The Cold Realities of US Policy in Israel-Palestine

by Mitchell Plitnick | published October 15, 2014

For more on this question, see Mitchell Plitnick and Chris Toensing, “‘The Israel Lobby’ in Perspective,” Middle East Report 243 (Summer 2007).

During the summertime war in Gaza, the two most progressive members of the US Senate stirred up controversy among their backers with expressions of uncritical support for Israel. At a town hall meeting, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the lone Senate independent, responded to a questioner that Israel had “overreacted” with its 52-day bombardment and ground incursion, but then proceeded to justify Israel’s actions with the usual pro-Israel talking points about “missiles fired from populated areas” and “sophisticated tunnels.” [1] An audience member began to shout objections, to which Sanders said, “Shut up.”

Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat from Massachusetts, went further in her defense of Israel at a meeting with constituents on Cape Cod. She said it was right for the United States to send $225 million in aid to Israel, a “democracy controlled by the rule of law,” as the bombing continued. She ventured no criticism at all of the extensive damage to civilian lives and livelihoods in Gaza. When another constituent suggested that future US aid be conditioned on Israel halting settlement construction in the West Bank, Warren replied, “I think there's a question of whether we should go that far.” [2]

In both cases, the impact of the pro-Israel lobby on members of Congress, especially those with higher political aspirations, was plain as day. As Stephen Walt, co-author with John Mearsheimer of the 2007 book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, states, “There is no other plausible explanation [than the lobby] for the supine behavior of the US Congress…or the shallow hypocrisy of the Obama administration, especially those officials known for their purported commitment to human rights.” [3]

With regard to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, the influence of the lobby, led by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), on Congress cannot be doubted. When the Israeli prime minister routinely gets much warmer greetings from American legislators than any American president, when so mainstream a voice as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says the ovations are “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby,” the evidence becomes overwhelming.

One should not, however, exaggerate the weight of the “Israel lobby” in the making of US Middle East policy writ large. Policy is largely made and carried out by the executive branch, which is guided by geostrategic concerns that may or may not correspond to the concerns of the lobby at any given moment. Domestic forces like AIPAC are important in shaping discourse and some short-term decisions, but they do not determine the direction of US strategy in the region.

Roots of US Middle East Policy

In the days of the Truman administration, American attachment to Israel was based in part on a sense of connection to fellow Westerners, the perception being that Israeli Jews were mostly European in origin. Christians were drawn to the Zionist narrative of redemption in the Holy Land. And, of course, there was the emotional resonance of the Holocaust.

But the attachment was always geostrategic as well as sentimental. The primary geostrategic consideration was the Cold War, with Israel viewed as an anti-communist bulwark, but that was not the sole imperative. As Noam Chomsky writes: “In January 1958, the National Security Council concluded that a ‘logical corollary’ of opposition to radical Arab nationalism ‘would be to support Israel as the only strong pro-Western power left in the Middle East.’” [4] Israel proved its worth in this regard in both 1956 and 1967, defeating Nasser’s Egypt in battle and badly undermining what little chance the notion of pan-Arab nationalism had of succeeding. As the years went by, Israel intervened in the Jordanian civil war known as Black September, helping to prevent Syria from entering that conflict, aided the Kurds in Iraq and performed smaller acts of support for the United States and its regional allies, keeping American hands clean. One can point in this vein to Israel’s 2007 destruction of a Syrian nuclear installation, which the International Atomic Energy Association eventually confirmed was being used in part for a nuclear weapons program.

Recently declassified documents from 1968 and 1969 lend insight into how policy toward Israel was formed. [5] At that time, the Arab-Israeli conflict was viewed through a Cold War lens, with lingering concern to abort the development of pan-Arab nationalism. It was a conflict between Israel and the Arab states, with the Palestinians being minor figures at best in the minds of world leaders.

Both President Lyndon Johnson, who had a soft spot for Israel, and his immediate successor Richard Nixon, whose backing was determined more by Cold War logic, were determined to prevent Israel from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. Contrary to rumor at the time, Israel was not developing a nuclear capacity with US assistance. It was, rather, France that had established the base for Israel’s nuclear weapons program some years before. Israel was pursuing the bomb with its own scientists and technicians, obtaining the needed materials through various means, including theft. Indeed, some believe that Israel crossed the nuclear threshold as early as 1969.

Without direct input into the nuclear program, how was the US to prevent Israel from getting the bomb? There was considerable discussion in Washington about canceling an agreement to sell F-4 Phantom fighter jets, the most advanced at the time, to Israel, as a means of acquiring leverage.

Such a threat was in fact implied to Yitzhak Rabin, then Israeli ambassador in Washington, but no ultimatum was ever issued. The US was concerned that withholding the Phantoms would push Israel to work harder on building an atomic weapon rather than acting as a deterrent. Moreover, it was not so much an Israeli bomb that spooked Washington as it was the potential Soviet and Arab response. Canceling the Phantom contract, which was already completed and had been widely advertised, would require an explanation, and US decision makers felt that the explanation would risk revealing Israel’s intention to go nuclear. Mere publicity about same, the US feared, could lead to dire global consequences. At the time, the Arab states were not certain that Israel was capable of developing nuclear weapons. If the US were to cancel the contract for the Phantoms over Israel’s refusal to cooperate on the nuclear issue, Arab leaders might take the move as proof that Israel did have this capacity.

Discussions evolved with remarkable consistency as the end of Johnson’s term merged into the beginning of Nixon’s. There were frequent meetings with Rabin, whose stance remained the same: Israel would not be the first country to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East. The sticking point was that Israel defined the word “introduce” as declaration of itself as a nuclear power, whether by conducting a test or taking another action that would make plain its possession of a nuclear arsenal. The US considered the assembly of one nuclear weapon, even in secret, to be “introduction.”

In the end, Nixon accepted the Israeli stance at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said in his memorandum, the president “emphasized that our primary concern was that the Israelis make no visible introduction of nuclear weapons or undertake a nuclear test program.” [6] Thus was born the Israeli policy of nuclear ambiguity that, despite revelations about the nuclear program in the 1980s, remains in place to this day.

To be sure, US policymakers were worried about Congress and public opinion during the Phantom episode. Israel was the darling of the American public in the war of attrition with Egypt. Without an obvious reason -- and outside of stating that Israel was developing a nuclear weapon, there was none -- Congress would be outraged at the cancellation of the fighter jet deal. The arms industry would also object. But these issues are mentioned infrequently in the documents in comparison to the Cold War concerns.

Defining National Interests

Many argue that the US has a clear national interest in Middle East peace. This predilection has certainly been recorded in official documents, memoranda, policy papers and speeches under every administration since Harry Truman was in the White House. But how important an interest is it?

One notion is that the US would be seen much more kindly by the mass of Arabs if there were peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. No doubt, Arabs everywhere would applaud a resolution of the conflict that recognized and made real Palestinian rights. But would they then simply forget the decades of support the US gave to Israel and its occupation? Would they forgive the US backing for oppressive Arab regimes? What about the damage done to the Middle East by the US-led wars in Iraq? It seems highly unlikely that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would completely change the US image in the Arab world for the better.

A corollary contention, often voiced by Arab allies of the US, is that the Middle East would be more stable in the event of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Israeli right has long retorted that Israel is not the main source of instability in the region. That rejoinder may be self-serving, but it is certainly clear in the wake of the 2011 Arab revolts that there is plenty of instability in the region without taking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into account. Dictatorships and polarized economies are fertile ground for ethnic and religious tensions. Visions of Israel at peace and acting as a force for democracy and free-market dogma in the region are also farfetched, all the more so as Israel becomes more nationalistic. This presumed benefit to the US is thus at best a matter of speculation.

Conflict resolution is also not without risks for a US grand strategy based on the stability of Middle Eastern regimes. A peace seen as a Palestinian victory could inspire popular movements of all sorts, from secular to Islamist, throughout the region. This eventuality has always been a concern not only for Western planners, but also for Arab rulers, who were generally opposed to an independent Palestinian state in 1948, and fear any triumph of resistance activities today. [7]

The uncertainties associated with resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means that it is a far lower priority for Washington than many seekers of peace believe. It is not that the calculus of peace is incorrect, necessarily, but rather that US planners will naturally estimate the situation very differently than advocates for Palestinian rights.

Meanwhile, Israel’s relationship with the US continues to grow, in terms of military and security cooperation and private-sector ventures, particularly in research and development. Israel continues to be the most reliable US partner in the region, despite its increasingly belligerent attitude and roguish behavior. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and other US allies, there is little danger that Israel’s government will be swept away by war or revolution from within. When the pro-Israel lobby speaks of “shared values” and the like, it is referring to Israel’s durable Western orientation and dependability as an ally. AIPAC and other lobbying outfits build upon, rather than establish, the fundamental direction of US policy toward Israel.

The Israel Lobby and Its Limitations

While the structure of policy remains consistent from one presidential administration to the next, regardless of party affiliation, specific actions and responses can vary a great deal and are much more susceptible to domestic pressure. The Israel lobby is unique among foreign policy special interest groups in its size, power and visibility.

There is real reason to question the lobby’s actual clout as opposed to the power it is perceived to wield. The mystification of the power of organized Jewry is apparent as far back as the earliest days of Zionism. A slightly more recent example illuminates this magical thinking.

In 1958, with President Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, a group of US decision makers conferred about Middle East developments. In his memorandum to Secretary of State John Dulles, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian and African Affairs William Rountree made the following assertion: “The best proof of the potency of international Jewry is that the Soviet Union, while constantly hinting to the Arab states that it will agree to help the Arabs to dismember Israel, has never actually come out publicly with such a statement of support.” [8]

Rountree did not explain how such a Jewish effort could deter the Soviets from acting as they saw fit. Certainly, pro-Israel forces could not lobby in Moscow as they did in Washington. Indeed, the march of history suggests strongly that the Soviets were undaunted by “international Jewry.” The persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union was systemic, and as Jews in the West gained more prominence and influence, especially after the 1967 war, Soviet anti-Zionism only increased. Rountree’s statement was baseless, yet aroused no controversy within government.

In contemporary US politics, the pro-Israel influence of campaign finance is much decried but difficult to pin down. To cite one example from the 2014 election cycle, the leading Congressional recipient of pro-Israel money from both political action committees (PACs) and individuals is Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, according to OpenSecrets.org. Booker has received about $316,000 in such contributions. Overall, however, Booker’s campaign has raised over $16 million, and seven sectors have contributed more (quite a bit more, in some cases) than pro-Israel donors toward that total. It hardly seems like money that could tilt an election.

It is true that American Jews are much more politically active than most other ethnic groups, both in terms of campaign donations and civic engagement. Some estimates put contributions to Democrats as high as 60 percent Jewish and to Republicans 25 percent Jewish (with much of the latter coming from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, in all likelihood). And this money is not offset by competing donations in support of the Palestinians.

But Jewish money and pro-Israel money are not always one and the same. There are prominent pro-Israel donors, like Adelson in the Republican tent and Haim Saban in the Democratic camp. Those donors’ funds are figured into totals like those for Booker. But it would be wrong to assume that all Jews giving money are doing so, in some significant measure, based on their view of Israel’s best interests. In its 2012 Survey of American Jewish Opinion, the American Jewish Committee found that only 14.8 percent of American Jews ranked Israel among the top three issues when deciding on a presidential candidate. It is a safe bet that a lower concentration would rank Israel in the top three concerns in Congressional contests, which are traditionally less focused on foreign policy than races for the White House.

These points suggest that the actual power of pro-Israel forces in the US is smaller than it is perceived to be. They also suggest that, in Washington, there is at least some buy-in to classic anti-Jewish tropes. The idea of a cabal of behind-the-scenes manipulators is one old one; the canard of Jewish dual loyalty is another. But perception can be so potent that it becomes reality.

It is often said that without AIPAC and its ilk, US policy would not be what it is. That is a truism, but what would US policy be instead?

Washington supports a brutal dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, among other places, and stood idly by as the Saudis helped to crush a popular uprising in Bahrain in 2011 while offering little more than rhetorical support for similar uprisings in the Arab world. The US has also countenanced a long-term occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco. Certainly, the US would like to see Israel operate with a much lighter hand in the Occupied Territories, and it has no strong stake in maintaining the occupation. But, if AIPAC were to dry up and blow away, would the US then force Israel to end the occupation, perhaps by withholding military aid or by allowing the UN Security Council to impose sanctions? Here, again, one can only speculate, but those are the firm actions that would likely be required and there is a chasm between such actions and US behavior in the past and present.

Are all the dollars sent to AIPAC and the many other pro-Israel PACs therefore wasted? Not at all. AIPAC’s annual conventions feature presidents, vice presidents and leading members of both Congress and the Cabinet. That list of notables does not show up to meaningless events.

Congressional bills are often authored by AIPAC. When AIPAC pushes hard on Israel-related legislation, it usually wins. Votes on bills with which AIPAC is concerned customarily garner between 90 and 100 percent support in both houses of Congress. It is no exaggeration to say, in an era when Congress can get almost nothing done, that Israel is the one issue on which the legislative body stands united.

But that is not the same as saying that AIPAC dictates policy. Congress can exert notable pressure on a president, as when most Democrats in Congress refused to back Barack Obama’s call for a settlement freeze in 2009. But the legislators cannot prescribe policy to a president with no pushback, or else there would be no talks with Iran, an issue much higher on AIPAC’s agenda than opposition to the settlement freeze was five years ago. AIPAC placed a military strike on Iran and, later, opposition to the nuclear talks at the very top of its wish list for years, and got nowhere.

Congress is starkly one-sided in its interventions related to Israel, with far less debate than occurs on similar issues in the Israeli Knesset. But note how quickly AIPAC backed off from its opposition to Chuck Hagel as Obama’s second-term secretary of defense. The lobby knew it could not win that fight, despite its might in Congress and despite the fact that Hagel had not been particularly popular among his colleagues during his time in the Senate.

Even George W. Bush, whom few would dispute was more in sync with a right-wing Israeli government than any other US president, had moments of discord. He refused to sell Israel “bunker buster” bombs that could be used to attack Iran’s underground nuclear facilities. He also followed a bit in his father’s footsteps, threatening to withhold loan guarantees from Israel if it did not alter part of the route of the separation barrier in the West Bank. The lobby was powerless to affect these decisions.

These instances are, of course, far outweighed by others when the US did exactly what Israel wanted or even went a step further. But when it comes to presidential decisions, this history cannot be ascribed primarily to the lobby, but to the fact that the US committed long ago to a policy of partnering with Israel to ensure its goals in the region.

The lobby has Congress in its pocket and that is a factor for any president to consider. But a much bigger factor is that Israel learned long ago that, for geostrategic reasons, the US is highly reluctant to use its most effective tools to force Israel to act according to American wishes. The lobby raises the political costs of using such tools, but the effect of this agitation is to increase an already extant hesitancy.

Standing up for Palestinian rights is usually not worth the political price in a calculus where justice and human rights are not significant factors. The US was perfectly satisfied with 20 years of a peace process that produced no peace, as long as the process could be prolonged. It is stability, not rights, that concerns US policy in the Middle East, with or without an Israel lobby.

Simply put, in the minds of American decision makers, the rights of the Palestinians do not matter very much, while the military and intelligence relationship with Israel is highly prized. This imbalance is reflected in the popular mood, for when warm feeling for Israel dissipates, it is not offset by a rise in sympathy for the Palestinians. Polls routinely show no more than 12-15 percent support for the Palestinians whether the support for Israel is ebbing or flowing.

How Can Things Change?

There are signs that the United States might, in the future, need to reevaluate its resolve to shield Israel from all the consequences of the occupation of Palestinian lands. Many of these indications are apparent from Israel’s own acts, but whether conditions sufficient to change US policy come about will depend to a great extent on the actions of both Israel and the Palestinians.

The diplomatic isolation to which the US has grown accustomed on the issue of the occupation is growing deeper. Israel’s attacks on Gaza, as well as vastly increased scrutiny of the day-to-day realities of the occupation, are amplifying calls around the world for Palestinian freedom. The scrutiny is clearly being felt in Europe, where Israel does by far its greatest amount of international trade. Settlement products will soon be required to be labeled as such, and several large businesses and financial institutions have stopped doing business with Israeli counterparts who have interests in the Occupied Territories.
Grassroots activism on behalf of the Palestinians is gaining momentum. The movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is a global phenomenon that, despite some not inconsiderable growth, remains politically marginal in the United States. The BDS movement might gather steam in the coming years as its main supply of fuel, Israeli excesses, grows ever more reliable.

It seems very likely that Israel will continue down this self-destructive path. In the past, the Israeli electorate swayed back and forth from left to right, but for decades now there is an overall rightward trend. The youth of Israel today are much more nationalistic than at any time in the past. Many more liberal Israelis have either emigrated or have shifted their own views as the Oslo process left them feeling betrayed and cynical. There is good reason to think of Israel’s rightward shift as a lasting change and not the swing of a pendulum.

The lurch to the right will certainly spark protest movements as well as heighten discomfiture in many corporate and government offices in Europe, where international law and human rights are not just abstract ideas, but matters of real (if very flexible) policy. The BDS movement plays a significant role here, as does the expansion in the US of groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, the Institute for Middle East Understanding, Code Pink and numerous others who target the media and, thus, American discourse.

What these groups will need to do, however, is recognize that a successful strategy in the US is one that can raise the political cost of defending Israel’s occupation without compromising Israel’s military strength. This reality does not stem from any existential threat to Israel; despite its frequent and increasingly bellicose clamoring, Israel has faced no such peril in decades. Rather it comes about because the US has no interest whatsoever in weakening, even in the slightest way, the military posture of its most dependable partner in the region. Weakening Israel diplomatically and politically, however, might be another matter.

Activism in the US must focus on economic matters. It is telling that calls for boycotts of Israel are regularly met with hysteria from “pro-Israel” activists, while calls for stopping military aid are ignored as irrelevant. Targeting divestment from the occupation, and making Israel an unmarketable business partner, will have far more effect while leaving the security relationship, which is what the US truly values, intact.

The missing ingredient is a decisive Palestinian strategy. By bringing the issue of the occupation to the international legal and political system, through the various UN institutions to which they now have access, the Palestinians can ratchet up the pressure not only on Israel but also the US. Israel knows it needs Europe. Should cases against Israel reach the International Criminal Court, European states will eventually cut commercial ties to Israel and push the European Union to start taking concrete steps of its own.

If such actions are taken in concert with a recognizable and unified Palestinian leadership, an end to the occupation could come to fall well within the realm of real US interests that can be pursued without unwanted geostrategic cost.

Endnotes

[1] Washington Post, August 20, 2014.
[2] Cape Cod Times, August 21, 2014.
[3] Stephen Walt, “AIPAC Is the Only Explanation for America‘s Morally Bankrupt Israel Policy,” Huffington Post, July 22, 2014.
[4] Noam Chomsky, “After the Cold War: US Foreign Policy in the Middle East,” Cultural Critique 19 (Autumn 1991), p. 23.
[5] The declassified documents are online here.
[6] Henry Kissinger, Memorandum for the President, October 7, 1969, retrieved from the National Security Archive.
[7] Ramzy Baroud, “Fearing Political Islam: Why Arabs Betrayed Gaza,” Palestine Chronicle, August 26, 2014.
[8] Memorandum of Discussion at the 352nd Meeting of the National Security Council, January 22, 1958, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, vol. 12, p. 8.

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