Jeff Halper is an Israeli academic. He is also director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, one of the most effective and courageous organizations working on behalf of the Palestinians in Israel’s occupied territories. He has done more for the Palestinians than I have ever done, or would dare to do. His has expressed his view on the conflict in a recent Counterpunch piece. The piece ably reflects a perspective shared by almost all pro-Palestinian activists.
Jeff’s view, the consensus view, is in my opinion a political nightmare. It distorts, disastrously, Israel’s relation to the United States. It contributes significantly to the prolongation of the conflict with all its horrors. What follows is my attempt–one of several desperate attempts–to alter the perceptions underlying a truly tragic mistake. I use Jeff’s article, not because he’s particularly deserving of criticism, but because he does a good job of expressing that view. I’m not alone in thinking he does a good job. Many activists have sent me Jeff’s article accompanied by their praises.
The problem with the consensus view involves Israel’s usefulness rather than its character. Like so many others Halper suggests that Israel is quite useful indeed: “Israel is able to pursue its Occupation only because of its willingness to serve Western (mainly US) imperial interests including acting as a galvanizing center for global neo-con forces.” This claim is fleshed out in the following crucial passage:
“In the “clash of civilizations” paradigm that defines the neo-con approach, the United States has embarked on a pre-emptive crusade to generate a “global democratic revolution” regime change to usher in governments more reflective of US values and thus more in tune with American interests all under American (corporate) tutelage. American Empire in a truly New American Century. Israel, then, fits neatly into the equation in three ways. First, it represents just that kind of American underling the US holds up as its model (and how Israel benefits from American largesse should help persuade other regimes); second, it possesses the military capacity and political readiness to further American interests; and third, it is located in the Middle East, the primary “theater” of the Crusade, where it is engaged with America’s declared arch-enemy, “radical Islam.” A strong Israel, then, represents a strong America.”
Like all really dangerous doctrines, this one contains much truth. No doubt Israel is held up as a model of something or other. No doubt it has military capacity and political readiness to further American interests. No doubt it is located in the Middle East. No doubt Israeli creeps and the idiots in the White House share many aspirations and plans. No doubt these plans were voiced by the neocons.
But beyond these truths lies a disastrous muddle, and Jeff is only one of dozens who has lost his way by failing to ask a simple question: does Israel serve what various idiots and losers THINK is in American corporate interests, or does Israel actually SERVE those interests? Before answering this question, let’s get Jeff’s view.
Trouble is, I can’t find his view, any more than I can find the views of any other leading commentator on these issues. Maybe he thinks that Israel does both: “The operational upshot of all this is not merely a well-organized, well-financed and well-articulated global cabal of neo-cons, religious fundamentalists, academics who will legitimize their positions and political leaders, but the integration of Israel into a global military system again, led by the US but involving the elites of almost every country, including Arab and Muslim ones whose purpose is to subvert progressive civil society elements and create an “environment” conducive to American Empire and the well-being of those compliant international elites. Israel’s leading position in this military alliance, then, has global implications, but it also serves to give Israel the military strength and political umbrella needed to transform its Occupation into annexation while advancing a Pax Americana over the Middle East.”
Neither this nor any other passage in the essay gives a really clear answer to my question: does Israel merely set out to serve Western or American elites, or does it actually further their interests? Does Israel merely ‘have the strength and political umbrella needed to” advance a Pax America’, or does it actually help to do so? Jeff and many others apparently have never asked themselves these questions, and that alone indicates something is seriously wrong: anyone writing on politics ought to be concerned with the distinctions between intention and execution, between appearance and reality. In this case, the question is literally a matter of life and death for many Palestinians. If Israel merely thinks it is serving those interests–indeed if Israel and the US government think this–then there is some hope. If Israel in fact does serve those interests, there is none whatever. Halper might as well forget about opposing house demolitions because he is, in that case, just prolonging the agony: sooner or later, the Palestinians will have nowhere to live and nothing to live on, and there isn’t a thing he or the Palestinians or anyone else can do about it.
Halper seems to deny this because he seems to believe that left-wing activism will do the trick. He ends his essay with “The purpose of this paper is not to “knock” Israel, but to shake it, to yell at its leaders and citizens: “What are you doing? What have you become? Save yourselves! If not that, then at least to constrain it, as we must constrain American Empire… .”
Again, I am not quite sure just what this means. I think Jeff holds that, to constrain Israel’s excesses, we must constrain the American Empire. Or maybe he simply holds that we must do both. In either case it follows, immediately, ineluctably and undeniably, that, for all “we” are going to do, the Palestinians might as well just drop dead.
The US is a big strong country. Halper adds to its power the power of the whole Western ‘imperial’ world. “We” are not going to constrain that power, period, just as we did not prevent the invasion of Iraq, did not unseat Bush, did not stop any serious project the American empire has ever undertaken. The only people who have done that, despite what self-satisfied baby boomers may tell you, were people who had nothing to do with that “we”–the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Cuban peoples, with the help of the Soviet Union. This is no brief for communism; it is just a fact. Those who suppose that some sixties flower children and student ‘revolutionaries’ in their camouflage costumes mattered more than the 50,000 American corpses in checking the American Empire had best make acquaintance with reality. So if all hopes rest with us, those hopes are dead.
In other words, anyone desiring to help the Palestinians needs to abandon the fantasy that this can involve forcing the US or the US government to do anything. Even if I am wrong, if even the left can sometimes bring the US government, Halper’s doctrine requires a still more optimistic assumption: that the left can do so today, when helping the Palestinians is not going to get very high priority. It could hardly be clearer, after all, that Americans are going to be far more concerned about Iraq than Palestine. We often hear that far worse things happen in the world than Israel’s occupation. I believe there are ways of disputing this , but at some level it’s true, and there is no way the Palestinian cause is going to move to the front burner in the foreseeable future. Iraq, like Vietnam, affects Americans with a directness that the plight of the Palestinians never will. This difficulty –not to mention Americans’ very limited attention-span on all foreign policy issues–can’t be met with stirring words about a long struggle. The Palestinians are dying right now, and the chances are their suffering will worsen. They can’t wait to see what the distant, unforeseeable future has in store for them.
In Halper’s ambiguities–in his inability to determine whether support for Israel really is in US or Western imperialist interests–lies the greatest barrier to constraining Israel, greater by far than the arms and money the US sends to that country. Israel could crush the Palestinians without US arms, but it needs US political support or, at the very least, US political neutrality. It is the perception that Israel is the buddy of American-led imperialism that sustains US government support for Israel. This perception paralyses any effective opposition to the slow strangulation of the Palestinians.
The left can play a decisive role in changing how Israel is perceived. It refuses. The left* would rather eat dogshit that even think in terms of what best serves the interests of The Big Corporations. If The Big Corporations have no interest in supporting Israel–if The Big Corporations would be better off if the US supported the Palestinians–the left doesn’t want to hear about it. It would rather plug its ears and go NA-NA-NA-NA-NA. It stands ready to defend its dogma to the last drop of Palestinian blood. What’s the welfare of the Palestinians compared to the left’s emotional commitment to anti-imperialism? Worst of all, apparently the left has convinced most Palestinian intellectuals that The Big Corporations are hell-bent on supporting Israel. Palestinian intellectuals, being human, have a tendency to listen to the people who show some concern for their situation. That is a fatal mistake.
The fact–the fact leftists bust a gut to ignore–is that The Big Corporations would be far, far better off if the US switched sides completely, and supported the Palestinians to the hilt. It is difficult to argue this just because it is so screamingly obvious. The Big Corporations want oil: Israel pisses off the oil producers, bigtime. Israel does not, contrary to leftist orthodoxy, help the US control the oil. For Christ’s sake guys– Israel would have to shove through Syria or Lebanon or Jordan to get near any oil. That would cause a major conflagration and–guess what–destroy enormous amounts of oil-producing capacity. Besides, the US doesn’t need Israel to control the oil. What on earth are these sagacious leftist strategists thinking? that the US couldn’t occupy any oilfield in the Middle East without Israeli help? I can’t imagine how anyone could imagine this.
Not that anyone needs to occupy any oilfields. Every country in the Middle East–Iran, for example, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq–is quite happy to sell the US oil. If they weren’t it would make no difference, because that oil would still go on the market, and thereby lower world prices, and thereby lower the price the US has to pay for oil. And if it ever were necessary to place military pressure on Middle Eastern countries, the US could sit in the Persian Gulf and astride the pipelines out of the oil producing regions to control the flow of that oil completely. This is why I’m so impressed by the huge effort of wishful thinking that allows leftists to think, for one microsecond, that Israel is needed to help the US control oil.
None of this even begins to capture the attitude of the Big Corporations, though. What they want is to get the oil through cooperation with the oil producers because, being less than moronic, The Big Corporations realize that this is by far the least costly way of getting their supplies. That’s why no big corporation supported the invasion of Iraq. The Left manages not to believe this by obsessing about cowboy operations like Unocal and Halliburton, which, incredibly, are supposed to be stand-ins for Corporate America. Well, let’s see. I suppose, then, that they’d be in the top ten among the Fortune 500? the top 20? the top 50? surely, the top 100? Nope. Halliburton comes in at 122, and Unocal at 285. In other words, the leftist theory is that US foreign policy is dictated by companies which, at the largest, are smaller than Publix. Maybe so, but then US policy can hardly be said to be dictated by The Big Corporations. Indeed that’s a large part of what makes US policy so blatantly counterproductive, so patently designed to help Bush and Cheney’s also-ran companies rather than Corporate America.**
As for Halper’s documentation of Israeli military power; it is if anything understated, but it is also misleading. Though extremely powerful, to the point of substantial independence from US military aid, Israel is on balance a huge liability to US strategic ambitions in the Middle East, and certainly in Iraq. Halper’s notion that Israel is a valuable ally is absolutely indistinguishable from the propaganda spawned by pro-Israel lobby groups like AIPAC. And what sort of evidence does he adduce? “Israel provided key support for the US in Iraq, including the construction of mock Iraqi neighborhoods and villages in the Negev where American troops could train.” This is inane: how could anyone could suppose that this sort of support was ‘key’?. What, the US couldn’t have invaded Iraq without those mock villages? Or: “The American military government in Iraq, the “Civil Administration,” was patterned after the Israeli Civil Administration that rules the Occupied Territories.” This must be a joke: I’m sure Britney Spears could have devised just as an effective a civil administration as the inestimable structure the US military apparently got from its good buddy, Israel. Hit me baby, one more time….
But this is just the tip of the strategic iceberg. Suppose the US supported, not the Israelis, but the Palestinians. Is there any doubt that the US would have had a far easier time getting support from the Arab and Muslim world? Again, the contrary is just unimaginable. If the US had been close friends of Turkey, Syria and Iran; if the Gulf states had earned less opprobrium for allying themselves with Israel’s only powerful backer, indeed virtually its only backer–might that not have made it a tad easier to invade Iraq, or for that matter to fight the War on Terror? As matters stand, the chief role of Israel in US policy is to pop up as a worry and expense. The worry is that US enemies in the Middle East will attack the ‘Jewish state’ and perhaps unleash a nuclear war. The expense is, of course, the endless flow of money that America lavishes on its spoilt-brat ally.
Dropping support for Israel would greatly increase America’s ability to pursue its interests–legitimate or illegitimate–in the Middle East and beyond. If anyone should suppose that Arab and Muslim allies would not be useful, they have only to compare the ease of the first Gulf war, which saw the US in close military alliance with Israel’s bugbear Syria, with the difficulties of the current adventure in Iraq. Today, the US cannot afford to avail itself of extensive Israeli military support because the Arab and Muslim world would greet any such move with an anger orders of magnitude above its current very high level. As for intelligence, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that, even with the Palestinians as a potential source of friction, Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate has become more useful to the CIA than Israel’s Mossad. So Israeli support is confined to very secondary material and technological support that the US could easily obtain from, say, Europe–except that US support for Israel produces policies that largely alienate the Europeans.
In other words, the alliance with Israel weakens America by making it enemies all over the world, and it weakens The Big Corporations for the same reason. As compensation, Israel offers the US next to nothing. US support for Israel is rooted, not in the pursuit of American interests, but in old habits. When the US feared communism in the Middle East, particularly among Israel’s immediate neighbours, Israel could at least appear useful. Now that communism is gone and Egypt, Israel’s most powerful neighbor, has evolved from Soviet to American client, this reason for supporting Israel has vanished. America continues to support Israel for three terrible reasons: inertia, its love affair with pro-Israel neocon wannabe strategists, and the fantasies of big-head religious fanatics.
So the situation is this. The left, virtually without exception, proposes to help the Palestinans, not by detaching Israel from the US government and The Big Corporations, but by taking on both of them at once. This strategy requires stopping the US government and world-spanning corporate capitalism in their tracks. No sane person could possibly think this was at all likely to happen. There is, however, a silver platter waiting for those who, like Halper, have taken up the Palestinian cause. It is a winning strategy. It is to work, not against The Big Corporations, but with them, at least implicitly, in pointing out the advantages of breaking with Israel. The choice is between Palestinian lives and stubborn dogmatism. So far, virtually all pro-Palestinian activists–many of them Palestinian!–have found stubborn dogmatism immeasurably more important.
—– *No doubt there are honorable exceptions, and no doubt their credentials as leftists are called into question.
**Not even the big defense companies have done well out of the war in Iraq: it drains money away from the big-ticket items that really pay off. (See http://www.washingtonpost.com/ which also notes the damage the war has done to American corporate brands.) Defense spending has little to do with real military needs and a lot to do with America’s love of snazzy technology.
MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. This fall CounterPunch/AK Press will publish Neumann’s new book, The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.