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The Israel Lobby in U.S. Strategy

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By George Friedman

U.S. President George W. Bush made an appearance in Iraq's restive Anbar province on Sept. 3 — in part to tout the success of the military surge there ahead of the presentation in Washington of the Petraeus report. For the next month or two, the battle over Iraq will be waged in Washington — and one country will come up over and over again, from any number of directions: Israel. Israel will be invoked as an ally in the war on terrorism — the reason the United States is in the war in the first place. Some will say that Israel maneuvered the United States into Iraq to serve its own purposes. Some will say it orchestrated 9/11 for its own ends. Others will say that, had the United States supported Israel more resolutely, there would not have been a 9/11.

There is probably no relationship on which people have more diverging views than on that between the United States and Israel. Therefore, since it is going to be invoked in the coming weeks — and Bush is taking a fairly irrelevant pause at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Australia — this is an opportune time to consider the geopolitics of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Let's begin with some obvious political points. There is a relatively small Jewish community in the United States, though its political influence is magnified by its strategic location in critical states such as New York and the fact that it is more actively involved in politics than some other ethnic groups.

The Jewish community, as tends to be the case with groups, is deeply divided on many issues. It tends to be united on one issue — Israel — but not with the same intensity as in the past, nor with even a semblance of agreement on the specifics. The American Jewish community is as divided as the Israeli Jewish community, with a large segment of people who don't much care thrown in. At the same time, this community donates large sums of money to American and Israeli organizations, including groups that lobby on behalf of Israeli issues in Washington. These lobbying entities lean toward the right wing of Israel's political spectrum, in large part because the Israeli right has tended to govern in the past generation and these groups tend to follow the dominant Israeli strand. It also is because American Jews who contribute to Israel lobby organizations lean right in both Israeli and American politics.

The Israel lobby, which has a great deal of money and experience, is extremely influential in Washington. For decades now, it has done a good job of ensuring that Israeli interests are attended to in Washington, and certainly on some issues it has skewed U.S. policy on the Middle East. There are Jews who practice being shocked at this assertion, but they must not be taken seriously. They know better, which is why they donate money. Others pretend to be shocked at the idea of a lobbyist influencing U.S. policy on the Middle East, but they also need not be taken seriously, because they are trying to influence Washington as well, though they are not as successful. Obviously there is an influential Israel lobby in Washington.

There are, however, two important questions. The first is whether this is in any way unique. Is a strong Israel lobby an unprecedented intrusion into foreign policy? The key question, though, is whether Israeli interests diverge from U.S. interests to the extent that the Israel lobby is taking U.S. foreign policy in directions it wouldn't go otherwise, in directions that counter the U.S. national interest.

Begin with the first question. Prior to both World wars there was extensive debate on whether the United States should intervene in the war. In both cases, the British government lobbied extensively for U.S. intervention on behalf of the United Kingdom. The British made two arguments. The first was that the United States shared a heritage with England — code for the idea that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants should stand with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The second was that there was a fundamental political affinity between British and U.S. democracy and that it was in the U.S. interest to protect British democracy from German authoritarianism.

Many Americans, including President Franklin Roosevelt, believed both arguments. The British lobby was quite powerful. There was a German lobby as well, but it lacked the numbers, the money and the traditions to draw on.

From a geopolitical point of view, both arguments were weak. The United States and the United Kingdom not only were separate countries, they had fought some bitter wars over the question. As for political institutions, geopolitics, as a method, is fairly insensitive to the moral claims of regimes. It works on the basis of interest. On that basis, an intervention on behalf of the United Kingdom in both wars made sense because it provided a relatively low-cost way of preventing Germany from dominating Europe and challenging American sea power. In the end, it wasn't the lobbying interest, massive though it was, but geopolitical necessity that drove U.S. intervention.

The second question, then, is: 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 severing it.

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.

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