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Book Excerpt: ‘The Israel Lobby’
Posted on Oct 8, 2007
THE LOBBY AND U.S. MIDDLE EAST POLICY
The lobby’s political power is important not because it affects what presidential candidates say during a campaign, but because it has a significant influence on American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. America’s actions in that volatile region have enormous consequences for people all around the world, especially the people who live there. Just consider how the Bush administration’s misbegotten war in Iraq has affected the long suffering people of that shattered country: tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes, and a vicious sectarian war taking place with no end in sight. The war has also been a strategic disaster for the United States and has alarmed and endangered U.S. allies both inside and outside the region. One could hardly imagine a more vivid or tragic demonstration of the impact the United States can have—for good or ill—when it unleashes the power at its disposal.
The United States has been involved in the Middle East since the early days of the Republic, with much of the activity centered on educational programs or missionary work. For some, a biblically inspired fascination with the Holy Land and the role of Judaism in its history led to support for the idea of restoring the Jewish people to a homeland there, a view that was embraced by certain religious leaders and, in a general way, by a few U.S. politicians. But it is a mistake to see this history of modest and for the most part private engagement as the taproot of America’s role in the region since World War II, and especially its extraordinary relationship with Israel today.
Between the routing of the Barbary pirates two hundred years ago and World War II, the United States played no significant security role anywhere in the region and U.S. leaders did not aspire to one. Woodrow Wilson did endorse the 1917 Balfour Declaration (which expressed Britain’s support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine), but Wilson did virtually nothing to advance this goal. Indeed, the most significant U.S. involvement during this period—a fact-finding mission dispatched to the region in 1919 by the Paris Peace Conference under the leadership of Americans Henry Churchill King and Charles Crane—concluded that the local population opposed continued Zionist inroads and recommended against the establishment of an independent Jewish homeland. Yet as the historian Margaret Macmillan notes, “Nobody paid the slightest attention.” The possibility of a U.S. mandate over portions of the Middle East was briefly considered but never pursued, and Britain and France ended up dividing the relevant portions of the Ottoman Empire between themselves.
The United States has played an important and steadily increasing role in Middle East security issues since World War II, driven initially by oil, then by anti-communism and, over time, by its growing relationship with Israel. America’s first significant involvement in the security politics of the region was a nascent partnership with Saudi Arabia in the mid-1940s (intended by both parties as a check on British ambitions in the region), and its first formal alliance commitments were Turkey’s inclusion in NATO in 1952 and the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact in 1954. After backing Israel’s founding in 1948, U.S. leaders tried to strike a balanced position between Israel and the Arabs and carefully avoided making any formal commitment to the Jewish state for fear of jeopardizing more important strategic interests. This situation changed gradually over the ensuing decades, in response to events like the Six-Day War, Soviet arms sales to various Arab states, and the growing influence of pro-Israel groups in the United States. Given this dramatic transformation in America’s role in the region, it makes little sense to try to explain current U.S. policy—and especially the lavish support that is now given to Israel—by referring to the religious beliefs of a bygone era or the radically different forms of past American engagement. There was nothing inevitable or predetermined about the current special relationship between the United States and Israel.
Since the Six-Day War of 1967, a salient feature—and arguably the central focus—of America’s Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel. For the past four decades, in fact, the United States has provided Israel with a level of material and diplomatic support that dwarfs what it provides to other countries. That aid is largely unconditional: no matter what Israel does, the level of support remains for the most part unchanged. In particular, the United States consistently favors Israel over the Palestinians and rarely puts pressure on the Jewish state to stop building settlements and roads in the West Bank. Although Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush openly favored the creation of a viable Palestinian state, neither was willing to use American leverage to make that outcome a reality.
Many policies pursued on Israel’s behalf now jeopardize U.S. national security. The combination of unstinting U.S. support for Israel and Israel’s prolonged occupation of Palestinian territory has fueled anti-Americanism throughout the Arab and Islamic world, thereby increasing the threat from international terrorism and making it harder for Washington to deal with other problems, such as shutting down Iran’s nuclear program. Because the United States is now so unpopular within the broader region, Arab leaders who might otherwise share U.S. goals are reluctant to help us openly, a predicament that cripples U.S. efforts to deal with a host of regional challenges. This situation, which has no equal in American history, is due primarily to the activities of the Israel lobby. While other special interest groups—including ethnic lobbies representing Cuban Americans, Irish Americans, Armenian Americans, and Indian Americans—have managed to skew U.S. foreign policy in directions that they favored, no ethnic lobby has diverted that policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest. The Israel lobby has successfully convinced many Americans that American and Israeli interests are essentially identical. In fact, they are not. Although this book focuses primarily on the lobby’s influence on U.S. foreign policy and its negative effect on American interests, the lobby’s impact has been unintentionally harmful to Israel as well. Take Israel’s settlements, which even a writer as sympathetic to Israel as Leon Wieseltier recently called a “moral and strategic blunder of historic proportions.”
Israel’s situation would be better today if the United States had long ago used its financial and diplomatic leverage to convince Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and instead helped Israel create a viable Palestinian state on those lands. Washington did not do so, however, largely because it would have been politically costly for any president to attempt it. As noted above, Israel would have been much better off if the United States had told it that its military strategy for fighting the 2006 Lebanon war was doomed to fail, rather than reflexively endorsing and facilitating it. By making it difficult to impossible for the U.S. government to criticize Israel’s conduct and press it to change some of its counterproductive policies, the lobby may even be jeopardizing the long-term prospects of the Jewish state.
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