The Israel Lobby and Beyond

Professors Walt and Mearsheimer’s “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” is an important contribution to the Israel/Palestine debate. It’s too bad the important stuff got lost in the melodrama.

The melodrama is about the Israel lobby, aka the ‘Jewish lobby’. One whiff of Jewish conspiracy theory, and squads of columnists march off to fight the Nazis lurking in academia. But at a bit of a distance, it’s hard to see why tales of the lobby are so fascinating.

Various self-styled Jewish organizations and pro-Israel outfits, like so many political pressure groups, brag about their success. No one suggests they’re lying. Exactly how much influence do they have over US policy? To what extent are they responsible for getting the US into Iraq?

We have no idea. US policy-making is a complicated business. Some of it is secret. People’s motives and thought processes are often hidden. And to what extent are the lobbyists pushing decision-makers down a path they already want to go?

I don’t even find these questions interesting.

What really matters is whether support for Israel serves US interests. If it does, why on earth would we care about a pro-Israel lobby? If it doesn’t, then the lobby is a bad thing even if it didn’t conspire to get us into Iraq.

Walt and Mearsheimer are among the very few to address this important question head-on. They say: “Israel is in fact a liability in the war on terror and the broader effort to deal with rogue states.” They argue forcefully for their claim. They also bear some of the blame for failing to get this message across, because this material doesn’t deserve the second-billing they gave it.

Not that the message should need much getting across; it really is a no-brainer. No doubt the US is very concerned about Middle East oil; it’s often suggested that this is America’s main interest in the region. Well, how is that interest served by cozying up to the one country in the area that all its oil-producers love to hate? Some pundits tell us, with an air of sagacity, that Israel is useful for controlling the oil, and suggest the Big Oil Companies benefit from the arrangement. But how exactly does Israel help control the oil?

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. The US could occupy any oilfield in the Middle East all on its own, without Israeli help.

Not that anyone needs to occupy any oilfields. Every country in the Middle East is quite happy to sell the US oil. Saddam Hussein had no problem with the idea, and it’s we who won’t buy oil from Iran, not the Iranians who won’t sell it to us. 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. So no, Israel isn’t exactly keeping our SUVs on the road for us.

Why then does the US support Israel? Here I do tend to disagree with Walt and Mearsheimer. Maybe the influence of the Israel lobby is the only logical explanation, but that doesn’t mean the explanation is right. Nations do not always behave logically.

The US alliance with Israel grew out of 1950s Cold War politics. America supported Egypt against England, France, and Israel in 1956. But when Nasser started buying arms from the Soviet bloc, things changed. The United States, obsessed with visions of a communist Middle East, felt the need for an ally and a base of operations from which it could intimidate the countries it most suspected of veering towards the Soviet camp: Egypt and Syria. The more Israel’s military capabilities improved, the more valuable an ally it appeared to be.

With the end of the Cold War, the rationale for this alliance ceased to exist, but the alliance did not. There is a great deal in the government and conduct of nations that runs on inertia, and the US is no exception in this respect. Just as it has taken decades for European nations to outgrow their sentimental attachment to the Americans who defeated Hitler, so it is taking decades for Americans to outgrow their sentimental attachment to Israel, its ally in the fight against communism.

Maybe I’m wrong and Walt and Mearsheimer are right; it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that the US no longer has any reason to support Israel, and huge reason not to. Just imagine if the US stopped backing Israel and gave even moderate support to the Palestinians. Suddenly Islam and America would be on the same side. The war on terror would become a cakewalk. The credibility of American democracy would skyrocket in the Middle East. And it would all be a hell of a lot cheaper. This seems a tad more important than which Jewish neocon said what to whom.

Professor Joseph Massad (“Blaming the lobby“, 23 – 29 March 2006) makes a reasonable case that the influence of the
Israel lobby on US policy has been exaggerated. However his explanation of what drives U.S. support for Israel is less successful, and promotes an interpretation extremely detrimental to the Palestinian cause.

Professor Massad asserts that

“The United States is opposed in the Arab world as elsewhere because it has pursued and continues to pursue policies that are inimical to the interests of most people in these countries and are only beneficial to its own interests and to the minority regimes in the region that serve those interests, including Israel. “

One could say of such interpretations exactly what Professor Massad says of interpretations blaming the Israel lobby: “…the problem with most of them is what remains unarticulated”. What are those policies, and why does the US pursue them? Massad seems to refer to his earlier remark that “The United States has had a consistent policy since World War II of fighting all regimes across the Third World who insist on controlling their national resources, whether it be land, oil, or other valuable minerals. This extends from Iran in 1953 to Guatemala in 1954 to the rest of Latin America all the way to present-day Venezuela.”

But this hardly explains current US policy in the Middle East. Middle Eastern regimes are not, properly speaking, Third World, and it is not the case that the United States has consistently fought Middle Eastern regimes that insist on controlling their resources.

On the contrary, the US has excellent relations with the oil-rich Gulf State nations, and these nations have throughout their history insisted, with increasing emphasis, on such control.

The same can be said of US oil companies, who quite obviously prefer cooperation to military force when it comes to operating in the Middle East. They have stuck to this preference even when it meant considerable reduction of their profits.

For similar reasons, the really large US oil companies did not support the invasion of Iraq: leading oil economists such as Daniel Yergin and Fareed Mohamedi to provide convincing arguments for this view. So Professor Massad’s explanation will not do.

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 essay is excerpted from Neumann’s new book, The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca.





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Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com

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