Who’s Afraid of the Israel Lobby?

Seldom has any country been as dependent on another as Israel is on the United States, and never in American history has the United States been as servile towards another country as it is towards this beneficiary of its diplomatic, economic and military largesse. Are geopolitical considerations the decisive factor joining the United States and Israel or is American domestic politics to blame?

These are not mutually exclusive options; the difference is one of degree. It bears mention too that domestic and international considerations interact, and that circumstances are always in flux. This is why there is no simple answer to the question. However, at particular moments in the history of American, Israeli and Palestinian relations, the present one especially, the question becomes more tractable.

For now, it is looking increasingly like the domestic politics hypothesis is the winner; indeed, the Israel lobby now seems so powerful that it gets its way regardless of the demands of empire. That may be so, but I would hazard that the jury is still out and that, for the time being, it will have to remain out, thanks to Barack Obama. Outrage at Israeli depredations, within the Jewish community and in the larger political culture, could have forced his hand. So far, though, despite some heroic efforts, there has not been enough of that forthcoming. But the future remains open; and the forces of justice and peace are gaining strength.

Domestic considerations, real or imagined, were not always as constraining as they now seem to be. There was a Zionist lobby before Israel became a state, but it was hardly a significant factor in American diplomacy until widespread awareness of the extent of the Nazi Judeocide emerged in the final years of the Second World War. Neither was Zionism of much interest to American Jews. That situation changed in the post-War period. Nevertheless, throughout the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, and indeed until the 1967 War that brought all that remained of Mandate Palestine under Israeli occupation, U.S.- Israel relations were not qualitatively different from, say, U.S.-Ireland or U.S.-Italy relations — cases where domestic considerations also weigh heavily.

Reasons of state generally took precedence over electoral concerns, even to the extent that in 1956, during the Suez War, the United States forced Israel, along with Britain and France, to back off from attacking Egypt. Never again has an American government used its influence to restrain the Israeli juggernaut ? except when, as in the first Bush’s war against Iraq, America, for reasons not directly related to Israeli interests, already had troops on the ground, and when Israeli participation would only have made matters worse.

After Israel’s victories in the Six Day War (1967), its strategic importance ? in the Cold War and in the struggle against Arab (and Persian) nationalism ? changed. No longer a potential problem requiring careful handling, it became an unequivocal asset. Israel was not the only one in the region: there was also Iran before the Islamic Revolution (1979), Turkey, Egypt after Camp David, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. But for military might and reliability, Israel was without equal. It was also useful elsewhere ? in Central America, for instance, and Africa ? when the United States found it convenient not to engage directly, but instead to work its will through proxies.

With the end of the Cold War and the waning of secular nationalism in the Middle East, Israel’s usefulness has diminished. In conjunction with the First and Second Intifadas, international revulsion at Israel’s assaults on Lebanon and Gaza and its treatment of occupied Palestine, and its scuttling of the Oslo process, it has become less clear than it used to be that giving the Israeli ethnocracy a pass is just a negligible cost of doing the empire’s business. American media do their best to obscure this fact, but the rest of the world gets it, and it is a particular problem in regions where America is now militarily engaged.

The problem became more urgent after 2001. As the old Bush wars rage on and new Obama wars begin, the Israel-Palestine conflict has become a burden for American imperialism. Even the vaunted General Petraeus called attention to the situation, prompting the guardians of the status quo (“change” in Obama newspeak) to shut him up.

The “Arab Spring,” which the Obama administration officially celebrates (now that they have no other choice) has magnified the problem and transformed its terms. What will result is uncertain, but it is clear that the old (unholy) alliances between the United States, Israel, and “moderate” (compliant) regional autocracies will not survive unscathed. Everything now must change for everything to remain the same, as important elements of America’s foreign policy establishment, not just Petraeus, recognize.

The time was therefore propitious for the United States to take a less servile course, and the visit of Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to Washington last week presented an ideal moment. Obama had yet another rare historical opportunity thrust upon him. True to form, he squandered it utterly.

In two major speeches last week and presumably also in his meeting with Netanyahu, Obama did make explicit what had been an implicit premise of American (and Israeli) policy for decades: that Israel’s 1967 borders must be a basis for future negotiations on a “two-state solution.” This was enough to displease Netanyahu and therefore to unnerve AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and other pillars of the Israel lobby, along with their hordes of hack pundits. Washington is therefore still reverberating. But for anyone with eyes to see, it is plain that, yet again, Obama changed nothing. Instead, he reinforced longstanding obstacles to justice and peace.

The evidence is therefore overwhelming: at least in this instance (if not in general), electoral considerations trumped “the national interest.” Score one for AIPAC.

Obama and his advisors seem to agree with Vince Lombardi’s dictum that winning is not just the main thing; it’s the only thing. And where elections are the game, they are also, it seems, congenitally unable to transcend the horizons of conventional wisdom. Therefore, for them, the calculation is a no-brainer. There is no Palestine lobby to speak of, while the Israel lobby is as formidable as any in American history. That premise is beyond dispute. If anyone doubts it, they need only to have gazed, anti-emetic at hand, at the spectacle of Netanyahu’s address last week to both houses of Congress. No matter that the man is a figure as malign as any in the world today. He received some twenty-nine standing ovations. Score another one for AIPAC.

What follows is plain, at least to Obama and his advisors: capitulate yet again, while rattling AIPAC’s cage as little as need be. That’s just what happened.

* * *

The Israel lobby was, from its inception, a creature of a narrow, ideologically driven sector of the Jewish community. Of course, many, probably most, Jews do in some sense support Israel. This has been true from Day One. But, also from Day One, North American, European, and even many Israeli Jews have had only a very attenuated connection with Zionist ideology.

This is more than ever true today, especially among younger Jews. Indeed, it is remarkable how attenuated the connection is. For decades, institutions dedicated to indoctrinating Jewish youth with a sense of Jewish identity have identified Jewishness with Zionism, and promoted the idea that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. That is an obvious howler, but the idea has taken hold and penetrated into the collective common sense of the larger political culture.

It is therefore to be expected that most Jews would support Israel. But the larger fact is that outside Zionist circles, Israel is not a major concern. I would hazard that most Jews have no particular affection for that country; they don’t identify with it, and they certainly don’t want to live in it. The Israel-firsters who affect the goings-on in Washington and other Western capitals are a minority. But they are full of passionate intensity, and they wield considerable financial and political clout. Democrats especially depend on them for money, the fuel on which our not very democratic political system runs. To cross the Israel lobby therefore requires audacity and courage, virtues conspicuous in our Commander-in-Chief’s words, but seldom, if ever, evinced in his deeds.

The Israel lobby is a bipartisan operation; it targets Republicans too. But Republican Zionism has at least as much to do with keeping Christian evangelicals on board as with remaining in AIPAC’s good graces.

It is important to remember that, from the time of the French Revolution, right-wing politics and anti-Semitism have enjoyed a close and symbiotic relationship. It is important to remember too that modern Zionism emerged in reaction to an up-tick in European anti-Semitism ? to the Dreyfus Affair and to pogroms in the east — and therefore that before the movement became immersed in identity politics or (later still) took on a theological coloration, anti-Semites and Zionists implicitly agreed that assimilation was impossible or undesirable and therefore that Jews would do well to have a country of their own. On the Jewish side, the further idea that this solution to the Jewish Question implies the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine soon followed.

[Hitler’s Final Solution was premised in part on the unfeasibility of transferring European Jews to Palestine (or anywhere else) while Germany was at war with Britain and the Soviet Union. But the most important factor, in this and other genocides, was the moral dissolution brought on by total war.]

Zionist successes in identifying anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism ? and support for Israel with support for Jews ? clouds the issue, as do some peculiarities of the Anglo-Protestant tradition out of which the contemporary evangelical movement in the United States derives. But Christian Zionism is in no way an exception to the rule that right-wing politics and anti-Semitism (along with other, more transparent forms of racism) go hand in hand.

Seventeenth century Puritans were no less hostile towards real world Jews and actually existing Judaism than their continental contemporaries, and neither are their twenty-first century heirs. But there are and always have been plebian strains of Anglo-Protestant religiosity that are exceptional for their Old Testament focus and for their obsessive interest in the Book of Revelation.

Thus there are evangelical Protestants today, quite a few, who believe that for the Final Judgment to arrive and the Revelation prophecies to be fulfilled, actually existing Jews must be gathered together in the Promised Land. Like much else in the theological arsenal, this fantasy is comparatively benign when its adherents disingenuously but effectively drop (demythologize) its more preposterous aspects. Thus respectable evangelicals still profess belief in an historical end time; but their convictions such as they are, have no political implications. Not so for those who proclaim that a real, physical End is at hand. Their beliefs take a lethal turn, with dire consequences for the inhabitants, Arab and Jewish, of both Palestine and Israel.

They see the state of Israel and the strife it promotes as indispensible components of God’s plan. They are therefore second to none in following AIPAC’s lead.

Unlike classical anti-Semites, evangelical Zionists generally get along with the Jews with whom they interact, but their commitment to Israel does not stem from fondness for Jews or Judaism. It comes from a belief in a literal End Time in which those who do not accept Christ ? Jews especially ? will be cast into the torments of Hell for all eternity. How Christian Zionists hold this idea in their heads and still interact amicably with real world Jews I do not know; no doubt, monumental levels of self-deception and ambivalence are involved. That aside, one must wonder whether even the Nazis evinced a greater hatred?

Since 1977, when Menachem Begin became Israel’s Prime Minister, the Israeli Right has been the dominant force in Israeli politics even in the years when it was not directly in power, and it has courted Christian Zionists assiduously. Israel’s founders were secular and comparatively progressive, notwithstanding their overriding commitment to building an ethnically pure Jewish state in as much of Mandate Palestine as the world would allow. Like much of the Israeli Left today, they would have disdained Israel’s evangelical allies, in much the way, and for much the same reason, that sensible people the world over disdain those who believe that the world ended a week ago Saturday. And they would certainly never have been so base as to court those who yearn to see them rot in Hell. But the Israeli Right is shameless, and its cynicism knows no bounds.

But AIPAC and other pillars of the (saner) Israel lobby are not ones to quarrel with success; and there is no doubt that the machinations begun in the 70s have succeeded beyond Begin’s wildest expectations. Thus, though American Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic, the state of Israel has succeeded in winning the Republican Party to its side. The founders would be revolted, but today, the entire Zionist camp welcomes the result. Perhaps not a few “liberal” Zionists also take pride in the fact that at recruiting and deploying “useful idiots,” Karl Rove and the Koch brothers are rank amateurs in comparison with the leaders of the Promised Land.

* * *

The Israel lobby tolerates no deviations; in this sense, it is more Stalinist than all but the most doctrinaire Communist Parties of bygone years, and all for the sake of a rather less noble cause. For decades, it even suppressed mention of its own existence. It was not until 2006, when two highly respected mainstream political scientists, John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, published an article about the Israel lobby in The London Review of Books that a debate about its power went mainstream. [In 2008, Mearsheimer and Walt published a full-length book on the topic, The Israel Lobby and U.S, Foreign Policy.]

Had Obama done more than reiterate old points in a way that got the lobby on edge, had he announced that international law must be respected and therefore that settlements outside Israel’s 1967 borders must go along with the Apartheid apparatus that sustains them — and had he done so in a way that made plain that there would be real consequences for Israel if it continued to play an obstructionist role — we would now have an opportunity to get a better purchase on the question Mearsheimer and Walt raised to prominence. We know that the Israel lobby exists and that it gets its way, we know that America’s political class cowers before it, but we cannot know how powerful it is until its power is tested. At a time when its concerns and the interests of the empire ? and, ironically, also of the peoples living in Israel/Palestine — increasingly diverge, the “experiment” would be particularly revealing.

Had Obama really challenged the lobby, I suspect that we would have been pleasantly surprised with the results. But, alas, we will never know.

In practice, though, it hardly matters. For even if the lobby is, as I suspect, more of a paper tiger than our politicians assume, our task is still to change the domestic balance sheet by creating our own facts on the ground ? through boycotts, divestment, sanctions and in countless other ways. For what is clear beyond a reasonable doubt is that the Israel lobby is an obstacle in the way of justice and peace that must be undone to the point where even “leaders” as self-serving and cowardly as our Commander-in Chief no longer fear its reach.

Andrew Levine is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).