In the current fractious debate over the role of the Israel Lobby in the formulation and execution of US policies in the Middle East, the "either-or" framework — giving primacy to either the Israel Lobby or to U.S. strategic interests — isn’t, in my opinion, very useful.
Apart from the Israel-Palestine conflict, fundamental U.S. policy in the Middle East hasn’t been affected by the Lobby. For different reasons, both U.S. and Israeli elites have always believed that the Arabs need to be kept subordinate. However, once the U.S. solidified its alliance with Israel after June 1967, it began to look at Israelis and Israelis projected themselves as experts on the "Arab mind." Accordingly, the alliance with Israel has abetted the most truculent U.S. policies, Israelis believing that "Arabs only understand the language of force" and every few years this or that Arab country needs to be smashed up. The spectrum of U.S. policy differences might be narrow, but in terms of impact on the real lives of real people in the Arab world these differences are probably meaningful, the Israeli influence making things worse.
The claim that Israel has become a liability for U.S. "national" interests in the Middle East misses the bigger picture. Sometimes what’s most obvious escapes the eye. Israel is the only stable and secure base for projecting U.S. power in this region. Every other country the U.S. relies on might, for all anyone knows, fall out of U.S. control tomorrow. The U.S.A. discovered this to its horror in 1979, after immense investment in the Shah. On the other hand, Israel was a creation of the West; it’s in every respect culturally, politically, economically in thrall to the West, notably the U.S. This is true not just at the level of a corrupt leadership, as elsewhere in the Middle East but what’s most important at the popular level. Israel’s pro-American orientation exists not just among Israeli elites but also among the whole population. Come what may in Israel, it’s inconceivable that this fundamental orientation will change. Combined with its overwhelming military power, this makes Israel a unique and irreplaceable American asset in the Middle East.
In this regard, it’s useful to recall the rationale behind British support for Zionism. Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann once asked a British official why the British continued to support Zionism despite Arab opposition. Didn’t it make more sense for them to keep Palestine but drop support for Zionism? "Although such an attitude may afford a temporary relief and may quiet Arabs for a short time," the official replied, "it will certainly not settle the question as the Arabs don’t want the British in Palestine, and after having their way with the Jews, they would attack the British position, as the Moslems are doing in Mesopotamia, Egypt and India." Another British official judged retrospectively that, however much Arab resentment it provoked, British support for Zionism was prudent policy, for it established in the midst of an "uncertain Arab world a well-to-do educated, modern community, ultimately bound to be dependent on the British Empire." Were it even possible, the British had little interest in promoting real Jewish-Arab cooperation because it would inevitably lessen this dependence. Similarly, the U.S. doesn’t want an Israel truly at peace with the Arabs, for such an Israel could loosen its bonds of dependence on the U.S. , making it a less reliable proxy. This is one reason why the claim that Jewish elites are "pro"-Israel makes little sense. They are "pro" an Israel that is useful to the U.S. and, therefore, useful to them. What use would a Paul Wolfowitz have of an Israel living peacefully with its Arab neighbors and less willing to do the U.S.’s bidding?
The historical record strongly suggests that neither Jewish neo-conservatives in particular nor mainstream Jewish intellectuals generally have a primary allegiance to Israel in fact, any allegiance to Israel. Mainstream Jewish intellectuals became "pro"-Israel after the June 1967 war when Israel became the U.S.A.’ s strategic asset in the Middle East, i.e., when it was safe and reaped benefits. To credit them with ideological conviction is, in my opinion, very naive. They’re no more committed to Zionism than the neo-conservatives among them were once committed to Trotskyism; their only ism is opportunism. As psychological types, these newly minted Lovers of Zion most resemble the Jewish police in the Warsaw ghetto. "Each day, to save his own skin, every Jewish policeman brought seven sacrificial lives to the extermination altar," a leader of the Resistance ruefully recalled. "There were policemen who offered their own aged parents, with the excuse that they would die soon anyhow." Jewish neo-conservatives watch over the U.S. "national" interest, which is the source of their power and privilege, and in the Middle East it happens that this "national" interest largely coincides with Israel’s "national" interest. If ever these interests clashed, who can doubt that, to save their own skins, they’ll do exactly what they’re ordered to do, with gusto?
Unlike elsewhere in the Middle East, U.S. elite policy in the Israel-Palestine conflict would almost certainly not be the same without the Lobby. What does the U.S.A. gain from the Israeli settlements and occupation? In terms of alienating the Arab world, it’s had something to lose. The Lobby probably can’t muster sufficient power to jeopardize a fundamental American interest, but it can significantly raise the threshold before U.S. elites are prepared to act i.e., order Israel out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as the U.S. finally pressured the Indonesians out of Occupied East Timor. Whereas Israel doesn’t have many options if the U.S. does finally give the order to pack up, the U.S. won’t do so until and unless the Israeli occupation becomes a major liability for it: on account of the Lobby the point at which "until and unless" is reached significantly differs. Without the Lobby and in the face of widespread Arab resentment, the U.S. would perhaps have ordered Israel to end the occupation by now, sparing Palestinians much suffering;
In the current "either-or" debate on whether the Lobby affects U.S. Middle East policy at the elite level, it’s been lost on many of the interlocutors that a crucial dimension of this debate should be the extent to which the Lobby stifles free and open public discussion on the subject. For in terms of trying to broaden public discussion here on the Israel-Palestine conflict the Lobby makes a huge and baneful difference. Especially since U.S. elites have no entrenched interest in the Israeli occupation, the mobilization of public opinion can have a real impact on policy-making which is why the Lobby invests so much energy in suppressing discussion.
Norman Finkelstein’s most recent book is Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history (University of California Press). His web site is www.NormanFinkelstein.com.