Will the news that the US vetoed Israeli plans to strike Iran's nuclear infrastructure put to bed the myth of the "Israel lobby"? I'd like to think so, but I doubt the comfort provided to some by such a view of the world will cease its appeal.
The news that president Bush vetoed Israeli plans to attack Iranian nuclear facilities whilst visiting the country in May should, with some luck, permanently put to bed the belief shared by conservatives, liberals and leftists alike in the “Israel Lobby”, and its grip on US interests.
The myth goes something like this: US interests are manipulated by a powerful cabal of pro-Israeli forces in the United States which can effectively distort the policies of the superpower in the interests of the Jewish State. They will , for instance, point to the fact that the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee can often get 9 out of 10 Senators signing its statements, or that the Sentate regularly passes resolutions recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal Capital, that Jews in the US are the ethnic group most likely to vote and are concentrated in key states, that there are many prominent Jewish financial donors, or in the particularly obnoxious case of “radical” liberal magazine Adbusters, because of the “Jewishness” of neocons. They ask “whose interests were they protecting in pushing for war in Iraq?” The answer is rhetorical: not those of the non – Jewish “American people”.
Things are slightly more complex. Noam Chomsky has argued (whilst trashing the idea of the lobby), that the most influential pro-Israel bloc after liberal intellectuals is the culturally nationalist evangelical Christian movement, whose support for Israel is based on their anti-semitism: they want Jews in Israel in order to fulfil Biblical prophecy on the rapture – they must be there after the apocalypse to become Christians or go to hell. These bigots, however, usually feature lower down the list of those “distorting” US policy.
The belief is based on a fallacy – that the US ruling class is capable of doing anything contrary to the dynamics of Imperialism. Even genuinely radical commentary on Israel often falters when it comes up against its own crude conception of Imperialism. In their book Afflicted Powers, released to much intellectual fanfare in 2005, the US based Retort group argue that the “counterproductive” nature of the US-Israel relationship is down to its “spectacular” nature. Whilst making valid and interesting arguments about the effects of spectacular society and spectacular time on politics and the great performance that is bourgeois politics, its great discovery is that US Imperialism “seeks to impose military presences in crucial regions even without knowing exactly what or how well capital will do in the particular site of intervention”, and the discussion of Israel is couched in similar terms: “Israel has been a play of motifs and appearances that for a period seemed capable of projecting a seductive image of capital onto the screen of the postwar world ... in this two-faced role – as an exemplar of a society in which total militarisation and spectacular modernity were fully compatible – Israel has mirrored and mesmorised the American state for nearly four decades.” In their view, there is a fundamental tension in the spectacular relationship between the US and Israel and Israel’s current status as “an extreme liability” to US interests. They discuss an “unqualified US support for Israel” which is in fact a “geo-political trap” – “even Tony Blair is capable of recognising this”.
But what they, Tony Blair and critics of the Israel lobby share is a lack of solid engagement with what Imperialism has meant in developed capitalism. The need for bourgeois states to encircle and combat each other regularly runs against the immediate interests of capital accumulation. If the Iraq war had been about profit, rather than strategic control of a resource-rich region (the lack of control over dense population centres is secondary), it would have served the interests of capital to cut a deal with Saddam and leave him in power. Israel is the most longstanding strategic beachhead in the Middle East, and the more geopolitical zones integrated into the military empire of the United States the better – they are denied to its rivals. We see this tension in the Caucasus, where the conflict between Imperial blocs has destroyed the regularly touted bourgeois fantasy that capitalist democracies cannot go to war with each other. In this case, there was a strategic asset – an energy route from the Caucasus basin, which provided a particularly prominent hill to play king of. But Russia stood little chance of holding it in any significant sense, and in such escalating conflicts the dangerous logic of imperialism is demonstrated.
What demolishes the Israeli lobby argument more than anything else is the fact that whenever Israel attempts to undertake actions which further its own interests, to the detriment of those of the US, it is reigned in. In the case of the proposed strike, the action would have damaged the US by extending the Iraq war across the Iranian border. Though in a total war situation the US could obliterate Iran, a massive conflict throughout the region involving Iran’s large and sophisticated military and ranging across the highlands of that country is not an option, and would involve massive losses for the US. The project of controlling Iraq’s strategic resources would be at stake. There are other examples, well catalogued by the likes of Chomsky: for instance Israel’s attempts at the sale of high technology, central to its economy, to one of the largest potential customers in the world – China. Cultivating a trade relationship would further the interests of Israel to the detriment of US ‘. For these reasons the US has blocked Israeli attempts to develop this relationship. In 2000 Israel was forced to cancel a sale of its Phalcon early warning system. In 2005 sales of technology for anti-aircraft missiles to China led to the Pentagon boycotting Israeli officials, and demanding that Israel cancel the sales and apologise to the US. Israel capitulated, not the US.
Where liberal commentators will celebrate the US supposedly turning away from its agenda of confrontation, and "hawks" that the US is selling out its partner in the face of Iranian aggression, events are simply following their established pattern. One would hope that such a powerful demonstration of this would have an effect on the worldview of the proponents of the "lobby" argument, but I'm making no bets.