Cheryl A. Rubenberg, Israel and the American National Interest: A Critical Examination, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.)


Imagine a planet which two superstates dominate after global wars have crippled other contenders. Then assume their rivalry delimits a decisive zone where they compete — a region so situated, so booty-laden and so volatile that each adversary defines that region as “vital” to its own security.

Now, as a matter of common sense, is it credible that the more powerful superstate pursues a long-term policy in this vital zone that jeopardizes its own interests? Or, to bring this parable down to earth, is it true that the United States pursues a strategy in the Middle East that endangers its long-term objectives?

Cheryl Rubenberg thinks so. “America’s objectives in the region,” she writes, “have been seriously jeopardized, even thwarted, as a result of the US-Israeli partnership” (pp. 19-20). Starting from the official assumption that in the Middle East the United States must contain Soviet expansion, secure access to oil and control markets, she argues that pro-Israeli zealots and politicians jeopardize these very goals by dictating Washington’s Middle East policy on the axiom that such interests are best advanced by “special relations” with the Jewish state.

Rubenberg refutes three central arguments of the pro-Israeli camp: Do special ties to Israel help contain Soviet expansion? No, she writes, Israel’s unending wars against the Arabs afford Moscow opportunities to extend its influence. Do special ties to Israel help secure oil supplies by bolstering friendly states? No, Israel’s occupation of Arab territory imperils oil supplies by delegitimizing oil-exporting regimes. Do special ties to Israel advance American commercial interests? No, Israel’s Arabophobic supporters hamper US economic objectives. So on each count Rubenberg concludes that American-Israeli intimacy retards rather than advances US interests. Moreover, she forewarns us that this special US-Israeli relationship endangers world peace.

Is this true? Does chumminess with Israel jeopardize vital American interests, including the uneasy, global peace? Rubenberg is manifestly convincing when she asserts that the US has forsaken gains on Israel’s account. Despite its narrow notion of US self-interest, her book is a welcome antidote to the “identity-of-interests” notion that so paralyzes American public discussion of relations with Israel. Far less persuasive, however, is her assertion that the US has suffered critical regional losses on Israel’s behalf. For just as investors can make money without maximizing returns on every investment, states can secure core interests without maximizing every goal, or for that matter without maximizing any one goal.

Take the goal of containment. Anatolia, the Nile, and the Persian plateau comprise the region’s three geostrategic foci. Turkey is in NATO, Egypt is in the US camp (despite the 1967 attack, or because of it?) and Iran, “lost” for the moment, is no Soviet gain. Furthermore, the European states are on the sidelines while the rival superpower is holed up in Damascus. It’s too bad about Lebanon, obviously the best warrant for Rubenberg’s argument, but in the region as a whole, Washington has not suffered very severely on Israel’s account.

Now take oil. Arab oil regimes depend upon big-power markets and big-power protection, dependencies which override their displeasure with Washington’s indulgence for Israel’s conquest of the whole of Palestine. So even when Israel goes too far, as it did in Lebanon or does in the West Bank, Gaza and Golan, the Arab rulers endowed with oil see better reasons to submit than to resist. The oil is quite secure and in little danger on account of Israel. Even the Iranian threat is exaggerated.

In short, and whether supporters of Palestinian self-determination like it or not, the United States has secured its acknowledged regional objectives despite particular gains undeniably forsaken on Israel’s behalf.

Rubenberg presents here a very well-documented argument, but she is not convincing when she argues that by acceding to Israel’s rejection of a comprehensive settlement US policy works “to the detriment of American interests with respect to the containment of Communism and freedom of access to commercial markets.” At the same time, I believe she is absolutely right to warn that the instability such US policy engenders increases “the potential for great power conflagration” (p. 6).

Washington has indeed subordinated its interest in a comprehensive settlement to its goal of consolidating US regional influence by excluding its Soviet rival from what it calls the “peace process.” Even though American policy jeopardizes neither containment, oil nor markets, it does endanger peace. In the nuclear age, Rubenberg’s argument here is directly to the point and deserves everyone’s attention.

How to cite this article:

Edward Danforth "Rubenberg, Israel and the American National Interest," Middle East Report 151 (March/April 1988).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This