Anti-Semitism in U.S. Middle East Policy


Look, the Senator actually agrees with you,” pleaded the exasperated senior aide of a prominent liberal Democrat. He was being confronted by a group of us in the spring of 1992, all peace and human rights activists, about his boss’s strident support of Israel‘s right-wing Likud government and his indifference to the plight of the Palestinians. The aide continued, “But he wants to be re-elected. If you really want him to change his position on Israel, work for campaign finance reform.

 

Such anecdotes have been shared by many who have attempted to lobby members of Congress to pursue a more responsible Middle East policy. There are frequent reports of off-the-record comments by even top Senate leaders over their frustration with how “the Jewish lobby runs Congress.”

 

Similarly, in meetings with top Foreign Ministry officials in Arab countries and even in Europe, I have been told how U.S. diplomats frequently apologize for the continued American economic, military, and diplomatic support of Israeli policies which most of the international community finds abhorrent and which jeopardize the peace process, explaining that it is American Jews who are actually controlling U.S. Middle East policy. Even President Bush, during the debate on the $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel, claimed he was just “one lonely little guy” standing up to “a thousand lobbyists” swarming on Capitol Hill.

 

There is something very easy — and all-too familiar — about Gentiles in powerful positions maintaining that it is not they who are responsible for their actions, but a cabal of rich and influential Jews manipulating events behind the scenes. Indeed, such claims constitute classic anti-Semitism: scape-goating Jews for unpopular actions by exaggerating Jewish economic and political power.

 

Groups like the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its related Political Action Committees are indeed influential. Like the National Rifle Association, AIPAC has exerted influence over Congress far out of proportion to its public support through well-organized and well-financed efforts against those who do not fully support its agenda, creating a climate of intimidation on Capitol Hill. Political Action Committees and their individual funders supportive of the Israeli government contribute more that $7 million biannually to Congressional campaigns.

 

Yet Israel‘s strongest supporters in the House of Representatives tend to come from some of the safest districts in the country. There is little financial incentive for such Representatives to take a position supporting Israeli government policy, yet they do so anyway. More importantly, Congress does not make foreign policy; recent years have seen foreign policy become increasingly the prerogative of the executive branch. Congress in the past several decades has played a limited, and largely reactive, role in foreign policy.

 

In addition, these Jewish organizations have been unable to successfully force the U.S. government into full accountability in other policy areas which concern the Jewish community, such as the ongoing large-scale U.S. arms sales to Arab regimes or the continued presence of Nazi war criminals in the U.S., many of whom were brought into the United States clandestinely by U.S. intelligence agencies. They were unable to stop President Reagan’s controversial visit to the German cemetery at Bitburg (the burial site of SS Officers), halt U.S. agricultural subsidies and other aid to Iraq (which were stopped only immediately prior to the invasion of Kuwait over Bush Administration objections), curb the U.S. increasing rapprochement with Syria, or challenge the decision to limit Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe despite heightened fears of renewed anti-Semitism resulting from that region’s growing economic crises.

 

One of the insidious aspects of anti-Semitism is that Jews, a tiny minority in every country except Israel and who have suffered some of the worst persecution in human history, have often been depicted as the exploiters rather than the targets of oppression. For example, Jews in the United States are often believed to have an enormous degree of economic power. Yet among the individuals who could actually be considered among the most influential sectors of the American ruling class, Jews are not represented any more than their share of the general population.

 

As American Jews have entered the mainstream of American life, they — like other upwardly mobile groups — have developed an economic stake in the status quo, and have moved politically to the right. Combined with support from most major Jewish organizations of Israel’s right-wing government, this has alienated many American Jews — once a major force in the American Left — from progressive causes. Combined with the tendency of leftists to see oppression largely from an economic analysis, a sub-group with higher than average incomes and an increasingly conservative political orientation is difficult to appreciate as an oppressed group. Therefore, the American Left — usually in the forefront of solidarity with those on the receiving end of prejudice — has often been weak in its analysis of anti-Semitism as compared with racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, and has thus failed to fully appreciate the nature of the role of Jews in contemporary American society and have left exaggerated charges of Jewish economic and political power largely unchallenged.

 

It may be the perception of a powerful Jewish lobby, rather than its reality, that creates this mystique of power. The increasingly conservative American Jewish leadership tries to maintain the myth of their power as a means of keeping the community together. In some cases, the pro-Israeli government lobby and political action committees play on this stereotype by throwing money around, threatening opponents, and exaggerating their role in the defeat of certain incumbents in tight races. Yet few conscientious politicians have even dared to test this alleged power by forcefully advocating a change in U.S. Middle East policy.

 

More fundamentally, it is a naive assumption to believe that foreign policy decision making in the United States is pluralistic enough so that any one lobbying group can have this kind of influence.

 

Foreign policy decisions in the United States, as in most countries, are made by elites based on a broad consensus over strategic interests. Certain policies can be altered if challenged by mass popular movements — such as the opposition to the Vietnam War — but there has been no comparable movement in support of the Israeli government. The strong tilt in U.S. foreign policy in the past 20 years in support of the Israeli government has taken place primarily because of broader strategic concerns. Certainly there have been some specific Congressional votes where the outcome was certainly affected by the pro-Israel lobby, yet most of these were of a largely symbolic nature or were successful primarily because they paralleled already existing priorities by foreign policy elites.

 

Bush’s success at blocking the loan guarantee is an example of the lobby’s impotence when actually faced with resistance from those who really hold power in foreign policy implementation.

 

It is noteworthy that the major upturn in U.S. aid to Israel between 1967 and 1974 took place prior to the reorganization of AIPAC, when it greatly increased its power and influence on Capitol Hill. It also primarily took place under Richard Nixon, who was not only an anti-Semite, but also the least dependent on Jewish votes or financing of any recent president.

 

The fact is that U.S. support for the Israeli government and opposition to Palestinian rights are based not on an all-powerful lobby, but by the same elite interests that lead the U.S. to support any militarized pro-Western government and oppose any Third World nationalist movement. The U.S. “supports” Israel for what that country has done for U.S. interests.

 

Israel has successfully prevented victories by radical nationalist movements in Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen, as well as in Palestine. They have kept Syria, for many years an ally of the Soviet Union, in check. Their air force is predominant throughout the region. Israel’s frequent wars have provided battlefield testing for American arms, often against Soviet weapons. They have been a conduit for U.S. arms to regimes and movements too unpopular in the United States for openly granting direct military assistance, such as South Africa, Iran, Guatemala, and the Nicaraguan Contras. Israeli military advisors have assisted the Contras, the Salvadoran junta, and foreign occupation forces in Namibia and Western Sahara. Their secret service has assisted the U.S. in intelligence gathering and covert operations. Israel has missiles capable of reaching the former Soviet Union and has cooperated with the U.S. military industrial complex with research and development for new jet fighters, anti-missile defense systems, and even the Strategic Defense Initiative.

 

As a result, the United States has been encouraging some of the more chauvinistic and militaristic elements in the Israeli government, undermining the last vestiges of Labor Zionism’s commitment to socialism, non-alignment, and cooperation with the Third World. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it, “Israel’s obstinacy. . . serves the purposes of both our countries best.” As Israeli military strength and repression of the Palestinians has increased, so has U.S. aid, contradicting the widespread belief that U.S. aid is to defend a threatened and democratic Israel.

 

The rise of the Likud Bloc in Israel and the rightward drift in the Labor Party since independence is in large part due to this large-scale American support. Israeli politicians such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Ariel Sharon would certainly exist without U.S. support, but they would have likely been part of a small right-wing minority in the Knesset. No one with those kinds of policies could last very long in office, given the self-defeating effect of such militarization on economic grounds or in terms of international isolation, were they not supported to such a degree that they did not have to worry about the consequences of their policies on their own population.

 

For reasons outlined above, it was in U.S. interests to maintain a militarily-powerful belligerent Israel dependent on the United States. Real peace could undermine such a relationship. The United States, therefore, pursued a policy of Pax Americana, one which might bring greater stability to the region while falling short of real peace. The Camp David agreement was an example, in that it more closely resembled a tripartite military pact than a true peace treaty, promising more than $5 billion of additional weaponry to both countries and closer American strategic cooperation. The U.S. refused to follow through on provisions of the agreement calling for Palestinian autonomy, increasing aid to Israel even as Jewish colonization and anti-Palestinian repression in the territories greatly increased.

 

American opposition to a comprehensive peace settlement goes back nearly 25 years. The Nixon Administration refused to support the Allon Plan, instead encouraging the previous Labor governments in Israel to hold on to the territory. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger passed on to the Israelis the advice that they even ignore the Rogers Plan, crafted by the U.S. Secretary of State. When Sadat made peace overtures to Israel in 1971, Kissinger successfully pressured the Israelis to ignore it, resulting in the October 1973 War. Only after the war did the U.S. support disengagement talks, and then only under American auspices. Subsequent peace plans brought forth by the Europeans or Arab states (such as the Fahd Plan) were also rejected by the United States.

 

However, the intifada led to a shift in thinking by American policy makers, as the inability of Israeli military might to curb popular resistance in the occupied territories, and the dangerous precedent it set for possible insurrections against autocratic pro-Western Arab leaders, led to a re-evaluation of the role of the Israeli armed forces as a stabilizing force. This resulted in the Bush administration challenging Israeli policies to a degree unheard of in Washington for more than a generation. These protests were largely in rhetoric only — unconditional military and economic aid to the Israeli government continued to flow — but it did indicate that Washington was ready to pressure Israel for some sort of compromise.

 

Still, the United States would only allow for peace talks under American auspices. The round of talks begun in Madrid, over two years ago, were designed to avoid a multi-party peace conference which could develop a comprehensive formula. Instead, the U.S. stressed a bilateral approach, on the lines of Camp David, to weaken the chances of Arab unity.

 

However, it soon became clear that the Shamir government was effectively using the peace process as a stalling tactic to avoid any kind of agreement while greatly expanding settlement activities in the occupied territories to create a fait accompli. Seeing this as a dangerous provocation, the U.S. decided that the Likud must be defeated and that the Labor Party needed to form a working majority. Then came the decision to temporarily withhold the $10 billion loan guarantee agreement and other measures, helping to make possible the election of Labor-dominated government. This came over the strong protests of the Democratic Party (including the then Governor Bill Clinton and then-Senator Al Gore) — and many Republicans as well — who supported the Likud.

 

Still, not wanting a full peace agreement, the Bush administration — and later the Clinton administration — continued to bar the Palestine Liberation Organization, the effective Palestinian government and one of the two major parties of the conflict, from even taking part in the U.S.-sponsored peace process. The Israeli-Palestinian agreement proposed by the U.S. in June 1993 basically legitimized continued Israeli occupation. Therefore, the only way the new Israeli government could make progress on the peace talks was to circumvent the U.S.-managed peace talks, meet with the PLO secretly in a third country and offer them a more generous agreement than proposed by the United States three months earlier.

 

One of the more unsettling aspects of U.S. policy is how closely it corresponds with historic anti-Semitism. Throughout Europe in past centuries, the ruling class of a given country would, in return for granting limited religious and cultural autonomy, set up certain individuals in the Jewish community to become the visible agents of the oppressive social order, such as tax collectors and money lenders. When the population would threaten to rise up against the ruling class, the rulers could then blame the Jews, sending the wrath of an exploited people against convenient scape-goats, resulting in the pogroms and other notorious waves of repression which have taken place throughout the Jewish Diaspora.

 

The idea behind Zionism was to break this cycle through the creation of a Jewish nation-state, where Jews would no longer be dependent on the ruling class of a given country. The tragic irony is that, as a result of Israel’s inability or unwillingness to make peace with its Arab neighbors, the creation of Israel has perpetuated this cycle on a global scale, with Israel being used by Western imperialist powers — initially Great Britain and France and more recently the United States — to maintain their interests in the Middle East. Therefore, one finds autocratic Arab governments and other Third World regimes blaming “Zionism” for their problems rather than the broader exploitative global economic system and their own elites who benefit from and help perpetuate such a system.

 

The ramifications of U.S. policy are quite apparent when it comes to the suffering of Palestinians, Lebanese, and other Arabs. But it also has a negative impact on Israel. The respected Israeli intellectual Ishawa Leibowitz has noted, “The existence of the Jewish people of 60 to 80 generations. . . was a heroic situation. We never got from the goyish world a cent. We supported ourselves. We maintained our own institutions. Now we have taken three million Jews, gathered them here and turned them over to be parasites — parasites of America. And in some sense we are even the mercenaries of America to fight the wars of what the ruling persons in America consider to be American interests.”

 

Many progressive Zionists fear that Israel’s close ties with what many perceive as an imperialist power like the United States alienates Israel’s potential allies in the Third World and leaves Israel vulnerable to the whims of U.S. foreign policy. Like the Jews of medieval Europe, they fear Israel could be suddenly abandoned by the West after being set up to become the visible agent of an oppressive world order.

 

More than one-third of all U.S. foreign aid goes to Israel, which has only one one-thousandth of the world’s population and one of the world’s highest per capita incomes. Many neo-isolationists have decried this as a rip-off of the American taxpayer.

 

However, it is important to note that the Israelis do not actually get most of this money. Most of it goes to American banks in the form of interest payments on previous loans and to U.S. arms manufacturers to produce weapons for the Israeli military. “U.S. aid to Israel” is just another means of transferring wealth to the corporate elites of American society. Yet who gets the blame for the billions of dollars the American taxpayer spends annually on so-called aid to Israel? Not the bankers and arms manufacturers and others who benefit, but the Jews.

 

Arms aid to Israel further benefits U.S. arms manufacturers in that it creates a greater demand for weaponry by Arab states, many of which can pay cash in petrodollars. Even though many of these regimes take a far harder stance against Israel than does the Palestinian government (the PLO) and constitute the chief sources of financial support for the extremist Hamas movement, the U.S. has no qualms about selling these autocratic monarchies sophisticated arms while simultaneously refusing to even talk with the Palestinians. These arms sales to Arab states then create a counter-demand from the Israeli military elites for yet more arms, and the cycle continues.

 

Meanwhile, in Israel, U.S. arms transfers cost Israelis two to three times their value in maintenance, spare parts, training of personnel, and related expenses. It drains their economy and further ties them into an economic and strategic reliance on the United States. Yet, in the United States, many critics of U.S. Middle East policy insist that it is the Israelis (once again, the Jews) who are manipulating the United States. The result is an increasingly isolated and dependent Israel and the fueling of anti-Semitism in the United States.

 

Zionism, like every national liberation movement, has both its progressive and reactionary elements. Nationalism by historically-oppressed people may have inclusive, pluralistic, and democratic elements or it may be dominated by racist, chauvinistic and militaristic tendencies. There are a number of reasons why the Zionist movement (even Israel’s “Left” Labor Alignment) has been dominated by the latter, but the primary explanation may be that it is because they can get away with it.

 

Historically, any country which has pursued the policies that Israel has followed — extraordinarily high levels of militarization, territorial conquest, suppression of minorities, flaunting of international law, and gross and systematic human rights violation — has had to pay the consequences. The inevitable repercussions are self-defeating: such policies eventually result in economic collapse, military defeat, debilitating international sanctions, or internal rebellion.

 

However, the Israeli leadership has been able to maintain its otherwise self-destructive direction because it has been backed diplomatically, financially, and militarily by the world’s dominant superpower. The need to compromise by allowing for Palestinian national rights has not yet become apparent to the majority of Israelis and Jews elsewhere, knowing they have an American umbrella under which to hide from the consequences of their actions.

 

Therefore, those who attack Zionism as inherently racist, expansionist, or militaristic are once again falling into the trap of blaming the Jews instead of those who are, in fact, responsible. Any nationalist movement based in a hostile region which has received the kind of backing Israel has would likely behave no differently.

 

The recent breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — granting Palestinians limited self-government in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho — is not likely to lead to real peace, at least as long as the United States continues to be more interested in maintaining a garrison Israel than recognizing that Israeli security and Palestinian rights are dependent on the other.

 

The Camp David Accords had provisions for Palestinian autonomy for almost the entire occupied territories, but when the Israelis refused to implement any real form of Palestinian self-governance, the United States refused to press the issue. Indeed, U.S. military and economic support for Israel’s right-wing government increased dramatically, demonstrating to the Israelis that there was little to lose in such intransigence.

 

Similarly, it seems that whenever the current government of Yitzhak Rabin has taken hard-lined actions, they get little criticism from the Clinton administration. The U.S. protected Israel from United Nations sanctions when Israel expelled over 400 Palestinian Muslims, launched heavy attacks against Lebanese villages, and dramatically increased the level of repression in the occupied territories.

 

At the same time, when the Israelis have shown a willingness to compromise and take risks for peace, they have gotten little support.

 

Only when Israel and the Zionist movement see their future with the Third World — made necessary by its geography, its Semitic language and culture, its majority Sephardic population, and the Jews’ history of exploitation by the Europeans — will Israel end its isolation and find the real security that it has been missing. Many of the so-called “supporters of Israel” in American politics are actually making Israel vulnerable by tying its future to a declining Western imperial order and blocking its more natural alliance with the world’s Afro-Asian majority.

 

The combination of Israeli technology, Palestinian industriousness, and Arabian oil wealth could result in an economic, political, and social transformation of the Middle East which would be highly beneficial to the region’s inhabitants, but not necessarily to certain elites in the United States and other Western nations who profit enormously from the continued divisions between these Semitic peoples.

 

Meanwhile, Israeli leaders and their counterparts in many American Zionist organizations are repeating the historic error of trading short-term benefits for their people at the risk of long-term security. This cycle can only be broken when current American policy is effectively challenged and Israelis and Palestinians will finally be allowed to settle their differences among themselves and join together in liberating the Middle East from both Western imperialism and their own autocratic rulers.

 

Without U.S. encouragement to compromise further, Israel will not likely allow the Palestinians more autonomy or control of land than the current agreement allows. Given that domestic pressure in Israel against Rabin’s middle ground is stronger on the right than the left, he will have little room to compromise further unless there is U.S. pressure. Indeed, members of the Israeli team in the peace negotiations have privately begged the Clinton administration to pressure their government further so they could have an excuse to move more than they can currently, but the Clinton administration has refused.

 

There is a growing consensus in Israel that a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza is an inevitable outgrowth of the agreement. However, the U.S. remains adamant in its opposition to Palestinian statehood. Indeed, the Clinton administration is the first in the United States to imply that the West Bank and Gaza are “disputed” territories, insinuating that the Israelis and Palestinians have equal claim to the land, rather than the view of the international community which recognizes it as territory under foreign military occupation.

 

Most observers recognize that one of the major obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace is the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. However, the Clinton Administration, in a reversal of policy from previous administrations, has not opposed the expansion of existing settlements and has been ambivalent regarding the large scale construction of massive housing developments in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.

 

According to U.S. law, the costs of such additional Jewish development in the occupied territories must be deducted from the $2 billion annual allocation of the controversial $10 billion American loan guarantee to Israel passed in 1992. In October, the U.S. officially announced to Israel that there would be a $437 million deduction in this year’s loan due to settlement construction during the 1993 fiscal year. However, State Department Middle East peace talks coordinator Dennis Ross immediately let the Israeli government know that the U.S. would find a way to restore the full funding. Within a month, Clinton announced the U.S. would indeed give Israel an additional $500 million, ostensibly to pay for the “redeployment” of Israeli troops which have yet to evacuate from any part of the occupied territories.

 

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration has launched a vigorous campaign to rescind all the previous UN resolutions critical of Israel. The Administration has labeled these “anachronistic” even though the issues addressed in these resolutions — human rights violations, illegal settlements, expulsions of dissidents, development of nuclear weapons, and ongoing military occupation — remain as relevant as ever.

 

By far the strongest domestic pressure Rabin receives comes from the Israeli right, which opposes any territorial compromise. The Israeli peace movement, while supportive of the accords, has been unwilling or unable to mobilize for a complete end of the occupation. Therefore, the only truly effective counter-pressure must come from the United States, which provides the military, economic, and diplomatic support for Israeli occupation forces.

 

Some apologists for the Clinton administration claim that it is pressure from the American Jewish community which accounts for the United States’ hard-lined position. However, according to a recent poll by the American Jewish Congress, a sizable majority of American Jews now support Palestinian statehood. Similarly, a number of prominent Jews in the Clinton administration, some of whom have ties with the Israeli peace movement, are quite chagrined at the president’s swing to the right. The man who has emerged as Clinton’s primary advisor on the Middle East is Martin Indyk of the National Security Council, former head of the conservative Washington Institute on Near East Policy and an advisor to the former right-wing Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who is openly hostile to the Israeli-PLO accord.

 

The U.S. policy towards the Palestinians is to the right of the Israeli government. There is little question that one could get more votes for Palestinian statehood in the Israeli Knesset than in the U.S. Congress; even the leadership of the Labour Party takes a more dovish position than the leadership of either American political party.

 

This cycle of setting Jews up to do the dirty work for those who really have power can only be broken when current American policy is effectively challenged and Israelis and Palestinians will finally be allowed to settle their differences among themselves and join together in liberating the Middle East from both Western imperialism and their own autocratic rulers.

 

Stephen Zunes is director of the Institute for a New Middle East Policy and an associate scholar at the Institute for Global Security Studies in Seattle