A Strategic Relationship

Within the last week, AIPAC has attacked the Obama administration for recognizing the achievements of Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and a known critic of Israel. AIPAC is protesting a plan to award Robinson for her work in promoting women’s rights – in light of her milestone achievement as the first female president of Ireland. AIPAC sees the award differently than Obama; it denigrates Robinson for "her views on Israel and her long public record of hostility and one-sided bias against the Jewish state." The basis of AIPAC’s attack? Robinson’s chairing of a 2001 World Conference Against Racism, which criticized Zionism as racist (most specifically against non-Jewish Israelis). AIPAC conveniently omits from its attack the fact that the World Conference’s "one-sided bias" targeted not only Zionism, but also anti-Semitism as harmful to efforts to eliminate racism. Predictably, the Obama administration is carefully sidestepping conflict with AIPAC, as White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs declares that there "are statements that obviously [Robinson] has made that the president doesn’t agree with."

Also in the news is the attack of a senior Israeli diplomat against right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long supported settlement expansion in the West Bank. The diplomat, Nadav Tamir, feels that Netanyahu is risking support from American Jews by publicly disagreeing with Obama over the settlements. Tamir aptly points out that American Jews are not unified behind the state of Israel and the Israel Lobby on the issue of settlement expansion. This conclusion is supported by J Street, a Jewish-American political group that supports an end to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, a two-state solution, and an end to settlement expansion. J Street recently presented a poll finding that two-thirds of American Jews want to see the U.S. actively work toward promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace, even if this requires the U.S. to publicly disagree with, and pressure Israel. America’s Jews shouldn’t be pigeon-holed as uniformly and uncritically supportive of Israel. It is inaccurate to characterize the Jewish-American community as mindlessly falling in line behind the Israel Lobby’s efforts to block peace. As political scientist Stephen Zunes reminds us, "[Jewish] groups like Americans for Peace Now, the Tikkkun Community, Brit Tzedek v’ Shalom and the Israel Policy Forum all identify themselves as pro-Israel but oppose the occupation, the settlements, the separation wall, and Washington’s unconditional support for Israeli policies."

In my last piece, I analyzed problems with the claim that the Israel lobby is all-powerful. I should reiterate in this piece that I fundamentally agree with claims that the lobby enjoys a tremendous power in U.S. politics to coerce critics and silence dissent. The major issue at hand, however, is not whether the lobby has great power (which it does) but what forces explain the origins of that power. In answering this question, I conclude that support for Israel historically arose as a result of the country’s strategic value to the U.S.

Some on the left question whether the Israel Lobby is the dominant factor in influencing U.S. policy in the Middle East. Norman Finkelstein argues that "I don’t think there is evidence that U.S. policy in the Middle East in general is shaped by the lobby…I do think that the lobby is a crucial factor in determining U.S. policy towards the Palestinians. I don’t think it determined U.S. policy in Iran, in Turkey or in Iraq. But on the Israel-Palestine conflict – the building of settlements and the colonization of Palestine, I think it is a crucial factor." Finkelstein’s dichotomy seems useful. Israel Lobby is probably the prime determinant of U.S. policy toward the Palestinians – a people who have traditionally not factored very much into American officials’ strategic planning regarding Middle Eastern oil. To say that the Lobby dominates all Middle East policy, however, is conspiratorial and outlandish.

Like Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky frames the issue in a nuanced way, arguing that "what is at stake [in this debate] is a rather subtle matter: weighing the impact of several factors which (all agree) interact in determining state policy: in particular, (A) strategic-economic interests of concentrations of domestic power in the tight state-corporate linkage, and (B) the Lobby." Chomsky concludes that strategic interests overpower the Israel Lobby in influencing the formulation of U.S. foreign policy.

Acknowledging the strategic reasons for U.S. support for Israel is vital. Failing to do so opens critics of the lobby up to the charge that they’re apologizing for the actions of political officials. Our politicians’ culpability is obscured when they’re seen, not as rational and empowered actors, but as victims of the Israel lobby. This criticism clearly does not apply to many on the left I have spoken with who do hold U.S. leaders responsible for supporting Israel, but more to mainstream critics of the lobby like Thomas Friedman. Friedman, among many others, fails to frame officialdom as guilty of blocking steps to end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An exploration of the strong relations between Israel and the U.S. must begin when Israel was established in 1948. Former President Harry Truman was the first world leader to acknowledge Israel, amidst strong pressure from the Jewish American community. While Truman established a strong working rapport between the two states, American support was not consistent over the next decade. Former President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, took a strong stand against Israel’s invasion of Egypt in the 1956 Suez War, demanding that Israel, along with Britain and France, withdraw from their attack under the threat of sanctions. It is crucial to note that, although AIPAC was founded three years before the Suez War, it was in no position to make demands on Eisenhower. As Israeli historian Michael Oren explains in his book Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, AIPAC didn’t emerge as a formidable power in influencing Congress until the 1970s, after Israel had already demonstrated its power as a strategic ally.

U.S. officials do not hesitate to punish Israel for acts deemed harmful to U.S. interests. The Israel Lobby either relents or is generally silent during many of these attacks, as seen in the 2005 Israeli-Chinese arms dispute. Without reservation, the Bush administration imposed sanctions on Israel after discovering that it sold unmanned aerial drones to China. The incident was no small event, as the Guardian reported that it "threaten[ed] relations with the U.S." amidst growing "repulsion toward Israel among lower and middle ranking officials in Washington." In 2000 Israel was again successfully pressured by the Clinton administration to end its sales of radar equipment to China. The Israel Lobby was unsuccessful in intimidating the president in the midst of a dispute that, the Independent reports, "triggered serious Congressional criticism" and incited strategically motivated "fears [that] China’s growing might poses a threat to U.S. interests in the Pacific." Clinton explained his progress in demanding Israel’s capitulation as having "reached the point of no return," contradicting assumptions that U.S. officials are unable to resist Israeli coercion.

Plenty of other examples of independence from the lobby are cited by Stephen Zunes, including Reagan’s overruling of Israel’s opposition to its sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia, Carter’s pressure on Israel in 1978 (under threat of sanctions) to halt its military advance in Lebanon, and George H. W. Bush’s delay of $10 billion in loans to Israel, which resulted in the defeat of right-wing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in the upcoming election (Shamir had openly defied Bush’s efforts to promote peace in the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference between Israel and its neighbors). These rebukes of Israel are precisely the kinds of events the Israel Lobby should be able to overcome if it enjoys a stranglehold over U.S. politics.

The special U.S.-Israeli relationship materialized during the Cold War, but more specifically during the late 1960s to early 1970s. A close examination of these years finds that annual increases in aid to Israel closely followed attacks made by Israel against surrounding Arab states deemed hostile to U.S. interests. The five largest increases in U.S. aid from 1960-2008 (measured in the percent increase in aid from one year to the next) are described below, as are the major political events that preceded them.

1. Aid to Israel increases by 349 percent in 1968, the year following the 1967 Six Day War when Israel began its occupation of the Golan Heights (Syria), the West Bank and Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt). Egypt and Syria are seen as enemies of the United States due to their political ties to the Soviet Union and their independence from capitalist investment efforts (for example, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s leadership of the non-aligned movement). Support for Israel is seen as a way to confront countries such as Egypt and Syria, which are challenging U.S. interests and dominance of the region.

2. Aid to Israel increases by 577 percent in 1971, the year after Syria sends forces into Jordan to protect the PLO in its battle against the Jordanian military. Israel and the U.S. mobilize to oppose Syria’s incursion during this period, leading Syrians officials to consider the possibility of withdrawal. U.S. and Israeli mobilization is effective in deterring Syria from aiding the PLO.

3. Aid to Israel increases by 437 percent in 1974, the year following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Both the Soviet Union and U.S. line up behind their respective sides in this conflict, with the Soviet Union granting support to Egypt and Syria, and the U.S. supporting Israel. The Arab-Israeli war provides the context for Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to initiate long-term support for Israel under the logic of fighting the Cold War. Kissinger’s goal, as he admits in his book The White House Years, is to "reduce Soviet influence" in the region, "weaken the position of Arab radicals" (defined as those who side with the Soviet Union or challenge U.S. capitalism, and "encourage Arab moderates" (those dictatorships that oppose the Soviets or embrace capitalist investment).

4. Aid to Israel increases by 187 percent in 1976, the year after the onset of the Angolan Civil War. This civil war represents a major Cold War rivalry in which the U.S. intervenes in favor of the anti-communist UNITA forces. The Ford administration utilizes Israel to provide weapons to anti-communist forces after the Clark amendment, passed by Congress, bars direct U.S. aid. In later years, Israel consistently provides weapons to dictatorships that the U.S. prefers not to be seen aiding. Cases include support for repressive, pro-capitalist regimes in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere.

5. Aid to Israel increases by 170 percent in 1979, the year after Israel invades south Lebanon and attacks PLO forces there. While Carter publicly rebukes Israel for its role in the invasion, his administration frames Israel as a major strategic ally in the fight against communism in the Middle East and in the battle to control the region’s oil.

That the primary goal of U.S. policy in the Middle East is the dominance of oil should come as no surprise to informed students of history. I provide a long review of the government’s policy planning documents during the last 60-70 years in my book When Media Goes to War. These documents clearly express a U.S. interest in controlling Middle Eastern oil through force and through support for repressive regimes in the region. Many of the policy statements from official circles indicate that support for Israel is driven by strategic interests. During the Cold War, the U.S. and Israel engaged in many minor disputes about Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians and Arab neighbors, but none of these threatened the perception that Israel performs a vital strategic function for the U.S.

Although the special relationship was not yet been institutionalized in the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration speculated about the possibility that Israeli power could be used to the benefit of the U.S. The administration remarked that the Middle East remained the most "strategically important area in the world." In its National Security Council memorandums, Eisenhower summarized America’s problems with "radical and nationalistic regimes" [including socialist and communist governments] in poorer countries that were responsible to public pressure for the "immediate improve in the low living standards of the masses." Interested in promoting "a political and economic climate conducive to private investment," Eisenhower chose to oppose regimes that responded to the demands of the masses for a more egalitarian distribution of natural resources. In speaking of Middle Eastern oil, the administration explored U.S. options for "combating radical Arab nationalism" and "hold[ing] Persian Gulf oil by force if necessary." "Radicalism" in this case was defined as any effort to ensure that oil was used for the benefit of the domestic population, rather than for Western corporations. Most importantly, Eisenhower determined that support for Israel was a "logical" step in the effort "to hold Persian gulf oil by force," since Israel was "the only strong pro-West power left in the Near East."

The Nixon administration was equally blunt in its discussion of Israel’s strategic value, particularly after Israeli leaders demonstrated their power to defeat "radical" non-capitalist Arab regimes. Nixon’s Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird discussed the strategic value of U.S. allies in the Middle East – including Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia – who were expected to serve as local "cops on the beat" for the U.S. Nixon himself was blunt in his admission that domestic lobbying concerns were not driving his policy in the Middle East. One of his memorandums circulated to his National Security Advisor and Secretary of State in 1969 explained that "under no circumstances will domestic political considerations have any bearing on the decisions I make with regard to the Mideast…the only consideration that will affect my decisions on this policy will be the security of the United States."

As Henry Kissinger explains, access to "cheap and plentiful oil" is the "basic premise" upon which post-war Western capitalism is built. Kissinger was intent on ensuring U.S. control over "plentiful oil" by supporting the use of military force as "the only feasible countervailing power to OPEC’s control of oil." To combat OPEC "extortion" – as seen in rising prices in the 1970s – Kissinger concluded that the U.S. should rely upon Israeli military power for defeating its Arab neighbors, and should consider the use of military force, if it is needed, to secure control of Saudi oil fields.

Support for Israel as a strategic asset was also a goal of presidents that followed Nixon. In National Security Directive 63, the Carter administration framed U.S. policy as emphasizing the need to ensure "the availability of oil [from the Middle East] at reasonable prices." NSD 63 depicted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with great alarm, promising that 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 U.S. It will be repelled by the use of any means necessary, including military force." U.S. leaders interpreted control over the region and its oil as requiring not only military action against non-compliant oil rich states, but also against states adjacent to oil rich states, and even to states on the periphery of the Middle East such as Afghanistan. The Carter administration also concluded in National Security Directive 62 that "the chaotic situation following the Iranian revolution, the Iraq-Iran war, and the intensifying intra-Arab and Israeli Arab tensions have increased the instability of the region. This has also increased the risk to U.S. and allied interests [in which Israel is included], both directly and indirectly by giving the Soviets added opportunities for interference."

Many pundits lambasted Ronald Reagan as ignorant of political affairs. This should not discount the fact that his administration fully understood the vital importance of Israel. In National Security Directive 115, the administration elaborated upon U.S. efforts to "develop a more mature strategic relationship with the government of Israel. In order to put these discussions into strategic context, we need to stress that from the USG perspective, the array of threats to our vital interests" in the Middle East "posed by the Soviet Union, Syria, Libya, and the fundamentalist Islamic regime in Iran dictate that we enhance and deepen our security cooperation with Israel and the moderate Arab states."

Much has been made by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt of the claim that the U.S. relationship with Israel was once a function of the Cold War paradigm, but that Israel’s strategic usefulness is no longer relevant now that the Soviet Union is gone. Such a conclusion displays an extraordinary ignorance and naivete to historical U.S. interests in the region, which were never primarily about containing the Soviet Union. In combating Soviet influence in the region, U.S. interests were always deeper, and driven by the obsession with dominating oil, an interest lucidly reflected in the documents and statements above. Nowhere is this goal more clearly extolled than in the planning of the George H. W. Bush administration. In releasing their 1991 National Security Strategy (a year after the Soviet Union began to dissolve), Bush declared a "new world order" based closely on the understanding that Middle East oil was vital to U.S. national security. Bush’s strategy discussed the need to confront "threats to oil supplies that flow through the Persian Gulf" in the absence of competition with the Soviet Union. Concern was directed at political threats to U.S. dominance, not only in oil rich countries, but in countries adjacent to these countries. U.S. operations in Lebanon from 1983-1984 and in Libya in 1986 were deemed vital to promoting U.S. power in the Middle East. As the 1991 strategy explained, the U.S. would continue to respond to "threats to U.S. interests that could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door. Therefore, we will maintain a naval presence…in the Persian Gulf…we will conduct periodic exercises and pursue improved host nation support and prepositions of equipment throughout the region." Bush specifically referenced the "security of Israel and moderate Arab states" as linked to the goal of ensuring the "free flow of oil."

Post-Cold War strategic interests in Israel were also voiced by Bill Clinton in his 1996 National Security Strategy. Clinton reiterated America’s "enduring interests…[in] assuring the security of Israel and our Arab friends and maintaining the free flow of oil at reasonable prices." Working to end an Arab boycott on Israel and a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan (another U.S. ally) was deemed vital to the effort. Promoting a "peace" agreement between Israel and Palestinian leaders (one that required under the 2000 Camp David meetings the indefinite continuation of the occupation and colonization of the West Bank) was also referenced in Clinton’s strategy. While declassified documents from the Bush and Obama administrations are not yet available, it is unlikely that they will reveal a radical change from the historical perception that Israel is of strategic value.

I’ve gone to great lengths to review the official record on U.S. policy on the Middle East in regards to Israel. Those interested in the historical record have plenty of evidence that the special relationship’s origin is motivated in great part by its perceived strategic value. Much has been made of whether support for Israel realistically provides the U.S. with a strategic advantage in the Middle East. This is an important point of debate, but one that remains fundamentally separate from the reality that U.S. leaders perceive Israel to be a vital strategic ally.

Israel has long served the role of regional enforcer of U.S. dominance of Middle Eastern oil, during and after the Cold War. This concern is stronger than the limited campaign contributions of a single lobby, or the additional contributions of a small number of American Jews (who cannot realistically be lumped together as blindly supportive of the Israel Lobby). Even if contributions from individual Jews who aren’t directly associated with pro-Israel PACS amount to large sums, as pundits like J.J. Goldberg and Richard Cohen contend, there is little indication that the Jewish community itself is united behind the Israel Lobby’s quest to ensure uncritical and unqualified support for Israel. There is also little evidence that Jewish Americans who are not directly affiliated with pro-Israel PACS provide campaign contributions in coordination with the Israel Lobby. As I explained earlier, a large number of Jewish Americans are standing up to challenge the coercion and bullying tactics of AIPAC, and the assumption that Israel can do no wrong. It is worth keeping this in mind, in addition to the voluminous evidence of U.S. strategic interests in supporting Israel, when we reflect on the origins of the special relationship.

Anthony DiMaggio teaches U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University. He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and When Media Goes to War (forthcoming February 2010). He can be reached at: adimagg@ilstu.edu

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