The very act of questioning America’s uncritical support for Israel used to be heresy. In the influential media and conventional scholarship, Israel was considered a ‘natural ally’; and American taxpayers subsidised this natural alliance with billions of dollars annually, the latest technologically sophisticated weaponry, and unconditional diplomatic support at the United Nations and elsewhere.
When you asked what was ‘natural’ about the American-Israeli alliance, the answer was invariably related to the concept of ‘shared values’ and the democratic nature of Israeli society in a region of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes.
That begs the question: why other ‘natural’ alliances, with democratic European countries for instance, do not translate into huge American subsidies and military and diplomatic support?
The answer usually had to do with the perception if not the reality of Israeli vulnerability to hostile neighbours determined to destroy the Jewish state. But perceptions alone are not enough to justify the kind of support Israel has been receiving from the US. They had to be translated into actionable policy decisions. This task fell to the Israel lobby in the US and its effective propagandists around the world.
When Israel smashed the armies of three Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, and Jordan) and conquered their land in a few days in early June 1967, it also smashed the myth of its vulnerability. The Israel lobby and its many powerful friends in the media and scholarship quickly replaced the now discredited myth with a new one: Israel as a strategic asset in the cold war.
As such Israel, it was argued, provided strategic access to the Middle East which was largely penetrated by the Soviet Union thanks to its military and political support of the Arab countries allied against Israel.
This argument lost some credibility with Soviet-American détente in the 1970s, and with Egyptian oresident Anwar Sadat’s decision, in 1972, to expel all Soviet military advisers and offer to place Egypt squarely in the American camp.
With the collapse of communism and East and Central European democratic revolutions, the Cold War came to an unexpected end. Russia was diminished-economically and politically; and maybe to a lesser degree militarily; and it was too preoccupied with the task of reconstruction to pursue the grandiose foreign policy objectives it inherited from the Soviet Union.
The Middle East was wide open to American geostrategic objectives; the balance of power had become preponderantly in favour of the US. Israel’s role as a strategic asset, already questionable at best, had lost credibility for lack of raison d’etre. This left the argument of ‘natural alliance’ because of democratic affinities still being the most frequently invoked to justify the huge economic and military assistance as well as the quasi unconditional political support Israel receives from the US. This argument was seriously undermined when former US president Jimmy Carter published a book provocatively titled Palestine: Peace or Apartheid. Carter argued that the Israeli occupation violates Palestinian human rights as it discriminates against the Palestinians, oppresses and dispossesses them. He maintained that it had developed into an apartheid system.
Carter’s book and thesis proved hugely controversial in the US, not so much because of what it said, but because of who said it. A former US president and a Nobel peace laureate had brought a set of standard observations about the undemocratic nature of the Israeli occupation, to the heart of the American establishment. And in the process, he challenged one of the sacrosanct justifications for Washington’s uncritical bankrolling of Israeli policies.
Carter, rather unexpectedly, helped open a crack in the wall of the establishment silence surrounding Israeli oppressions and discrimination in the Occupied Territories. He raised the question of how could America justify sending American taxpayers’ money to support the most un-American apartheid policies. And how can Israel maintain its democratic credentials while consolidating its apartheid policy in Palestine.
Moreover, two American political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their 2007 book The Israel Lobby, posed the heretofore largely ignored question of whether for decades the Israel lobby pressured various American administrations into adopting pro-Israeli positions that were harmful to American interests.
The Mearsheimer/Walt thesis has been controversial because the American establishment had become accustomed to un critical support of Israel. In fact American bias for Israel is systemic and deeply entrenched. It is also readily observable and willingly admitted to.
Aaron David Miller, a former US negotiator for Republican and Democratic administrations observed that “many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as Israel’s attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations”.
Yet clearly biased American negotiators are still being asked to act as honest broker to advance peace negotiations. Denis Ross, the celebrated American envoy to the Middle East, has distinguished himself by an unrivalled record of failures in his countless missions to the Middle East, and has been described as Israel’s attorney in the White House. Yet Obama called on him as a senior adviser. This is more an attempt by Obama to score political points with the Israel lobby than to advance American efforts to revive the peace process.
American bias for Israel is well-documented. On the occasion of the latest Israeli offensive in Gaza in January 2009, Israeli historian Avi Shlaim told England’s Channel 4 News: “The key to Israel’s intransigence in the conflict is uncritical American support.”
The edifice of Israeli propaganda and its arguments for uncritical American economic, military and political support, has been shaken. This is evident from the critical debate that once was unthinkable and now is possible. Last week, the New York Times published a debate on the question of whether the US is too close to Israel at the expense of American interests.
But that edifice of propaganda has not crumbled. In the New York Times debate one can read, with incredulity, old and tired assertions such as this one: “The US struggles to make allies in the Arab world because America has values. Israel shares America’s commitment to liberal democracy, but the Arab world does not.” As if this preposterous assertion justified the occupation, discrimination, dispossession, and the denial of human rights.
Adel Safty is Distinguished Visiting Professor and Special Adviser to the Rector at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky.