The Israel Lobby in U.S. Strategy
By George Friedman Strategic Forecasting, Inc. Wednesday, 05 September,
... Has the Israel lobby caused the United States to act in ways that
contravene U.S. interests? For example, by getting the United States to
support Israel, did it turn the Arab world against the Americans? Did it
support Israeli repression of Palestinians, and thereby generate an Islamist
radicalism that led to 9/11? Did it manipulate U.S. policy on Iraq so that
the United States invaded Iraq on behalf of Israel? These allegations have
all been made. If true, they are very serious charges.
It is important to remember that U.S.-Israeli ties were not extraordinarily
close prior to 1967. President Harry Truman recognized Israel, but the
United States had not provided major military aid and support. Israel,
always in need of an outside supply of weapons, first depended on the Soviet
Union, which shipped weapons to Israel via Czechoslovakia. When the Soviets
realized that Israeli socialists were anti-Soviet as well, they dropped
Israel. Israel's next patron was France. France was fighting to hold on to
Algeria and maintain its influence in Lebanon and Syria, both former French
protectorates. The French saw Israel as a natural ally. It was France that
really created the Israeli air force and provided the first technology for
Israeli nuclear weapons.
The United States was actively hostile to Israel during this period. In
1956, following Gamal Abdul Nasser's seizure of power in Egypt, Cairo
nationalized the Suez Canal. Without the canal, the British Empire was
finished, and ultimately the French were as well. The United Kingdom and
France worked secretly with Israel, and Israel invaded the Sinai. Then, in
order to protect the Suez Canal from an Israeli-Egyptian war, a
Franco-British force parachuted in to seize the canal. President Dwight
Eisenhower forced the British and French to withdraw -- as well as the
Israelis. U.S.-Israeli relations remained chilly for quite a while.
The break point with France came in 1967. The Israelis, under pressure from
Egypt, decided to invade Egypt, Jordan and Syria -- ignoring French
President Charles de Gaulle's demand that they not do so. As a result,
France broke its alignment with Israel. This was the critical moment in
U.S.-Israeli relations. Israel needed a source of weaponry as its national
security needs vastly outstripped its industrial base. It was at this point
that the Israel lobby in the United States became critical. Israel wanted a
relationship with the United States and the Israel lobby brought tremendous
pressure to bear, picturing Israel as a heroic, embattled democracy,
surrounded by bloodthirsty neighbors, badly needing U.S. help. President
Lyndon B. Johnson, bogged down in Vietnam and wanting to shore up his base,
saw a popular cause in Israel and tilted toward it.
But there were critical strategic issues as well. Syria and Iraq had both
shifted into the pro-Soviet camp, as had Egypt. Some have argued that, had
the United States not supported Israel, this would not have happened. This,
however, runs in the face of history. It was the United States that forced
the Israelis out of the Sinai in 1956, but the Egyptians moved into the
Soviet camp anyway. The argument that it was uncritical support for Israel
that caused anti-Americanism in the Arab world doesn't hold water. The
Egyptians became anti-American in spite of an essentially anti-Israeli
position in 1956. By 1957 Egypt was a Soviet ally.
The Americans ultimately tilted toward Israel because of this, not the other
way around. Egypt was not only providing the Soviets with naval and air
bases, but also was running covert operations in the Arabian Peninsula to
bring down the conservative sheikhdoms there, including Saudi Arabia's. The
Soviets were seen as using Egypt as a base of operations against the United
States. Syria was seen as another dangerous radical power, along with Iraq.
The defense of the Arabian Peninsula from radical, pro-Soviet Arab
movements, as well as the defense of Jordan, became a central interest of
the United States.
Israel was seen as contributing by threatening the security of both Egypt
and Syria. The Saudi fear of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was
palpable. Riyadh saw the Soviet-inspired liberation movements as threatening
Saudi Arabia's survival. Israel was engaged in a covert war against the PLO
and related groups, and that was exactly what the Saudis wanted from the
late 1960s until the early 1980s. Israel's covert capability against the
PLO, coupled with its overt military power against Egypt and Syria, was very
much in the American interest and that of its Arab allies. It was a low-cost
solution to some very difficult strategic problems at a time when the United
States was either in Vietnam or recovering from the war.
The occupation of the Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights in 1967 was
not in the U.S. interest. The United States wanted Israel to carry out its
mission against Soviet-backed paramilitaries and tie down Egypt and Syria,
but the occupation was not seen as part of that mission. The Israelis
initially expected to convert their occupation of the territories into a
peace treaty, but that only happened, much later, with Egypt. At the
Khartoum summit in 1967, the Arabs delivered the famous three noes: No
negotiation. No recognition. No peace. Israel became an occupying power. It
has never found its balance.
The claim has been made that if the United States forced the Israelis out of
the West Bank and Gaza, then it would receive credit and peace would follow.
There are three problems with that theory. First, the Israelis did not
occupy these areas prior to 1967 and there was no peace. Second, groups such
as Hamas and Hezbollah have said that a withdrawal would not end the state
of war with Israel. And therefore, third, the withdrawal would create
friction with Israel without any clear payoff from the Arabs.
It must be remembered that Egypt and Jordan have both signed peace treaties
with Israel and seem not to care one whit about the Palestinians. The Saudis
have never risked a thing for the Palestinians, nor have the Iranians. The
Syrians have, but they are far more interested in investing in Beirut hotels
than in invading Israel. No Arab state is interested in the Palestinians,
except for those that are actively hostile. There is Arab and Islamic public
opinion and nonstate organizations, but none would be satisfied with Israeli
withdrawal. They want Israel destroyed. Even if the United States withdrew
all support for Israel, however, Israel would not be destroyed. The radical
Arabs do not want withdrawal; they want destruction. And the moderate Arabs
don't care about the Palestinians beyond rhetoric.
Now we get to the heart of the matter. If the United States broke ties with
Israel, would the U.S. geopolitical position be improved? In other words, if
it broke with Israel, would Iran or al Qaeda come to view the United States
in a different way? Critics of the Israel lobby argue that, except for U.S.
support for Israel, the United States would have better relations in the
Muslim world, and would not be targeted by al Qaeda or threatened by Iran.
In other words, except for the Israel lobby's influence, the United States
would be much more secure.
Al Qaeda does not see Israel by itself as its central problem. Its goal is
the resurrection of the caliphate -- and it sees U.S. support for Muslim
regimes as the central problem. If the United States abandoned Israel, al
Qaeda would still confront U.S. support for countries such as Egypt, Saudi
Arabia and Pakistan. For al Qaeda, Israel is an important issue, but for the
United States to soothe al Qaeda, it would have to abandon not only Israel,
but its non-Islamist allies in the Middle East.
As for Iran, the Iranian rhetoric, as we have said, has never been matched
by action. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranian military purchased weapons
and parts from the Israelis. It was more delighted than anyone when Israel
destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. Iran's problem with the United
States is its presence in Iraq, its naval presence in the Persian Gulf and
its support for the Kurds. If Israel disappeared from the face of the Earth,
Iran's problems would remain the same.
It has been said that the Israelis inspired the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There
is no doubt that Israel was pleased when, after 9/11, the United States saw
itself as an anti-Islamist power. Let us remind our more creative readers,
however, that benefiting from something does not mean you caused it.
However, it has never been clear that the Israelis were all that
enthusiastic about invading Iraq. Neoconservative Jews like Paul Wolfowitz
were enthusiastic, as were non-Jews like Dick Cheney. But the Israeli view
of a U.S. invasion of Iraq was at most mixed, and to some extent dubious.
The Israelis liked the Iran-Iraq balance of power and were close allies of
Turkey, which certainly opposed the invasion. The claim that Israel
supported the invasion comes from those who mistake neoconservatives, many
of whom are Jews who support Israel, with Israeli foreign policy, which was
much more nuanced than the neoconservatives. The Israelis were not at all
clear about what the Americans were doing in Iraq, but they were in no
position to complain.
Israeli-U.S. relations have gone through three phases. From 1948 to 1967,
the United States supported Israel's right to exist but was not its patron.
In the 1967-1991 period, the Israelis were a key American asset in the Cold
War. From 1991 to the present, the relationship has remained close but it is
not pivotal to either country. Washington cannot help Israel with Hezbollah
or Hamas. The Israelis cannot help the United States in Iraq or Afghanistan.
If the relationship were severed, it would have remarkably little impact on
either country -- though keeping the relationship is more valuable than
To sum up: There is a powerful Jewish, pro-Israel lobby in Washington,
though it was not very successful in the first 20 years or so of Israel's
history. When U.S. policy toward Israel swung in 1967 it had far more to do
with geopolitical interests than with lobbying. The United States needed
help with Egypt and Syria and Israel could provide it. Lobbying appeared to
be the key, but it wasn't; geopolitical necessity was. Egypt was
anti-American even when the United States was anti-Israeli. Al Qaeda would
be anti-American even if the United States were anti-Israel. Rhetoric aside,
Iran has never taken direct action against Israel and has much more
important things on its plate.
Portraying the Israel lobby as super-powerful behooves two groups: Critics
of U.S. Middle Eastern policy and the Israel lobby itself. Critics get to
say the U.S. relationship with Israel is the result of manipulation and
corruption. Thus, they get to avoid discussing the actual history of Israel,
the United States and the Middle East. The lobby benefits from having robust
power because one of its jobs is to raise funds -- and the image of a killer
lobby opens a lot more pocketbooks than does the idea that both Israel and
the United States are simply pursuing their geopolitical interests and that
things would go on pretty much the same even without slick lobbying.
The great irony is that the critics of U.S. policy and the Israel lobby both
want to believe in the same myth -- that great powers can be manipulated to
harm themselves by crafty politicians. The British didn't get the United
States into the world wars, and the Israelis aren't maneuvering the
Americans into being pro-Israel. Beyond its ability to exert itself on small
things, the Israel lobby is powerful in influencing Washington to do what it
is going to do anyway. What happens next in Iraq is not up to the Israel
lobby -- though it and the Saudi Embassy have a different story.
This report may be distributed or republished with attribution to Strategic
Forecasting, Inc. at www.stratfor.com