington, the Israel lobby understands that it must provide advice that is seen to be useful in advancing the objectives of U.S. imperialism. The Israeli tail does not wag the American dog.

Zionism & the British Empire

Zionism—an exclusivist ideology advocating the creation of a Jewish nation-state in the territories allegedly inhabited by the biblical Israelites—developed in Europe at the dawn of the imperialist epoch in the late nineteenth century. At first it was not particularly popular in Europe’s Jewish ghettos. Religious Jews viewed Zionism as a secular perversion which threatened the power and authority of the rabbinical hierarchy, while secular Jews tended to regard the Zionists’ project as unachievable and/or undesirable. The Jewish workers and intellectuals who played such an important role in Europe’s socialist movement recognized anti-Semitism as a “divide and rule” tool of the ruling classes. However, as socialists, the idea of a state where Jewish workers could be exploited by Jewish bosses was hardly a solution.

With little support in the Jewish community, the Zionists turned to their own imperialist bourgeoisies. Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s principal ideologist, pitched the notion of a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine as a “portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism,” (The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl).

During World War I, the rulers of the British Empire came to view Zionism as a useful counterweight to pro-socialist sentiment in the Jewish working class. This was particularly important in Russia after the Czar was deposed in February 1917. The growing influence of hard-left socialists (particularly the Bolsheviks) who pledged to pull Russia out of the war alarmed the British Foreign Office, because this would mean the Germans could concentrate all their forces on the Western Front. The British ruling class was also concerned that a successful workers’ revolution in Russia might spread rapidly across Europe due to the unpopularity of the seemingly endless, and pointless, inter-imperialist bloodbath.

On 2 November 1917, Britain’s foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, announced his support for establishing a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. While the “Balfour Declaration” came too late to have much effect on events in Russia, Britain’s rulers continued to regard Zionism as valuable in undercutting communist influence among Europe’s Jewish population. In 1920, Winston Churchill, at that time secretary of state for war and air, described “three main lines of political conception among the Jews”: the “National” Jews, who identify first and foremost with their “own” country; the “International” Jews, or communists; and the Zionists:

“Zionism offers the third sphere to the political conceptions of the Jewish race. In violent contrast to international communism, it presents to the Jew a national idea of a commanding character. It has fallen to the British Government, as the result of the conquest of Palestine, to have the opportunity and the responsibility of securing for the Jewish race all over the world a home and a center of national life. The statesmanship and historic sense of Mr. Balfour were prompt to seize this opportunity….

“Of course, Palestine is far too small to accommodate more than a fraction of the Jewish race, nor do the majority of national Jews wish to go there. But if, as may well happen, there should be created in our lifetime by the banks of the Jordan a Jewish State under the protection of the British Crown, which might comprise three or four millions of Jews, an event would have occurred in the history of the world which would, from every point of view, be beneficial, and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.

“Zionism has already become a factor in the political convulsions of Russia, as a powerful competing influence in Bolshevik circles with the international communistic system. Nothing could be more significant than the fury with which Trotsky has attacked the Zionists generally, and Dr. Weissmann, in particular. The cruel penetration of his mind leaves him in no doubt that his schemes of a worldwide communist state under Jewish domination are directly thwarted and hindered by this new ideal, which directs the energies and the hopes of Jews in every land towards a simpler, a truer, and a far more attainable goal. The struggle which is now beginning between the Zionist and Bolshevik Jews is little less than a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people.”
Illustrated Sunday Herald, 8 February 1920 (reproduced in Lenni Brenner, 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis )

Churchill’s casual anti-Semitic reference to the widespread paranoid rightist fantasy of a “Judeo-Communist conspiracy” did not diminish his enthusiasm for “Dr. Weissmann,” whose ideals were so compatible with the preservation of the British Empire. Chaim Weizmann was a leading British Zionist who later became Israel’s first president.

Britain had seized Palestine, and much of the rest of the Ottoman Empire after Turkey’s defeat in World War I. In 1917, Weizmann proposed that “a Jewish Palestine would be a safeguard to England, in particular in respect to the Suez Canal” (Trial and Error, Chaim Weizmann). Prior to Turkey’s entry into the war, Weizmann had already been thinking along these lines:

“My plans are based naturally on one cardinal assumption—viz. that the Allies will win and, as I sincerely wish and hope, win well….I have no doubt in my mind that Palestine will fall within the sphere of England. Palestine is a natural continuation of Egypt and the barrier separating the Suez Canal from…the Black Sea and any hostility which may come from that side…it will be the Asiatic Belgium, especially if it is developed by the Jews. We—given more or less good conditions—could easily move a million Jews into Palestine within the next fifty to sixty years, and England would have an effective barrier and we would have a country….”
—letter to Israel Zangwill, 10 October 1914 (quoted in The Balfour Declaration, Leonard Stein)

Israel as Client State

The dissolution of the British Empire following World War II allowed the U.S. to emerge as the dominant power in the Middle East. After unsuccessfully attempting to suppress a Zionist revolt in Palestine, Britain announced its intention to withdraw and turn the territory over to the United Nations. Some commentators regard U.S. support for the partition of Palestine as an early example of the success of the Israel lobby in steering American foreign policy:

“Truman’s support for the creation of a Jewish state was due entirely to the US Jewish community, without whose influence Zionist achievements in Palestine would have been for nought. Long before any strategic argument was made, indeed, while a Jewish state was considered a strategic liability, long before Israel’s fundamentalist Christian supporters of today were on the map, the nascent Israel lobby deployed its manifold resources with consummate skill and ruthlessness.”
—Harry Clark, CounterPunch, 3-4 June 2006

In November 1947, the U.S. had voted in favor of partition in the United Nations General Assembly, but the State Department favored a policy of working to impose a “trusteeship” (i.e., direct imperialist control). In a January 1948 report, George Kennan (the influential State Department intellectual who had authored the doctrine of “containment” the previous year) argued that partition would alienate the Arab rulers who ensured American access to the region’s oil, while emboldening, rather than mollifying, the Zionist insurgents. Kennan also worried that:

“The partition of Palestine might afford the USSR a pretext on the basis of ‘self-determination of minorities’ to encourage the partition of areas in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Greece, with a view to setting up separate [Kurdish?] Azerbaijani, Armenian and Macedonian states enjoying the support of the USSR.”
—reprinted in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948 , Volume V, Part 2

A “top secret” State Department memorandum dated 11 February 1948 proposed “altering our previous policy” to one of trusteeship:

“This course of action would encounter strong opposition from the Zionists. It would, however, probably have the support of the Arab States and of world opinion in general. Our prestige in the Middle East would immediately rise and we would regain in large measure our strategically important position in the area. Our national interests would thus be served and our national security strengthened….”

President Harry Truman, over the objections of the “nascent Israel lobby,” decided to follow the State Department’s advice, only to discover that neither the Arab Palestinians, who had long been promised self-government by their British overlords, nor the Zionist colonists were willing to accept UN trusteeship. On 12 May 1948, only a few days before the British finally withdrew, with the Zionist organizations preparing to proclaim the state of Israel, the U.S. finally dropped support for trusteeship. Two days later, Truman issued a statement recognizing the new Jewish state.

The consolidation of Soviet control in Eastern Europe, and the prospect of a Communist victory in China’s civil war, made the U.S. reluctant to do anything that might push Israel into Moscow’s orbit. In November 1948, as the Zionists and Arab neighboring states were finalizing the division of territory carved out of Palestine, Israel’s foreign minister, Moshe Shertok, reminded Marshall that “many Israelis” wanted to “go along with the Russians.”

At the same time, in the interest of good relations with its regional Arab clients, Washington kept some distance from the new Jewish state. In the 1950s, the Arab world was rocked by an explosion of nationalist and anti-colonialist sentiment. The leading figure in this ferment was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had come to power in Egypt after King Farouk, a reviled British puppet, was toppled by a military coup. Nasser projected an image of a vehement anti-imperialist, but he had initially sought to reach a modus vivendi with the U.S. This proved impossible after Egypt recognized “Red China” in May 1956 and announced that it would be sending a high-level military mission to China. Washington retaliated by abruptly withdrawing its offer to help fund the construction of the Aswan High Dam—a gigantic project to manage the water resources of the Nile valley and provide electricity for Egypt’s industrial development.

Backed into a corner, Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal (with compensation to its French and British owners). Britain and France countered by hatching a plot with Israel to oust Nasser and retake the canal. The first step was for Israeli troops to move into Egypt, using Nasser’s support for Palestinian militants as a pretext. France and Britain were then to intervene, ostensibly to separate the belligerents and protect international shipping. On 29 October 1956, Israeli forces crossed into Egypt, and the next day, as planned, Britain and France issued an ultimatum, which Israel immediately accepted, but Egypt, as anticipated, rejected. On 31 October, British and French planes attacked Egyptian airfields, and a few days later began to invade. But before the British and French soldiers reached the canal, the U.S. intervened, arranged a UN ceasefire, and forced London and Paris to pull out.

Israeli historian Benny Morris observed that for the Zionists:

“It was an expansionist war, in so far as its architects, [prime minister David] Ben-Gurion and [chief of staff Moshe] Dayan, hoped it would lead to Israel’s occupation and annexation of tracts of Egyptian territory in the Sinai Peninsula from Rafah or El Arish down to Sharm ash Sheikh.”
Israel’s Border Wars, 1949-1956

The U.S. humiliated the British and French partly out of concern that their crude military aggression would strengthen Soviet influence among the Arab regimes, and partly because they had acted without first obtaining Washington’s approval.

Members of the Israel lobby tend to regard U.S. actions in the Suez crisis as “appeasement.” Former White House speechwriter David Frum recently wrote:

“After Suez, Arab nationalists redoubled their invective against the United States. The region turned increasingly radical, increasingly pro-Soviet, increasingly violent….

“Here’s an alternative lesson to draw from Suez. What Westerners think of as goodwill, Middle Easterners often interpret as weakness. Westerners expect their concessions and compromises to be met with concessions and compromises in return. Instead, Western moderation often intensifies Middle Eastern radicalism—as Eisenhower’s goodwill intensified Nasser’s radicalism, as Jimmy Carter’s intensified the Ayatollah Khomeini’s, as Ehud Barak’s at Camp David intensified Yasser Arafat’s. And (I’d argue) as George Bush’s moderation toward Iran since 9/11 has intensified the Iranian regime’s intransigence, extremism and violence.”
National Post [Toronto], 29 July 2006

The continued growth of left-nationalist and pro-socialist sentiment in the Arab countries after the Suez confrontation did produce a shift in U.S. policy. In 1958, when the ersatz Iraqi monarchy was overthrown by a left-nationalist officers’ coup actively backed by mass working-class mobilizations led by the Moscow-loyal Iraqi Communist Party, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was sufficiently alarmed to dispatch 15,000 Marines to Beirut, where the government was facing rising domestic opposition. In the same year, a National Security Council report concluded that a “logical corollary” of the success of populist, anti-imperialist movements in the region would be for the U.S. “to support Israel as the only strong pro-Western power left in the Middle East” (quoted by Noam Chomsky, ZNet, 2 April 2002).

At this point, France was Israel’s primary imperialist patron and military supplier:

“Almost immediately after Israel declared its indepen-dence on May 14, 1948, France embarked on what amounted to a policy of military and scientific cooperation with the new state.

. . .

“When, after 1956, France became the major arms supplier to the Israel Defense Forces, most commentators assumed that Israel was merely helping France recoup the influence it had lost in the Middle East after the Algerian revolt and the disastrous Suez adventure. Despite predictions that French support for Israel would cease when the Algerian war ended, cooperation with Israel persisted and broadened even while France gradually recovered its interests in the Arab world. It was only in the aftermath of the Arab-Israel war of June 1967 that the special relationship that had endured for slightly more than a decade was ruptured brusquely and unilaterally by President Charles de Gaulle.”
A Tacit Alliance: France and Israel from Suez to the Six Day War, Sylvia K. Crosbie

De Gaulle’s abrupt 1967 break with Israel, in favor of courting the Arab rulers, was offset by Washington’s decision the same year to cement a long-term, strategic alliance with Tel Aviv, on the basis of the crushing victory scored by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) over the Soviet-backed forces of Syria, Jordan and Egypt, as Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco points out:

“Immediately following Israel’s spectacular victory in the 1967 war, when it demonstrated its military superiority in the region, U.S. aid skyrocketed by 450%. Part of this increase, according to the New York Times, apparently was related to Israel’s willingness to provide the United States with examples of new Soviet weapons captured during the war. Following the 1970-71 civil war in Jordan, when Israel exhibited its ability to deter Syrian intervention in support of the uprising against the pro-Western monarchy and thus curb revolutionary movements outside its borders, U.S. aid expanded still further. When Israel further proved its strength in successfully countering a surprisingly strong Arab military assault in October 1973, U.S. military aid burgeoned once again. These aid increases paralleled the British decision to withdraw its forces from areas east of the Suez Canal. Along with the shah of Iran, who also received massive arms and logistical cooperation as a key component of the Nixon Doctrine, Israel emerged as an important allied force in the wake of the British withdrawal.”
Op. cit.

On occasion, Washington has used its largesse to rein in Tel Aviv, as, for example, during the 1973 war:

“The Soviet Union organized a massive airlift of military supplies to Egypt and Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was operating on his own because of [U.S. president] Nixon’s preoccupation with his domestic political scandal, had originally withheld arms deliveries to Israel to force it to accept a cease-fire that would preserve some of Egypt’s gains and facilitate peace talks that might break the diplomatic stalemate. But when [Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat rejected the U.S. cease-fire proposal in the hopes of seizing more Sinai territory, Kissinger released the U.S. weapons that had been withheld.”
A World of Nations, William R. Keylor

Kissinger’s strategic calculation, based on American, rather than Israeli, interests, paid off handsomely when Sadat, responding favorably to the U.S. overture, abandoned Moscow and signed on as Washington’s client. Since then, Egypt has received more U.S. foreign aid annually than any country except Israel.

Israel’s value to the U.S. has undoubtedly declined with the end of the Cold War. Even so, Zunes observes, Israel still had its uses:

“Rather than being a liability, [because of Arab hostility] as Mearsheimer and Walt claim, the 1991 Gulf War once again proved Israel to be a strategic asset; Israeli developments in air-to-ground warfare were integrated into allied bombing raids against Iraqi missile sites and other targets; Israeli-designed conformal fuel tanks for F-15 fighter-bombers greatly enhanced their range; Israeli-provided mine plows were utilized during the final assaults on Iraqi positions; Israeli mobile bridges were used by U.S. Marines; Israeli targeting systems and low-altitude warning devices were employed by U.S. helicopters; and Israel developed key components for the widely-used Tomahawk missiles. Israel is also the fifth-largest supplier of high-tech military hardware to the United States.”
Op. cit.

Israel did not contribute troops to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but Israeli personnel instructed American commanders on the counterinsurgency and torture techniques used by the IDF in the Occupied Territories. Israel also trained pro-American Kurdish militias and supplied aerial surveillance devices, decoy drones and armored construction equipment for the occupation. The Israeli military seems to have been assigned a more significant role in Pentagon plans for attacking Iran. In its unsuccessful attempt to destroy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in July and August 2006, the IDF tested new American bombing tactics and ordinance against fortifications that had been constructed with the assistance of Iranian engineers. The results provided the valuable, if disappointing, information that the Iranian installations had survived with little damage.

Although Washington’s “special relationship” with Tel Aviv has always included a virtual carte blanche for Zionist brutality against Palestinian civilians, the disenfranchisement and on-going ethnic cleansing of the Arab population of historic Palestine, which is integral to the Zionist project, is of no particular benefit to the American ruling class. Indeed, Washington’s support to Israel’s apartheid practices has become an increasingly important political and diplomatic liability for the U.S., both in the Muslim world and beyond.

Mearsheimer and Walt consider the current arrangement to be more beneficial for Israel than the U.S.:

“It is not surprising that Israel and its American supporters want the US to deal with any and all threats to Israel’s security. If their efforts to shape US policy succeed, Israel’s enemies will be weakened or overthrown, Israel will get a free hand with the Palestinians, and the US will do most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding and paying. But even if the US fails to transform the Middle East and finds itself in conflict with an increasingly radicalised Arab and Islamic world, Israel will end up protected by the world’s only superpower. This is not a perfect outcome from the Lobby’s point of view, but it is obviously preferable to Washington distancing itself, or using its leverage to force Israel to make peace with the Palestinians.”
Op. cit.

The Israel lobby has failed on more than one occasion to persuade the American bourgeoisie that its interests and those of Tel Aviv coincided. In 1981, AIPAC pulled out all the stops to block the sale of AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) planes to Saudi Arabia, but the Reagan administration went ahead anyway. A decade later, Bush the elder ignored AIPAC and turned down Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s insistent requests for $10 billion in loan guarantees, because Tel Aviv would not promise that none of the money would be used to extend Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. Even Bush Jr., whose administration is sometimes perceived to be in the pocket of “the Lobby,” forced the Israelis to walk away from a deal they had signed to upgrade China’s “Happy” surveillance aircraft.

‘Israel Lobby’ and Iraq

In accusing the perfidious Israel lobby of duping the U.S. into invading Iraq, Mearsheimer and Walt dismiss the idea that the American bourgeoisie might have been motivated by a desire to seize control of the oil wealth of the Middle East, disingenuously asserting that “there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim.” In fact, as Michelle Goldberg noted, a good deal of evidence:

“has been compiled by Paul Roberts, author of ‘The End of Oil,’ by analysts like James Paul of the Global Policy Forum, and by Kevin Phillips in ‘American Theocracy.’ Phillips quotes James Akins, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, saying, ‘what they [the Bush administration] have in mind is denationalization, and then parceling Iraqi oil out to American oil companies. The American oil companies are going to be the main beneficiaries of this war.’ In his memoir ‘The Right Man,’ David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter and neocon par excellence, wrote that Bush’s campaign to bring freedom to the Middle East would also ‘bring new prosperity to us all, by securing the world’s largest pool of oil.’ After the conservative public interest group Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request, a court ordered the Commerce Department to turn over documents from Cheney’s Task Force; among them are Iraq oil maps and lists of foreign suitors for Iraqi oil-field contracts. And, of course, there’s the fact that, as Baghdad burned immediately after the 2003 invasion, the only government building the Americans saw fit to protect was the oil ministry.”
Salon.com, 18 April 2006

In the early 1990s, at the behest of the U.S. Department of Defense, Zalmay Khalilzad (currently U.S. ambassador to Iraq) drew up a strategic review entitled “Defense Planning Guidance.” Khalilzad’s paper, written under the direction of Paul Wolfowitz, the under secretary of defense for policy, contained many of the themes that later appeared in the infamous 1998 “Project for a New American Century” document signed by Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle and other proponents of the invasion of Iraq. Khalilzad proposed that: “Our strategy must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor” and advised, “In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region’s oil” (New York Times, 8 March 1992).

When President Bill Clinton signed the “Iraq Liberation Act” in October 1998, he signaled the intention of the U.S. ruling class to “liberate” the oil resources of the Persian Gulf and create a permanent American military presence in the region. The rout of the Afghan Taliban in November 2001 reinforced illusions in the boundless superiority of America’s high-tech military, and set the stage for the March 2003 attack on Iraq. But only two and a half years later, in October 2005, Lt. General William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, labeled the invasion of Iraq “the greatest strategic disaster in United States history” (New York Times, 16 October 2005). Today, as the U.S. ruling class desperately seeks a way out, assigning the blame for the debacle in Iraq to insidious special interests who took unfair advantage of the openness and generosity of America’s political system provides some small consolation. Thus the notion of a well-oiled Israel lobby working at cross-purposes with America’s “national interest” is gaining popularity as an explanation of how kindly Uncle Sam ended up wading into the Iraqi quagmire.

At bottom, the furor over the Israel lobby represents a struggle within the U.S. ruling class over America’s entire Middle East strategy. Had Iraq turned out to be the “cakewalk” the neo-conservative think tanks predicted, it is unlikely that Mearsheimer and Walt’s article would ever have been written. But today, many members of the U.S. ruling class are open to “recalibrating” American foreign policy and interested in exploring the idea that:

“Although the Lobby remains a powerful force, the adverse effects of its influence are increasingly difficult to hide. Powerful states can maintain flawed policies for quite some time, but reality cannot be ignored for ever. What is needed is a candid discussion of the Lobby’s influence and a more open debate about US interests in this vital region.”
Op. cit.

Some of the liberals who subscribe to the myth of a beneficent giant led astray by a nefarious cabal of pro-Israel lobbyists like to imagine that somehow American military and economic power might one day be used to make the world a better place. But the real history of U.S. imperialism, from its debut with the rape of the Philippines in the 1890s to the carnage in Iraq today, is one of brutal oppression and mass murder in pursuit of profit. The devastation and misery that imperialist domination inflicts on the neo-colonial countries is not a result of adopting bad policy options, and cannot be corrected by well-meaning people committed to pursuing a different path. The ravages of imperialism in the Middle East and throughout the “underdeveloped” world are the necessary and inevitable result of global capitalist exploitation. A just and equitable economic order can only be constructed on the basis of turning the world upside down—through the wholesale expropriation of the corporate ruling elites and the creation of an internationally-planned, socialist economy in which the needs of the many take precedence over the enrichment of a few.

Published: 1917 No.29 (January 2007)