The Future of an Illusion

An Eastern race well versed in Western culture and profoundly in sympathy with Western ideals will be established in the Orient. Furthermore, a Jewish state will inevitably fall under the control of American Jews who will work out, along Jewish lines, American ideals and American civilization.

—William Yale, US State Department consultant, 1919

Unrelenting mass resistance to its territorial occupations; a fraudulently “miraculous” economy wholly dependent on foreign subsidies; a grotesque legally enshrined apartheid; a political class in thrall to its military; a paranoid state-of-siege society; almost universal international opprobrium for the past two decades; and pan-Islamic resentment and rage fanning ever more violence against its lone apologist and protector. From the perspective of early twenty-first-century American imperial interests … a failed state. Yet despite this now unmistakable bankruptcy, US support for Israel’s increasingly extreme version of the Zionist project remains unquestioned, unblinking.

We enter an analysis of the US–Israel relationship somewhat reluctantly, claiming no special insight into the realities of life on the ground for Palestinians and Israelis, nor into the convolutions of their internal politics. What we discuss here, we want to emphasize, is not Israel itself but the US state’s connection to it. We shall make no attempt to detail the brutality of the Israeli regime and the consequent immiseration of Palestinians; or the actual extent of the extraordinary overt and covert US support for Sharon and his predecessors; or the floundering of official Palestinian political structures. Many others, both inside and outside Palestine and Israel, are better equipped to do so than we are. And they have – comprehensively. Rather, what we grapple with here is the constellation of appearances and material conditions which has, within the United States, rendered that damning mass of information politically invisible. And which seemingly obliges the US to continue its unqualified support for the Israeli state, despite that support having become an enormous liability for the US’s designs in the Islamic world.

Notwithstanding our reluctance, we believe we must break a longstanding silence on much of the Left concerning the actual genealogy – and precise dynamics – of the US–Israel relationship, and in particular the role of that relationship in the current imperial moment. We break the silence because we believe it impossible to grasp the sources and direction of recent, and future, US moves in the Middle East and Central Asia without reference to its failed Israeli client state.

Of course, the silence has not been total. Some voices on the Left have chosen to locate the US–Israel dyad entirely within the frame of the two cultures’ shared anti-Arab racism. There are also conspiratorialists who see Israeli agents planted throughout the US political command structure, directing American state policy on precise instructions from Likud headquarters in Jerusalem. More commonly and insidiously, there is the uncritical acceptance of the US state’s much-repeated assertion, now become a piety, that Israel is a crucial US “strategic asset”. And across a broad Left political spectrum, apart from and often in the absence of any accompanying critique, there is passionate and abiding support for the Palestinian people.

The central inadequacy of these accounts and approaches, we believe, is their failure to bring into focus the nature of US imperial interests (and self-deceptions) in the case. No doubt it is true that anti-Arab racism has played a role in the construction of the US–Israel bond. Similarly, in recent years, ideologues with close relationships to Israeli political factions have reached positions of influence within the White House and Pentagon. But we thoroughly reject the notion – we have never seen it fashioned into a genuine argument – that such racism is a causative element in imperial policy, or that the client Israeli tail truly wags the US imperial dog. More significantly, we shall argue that the assertion that Israel is a strategic asset has always been at best a partial truth, and in recent years something close to a lie.

We propose instead that the core, the abiding silent animus, of the US relationship with Israel has been Israel’s Middle East reflection of the pernicious double identity of the American state. On the one hand, Israel has been a play of motifs and appearances that for a period seemed capable of projecting a seductive image of capital onto the screen of the post-war world. It stood as the realization, in the most unlikely (but symbolically charged) corner of the earth, of a market-enriched, “democratic” future: McJerusalem, to sum the dream up in a word. And simultaneously, the Israeli state was emblematic of hyper-militarized, crudely colonizing Western power. The first aspect slowly grew to significance (more slowly than is usually assumed) as the imperatives of spectacular politics took hold within the post-1945 West; the second became increasingly prominent as the US empire became more deeply militarized – and spread its reach across more of the world – over roughly the same period.

In this two-faced role – as exemplar of a society in which total militarization and spectacular modernity were fully compatible – Israel has mirrored and mesmerized the American state for nearly four decades. But we believe that this exemplarity has been so thoroughly degraded in recent years – indeed has been turned inside-out – that, in terms of US imperial interests, Israel as currently constituted has become an extreme liability. Rather than working to erode or intimidate resistance to the implantation of American capital in the Middle East, Israel’s intransigence now furnishes that resistance with constant fuel. And rather than continuing to offer a version of modernity to be embraced by the region’s numerous weak and vulnerable states, it now stands for a set of cultural and social relations that is rejected by the forces of political Islam, in part because those relations are equated with the entity “Israel”. Every radical Islamic website, every communiqué from Islamic militant factions, is filled with denunciation of Israel and its American protector. As long as political Islam can focus on the fact that modernity has taken this particular form in its midst (however reasonably, however cynically, with whatever tincture of racism-answering-racism), every effort of the US toward “soft” penetration of the Middle East is doomed to fail. And all continuing US attempts at forced penetration – we have no doubt that such efforts will continue – will be met with the same broad-based, desperate resistance now confounding the American state in Iraq.

Unqualified US support for Israel, then, has turned out to be a geopolitical trap. (Even Tony Blair is capable of recognizing this.) Yet that support is unwavering. We shall try to parse some of the reasons for this, though we offer no simple diagram of causes. Every empire enters into commitments and implantations that it later regrets. (Blair can be unctuously regretful on the subject of Israel because Northern Ireland is always on a British prime minister’s mind.) Our arguments about US support for Israel – about an imperial power’s fascination with an image of its own double nature, and about the ability of that image to entrap the power that sought to deploy it – are offered here preeminently as a lens through which the US invasion and occupation of Iraq might come to make more (misguided) sense. In this regard, our analysis of US–Israel relations might lead to two versions of a question we have not heard posed elsewhere in quite the same terms: Can the US move into Iraq be understood as a delusional attempt to repeat the one-time “success” of the Israeli lodestar? Or, put another way, did the Iraq invasion follow from the (conscious or unconscious) recognition, finally, that Israel’s time as a projection of the West – as an illusion – has come to an end?


The reigning state and media narrative is that the United States and Israel have always been soulmates. Most Left critique of the relationship likewise takes as gospel (usually unstated) that US backing for Israel began with the birth of Zionism. But the historical record reveals something quite different – that the US’s unreserved, overweening support for the Israeli state has extremely shallow roots. [In his major work on the US–Israel relationship, Noam Chomsky asserted that US backing for Israel is thin and “will very likely erode if Israel comes to be seen as a threat rather than a support to the primary US interest in the Middle East region, which is to maintain control over its energy reserves and the flow of petrodollars” (The Fateful Triangle, Boston 1983, p. 22). Somewhat to the contrary, we will argue that US state support is thin but entrenched, and that, except perhaps for a brief period, it developed despite having always been more of a threat than a support to control over petro-flows.] The first organized stirrings of Zionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries evoked barely a murmur of interest among the American political classes. US imperial sights were then still focused almost exclusively on the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific Rim. The Middle East, and Palestine in particular, were regarded as British and French turf. The US was not ready to challenge the Europeans’ hegemony in the region, and in any case the old colonial powers seemed comfortably in control – the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating, Arab and Persian regimes were weak and compliant. Moreover, oil had not yet taken its central place on the world stage. Despite this relative lack of concern, the imperial planners in both the State Department and the corporate boardrooms did take a clear and consistent position on the Middle East, as a result of straightforward geopolitical calculus: avoid direct conflict over the far-flung Ottoman territory; and court the oil-producing kingdoms, do not aggravate them. Strategically, Zionism was nowhere.

What little early support Zionism did generate in the US was disjointed, contradictory, and ineffectual. Britain tried to goad America into backing the Zionist plan in Palestine by warning that if Britain and the US did not support it, the Zionists would turn to the Germans, where indeed the project had the Kaiser’s attention. But Germany seemed of little moment to the US at that point, so the argument had no purchase. Domestically, the Democratic Party of the urban Northeast counted Zionist Jews among its members, but they were not particularly numerous or influential. And in the same Northeast cities, some elements of organized labor supported Zionism as a way to stem the tide of working-class Jewish immigration. These awkward bedfellows were joined in the Zionist sack – think of old-world beds in which separation boards permitted sleep without fear of touching – by a smattering of Christian evangelicals who supported Zionism as biblically ordained. None of this backing was well organized, and it was unable to muster even the semblance of a strategic argument in support of the Zionist project. At the very last minute in 1917, the US gave a faint nod of approval to the Balfour Declaration. Zionism may have slotted idiosyncratically into Woodrow Wilson’s Scriptural readings on “the people of the Book”; but he was finally willing to give informal backing to the idea of a Jewish homeland, despite opposition from his State Department, only because the consequences were to be Britain’s problem, and the Declaration did not commit the US to any particular course of action in what was then a geopolitical backwater.

America’s position toward Zionism during the inter-war years remained basically the same. There were no strong organized domestic political forces, either pro or con. Strategic analysis – as articulated by the State Department and the oil companies – argued against US support for a Jewish state in the midst of the Arab energy fields, but there seemed to be no urgency about it: the US was freshly cementing oil arrangements with the House of Saud, which promised a plentiful supply of oil and oil cash for the foreseeable future.

Everything was transfigured, of course, by the events of 1939–45. There was, first, the Final Solution, and emerging evidence of it. The story of political reaction to this catastrophe is complex (and most often shameful). But without doubt it was taken, by important sectors of the European and American public, to strengthen the case for the forced creation of a Jewish state, and not incidentally the end of the “Jewish question” in Europe. Whatever our verdict on this last contortion of European anti-Semitism – this last salving of European conscience, as usual at the expense of another Other – the upwelling of sympathy for Zionism was significant.

What needs to be emphasized here, however, is how little this pattern of events affected American policy during the immediate post-war years. Because another great transforming phenomenon of the war years was the rise to supervening importance of oil. What mattered to the US in the Middle East was the filthy black liquid, not the agonies of the diaspora in Europe. And this new obsession with petro-resources led the US away from support for then-gestating Israeli statehood. Since the 1930s, and with increasing insistence as the decade wore on, the Departments of State and War had argued consistently against US backing for a Jewish state in Palestine: the Middle East desk saw it as vital for the US not to be seen by Arab oil producers as responsible for the establishment of Israel; and the generals believed it was far simpler to maintain good military relations with feudal Arab regimes than to become the guarantor of Israel’s security. Strategically, Zionism was seen, overwhelmingly, as a bad risk.

Two startling reminders here: On the eve of its birth, the political character of the new Jewish nation was still so protean, and its strategic posture still so much up for grabs, that it was the Soviet Union, not the US, which cast the first United Nations vote for Israeli statehood. Upon Israel’s official recognition in 1948, the US imposed an arms embargo on the new state. As a consequence, the Israelis bought arms from the Czechs, with Stalin’s blessing. The Cold War game was on. And the Israelis learned quickly how to exploit it. Their first successful connection with the US state apparatus was through the two nations’ spy agencies. The Haganah (pre-Mossad Israeli intelligence) had deep, effective networks inside the Soviet Bloc – or, at least, successfully presented itself as such to the ever-gullible US spy bureaucracy – and was willing to work unofficially with the OSS/CIA in exchange for that agency’s quiet support for Israel within the US government.

Overt backing for Israel was still perceived as a strategic liability, however. The diplomats and defense chiefs were immoveable. The US was more and more inclined toward direct penetration of the Middle East, in proportion to the waning influence of Britain and France. Couched in Cold War terms (“containing” Soviet influence and local Communist leanings), the 1950s Eisenhower Doctrine intended that the influence of the old colonial powers would now cede to that of the US, and aimed, above all, at controlling emerging nationalism – notably the threat it presented to the region’s oil oligarchies. But within this project, Israel was seen as irritant rather than ally, and during the 1956 Suez crisis it proved just how nettlesome it could be. Israel’s secret deal with the British and French – specifically excluding the US – had Israel provoking war with Egypt as a pretext for the old colonials to reclaim the Canal. Rather than backing the plan once in motion, however (as Israel, Britain, and France had expected), the US responded by determining from then on to shunt the British and French to the margins of the Middle East picture, to manage relations with the oil producers as much as possible on its own, and to keep a wary eye on Israeli duplicity.  [However difficult it may be to imagine now, during the Suez crisis the US asked the United Nations to consider an embargo of all aid to Israel unless and until it pulled out of the Sinai.]


None of this is meant to deny that Israel did indeed come to serve, for more than a decade, as a US strategic asset. In 1958, following the creation of the United Arab Republic in Egypt and Syria, the marines landed in Lebanon to protect the Lebanese and Jordanian states from nationalist uprisings. The landing was intended, at the same time, to send a message to nationalist movements in neighboring countries. This second aspect of the operation was decidedly less effective: in particular, the West’s Hashemite protégé in Iraq, King Faisal, was assassinated later that year, and a republic proclaimed, ending British domination. However, the US was not prepared, either militarily or politically, to risk outright invasion of Syria and Iraq, so the marines were withdrawn after only a few months. Lebanon and Jordan had been “stabilized”, it was claimed – but this direct exercise of American power in the region had been an object lesson in unpredictability.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the US remained deeply concerned about the spread of Left nationalism and pan-Arabism in the region, but saw serious limits on further direct military intervention. The Cold War risks were grave. And the development of US techno-military prowess, and its control over the images of war, had not yet progressed to the point where invasions of sizable out-of-hemisphere nations could be managed without heavy American casualties, and consequent domestic dissent. Moreover, the project in Southeast Asia was already under way, and this fully consumed US “hot war” capabilities.

For a short time, at least, Israel solved the problem. When the Jordanian monarchy was again threatened by a coup in early 1967, the Israelis mobilized troops and threatened to invade: the Jordanian monarchy regained control. Israel successfully repeated the move in 1970, when Syria threatened Jordan. Also in 1967, and again in 1973, the Israelis made war on neighboring states in which Arab nationalism had taken hold: the devastating preemptive strikes served to cripple the opposing states’ armed forces, and left the defeated regimes politically unstable. The threat of a pan-Arab alliance receded. The US reaction to Israel’s wars was clear. It approved wholeheartedly of the consequences of the Israeli strategy, and no doubt appreciated the anti-Communist patina which Israel added, somewhat hurriedly, to its propaganda. At the same moment, Israel began its lesser – but nonetheless notable – strategic role as middleman for secret US military support to repressive regimes throughout the world. [The list is long, motley, and grisly, including Idi Amin, Mobutu, Bokassa, Haile Selassie, the Indonesian junta, and the military regimes in Chile and Guatemala – plus not only the Shah of Iran but also the post-Shah mullahs (in order to keep the Iran–Iraq war on the boil).] Rewards were soon forthcoming: solid American diplomatic support (if initially more cautious and tempered than in recent decades); substantially increased military aid; and the ideological cloak in which Israel has been wrapped ever since – “our great strategic asset”.

By the early 1980s, however, Israel’s short-lived strategic effectiveness had come to an end. The US was beginning to understand – excruciatingly so with the Iranian revolution – that it was no longer secular Arab nationalism (with or without socialist coloring) that posed the real threat. Political Islam had moved into the nationalist void; and, rather than being intimidated by the Israeli military degradation of secular Arab states, the Islamists were emboldened by it. Israel’s invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon, beginning in 1978 and reaching its pitiless apogee in 1982, was a bleak moment for pro-Western regimes in the region. It fuelled a growing pan-Islamic fury. [Israel itself contended that fighters came to Lebanon from across the Islamic world to counter the Israeli incursion.] And the Islamists began to speak directly, in a language infinitely more violent than that of Nasser and Mosadeq, of the United States as an enemy coeval with Israel itself. Direct assault by Israel on any one of the remaining secular Arab polities now seemed too great a strategic risk: a further weakening of their rickety state structures might lead to complete dissolution – and to some new version of the Iranian mullahs. Even the open secret of the Israeli nuclear strike force, which for a while may have set an unspoken limit to any moves against crucial Western interests in the region, began to produce as many problems as it solved. Deterrents provoke counter-deterrents. First Khaddafy and Saddam, soon now Khomeini.

 By the time the collapse of the Soviet Union again permitted the US to launch a major military intervention of its own in the Middle East (the 1990–91 Gulf War), the first Bush administration took extraordinary pains to ensure that Israel not be seen to participate, even in its own defense. [The US not only publicly refused to use Israel as a major staging ground for the war but even heavily pressured Israel to refrain from returning missile fire at Iraq if attacked by the now-legendary Scuds.] When it came to massive military intervention in the Islamic world, there were to be no more proxies. Least of all the Israeli “Defense Forces”. Nonetheless, US support and apologetics for the Israeli state and its strangulation of the Palestinian people has remained undiminished. But if the strategic asset is dead and buried, then long live the … what?


Strategy is one thing, imagery another. At the same moment in the 1950s that Israel was so badly miscalculating US strategic posture in the Middle East – a miscalculation that led finally to the Suez fiasco – it was launching a hugely successful campaign to produce and control the appearance of Israel for Western consumption. It funded and organized a state propaganda machine dedicated to exporting images of Zionist modernity. These images were initially designed to bring private American and European funds into Israel as much as to court Western government support, but in the end this illusion would succeed in capturing the American state imagination. Two motifs in particular proved irresistible: “Making the Desert Bloom”, and “The Only Democracy in the Middle East”.

Let us take them in order. From its beginnings, one strand of Zionist dreaming had been the idea of a return to the land – an end to the age-old image of the Jew as petty tradesman on the move at the margins of social space, and the founding of a new culture of physical labor and direct productivity under the sun. This was an element of Zionism that appealed greatly to some parts of the Jewish Left, even among otherwise internationalist labor federations, in early twentieth-century and inter-war Europe. These moderate socialist milieux were one source of immigration to Palestine/Israel both before 1939 and after 1945; and they contributed to the steady stream of young Americans and Europeans who went to witness the Israeli miracle in the 1950s and 1960s, spend a season on a kibbutz, and report back to their elders in praise of the new frontier.

“Making the Desert Bloom” was both an image and a reality, each with many facets. We have no wish to deny the idealism of most of the immigrants. The long history of the diaspora in Europe was filled with misery. And the extraordinary horror of Nazism was close, determinant for many. In the desert, history would begin again. But in the hands of the propagandists – and this is our subject, sadly – the rhetoric of “Making the Desert Bloom” could hardly have been more transparent, more insistent. It stood for the victory of a dynamic Western modernity over a slothful Eastern dark ages. The pastiche of image-elements assembled by the Israeli state apparatus was aimed directly at the postwar West: Israel was Occidental, it was anti-Communist, it was redoubtably “white”; it celebrated the marriage of technics with “democratic character”, by means of which an individual, agro-industrial entrepreneurial spirit would transform – was transforming – a barren wasteland, peopled only by the occasional goatherd, into a spreading oasis of green hyper-production. [One aspect of these images-for-export was the “Plant a Tree in Israel” campaign, which fed the desert bloom fantasy while simultaneously training Westerners to the notion of sending money to Israel.] And indeed, they were beautiful (in a Socialist Realist sort of way), those rippling-muscled young kibbutzim in singlets and shorts – above all the sabras, who could claim “birth rights” in the land – working side-by-side, unmindful of the desert sun, to create a new world. All in such stark contrast (of course, mostly unspoken) to the dark, shiftless, neurasthenic Arab hiding away from honest toil in the casbah, under cover of the burnoose.

It did not matter that in fact the kibbutzim were mostly East European and North African (that is, neither Western nor “white”, in other contexts); that many operated on collectivist principles (which eventually caused the kibbutz itself to disappear from the image-machine); that the desert was neither empty nor barren (sustainable agriculture having been practiced by Palestinian Arabs for over two millennia); that the supposed desert miracle was based on disastrous diversions of water which disrupted or destroyed traditional agriculture, and led in time to high-stakes hydropolitical struggles; or that the noble hands-on blooming was soon to be replaced by the usual techniques and displacements of agribusiness. The image was in place. And likewise its twin, “The Only Democracy”. We presume we do not need to rehearse for our readers the foundations of dispossession and disenfranchisement on which that fiction was built.

Neither of these conceptions of Israel was without precedent in the earlier twentieth-century imagination. [The notions were explicit in Zionism’s foundational ideology: “There [in Palestine] we shall be a sector of the wall of Europe against Asia, we shall serve as the outpost of civilization against barbarism” (Theodor Herzl, Der Judenstaat, 1896).] Our epigraph from William Yale demonstrates as much. But Yale and his like had tended to sound the note in an old-world “bulwark of Western civilization” register, and their advice to the State Department had been ignored. No vital state interest appeared to be served. And the idea of America’s image actually benefiting from being worked out in Palestine “along Jewish lines” – that is, from a secular, spectacular doubling in the form of Israel – was still too outlandish.

It was not until the 1950s, when the US’s pre-war class battlegrounds began to empty into the suburban tract-world, that the Yale conception of Israel (suitably reformulated) came into its own. Exactly how this spectacular transference happened has still, as far as we know, to be explored empirically. That it happened is clear. And some of the components of the mirroring and bonding leap out from a first survey of the evidence. The congruence between the set of appearances exported from Israel and American capital’s own developing consumerist self-image was fatally attractive. There, on the edge of the desert, was an entire nation of new developments, a suburban dreamscape – modernity in full bloom. Every aspect of the Israeli settlements was planned, every element fungible, every imagined family happy in its project of building and consuming the New. The old, industrial, class-divided urban world – indeed history itself [with the exception of the Holocaust, particularly when useful to the Israeli state; see Tom Segev’s powerful and painful analysis, The Seventh Million, New York 1993] – had been jettisoned in favor of life at the frontier. The myths were mutually supportive: the Israeli “settling” of the desert and the post-war US shift to the suburbs both resonated with American frontier mythology, as did the Israeli “removal” of pre-modern dark-skinned recalcitrants. And Israel was a democracy …

We believe that this attraction of the US for its Middle East reflection was already well established by the time, in the late 1960s, that Israel began actually to serve as a strategic ally. And when it did, attraction became infatuation. For a while, the frontier itself seemed to shift, and all Western Asia loomed into view. Israel would act not merely as an outpost but a stepping-stone. In it and by means of it, capital would gain its first foothold in a crucial, and seemingly vulnerable, strategic region. The Israeli example would prove contagious. Pluralism and “development” would triumph over stagnation and autocracy.

Modern states are often slower to fall prey to a set of spectacular illusions and compulsions than other sectors of the societies they govern. But there is a corollary to this. Once a state cathects to an image-cluster – once it sees itself in a spectacular mirror – it may be the very last social actor to let go of its object of desire, or to see how counterfactual (and counterproductive) a worn-out illusion can become. So, we shall argue, it has proved in this case.


States try to make use of the spectacles they fall in love with. No sooner had the appearance of Israel become a functioning part of the US imaginary than its agencies set to work projecting the image back to the Middle East, as the poster child of Western modernity. And to its own citizens, as the hero of various Cold War passion plays. Israel was the Western David holding off the Eastern Goliath, or the champion of free enterprise facing down Nasserite “totalitarianism”. It was alternately (or simultaneously) Judeo-Christian and secular (that is, modern through and through), therefore the antetype of godless Communism or Oriental despotism or threatening theocracy. Apply as needed.

Then there was the question of Israel’s belligerence, its ongoing actions in the Occupied Territories, and the dominance of its military over society at large. Again, our topic here is not the actual dynamics and instigation of that process, about which others have written unforgettably, but the nature of the US state’s attachment to (and deployment of) the spectacle of Israel permanently at war. We believe, in a word, that the attachment was rooted in self-recognition – that Israel functioned most deeply as an image, and justification, of the US’s own culture of endless arms build-up and the militarization of politics.

Lately, this bonding and doubling has centered on the issue of Israel and Terror. Both Israel and the US have made terrorist tactics the baseline of morality against which all government conduct is to be measured, and “security” the all-consuming obverse of “terrorism”. Within such a framework – in the West Bank and Gaza, in Lebanon, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, and (for over a decade) in Iraq – the distinction between civilian and military targets and casualties has been obliterated, collective punishment has become accepted practice, and grotesquely disproportionate response to acts of resistance has become the hallmark not only of the Israeli Defense Forces but also of “America under siege”. All resistance is terrorism. All state violence is self-defense.

Through its support for Israeli policies, the US began to test the limits of its own developing unilateralism. The more Israel became isolated internationally, the more intractable became its defense by the US. United Nations resolutions that could not be vetoed by its protector were ignored by Israel, with full US backing, and erased from the stage-managed reporting on such subjects in the American media. Israel’s nuclear weapons are a threat to no one, and in any case do not exist. When the US successfully blocked international consequences for Israel’s incursion into, and later occupation of, southern Lebanon, the Israelis embarked on their now well-known attempt at a Revolution in Occupation Affairs: the slaughters in refugee camps; the bulldozing of Palestinian villages and orchards; bombing of homes and helicopter assassinations committed with US weaponry; shooting of rock-throwing children, and a “security” wall appropriating broad swaths of land and imprisoning an entire population. All of it immune from international response. And, more and more, such Israeli actions provided a model for the US’s own conduct, in its pursuit of absolute impunity on the world stage.

Finally, endlessly, there is “The Only Democracy in the Middle East”. [Apartheid South Africa, one might recall, was “The Only Democracy in Africa”.] We shall spare readers the full vicious circle of syllogisms. Resistance to Israel just is resistance to democratic pluralism. Such resistance is essentially pre-modern, reflective of societies incapable – because of the “Arab mind”, in Israeli cultural discourse – of non-tribal, secular allegiance and rational choice. Israel is hated not as an apartheid state, then, or as an occupier, or as a brutal suppressor of those who dare to resist, but because it is “a democracy”. Since September 11, the same tautology has served to silence the possibility of any domestic debate regarding the sources of the New York attackers’ rage, and, by extension, that of resisters anywhere to US hegemony. They hate us because they hate freedom. And millions of Americans, who have heard the same mantra so often on behalf of the Israelis, assent to it one more time.


Our argument has been that Israel’s brief period as a true strategic asset now lies in the past. The same can be said, we believe, about its time in the sun of the spectacle. Images of spotless orange groves, of shining white settlements with suitable color settlers, of El Al jets and Tel Aviv high-rises, of happy families lounging at Dead Sea resorts – all these have vanished from the pages and screens of Western media. Every corner of Israel now seen around the world is contested space, every Israeli in some extreme of rage or mourning: Uzi-toting settlers denouncing Sharon’s softness; smoke-filled streets strewn with twisted metal, ambulances wailing, passersby screaming for revenge; Arab-Israelis and Palestinians spread-eagled against walls by police, soldiers or civilians (the distinctions harder and harder to read). Image victory has turned into utter image defeat. Even scenes of “normal” Israeli life, when rarely they appear, have about them a sense of emergency and duress. People seem not to stroll but to scurry, teeth gritted, more chastened than comforted by the deployment everywhere of armed force. Beleaguered David morphs into wounded, flailing Goliath. “Making the Desert Bloom” gives way to nightly footage of bulldozers leveling Palestinian olive groves. The frontier of freedom is now marked by a separation wall, every slab of which speaks of imprisonment, exclusion. The very map of Israel – the tourniquet of settlements and fortified superhighways cutting off life-flows across the West Bank, the scatter of Palestinian Bantustans, the political economy of the arid and the irrigated, and the Fence itself, with its unmistakable message of Divide and Rule – is unshowable, unspeakable.

Failure is compounded by a Revolution in Image Affairs in the surrounding Arab world. People no longer depend on images tossed back at them from the West, or filtered through their own dismal state media. They have built themselves an alternative wisdom: al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and their imitators; scores of Arab-language newspapers and journals; multiplying cyberspaces. The Israel portrayed by this new apparatus, safe to say, does the US no spectacular service. Orientalism talks back.

Even as colonizer and enforcer – the aspect of Israel’s spectacular identity to which the American state is most deeply attached, we feel – Israel has lost its efficacy. Nearly forty years on, the Israeli state is no closer to an end-game in the Occupied Territories. The Palestinian people, its own failed official structures notwithstanding, has proved indomitable. And indominability, over time, cannot be disguised or dissembled. As enough rock-throwing boys confront enough Israeli tanks, eventually they are seen as … tanks against boys – and no amount of casuistry will keep the “security” gloss intact. As more and more anguished Palestinian families sit in the rubble of their homes after yet another attack by helicopter gunships, eventually they are seen and heard as … gunships against families – and no amount of “reliable information” about terrorists can alter the equation. None of this means to suggest that the bombings of civilians in Israel by Hamas, al-Aqsa, and others are in any way excusable in response. The tactic is execrable and futile. But if Israel-the-occupier is a model of anything now, it is a model of abject failure.


Why, then, is there no sign, however slight, of the US beginning to prize itself apart from this ally-become-ball-and-chain? We offer no simple or definitive explanation here, but we suspect the answer is superficial; for oddly, sometimes the worst entanglements are contingent and skin deep. In part the answer is to be found within the mix of American domestic politics – every empire has a home life. But also in the nature of imperial systems – most empires have their Northern Irelands; their Algerias; their Ottoman Balkans; their Moldavia and Wallachia. And even these comparisons may be overpitched. Each was, after all, a true colonization, an attempt to maintain the hold of a nation-state over a contiguous territory. There is no such imperial compulsion at work in the Israeli case. Compulsion – or at least, irresistible determination – happens now at the level of spectacle. Which does not mean that the grip of causation is any less tight.

What, then, are the causes here? No doubt there is some combination of factors that can be rightly if imprecisely called “the Jewish lobby”. We have no interest in entering the tawdry conversation, which all too easily slips into conspiracy theory and vaguely (if not grossly) anti-Semitic hypotheses, about just how strong such influences are, or how large their bank accounts. Suffice it to say that support for Israel within the US is extremely well designed and well organized. The efforts of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), along with other connected groups, have been targeted with real ingenuity through the years, focusing on the management and intimidation (here “lobbying” is too weak a term) of individual members of Congress, and on influence with key White House and Pentagon staff. Conventional advocacy and PR have continued; but, as is true of American politics generally over the last decades, it is access and “consultancy” that have mattered most.

In recent years these efforts have been aided, grotesquely, by the emergence of evangelical Christians as a political force. As the evangelicals began to summon and recognize their strength in the 1980s, the state moved to harness their dispensationalist views [For dispensationalists, the most crucial sign indicating the imminence of the Second Coming is the return of the Jews as a nation to the Holy Land.] into active political support for US policy in Israel. It proved possible to get these good Christians sufficiently to overcome their own personal and organizational anti-Semitism (in the confines of the fundamentalist mind, dispensationalism and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are not mutually exclusive) to forge working relationships with Israeli and Jewish-American organizations. One only need see a photo of buttoned-down, Southern Christian politico Tom DeLay standing with black-robed, black-bearded Hasidim at the Western Wall to get the Buñuelesque flavor of the alliance.

To the extent that our subject is the balance of “influence” in Washington, then we should also enter into the equation the absence of any countervailing power. Palestinians have a small and relatively recent diaspora in the United States, without long-standing political organization. And the notion of a broader “Arab lobby” in support of the Palestinian cause is a phantom: Arab states have never been willing to spend their limited political capital with the US on the Palestinians’ problems, and pan-Arab political organizing within the United States is even more spectral than in the Middle East.

We are heading fast, we realize, into the mere totting up of political sums. And to a certain extent that is the reality of the situation. For even at the level of the spectacle there remain no pressing or persuasive reasons for the US to go on looking into the Israeli mirror. Israel, it has been clear for some time now, is a classic instance of a failed state – a characteristic product of Cold War over-armament plus “free enterprise” decay. But its failure, from the US point of view, goes deeper than this. It is a failed spectacle, above all – the first and most glamorous such failure, we predict, of a great new round to come.

It remains obscure how the imperial master frees itself from an illusion it has cultivated and cherished for four decades. In the first instance, it is trapped by its own apparatus of PACs and fundraisers and agents of influence. In particular, the evangelicals are a sorcerer’s apprentice, let loose in a holy war but without any magic words with which to rein them in. And neo-con jingoes are especially well represented in the current White House and Pentagon: any turn away from Israel would be, for them, a deplorable and enraging sign of weakness – evoking the satanic name of Vietnam, no less, which never stops echoing in their skulls.

But the state is trapped by something more. Something that prevents the US from changing course, even though that course is clearly self-defeating – there will be no end to anti-American jihad as long as the matter of Israel and Palestine remains “unresolved” – and could be reversed by the hegemon with little consequence to its grip on global power. There is something deeper at stake here, something particular to the alchemy of spectacle. Support for Israel has long ceased to be a simple motif in a government-run propaganda flow – one that can be turned off at the tap whenever the state deems it expedient. It has become a compulsion, beyond mere adjustments in strategic design. The US, in a word, is in thrall to the image of its body-double. It is trapped by the logic of its own image-co-dependency. The state believes in Israel the way the addict believes in the next fix.

In nearly four decades now, the US has developed no strategic plan for the Middle East which includes a viable, independent Palestine. Instead, it kept afloat the pathetic Arafat as an alibi for refusing to address the dispossession of the Palestinian people. Likewise, it has imagined no version of the region that does not revolve around the “only democracy in the Middle East”. This ideological addiction, this pathology of empire, leads us back finally to questions we posed at the outset: Can the US move into Iraq be understood as a delusional attempt to create a new “only democracy in the Middle East”? Could part of the impetus be, at last, an implicit recognition – at some levels of imperial power – that the phantasm of Israel as projection of the West has come to an end? Delusional, indeed. And some delusions of empire may be markers of its late-stage morbidity. But this is cold comfort. For the horror of the present situation lies in the fact that the price of this delusional system is paid every day by actual bodies, actual death and despair, in Ramallah and Gaza, in Fallujah and Sadr City. Exactly this has been one main theme of our book. The spectacle, we have been arguing, is not merely a realm of images: it is a social process – a complex of enforcements and exclusions – devoted to the suppression of social energies, with the imaging and distancing of those energies being only one (among many) of its techniques. The spectacle, that is to say, is deeply (constantly) a form of violence – a repeated action against real human possibilities, real (meaning flexible, useable, transformable) representations, real attempts at collectivity. When a particular node of the spectacle enters into crisis, as we have been saying has happened to the spectacle “Israel”, it is precisely the violence of this process that comes into view. Ultimately, the spectacle comes out of the barrel of a gun. State power informs and enforces it. Mostly that fact is hidden. The spectacle is that hiding. But in the end, when a spectacle agonizes, the guns reappear at every margin of the image-array.

This is excerpted from Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War  (Verso 2005).