16 February 2011, by
About ten days ago I had a particularly interesting discussion about Israel and its relationship to U.S. policy in the Middle East and to the events swirling there now, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. My interlocutor is one of the most astute commentators, particularly on U.S. policy, in the alternative media, but he made it clear that, to his mind, Israel does not play a role of any notable relevance to what the United States is doing in the region.
I would say that he has a bit of a blind spot about Israel — a not uncommon phenomenon among progressive thinkers. But perhaps the current turmoil in the region will ultimately open his eyes and those of others who minimize Israel’s centrality to U.S. policy. Recent events unfolding in Egypt and surrounding Wikileaks-released State Department cables and al-Jazeera-released Palestinian papers dealing with Palestinian-Israeli talks are demonstrating graphically, as no other series of events probably ever has, that the United States does what it does in the Middle East in great measure because of Israel — to protect and safeguard Israel from Arab neighbors who object to its treatment of its Palestinian subjects, from Muslims with similar grievances, from criticism of Israel’s military exploits against neighboring states, from the ire of other states still threatened by Israel, from governments in the region that challenge Israel’s nuclear monopoly or attempt to develop their own arsenals to defend against Israel.
It is instructive to remember that Egypt is important to the United States almost entirely because it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and helps guarantee Israel’s security, guarding its western border, helping its military assaults on other Arab countries, closing the tunnels into Gaza through which Hamas smuggles some weapons and the Gazan population obtains food and other essentials, undermining Hamas’s rule in Gaza. The United States also regards Egypt as an important cog in the machine of its “war on terror” and its war on Islamic radicalism, a collaboration also closely linked to Israel’s security interests.
Egypt is obviously important in the region in its own right. Its size and strategic location guarantee that it will always have considerable influence in Middle East politics, and it has long been the heart of Arab culture, even without U.S. help. The last three weeks of the Egyptian people’s struggle for democracy have further enhanced its importance, capturing the imagination of people around the world (with the exception of many, perhaps the majority, in Israel and among the curmudgeonly right in the United States, including Israel’s U.S. supporters).
But the fundamental reality is that the United States would not have the close military, political, and economic relationship it has had with Egypt for the last thirty-plus years were it not for the fact that Egypt is friendly with Israel and the fact that, in the words of Middle East expert Rashid Khalidi, Egypt has always acquiesced “in Israel’s regional hegemony.” The $1.5 billion annually in military aid, and the $28 billion in economic and development assistance across the last 35 years would not have been given had not Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat virtually begged for and then finally signed a peace treaty with Israel that removed Egypt, the largest Arab military force, as a threat to Israel, abandoning the Palestinians and the other Arab parties to their own devices. With Egypt out of the picture and indeed often assisting, Israel has been free to launch military assaults on several of its neighbors, including Lebanon twice and Gaza and the West Bank repeatedly, and free to expand settlements, absorb Palestinian territory, and severely oppress Palestinians without fear of retaliation or even significant disagreement from any Arab army.
Israeli commentator Aluf Benn has pointed out furthermore that, with Mubarak in office, Israel could always feel safe about its western flank if it were to attack Iran, but now Israel will not dare attack when it can no longer rely on Egypt’s “tacit agreement to its actions.” Whoever replaces Mubarak would, by this reasoning, be too concerned about popular rage if he were to collaborate with Israel. “Without Mubarak, there is no Israeli attack on Iran.”
For Israel and therefore for the United States, the U.S. investment of billions in Egypt over the years has been well worth the cost. The loss of the “stability” that Egypt provided — meaning Israel’s loss of certainty that it remained the secure regional dominant power — has been a huge game-changer for Israeli and U.S. strategic calculations.
Before the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the United States never considered that Egypt was quite the strategic asset that it became when it surrendered its military capability in the interests of Israel. The same can be said about the United States’ relations with several other Arab states. Its involvement in Lebanon over the years — including its effort to remove Syrian forces from Lebanon — has been almost entirely linked to Israel’s interests there. The fallout from Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon still reverberates: in response to the invasion, the United States sent a contingent of Marines, which became involved in direct fighting with Lebanese factions, leading in turn to a devastating bombing of Marine headquarters that killed 241 U.S. personnel in 1983; Hizbullah, representing a besieged Shiite population in southern Lebanon, arose as a direct result of Israel’s invasion; the spate of kidnappings of U.S. personnel by Hizbullah throughout the 1980s grew out of hostility to the U.S. because of its support for Israel; Israel withdrew from a two-decade-long occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, leaving behind a strengthened Hizbullah; continued conflict along the border led to Israel’s brutal assault on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, which failed to defeat the Islamic organization or undermine its popularity; and as a result, the United States has for years pursued efforts to undermine Hizbullah and, essentially, to maintain Lebanon as an Israeli sinecure.
Jordan has been a minor U.S. ally for decades, but its conclusion of a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 enhanced its standing in U.S. eyes and gained the small state on Israel’s eastern border additional U.S. military and economic aid. The State Department’s official profile of Jordan relates the U.S. rationale for its good relationship with Jordan more or less directly to Israel, although without ever mentioning Israel: “U.S. policy seeks to reinforce Jordan’s commitment to peace, stability, and moderation. The peace process and Jordan’s opposition to terrorism parallel and indirectly assist wider U.S. interests. Accordingly, through economic and military assistance and through close political cooperation, the United States has helped Jordan maintain its stability and prosperity.” The allusions to “reinforcing” Jordan’s commitment to “peace, stability, and moderation” and to maintaining Jordan’s “stability and prosperity” are obvious references to helping keep the area, and particularly Israel’s border, quiet. Just as clearly, “indirectly assist[ing] wider U.S. interests” refers to the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security interests. “Moderation” in State Department jargon is a code word for a pro-Israeli stance; “stability” is code for a secure environment that benefits Israel primarily.
It is safe to say that neither Lebanon nor Jordan would be at all as important to the United States if it were not considered necessary to keep each of these bordering countries in a stable, quiescent state for Israel’s security. The same situation does not apply in Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. has vital oil interests quite apart from Israel’s concerns. But at the same time, it is the case that the U.S. has managed to tame any Saudi impulse to speak out on behalf of the Palestinians, or any other Arabs under Israeli siege, and align the Saudis at least implicitly on the Israeli side of most issues, whether this is the 2006 attack on Lebanon or the 2008-2009 assault on Gaza or the supposed threat from Iran. The day when the Saudis were angry enough with United States over its support for Israel to impose an oil embargo, as occurred in 1973, is long over.
The recent Wikileaks releases of State Department cables and particularly al-Jazeera’s release of a raft of Palestinian documents dealing with negotiations over the last decade also demonstrate with striking clarity how hard the United States works, and has always worked, to help Israel in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiating process. U.S. support for Israel has never been a secret, becoming less and less so in recent years, but the leaked documents provide the most dramatic picture yet of the United States’ total disdain for all Palestinian negotiating demands and its complete helplessness in the face of Israeli refusal to make concessions. It is striking to note from these papers that the U.S. role as “Israel’s lawyer” — a description coined by Aaron David Miller after his involvement in negotiations during the Clinton era — is the same whether the administration is Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s or Barack Obama’s. Israel’s interests and demands always prevail.
Beyond the Arab world, U.S. policy on Iran is dictated more or less totally by Israel. The pressure to attack Iran — either a U.S. attack or U.S. support for an Israeli attack — which has been brought to bear for most of the eight years since the start of the war on Iraq, has come entirely from Israel and its supporters in the United States. This pressure is quite open and impossible to deny the way Israel’s pressure for the attack on Iraq has been. If the United States ever does become involved in a military assault on Iran either directly or through backing up Israel, this will be because Israel wanted it; if there is no attack, this will most likely be, as Aluf Benn surmises, because Israel got cold feet in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution.
Israel, and the desire to ensure its regional hegemony, also played a substantial role in leading the United States into war in Iraq, although this view is a harder sell and a much more controversial position among progressives and conservatives alike than is anything else about U.S.-Israel-Arab relationships.
My progressive interlocutor, for instance — who has strongly opposed the U.S. adventure in Iraq, equally strongly opposes any possibility of an attack on Iran, and was undoubtedly uncomfortable with U.S. vacillation about pressing for Mubarak’s departure — disagreed totally with my suggestion that Israel and its neocon supporters were a factor in getting the United States into the Iraq war. Early in our discussion, he talked at length about the neocons, their erstwhile think tank, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), and the overriding neocon-PNAC interest in advancing U.S. global hegemony, and he made the point that when George W. Bush came to power, an entire think tank was moved into the administration. But, despite this recognition of neocon objectives and the success they enjoyed in advancing them, he would not agree that PNAC and the neocons were as much interested in advancing Israel’s regional hegemony as they were in furthering U.S. imperialism.
When, on the other hand, I observed that not only had Bush moved a think tank into the administration, he had also effectively moved the Israel lobby, or its then most active wing, into the highest rungs of his administration’s policymaking councils, my friend readily agreed: oh, of course, he asserted quite vigorously, they — meaning the neocons — “are all Likudniks.” There is some kind of disconnect here, which he seemed not to notice: although, on the one hand, he acknowledged the neocons’ very close connection to Israel, he does not on the other hand agree that the neocons did anything in a policy sense for Israel. As if they had checked their pro-Israel sympathies at the doors of the White House and the Pentagon when they officially became policymakers. As if they had discarded their own long history of pro-Israel advocacy and the policy guidance that many of them had long been giving to Israeli leaders — guidance that included an actual advisory written for the Israeli government in 1996 to move against Iraq.
It has been clear to most analysts for years, even decades, that the United States favors Israel, but this reality has never been revealed so explicitly until recent events laid the relationship bare, and laid bare the fact that Israel is at the center of virtually every move the United States makes in the region. There has long been a taboo on talking about these realities, a taboo that has tied the tongues of people like my interlocutor. People do not mention Israel because they might be called anti-Semitic, they might be attacked as “singling out” Israel for criticism; the media fail to discuss Israel and what it does around the Middle East and, most directly, to the Palestinians who live under its rule because this might provoke angry letters to the editor and cancelled subscriptions by Israel supporters. Congressmen will not endanger campaign funds by talking honestly about Israel. And so Israel is taken off everyone’s radar screen. Progressives may “mention Israel in passing,” as my friend told me, but they do no more. Ultimately, because no one talks about it, everyone stops even thinking about Israel as the prime mover behind so many U.S. policies and actions in the Middle East.
It is time we began noticing. Everyone in the Middle East already notices, as the Egyptian revolution has just made clear. And probably everyone throughout the world also notices. We should begin listening to the world’s people, not to their leaders, who tell us what they think we want to hear.