Why does the US back Israel? by Mike Marqusee
“My master gives me food to eat and I bite those whom he tells me to bite. It’s called strategic cooperation.” B. Michael, Israeli satirist
On 25th March, 2004, the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli assassination of Sheikh Yassin. It was the fortieth time the US had bailed out Israel at the UN since it cast its first ever veto (also protecting Israel) in September, 1972. Those forty pro-Israel vetoes cast by the US outnumber all vetoes cast by all other Security Council members on all issues.
But the veto is only the diplomatic manifestation of multi-faceted US support for Israel. Without that support, above all military and economic support, Israel would never have been able to sustain the occupation for thirty-seven years. There would be no F16s, no Apache helicopters, far fewer tanks, machine guns and grenade launchers. The Israeli economy would have collapsed.
The scale of US largesse to Israel is mind-boggling. To start with, there’s $3 billion per year in direct military and economic aid – a full one third of total US foreign aid. On top of that, Israel receives funds under a variety of US budget headings, as well as loan guarantees and $1.5 billion a year in private US funds (including $1 billion in tax deductible donations – to a foreign government!). When other forms of subsidy are added to the official aid budget, the total cost of US support for Israel has been estimated at between $6 and $10 billion each year, equivalent to 5%-8% of Israel’s GDP. Since 1967, the US has poured more than $100 billion into Israel – a sum greater than US aid to all sub-Saharan African, Latin American and Caribbean countries combined during the same period.
Why does the US extend such charity to Israel? After all, the burden on the US taxpayer is huge and support for Israel has helped make US citizens targets for violence. What explains this extraordinary favouritism?
One common theory is that the roots of US support for Israel are to be found in US domestic politics, either in Jewish influence or the power of the Israel lobby.
An identification with Israel is widespread among American Jews and individual Jewish Americans do donate huge sums both directly to Israel and to its lobby in the US. However, American Jews are a relatively small percentage of the US population and will soon be outnumbered by American Muslims. What’s more, they are politically diverse. The loudest voices are by no means the most representative. Opinion polls have shown that most American Jews do not support Sharon’s aggressive stance and do support the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Today, the Israel lobby is comprised of Jews, non-Jewish neo-Conservatives and the militants of the Christian right. Headed by AIPAC, with its $15 million annual budget, and comprising some 126 registered pro-Israel PACs, its clout is fearsome. At times, this lobby has intervened to ensure Congressional support for Israel when the White House, troubled by the impact of Israeli actions on other allies, seemed to waver. It has targeted those few US politicians who’ve spoken out against Israel and ensured their electoral demise – most recently, the left-wing black Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. Whatever its ultimate impact on US policy-makers may be, there’s no doubt that its organisational muscle and aggressive tactics have inhibited the growth of the pro-Palestinian movement in the US.
Like so much US foreign policy, support for Israel is partly driven by the arms lobby. Israel is required to spend about three quarters of the military aid it receives from the US on US-manufactured weapons. The F-16 fighter plane, for example, is manufactured in the US by Lockheed Martin, which is a member of the Aerospace Industry Association, a lobbying group whose contributions to politicians’ campaign chests amount to twice the total distributed by all the pro-Israel groups.
Support for Israel in the US also draws strength from the ideological compatibility of Zionism and American exceptionalism – the belief that America has an extraordinary destiny and is the embodiment of universal values. Both nations originate as settler colonial societies; both are founded on the mythology of “a land without people for a people without land”; both are deeply imbued with racial hierarchies. It’s been easy for many Americans to see Israel as a civilisational outpost, a proxy, and rally to its cause.
Yet the search for the sources of US support for Israel in US domestic politics is in the end incomplete, and may be misleading. Yes, Israel is the biggest recipient of US foreign aid, but Egypt is the second biggest, and no one thinks this is the result of an Egyptian lobby. Colombia and Turkey come third and fourth – attracting billions of dollars not because of domestic politics but because of their role in ensuring the US’s global hegemony. The money and the threats from the Israel lobby would count for little if support for Israel wasn’t consonant with Washington’s grand imperial design.
The US was in the middle east before there was an Israel (initially as junior partner to the British) and it has remained in the middle east because the region has continued to be, in the words of President Dwight Eisenhower, “the most strategically important area of the world”. That importance derives from oil. Control of oil supplies generates huge profits for US corporations and also provides a lever over potential rivals to US supremacy (Japan, south east Asia and Western Europe are much more reliant of middle-east oil than the US itself).
Since 1945, the middle east has been a central concern for US policy makers. For many years, however, that concern did not translate automatically into US support for Israel. Though the US was the first country to recognise Israel, only minutes after it was officially created in 1948, it was a close-run thing. Both State and Defence departments were wary, fearing a reaction among the Arab oil states and citing potential Communist influence over a Jewish state. In 1956, the US slapped Israel down when it joined forces with Britain and France to invade Nasser’s Egypt. However, in 1958, a nationalist coup in Iraq, reflecting the rise of Nasser-inspired radicalism in the region, led US policy-makers to place increasing value on the Israeli alliance. That year a National Security Council document declared that the “logical corollary” of opposing Arab nationalism “would be support of Israel as the only strong, pro-west power left in the near east.”
It was not until the June 67 war that the US-Israel special relationship was fully forged. Israel may have accidentally bombed the USS Liberty and killed 34 US sailors but it had demonstrated extraordinary military prowess and, above all, had defeated Nasser, a blow to Arab nationalism throughout the region. That year, US aid to Israel rose by 450%. It continued to rise over the following years, substantially so after the 1973 war and the ensuing oil crisis, when Democratic Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson – a major spokesperson for the US military-industrial complex – declared that “the strength and western orientation of Israel on the Mediterranean and Iran on the Persian gulf safeguards US access to oil. … [Israel has] served to inhibit and contain those irresponsible and radical elements in certain Arab states, who, were they free to do so, would pose a grave threat to our principle sources of petroleum in the Persian gulf.”
In 1979 the US lost its much-valued Iranian flank and Israel became even more important. That year witnessed the Camp David deal (bringing Egypt into the US camp) and a four-fold increase in US aid to Israel. The annual stipends were boosted after the Gulf War of 1991 and again after 9/11, as Israel presented its onslaught on the Palestinians as a mini-version of the US’s war on terror.
In return for this ever-growing bounty, Israel has acted as the US’s watchdog in the middle east, rolling back Nasserism, blocking the growth of radical forces in Lebanon and Jordan, keeping Syria in check. Most importantly, it has suppressed the Palestinians, whose insurgency threatens not only Israel but the entire network of local US client states. In addition, Israel’s airforce and nuclear weapons offer a last resort military checkmate on all other powers in the region.
In the recently published “Empire of Capital”, Ellen Meiksins Wood argues that US imperial policy is best understood in the context of “a global economy administered by a global system of multiple states and local sovereignties, structured in a complex relation of domination and subordination. … inevitably, to manage such a system requires a single overwhelming military power, which can keep the others in line.” Within this US-dominated global hierarchy, Israel plays a vital disciplinary role. It may be an expensive and awkward client, but for those who would manage an unstable, far-flung empire, it’s clearly worth the price.
Which brings us back to the most recent veto. The assassination of Sheikh Yassin reiterated the new US doctrine of pre-emptive war and unilateral military action. Like the US’s invasion of Iraq, the Yassin killing was a demonstration, an assertion of the lawless prerogatives of the powerful in an increasingly unequal world order.
The good news is that criticism of Israel in the USA is less muted than in the past. The hysteria of the Israel lobby has risen as its credibility has receded. The movement that arose in opposition to the Iraq war was far more willing to embrace the Palestinian issue than its predecessors. There is increasing critical awareness of the realities of US foreign policy within the US itself, and along with it, awareness of the iniquitous nature of the US-Israel special relationship. Here too, the limitations of the seemingly all-powerful Israel lobby may eventually be exposed.
Mike Marqusee is a member of the editorial board of Palestine News, in which this article was originally published.