Norman Finkelstein (“The Israel Lobby“, tries to present a balanced view on the Israel lobby. He succeeds, but that’s not all he does. He also offers a set-piece passage proclaiming Israel’s value to the United States. Pro-Palestinian writers–and there is no more passionate or impressive defender of the Palestinians than Finkelstein–seem to do this out of reflex, and it’s perverse. Finkelstein’s claims about Israel’s value are just as destructive to the Palestinian cause as any common sense person would suppose.
Fortunately they are also false.
“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. … Combined with its overwhelming military power, this makes Israel a unique and irreplaceable American asset in the Middle East.”
This is untenable. For one thing, Israel’s brand of security is not very useful to the United States. Israel’s existence is secure but its military position is, shall we say, tense. To varying degrees and in various ways, it is in armed confrontation with all its neighbors. In fact it is in armed confrontation with most of the the neighbors of its neighbors, and many of *their* neighbors too. Then there are longer-range, long-term threats. Iran, though not about to wipe Israel off the map, is strong and growing stronger. Should Musharraf fall, Israel may well acquire a nuclear-armed enemy in Pakistan, and any change in the Gulf States or Egypt would almost certainly usher in much more militantly anti-Israel rgimes.
No doubt, for the foreseeable future, Israel could obliterate even its strongest enemies with nuclear weapons, perhaps at the price of its own obliteration: is this the sort of security America ought to value? Compare Israel to the some of the allies who, over the years, have actually committed troops to reinforce American ventures–England, for example, or France, Canada, Germany, Holland, Poland, Italy and Australia. These are countries whose local strategic situation enables them to send large proportions of their military resources hundreds or thousands of miles from their border, for long periods of time. The are pretty well without enemies and don’t need to threaten nuclear holocausts to keep their opponents at bay. Israel is not such a country.
In arguing for Israel’s stability, Finkelstein asserts that “…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.” Is that so? I thought there were Palestinians living in Israel. They probably aren’t ferociously pro-American or even ferociously Zionist. Their numbers and birth rate are significant enough to constitute what’s called a demographic time bomb. In addition there are Israeli dissidents who, like Mordechai Vanunu, are willing to compromise Israel’s most important military secrets. Yes, Israel is quite stable, but one must not exaggerate.
Furthermore, what does ‘projecting US power’ mean? What exactly is this projection system supposed to be? If the US sends troops to the region, it does not do so via Israel. If it sends ships, it does not use Israeli ports. If it sends aircraft, it does not use Israeli airfields. It may use Israeli intelligence a bit, but it also uses Jordanian, Saudi and Egyptian intelligence, and its own monitoring systems do not depend on Israeli satellites. Israel does not supply the US with oil or other vital resources for its military operations. Israeli banks do not wire secret US funds to Middle Eastern capitals. Nor, contrary to Zionist fantasy, is Israel a ‘beacon of democracy’ to any nation. For thirty years, Israel has granted no say in its government to the millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories, over whom it holds the power of life and death: if anything would sour Middle Eastern people of democracy, it would be Israel’s version of it. Israel and the US collaborate on defense projects and some military training, but this is trivial. Western Europe or Canada could easily take up the slack were these relations severed. And most likely at least the Canadians would not spy on the US or sell US technology to China, like some other country one could mention here.
The countries that help US efforts in the Middle East–with oil, bases, airfields, intelligence, ports, pretty much everything–are the Gulf States. These are also the countries which, along with Syria and Egypt but unlike Israel, actually fought side by side with the Americans against Iraq in 1990. Finkelstein apparently thinks these countries might fall out of US control ‘tomorrow’. In the first place, Finkelstein has an odd notion of tomorrow; he cites the example of Iran in 1979. That was almost 30 years ago! Iran was utterly unlike the Gulf States: unlike the Shah, their rulers largely share their subjects’ religious convictions, do a far better job of providing for their welfare, and have a far more manageable territory to control.
It is true that pundits have been predicting the collapse of Gulf states any day now. The trouble is that ‘any day now’ has lengthened into many years, with no sign of any such collapse.
All dissent has been suppressed with ease and terror attacks have had only the most limited success. Moreover there is no chance whatever that the US would permit hostile forces to take over the Gulf States: precisely because Iran is lost, Gulf States oil is indeed indispensable. The idea that Gulf States governments, with full US support a stone’s throw from their cities, could not prevail over any revolt arising from their sparse, well-off populations, is laughable. Moreover these countries are quite as much ‘in thrall’ to the US as Israel. Indeed one wonders which Arab states have not moved *closer* to the US since 1979–even Syria, which was a military ally of the US in the first war with Iraq. So, in the first place, Israel offers nothing to the US, and, in the second, other countries provide very secure bases for US action. The most secure bases of all, though, float on the sea. The US relies on its fleet and can easily launch devastating attacks without any land bases at all. So the geopolitics that make Israel an essential base are quite mystifying.
Then Israel is supposed to have indispensable, overwhelming military power. If the power is indispensable, why did the US dispense with it on the only occasions when it might have come in handy, namely the last two Gulf Wars? If it is overwhelming, why is it that Israel was almost overwhelmed in its last real war, in October 1972, when it avoided defeat only because the US came in and replaced the weapons it had lost in the fighting? Why couldn’t Egypt replace Israel as a US ally? Is it somehow less capable of receiving massive US aid? Egypt’s instability–which is probably less than supposed–would quickly vanish were it so lucky as Israel with American largesse, and were America to wean itself of its attachment to Israel, which discredits all Middle Eastern governments that receive US support.
As a last resort, proponents of the ‘valuable ally’ dogma insist that Israel intimidates its neighbors. That’s true, but it’s not the point. Why would anyone think that the US needs Israel to do this? America can, has, and does intimidate Israel’s neighbors, and their neighbors, very effectively, all on its own. Why then is Israeli intimidation so valuable?
The view that Israel is an indispensable ally is a contagious disease of the Zionist imagination. We are taught to regard Israel as standing shoulder to shoulder with the US government in some nebulous battle. What battle is that? The US fights all its battles without Israel, and always has. As for Israel’s supposed prowess in all things military, technological and espionage related, this is another myth. Israel has had all manner of intelligence pratfalls and certainly did not spare the US from the Middle Eastern attackers on 9-11, nor did it ever get Iraqi military capabilities right.
Last time we looked, its battlefield performance was less than impressive, though of course it is very good at bullying Palestinians armed with the equivalent of slingshots–oh, and sometimes slingshots are literally all they have to fight with. But the idea that Israel is an indispensable US ally is more than false; it is deadly to the Palestinians.
If Israel is indispensable, then the Palestinians might as well forget about having minimally tolerable lives, because only breaking the US-Israel alliance can spare them their agonies.
The break cannot occur unless America realizes that Israel is a huge liability: it is not as if the American government will suddenly gush with compassion for the Palestinians and change its ways out of pure altruism. The rest of the world doesn’t matter: it could hardly be clearer that Israel, with America as its ally, can thumb its nose at the rest of the world.
That’s the situation which the false doctrine of Israel as valuable ally perpetuates.
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. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: email@example.com.