Two major schools of interpretation seek to explain why the United States grants Israel an annual subsidy of nearly $4 billion and consistently supports Israeli militarism and expansionism. The domestic politics approach attributes the “special relationship” to the political and financial power of the Zionist lobby and Jewish influence in the media. Among the supporters of this view are: former representatives Paul Findley and Pete McCloskey, and their Council for the National Interest; former diplomats, including the editors of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs; the editors of Middle East International; and many Arab circles, especially conservative ones. Cheryl Rubenberg’s Israel and the American National Interest (1986) is a history of US-Israeli relations that argues that the policies promoted by the Zionist lobby have damaged US national interests.

A second school, represented by Noam Chomsky, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Jane Hunter (editor of Israeli Foreign Affairs), Cheryl Rubenberg’s more recent writing and the editors of this magazine, believes that mutual strategic interests generated by the Cold War and Israel’s opposition to anti-imperialist nationalism, not only in the Middle East but throughout the Third World, have been the leading factor in shaping the US-Israeli alliance.

Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the US-Israeli Covert Relationship (HarperCollins, 1991) by award-winning investigative journalists Andrew and Leslie Cockburn enhances the case for the strategic interpretation of the US-Israel alliance. The Cockburns focus on the close cooperation between the intelligence and military establishments of the two countries and suggest that these ties have enabled the relationship to survive fluctuating attitudes of elected political leaders. Thus, despite the Eisenhower administration’s reluctance to embrace Israel wholeheartedly, the intelligence-sharing relationship between the two countries was a product of that period, sealed by the Mossad’s presentation of a copy of Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech criticizing Stalin to the CIA.

For the early history of the alliance, Dangerous Liaison draws on Stephen Green’s two books based on declassified US documents (Taking Sides and Living by the Sword), Michael J. Cohen’s Truman and Israel (California, 1990) and Uri Bialer’s Between East and West: Israel’s Foreign Policy Orientation, 1948-1956 (Cambridge, 1990). Cohen argues that Truman’s support for Israel, though influenced by his sympathy for the victims of Nazism, the pleading of his Jewish friends and advisers and his appreciation of the significance of Jewish votes and funding for the Democratic Party, was ultimately due to the belief of the White House advisers that Israel would be a strategic asset for the West. In January 1949, according to Cohen, Israel’s military success persuaded the State Department, which originally opposed recognizing Israel because of concern for oil interests, “that Israel should be supported as an important strategic asset to the West…an argument…long advocated by the White House.” Bialer surveys the debate over foreign policy orientation in Israeli political circles and examines Israel’s motives for maintaining ties to the Soviet bloc despite Ben-Gurion’s fundamentally pro-US orientation. He concludes that “from the very earliest stages of her existence Israel had little choice but to develop a network of links with the Western bloc…and the United States” because of its need for capital and military assistance. Cohen and Bialer represent the new realist Israeli historical school, which attributes Israel’s successes to its own military and intelligence capacities, in opposition to the traditional sentimental portrayal of Israel as inherently weak but nonetheless miraculously victorious. While the Israeli realists often have rightist political sympathies, their approach complements the Cockburns’s analysis.

The most important contribution of Dangerous Liaison is to synthesize many previously known reports of US-Israeli collaboration in covert action so that they display a consistent pattern. The accumulation of evidence makes the Cockburns’ thesis plausible, even if their details of one or another operation turn out to be incorrect, as is almost certain to be the case given the shadowy nature of the sources on which this kind of reporting must rely.

By the 1960s the Mossad-CIA connection was well established. Operations with origins in this era retold by the Cockburns include: Israeli collaboration with the Iranian Savak in support of Kurdish insurgents in Iraq; Mossad subcontracting for the CIA in Africa; the apparent lack of US government concern over Israel’s systematic theft of uranium from the NUMEC plant in Pennsylvania; and the close military relationship between Israel and South Africa, including the joint development of nuclear weapons.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Israeli military exporters operating under government supervision established supply and training relations with a rogue’s gallery of pro-US Latin American thugs — the Nicaraguan contras, Manuel Noriega (via Mike Haran), the Guatemalan army and the Medellin cartel (via Yair Klein and the Spearhead Corporation). Reports of this activity have previously appeared in print as well as in the Cockburns’ 1989 PBS Frontline production “Israel-The Covert Connection,” which remains an excellent introduction to the subject of the US-Israeli alliance. These chapters are among the highlights of Dangerous Liaison and benefit from Leslie Cockburn’s extensive experience in Latin America.

The new revelations include: Ben-Gurion’s explicit 1951 offer to put Israel’s intelligence establishment at the service of the CIA; Israel’s intervention against the republican forces supported by Egypt in the 1962-1967 civil war in Yemen; Israeli willingness to tailor its estimates of the effectiveness, and even its deployment, of US-supplied weapons to suit various Pentagon and defense industry interests; joint CIA-Mossad debriefing of Soviet Jewish immigrants to Israel in the 1970s; and Israel’s use of nuclear land mines on the Golan Heights. Unfortunately, the Cockburns cite no sources or documents supporting these reports.

The chapter on the Iran-contra affair is indicative of what is perhaps the main weakness of Dangerous Liaisons. The Cockburns reiterate that Israel resumed arms sales to Iran with US approval when the Reagan administration came to office in 1981. They argue that the new wrinkle in the period of the Iran-contra scandal was the Labor Party’s desire to secure a financial cut from these deals. The Cockburns also report that Saddam Hussein was prepared to recognize Israel if it would stop supporting Iran in the Iran-Iraq war; in fact, there were contacts between Labor Party officials and the Iraqis in the mid-1980s. But partisan greed seems too petty a motive to explain the complexities and contradictions of Israeli policy vis-à-vis Iran and Iraq. The Cockburns’ focus on reporting sensational covert action operations does not lead them to sort out apparently contradictory policies or to integrate conventional political developments and other factors into their story. Hence despite its excellent synthesis and many new revelations, this is not the definitive and comprehensive history of US-Israeli relations that can make the decisive case for the strategic interest interpretation.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Dangerous Asset," Middle East Report 173 (November/December 1991).
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