The United States, Israel, and the Lobby - Part 1

excerpted from the book

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy

by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007, paperback


Now that the Cold War is over, Israel has become a strategic liability for the United States. Yet no aspiring politician is going to say so in public, or even raise the possibility.

The real reason why American politicians are so deferential [to Israel] is the political power of the Israel lobby. The lobby is a loose coalition of individuals and organizations that actively works to move U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel directions we will describe in detail)it s not a single, unified movement with a central leadership, and it is certainly not a cabal or conspiracy that "controls" U.S. foreign policy. It is simply a powerful interest group, made up of both Jews and gentiles, whose acknowledged purpose is to press Israel's case within the United States and influence American foreign policy in ways that its members believe will benefit the Jewish state.

[Israel lobby groups] want U.S. leaders to treat Israel as if it were the fifty-first state. Democrats and Republicans alike fear the lobby's clout. They all know that any politician who challenges its policies stands little chance of becoming president.

For the past four decades 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.

Since the early 1990s, American policy toward Iran has been heavily influenced by the wishes of successive Israeli governments. Tehran has made several attempts in recent years to improve relations with Washington and settle outstanding differences, but Israel and its American supporters have been able to stymie any détente between Iran and the United States, and to keep the two countries far apart. Another example is the Bush administration's behavior during Israel's war against Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Almost every country in the world harshly criticized Israel's bombing campaign-a campaign that killed more than one thousand Lebanese, most of them civilians-but the United States did not. Instead, 'it helped Israel prosecute the war, with prominent members of both political parties openly defending Israel's behavior. This unequivocal support for Israel undermined the pro-American government in Beirut, strengthened Hezbollah, and drove Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah closer together, results that were hardly good for either Washington or Jerusalem.

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.

It is difficult to talk about the [Israel] lobby's influence on American foreign policy, at least in the mainstream media in the United States, without being accused of anti-Semitism or labeled a self-hating Jew.

a congressional staffer sympathetic to Israel to journalist Michael Massing

We can count on well over half the House - 250-300 members - to do, reflexively whatever AIPAC wants.

American taxpayers' money has subsidized Israel's economic development and rescued it during periods of financial crisis. American military assistance has strengthened Israel in wartime and helped preserve its military dominance in the Middle East. Washington has given Israel extensive diplomatic support in war and peace, and has helped insulate it from some of the adverse consequences of its own actions. U.S. aid has also been a key ingredient in the protracted Arab-Israeli peace process, with agreements such as the Camp David Accords or the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan resting on explicit promises of increased American assistance. More than any other country, the United States has been Israel's great benefactor.

As of 2005, direct U.S. economic and military assistance to Israel amounted to nearly $154 billion (in 2005 dollars), the bulk of it comprising direct grants rather than loans... the actual total is significantly higher, because direct U.S. aid is given under unusually favorable terms and the United States provides Israel with other forms of material assistance that are not included in the foreign assistance budget.

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion saw the war [1956 Suez Canal] as an opportunity for territorial expansion, and he began the prewar discussions with Britain and France by suggesting that Jordan be divided between Israel and Iraq and that Israel be given portions of Lebanon and control over the Straits of Tiran.

[John] Kennedy told Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir that the United States "has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.... I think it is quite clear that in case of an invasion the United States would come to the support of Israel. We have that capacity and it is growing."

Israel became the largest annual recipient of U.S. foreign assistance in 1976, a position it has retained ever since.

Israel now receives on average about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year, an amount that is roughly one-sixth of America's direct foreign assistance budget and equal to about 2 percent of Israel's GDP. In recent years, about 75 percent of U.S. assistance has been military aid, with the remainder broken down into various forms of economic aids in per capita terms, this level of direct foreign assistance amounts to a direct subsidy of more than $500 per year for each Israeli. By comparison, the number two recipient of American foreign aid, Egypt, receives only $20 per person.

Three billion dollars per year is generous, but it is hardly the whole story. The canonical $3 billion figure omits a substantial number of other benefits and thus significantly understates the actual level of U.S. support. Indeed, in 1991, Representative Lee Hamilton (D-IN) told reporters that Israel was one of three countries whose aid "substantially exceeds the popularly quoted figures" and said the annual figure was in fact more than $4.3 billion.

Israel receives an estimated $2 billion annually in private donations from American citizens, roughly half in direct payments and half via the purchase of State of Israel Bonds. These bonds receive favorable treatment in U.S. law; although the interest paid on them is not tax-exempt, Congress specifically exempted them from the provisions of the 1984 Deficit Reduction Act, which imposed additional tax penalties on other bonds with yields below the federal rate. Similarly, private donations to charities in most foreign countries are not tax deductible, but many private donations to Israel are, due to a special clause in the U.S.-Israel income tax treaty.

Because Israeli charities operate beyond the reach of U.S. tax authorities, donations from Jewish and Christian evangelical organizations are hard to monitor once they are transferred to Israel. In practice, therefore, the U.S. government cannot easily determine the extent to which tax-exempt private donations are being diverted for unauthorized purposes .

Israel is not a poor or devastated country like Afghanistan, Niger, Burma, or Sierra Leone. On the contrary, Israel is now a modern industrial power. Its per capita income in 2006 was twenty-ninth in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund, and is nearly double that of Hungary and the Czech Republic, substantially higher than Portugal's, South Korea's, or Taiwan's, and far outstrips every country in Latin America and Africa. It ranks twenty-third in the United Nations' 2006 Human Development Report and thirty-eighth in the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2005 "quality of life" rankings. Yet this comparatively prosperous state is America's biggest aid recipient, each year receiving sums that dwarf U.S. support for impoverished states

In 1997, Mitchell Bard, the former editor of AIPAC's Near East Report, and Daniel Pipes, the hawkish founder of the pro-Israel Middle East Forum, wrote that "Israel has become an affluent country with a personal income rivaling Great Britain's, so the American willingness to provide aid to Israel is no longer based purely on need.

The bulk of U.S. support is now committed to preserving Israel's military supremacy in the Middle East. Not only does Israel receive access to top-drawer U.S. weaponry (F- 15 and F-16 aircraft, Blackhawk helicopters, cluster munitions, "smart bombs," etc.), it has also become linked to the U.S. defense and intelligence establishments through a diverse array of formal agreements and informal links. According to the Congressional Research Service, "U.S. military aid has helped transform Israel's armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.

The United States has tacitly supported Israel's effort to maintain regional military superiority by turning a blind eye toward its various clandestine WMD programs, including its possession of upward of two hundred nuclear weapons .

The United States has pressured many other states to join the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty], imposed sanctions on countries that have defied U.S. wishes and acquired nuclear weapons anyway, gone to war in 2003 to prevent Iraq from pursuing WMD, and contemplated attacking Iran and North Korea for the same reason. Yet Washington has long subsidized an ally whose clandestine WMD activities are well-known and whose nuclear arsenal has given several of its neighbors a powerful incentive to seek WMD themselves.

The most singular feature of U.S. support for Israelis its increasingly conditional nature. President Eisenhower could credibly threaten to withhold aid after the Suez War, but those days are long past. Since the mid-1960s, Israel has continued receiving generous support even when it took actions American leaders thought were unwise and contrary to U.S. interests. Israel gets its aid despite its refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its various WMD programs. It gets its aid when it builds settlements in the Occupied Territories, even though the U.S. government opposes this policy. It also gets its aid when it annexes territory it has conquered (as it did on the Golan Heights and in Jerusalem), sells U.S. military technology to potential enemies like China, conducts espionage operations on U.S. soil, or uses U.S. weapons in ways that violate U.S. law (such as the use of cluster munitions in civilian areas in Lebanon). It gets additional aid when it makes concessions for peace, but it rarely loses American support when it takes actions that make peace more elusive.

Between 1972 and 2006, Washington vetoed forty-two UN Security Council resolutions that were critical of Israel. That number is greater than the combined total of all the vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members for the same period and amounts to slightly more than half of all American vetoes during these years.

Backing Israel may have yielded strategic benefits in the past, but the benefits have declined sharply in recent years while the economic and diplomatic costs have increased. Instead of being a strategic asset, in fact, Israel has become a strategic liability for the United States. Backing Israel so strongly is making Americans more vulnerable-not less-and making it harder for the United States to achieve important and urgent foreign policy goals.

By serving as America's proxy in the Middle East, Israel helped the United States contain Soviet expansion in that important region and occasionally helped the United States handle other regional crises. By inflicting humiliating military defeats on Soviet clients like Egypt and Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and 1973 October War, Israel also damaged Moscow's reputation as an ally while enhancing U.S. prestige. This was a key element of Nixon and Kissinger's Cold War strategy: backing Israel to the hilt would make it impossible for Egypt or Syria to regain the territory lost in 1967 and thus demonstrate the limited value of Soviet support. This strategy bore fruit in the 1970s, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat severed ties with Moscow and realigned with the United States, a breakthrough that paved the way to e Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979. Israel's repeated victories also forced the Soviets to expend precious resources rearming their clients after each defeat, a task that the overstretched Soviet economy could ill afford.

By providing the United States with intelligence about Soviet capabilities, Soviet client states, and the Middle East more generally, Israel also facilitated the broader American campaign against the Soviet Union. In 1956, for example, an Israeli spy obtained a copy of Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev's "secret speech" denouncing Stalin, which Israel promptly passed on to the United States. In the 1960s, Israel gave U.S. defense experts access to a Soviet MiG-2 1 aircraft obtained from an Iraqi defector and provided similar access to Soviet equipment captured in the 1967 and 1973 wars. Finally, the United States benefited from access to Israeli training facilities, advanced technology developed by Israeli defense companies, and consultations with Israeli experts on counterterrorism and other security problems.

This justification for supporting Israel is factually correct, and Israel may well have been a net strategic asset during this period.

a former Pentagon official

Israel's strategic value to the United States was always grotesquely exaggerated. When we were drafting contingency plans for the Middle East in the 1980s, we found that the Israelis were of little value to us in 95 percent of the cases .

Harry Shaw in 1986

The notion of using Israel as a platform for projecting U. S. forces into Arab states ... is not widely supported outside Israel. Arab analysts argue that an Arab regime that accepted American help funneled through Israel would be discredited with its own people and therefore would be more likely to fall.

Henry Kissinger, in a private conversation

Israeli strength does not prevent the spread of communism in the Arab world ... So it is difficult to claim that a strong Israel serves American interests because it prevents the spread of communism in the Arab world. It does not. It provides for the survival of Israel .

Israeli strategic expert Shai Feldman, former head of Tel Aviv University's Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies, in his own study of U.S.-Israeli security cooperation

The strategic dimension of America's motivation for supporting Israel never comprised the core of these relations. Rather, this dimension received growing emphasis in the 1980s as Israel's American supporters sought to base U.S.-Israel relations on grounds that would be more appealing to Republican administrations. Yet, the significance of U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation and the extent to which Israel is perceived as a strategic asset to the United States never approached that of the other elements in the U.S.-Israel relationship... post-Holocaust sympathy, shared political values, Israel's underdog image, common cultural linkages, an "the role of the Jewish community in American politics."

Brandeis University defense expert Robert Art in 2003

Israel has little strategic value to the United States and is in many ways a strategic liability.

The United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it has long been so supportive of Israel. It is hardly headline news to observe that U.S. backing for Israel is unpopular elsewhere in the Middle East-that has been true for several decades-but many people may not realize how much America's one-sided policies have cost it over the years. Not only have these policies helped inspire al Qaeda, but they have a facilitated its recruitment efforts and contributed to growing anti-Americanism throughout the region.

There is abundant evidence that U.S. support for Israel encourages anti-Americanism throughout the Arab and Islamic world and has fueled the rage of anti-American terrorists. It is not their only grievance, of course, but it is a central one. While some Islamic radicals are genuinely upset by what they regard as the West's materialism and venality, its alleged "theft" of Arab oil, its support for corrupt Arab monarchies, its repeated military interventions in the region, etc., they are also angered by U.S. support for Israel and Israel's harsh treatment of the Palestinians.

Muhammed Husayn Fadlallah, spiritual leader of Hezbollah, 2002

I believe that America bears responsibility for all of Israel, both in its occupation of the lands of [19]48 or in all its settlement policies [in the lands occupied since 1967], despite the occasional utterance of a few timid and embarrassed words which disapprove of the settlements ... America is a hypocritical nation... for it gives solid support and lethal weapons to the Israelis, but gives the Arabs and the Palestinians [only] words.

Middle East expert Shibley Teihami

No other issue resonates with the public in the Arab world, and other parts of the Muslim world, more deeply than Palestine.

Ussama Makdisi

On no issue is Arab anger at the United States more widely and acutely felt than that of Palestine ... For it is over Palestine that otherwise antithetical Arab secularist and Islamist interpretations of history converge in their common perception of an immense gulf separating official American avowals of support for freedom from actual American policies.

a 2004 report by the Pentagon's Defense Science Board

Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather they hate our policies.

Israel looks first and foremost to own interests, and it has been willing to do things contrary to American interests when it believed (rightly or wrongly) that doing so would advance its own national goals. In the notorious "Lavon affair" in 1954, for example, Israeli agents tried to bomb several U.S. government offices in Egypt, in a bungled attempt to sow discord between Washington and Cairo. Israel sold military supplies to Iran while U.S. diplomats were being held hostage there in 1979-80, and it was one of Iran's main military suppliers during the Iran-Iraq War, even though the United States was worried about Iran and tacitly backing Iraq. Israel later purchased $36 million worth of Iranian oil in 1989 in an attempt to obtain the release of Israeli hostages in Lebanon. All of these acts made sense from Israel's point of view, but they were contrary to American policy and harmful to overall U.S. interests.

In addition to selling weapons to America's enemies, Israel has transferred American technology to third countries, including potential U.S. adversaries like China, actions that violated U.S. laws and threatened American interests. In 1992, the State Department's inspector general reported that starting in 1983 there was evidence of a "systematic and growing pattern of unauthorized transfers" by Israel." At about the same time, the General Accounting Office officials looking into the "Dotan affair" (the embezzlement and illegal diversion of millions of dollars of U.S. military aid by the former head of Israeli Air Force procurement) made repeated efforts to meet with Israeli officials to discuss the matter. According to the GAO, "The Government of Israel declined to discuss the issues or allow [U.S.] investigators to question Israeli personnel."

Little has changed in recent years. Indeed, even Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense and a consistent supporter of Israel, was reportedly angry when Israel agreed in 2004 to upgrade a killer drone it had sold to China in 1994. "Something is going badly wrong in the [U.S.-Israeli] military relationship," said another senior Bush administration official.

Amplifying these tensions is the extensive espionage that Israel engages in against the United States. According to the GAO, the Jewish state "conducts the most aggressive espionage operations against the United States of any ally." Stealing economic secrets gives Israeli firms important advantages ever American businesses in the global marketplace and thus imposes additional costs on U.S. citizens.

More worrying, however, are Israel's continued efforts to steal America's military secrets. This problem is highlighted by the infamous case of Jonathan Pollard, an American intelligence analyst who gave Israel large quantities of highly classified material between 1984 and 1985. After Pollard was caught, the Israelis refused to tell the United States what Pollard gave them. The Pollard case is but the most visible tip of a larger iceberg. Israeli agents tried to steal spy-camera technology from a U.S. firm in 1986, and an arbitration panel later accused Israel of "perfidious," "unlawful," and "surreptitious" conduct and ordered it to pay the firm, Recon/Optical Inc., some $3 million in damages. Israeli spies also gained access to confidential U.S. information about a Pentagon electronic intelligence program and tried unsuccessfully to recruit Noel Koch, a senior counterterrorism official in the Defense Department. The Wall Street Journal quoted John Davitt, former head of the Justice Department's internal security section, saying that "those of us who worked in the espionage area regarded Israel as being the second most active foreign intelligence service in the United States."

A new controversy erupted in 2004 when a key Pentagon official, Larry Franklin, was arrested on charges of passing classified information regarding U.S. policy toward Iran to an Israeli diplomat, allegedly with the assistance of two senior AIPAC officials, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman. Franklin eventually accepted a plea bargain and was sentenced to twelve years in prison for his role in the affair, and Rosen and Weissman are scheduled to go on trial in the fall of 2007.

Israel is of course not the only country that spies on the United States, and Washington conducts extensive espionage against both allies and adversaries as well. Such behavior is neither surprising nor particularly reprehensible, because international politics is a rough business and states often do unscrupulous things in their efforts to gain an edge over other countries. Nonetheless, the close relationship between Washington and Jerusalem has made it easier for Israel to steal American secrets, and it has not hesitated to do just that. At the very least, Israel's willingness to spy on its principal patron casts further doubt on its overall strategic value, especially now that the Cold War is over.

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy

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