The Left and the Israel Lobby

There have been prominent responses to the recent debate over the influence of the Israel lobby sparked by the article, “The Israel Lobby,” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Some — predictably — condemn any attempt to raise the issue as “anti-Semitic” — metaphorically screaming, “Israel lobby? What Israel lobby?” This is arguably the largest lobby based in D.C. In fact, one might somehow surmise its power by the sheer marshalling of vehemence and overwhelming forces with which its power is denied.

The very people who, on the one hand, insist that there is no proof of the Israel lobby’s power, or say that it’s too difficult to study in Washington’s overall political environment, on the other hand, typically attack anyone as “anti-Semitic” who attempts to conduct the very research and analysis whose study could provide such proof.

One has not been allowed even to raise the very question about the Israel lobby (now finally broached in the establishment press by M & W), let alone study and investigate it, without being labeled, slurred or at least insinuated as being “anti-Semitic.” When these sharp attacks come from iconic and otherwise authoritative leftist intellectuals, I call it not only unethical and morally negligent (as one of the most significant obstacles to justice for the Palestinians), but downright anti-intellectual. Indeed, they typically refuse to debate the issue publicly, but rather merely make one-sided strawman potshots and dismissals.

Other prominent progressives — including (sometimes closeted) Zionist apologists on the Left (headed by Left guru Noam Chomsky) — now employ a more sophisticated approach. Instead of denying the existence of the Israel lobby altogether or calling others “anti-Semitic” (or like Stephen Zunes’ fallback attack, saying it “parallels anti-Semitism,” in effect attacking questioners as thinking like anti-Semites), they admit to the existence of the Lobby, but dismiss it as inconsequential.

(I never understood the apparent proclivity of many in the Left not to be able to hold more than one factor in their minds at the same time: it, indeed, seems to be always either-or, instead of possibly both-and.)

“The Lobby is not the real problem,” they say; thus saying that progressives should just completely ignore it — but after that attempt at dissuasion, if you don’t, you must be anti-Semitic. But, an analysis of these dissuaders’ arguments shows that they are rife with contradictions and, ultimately, just as unpersuasive as the cruder ravings from their colleagues on the Right.

Unfortunately, typical of these leftist minimizers of the Lobby is Norman Finkelstein, whom this writer otherwise greatly respects, but whose recent article entitled, “It’s Not Either/Or: The Israel Lobby,” appeared in the May Day 2006 issue of Counterpunch. In fact, before a private respectful e-mail debate with this writer, Finkelstein’s position, as I perceived it, was, indeed, much more like the old Chomsky line of absolute dismissal of the Lobby. But, the critical contradictions remaining in Finkelstein’s position still jump out almost immediately to examined analysis.

For example, Finkelstein asserts, “Apart from the Israel-Palestine conflict, fundamental U.S. policy in the Middle East hasn’t been affected by the Lobby.” But in the very same paragraph, he concedes that, “the alliance with Israel has abetted the most truculent U.S. policies…. The spectrum of U.S. policy differences might be narrow, but in terms of impact on the real lives of real people in the Arab world these differences are probably [probably?] meaningful, the Israeli influence making things worse.” And later in the same article, he admits, “In terms of alienating the Arab world, [the U.S. has] had something to lose” by associating itself with Israel.

In an attempt to resolve the inconsistency of the above (no doubt obvious even to him), Finkelstein attempts to make a distinction between U.S. foreign policy with regard to the Palestinian issue, and that relating to “elsewhere in the Middle East.” However, these issues cannot be so cleanly separated. Because of the reaction (which Finkelstein admits is one of alienation to America) of much of the Arab populace to the mistreatment of the Palestinians, U.S. foreign policy with respect to Palestine inevitably impacts its relations with all other Middle Eastern countries.

The longer the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes unresolved with no justice for the Palestinians (millions held stateless and others under “Jim Crow”), and the more various regimes in the Middle East are seen as having obeisance to U.S. pressures, the greater the movement toward popular (especially Islamic-based) resistance to those regimes. U.S. policymakers must know this.

Finkelstein essentially concedes the above when he presents his next argument for minimizing the importance of the Lobby: the U.S. relationship with Israel does affect the U.S. relationship with the remainder of the Middle East after all, but that’s what the U.S. wants. Israel, by this reasoning, is merely a proxy for the United States: it is the puppet, and the U.S. makes it dance.

The difficulty with this argument is that puppets don’t behave the way Israel does. The Israel lobby doesn’t fall all over itself trying to demonstrate to American politicians that Israel is an obedient and useful lackey. Quite the contrary: the Lobby puts its vast resources and constituent mobilizations into bullying and threatening these very same politicians in order to get its way. And woe unto any politician who doesn’t comply.

But why would the Lobby — if Israel were indeed the essential tool of American imperialism that Finkelstein, et al., claim — need to be so aggressively threatening? That would only make sense if there were actually a genuine danger that many American politicians — absent those formidable and unignorable threats — might conclude that, in fact, Israel is not a very useful, let alone prerequisite proxy. (After all, foreign proxies are supposed to be doing our fighting there for us: we just supply any necessary arms, technical assistance and satellite reconnaissance.) Which in turn begs the question — how has Israel really served, if arguably at all, rather than upset, U.S. interests?

The first claim that is often made is that Israel helps the U.S. to create political instability in the Middle East, thereby enabling U.S. dominance of the region. The instability is obvious (even if its benefit to the U.S. is a matter of debate).

There is also the inane counterclaim to any assertions of the power of the Israel Lobby that, absent the Lobby, U.S. foreign policy in the “Third World” would still be nefariously imperialist. Well, duh-uhh! The answer is of course it would! The Israel lobby doesn’t oppose the imperialist interests of the U.S. in the Middle East; rather, it changes how the U.S. exercises those interests.

However, there is nothing magical about Israel in this respect. When so desired, the U.S. has always seemed to be able to manage to foster domestic instability in almost every Third World country or region of the globe without first setting up or sponsoring the creation of a non-native, apartheid state like Israel. Even absent Israel, the Middle East would be no exception. There is no great love between the various regimes ruling Middle Eastern countries; any imperialist worth the name would find a way to continually exploit these differences.

The second claim, which is a specious refinement of the above, is that while other countries could, theoretically, serve as tools of U.S. imperialism in the region, Israel is “unique and irreplaceable.” Because Israel is essentially a Western country, this argument goes, it will therefore always be loyal to the U.S.; this, in contrast to other regimes that the U.S. props up, only to see them overthrown by popular — and anti-American — uprisings, such as against the Shah in Iran. Israel is therefore, as Finkelstein put it, “the only stable and secure base for projecting U.S. power in this region.”

However, Western sponsorship and a Western cultural identity do not necessarily guarantee unwavering loyalty and subservience to the U.S. Ask the British! They originally thought that Israel’s founders would never turn Zionist guns and bombs on them, or ask the surviving sailors of the USS Liberty. In fact, it is that very “Western” orientation of Israel — and its accompanying colonialist outlook toward the “inferior peoples” of the Middle East — that drives its own imperialist ambitions. Israel, with the help of the Israel lobby, obviously wants to dominate the region and, if that’s accomplished, that means that Israel’s regional strategic interests may then significantly diverge from those of the U.S.

This doesn’t mean that Israel will ever be directly hostile to the U.S. For example, Europe and Japan are firmly in the Western camp, and are certainly not anti-American by any reasonable stretch of the imagination, and yet they nevertheless pursue their own economic and strategic interests. In many respects, they are rivals to U.S. imperial hegemony. Israel, should it succeed in unequivocally dominating the Middle East as it clearly wishes to do, could develop in the same direction. In the meantime, as Finkelstein points out, the Lobby significantly raises the point at which the “until and unless” threshold of Israel becoming a major liability is reached. Israel wasn’t eternally bound to the British empire after all: it found a new close ally. As a result, it is hardly a mere proxy (much less an irreplaceable one); rather, its relationship to the U.S. is far more complex.

It is this complexity that the minimizers of the Israel Lobby gloss over. They persist in framing the Lobby strictly as acting on behalf of an entirely external entity, wholly foreign to the U.S. economic and political establishment, and thus attempt to persuade the Left that such a separate entity couldn’t possibly convince an imperialist power like the United States to act against its own interests. However, this is a ridiculous oversimplification, demonstrating a profound lack of understanding about how our system of government works.

In reality, the Israel lobby simultaneously operates both as an external interest and as internal “special” interest, represented within a faction of the U.S. ruling class and establishment that wishes to see the United States pursue an unequivocally Israelocentric foreign policy in the Middle East. This faction or special interest commands enormous power due to its domestic political (especially, voter) base — something that no other external, third-party interests possess the ability to do. As such, Israel and its American lobby represent a particular strain of American imperialism.

However, another faction has come to fore, and the debate breaking out in the mainstream represents a clash of viewpoints between these factions: the Israelocentric faction (currently represented by the Bush administration) and the non-unequivocally-Israelocentric faction (represented by the Mearsheimer-Walt paper and implicitly articulated by Brzezinski). As the geopolitical cost and the (in part) Israelocentric strategy failure of the war in Iraq grows greater, this domestic intra-imperialist clash of strategies have become visible to the public. What the M-W paper is saying, is that, under the circumstances, we need to be able to debate this strategy, if not in the Congress, at least in the public and our other institutions.

Some may ask why progressives should care whether various internal factions within the ruling class are fighting with each other. Ironically, Finkelstein answered this question himself: it is because these differences have an “impact on the real lives of real people in the Arab world [and many millions of Palestinians alone]…, the Israeli influence making things worse.” The Israel Lobby, as he put it, “makes a huge and baneful difference.” It is therefore incumbent upon all those who seek peace and justice in the Middle East to combat that baneful influence.

Joseph Anderson is a resident of Berkeley, CA, an occasional contributing political essayist to various publications, a local media monitor, and a grassroots progressive political activist. Read other articles by Joseph.