Israel and the new order in the Middle East - Moshe Machover

Israeli troops in Lebanon, 1978.
Israeli troops in Lebanon, 1978.

Moshe Machover's article on Israel's role in the Middle-East, its uses for American political interests in the 1970s and the pressures this sometimes put on the American government itself.

Submitted by Ed on November 6, 2013

Once upon a time - many wars and revolutions ago, when royal thrones were still standing in palaces on the banks of the Tigris and the Nile - the editor of Ha'aretz wrote an article1 in which he explained why imperialism supported Israel. An important motive for this support, he wrote'. . . is the fact that the West is not very happy about its relations with the other states in the Middle East. The feudal regimes in those states are forced to pay heed to nationalist movements (both secular and religious) - which in some cases have an unmistakable left-wing social tinge - to such a great extent that those states are no longer prepared to put their natural resources at the disposal of Britain and America, or to allow them to use their countries as military bases in case of war.

'The ruling circles in the countries of the Middle East do know that in the case of a social revolution or Soviet occupation they are certain to be physically liquidated, but the immediate fear of a political assassin's bullet for the time being outweighs the unreal fear of annexation to the communist world. All these states are. . . militarily weak; Israel proved its military strength in the War of Independence against the Arab states and because of this, a certain strengthening of Israel is, for the western powers, a convenient way of preserving a political balance of forces in the Middle East.

'According to this view, Israel has been assigned the role of a sort of watchdog. There is no fear that it will adopt an aggressive policy towards the Arab states if that is against the wish of America and Britain. But if the western powers ever prefer, for one reason or another, to shut their eyes, Israel can be relied upon to punish properly one or several of her neighbouring states whose lack of manners towards the West has exceeded the permitted limits.

A very shrewd and accurate assessment. And with certain obvious modifications - for example, Britain no longer counts as a big power in the Middle East, or anywhere else - it is still substantially correct. As a distinguished American political analyst pointed out not long ago: 'A strong and confident Israel is a vital factor in any programme to protect our own legitimate interests and those of Europe, Japan and many other countries in the independence and openness and stability of the region.'2 (Glossary: 'independence' = dependence on imperialism; 'openness' = openness to capitalist exploitation; 'stability' stability of oppressive regimes.) And the same point is put even more bluntly by the Zionist Organisation of America: 'Israel is the only democracy in the area. It is the only stable nation in the Middle East. It is also the only loyal and effective ally of the United States in the region. The United States has in Israel a strong base for overseeing and guarding American national interests in this vital area.'3

This role of Israel is indeed a fact of Middle-Eastern life - and yet it is a fact which nowadays needs to be spelt out (just as it needed to be in the early 1950s) because it is no longer quite as obvious and straightforward as it was in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. In the heyday of Nasserism and left-wing ba'athism, Israel was virtually the only important ally of western imperialism in the Arab East. (Saudi Arabia was then far less important in economic, political and military terms than it is today, and did not play an active part in the affairs of the region.) Faced with radical Arab regimes closely allied with the Soviet Union, Israel's expansionism could be given full sway. Rather than stand guard over the stability of the Arab East, the zionist state's task was to destabilise it. It did this by confronting not only the Arab popular masses but also the radical regimes.

Since the early 1970s things have changed. 'New ruling classes, new bourgeoisies, have crystallised the come to power in the Arab East. In Saudi Arabia this bourgeoisie has grown under the wings of the old tribal pre-capitalist ruling stratum. In the "progressive" Arab countries, which had undergone revolutions of the nasserist type, the new bourgeoisie has crystallised out of the military juntas, the bureaucratic strata, the remnants of the old exploiting classes, to which are added the new bourgeois who have been fostered by state aid.'4 The new ruling classes ousted the Soviet Union from most of its positions of influence in the region and forged a neo-colonial alliance with western - mainly American - capitalism.

The new role - continuity and change

Superficial observers leaped to the conclusion that since US imperialism has now found such important allies - the new ruling classes in the Arab countries - it would no longer require the expensive services of the zionist state. This error resulted from a failure to see that in the American scheme of things the Arab countries and Israel play not similar but complementary roles. The neo-colonial arrangement with the Arab bourgeoisies is not of the same kind as, and cannot replace, the special relationship of the US with Israel.

'Like all neo-colonialist bonds, [the alliance between US im- perialism and the Arab ruling classes] is essentially a partnership - in which the local ruling classes and foreign imperialism are respectively junior and senior partners - for the joint exploitation of the local working classes. And like all such alliances it is inherently problematic; it is in continual danger of being upset by two different forces. First, the local ruling class - the junior partner - may make a bid to increase its share of the cake. Second, the exploited masses may rise against both local and foreign masters.

'American- Israeli relations, on the other hand, are quite different. Far from these relations being based on economic exploitation, Israel is actually subsidised by the- US to the tune of about $3000m (ie about $1000 for each Israel-Jewish man, woman and child) per annum. In return, Israel is expected to serve as an armed guard, defending and protecting imperialist interests in the region. In contrast to the Arab ruling classes, the zionist establishment is therefore a really reliable and secure ally of the US. Thus the new links forged between the US and the Arab ruling classes are not going to replace the special relationship with Israel. On the contrary - because of the fragility of these nea-colonial links, the services of the trustworthy Israeli gendarme are if anything of greater value now for American capital than they have been so far.'5

There is therefore an unmistakable continuity in Israel's role as imperialist 'watchdog' in the Arab East, a continuity that spans the whole period from the early 1950s to the present. Naturally, the services that Israel renders are not free of charge; they have to be paid for in financial subsidies,6 military aid7 and political backing. American policy is firmly committed not only to securing the existence of the zionist state but also to furnishing it with the means for doing its job properly. These means are not only material ones, money and weapons. If the US were to break the spirit of Israel by compelling it to accept something that the vast majority of zionists regard as absolutely and categorically unacceptable, then it would transform Israel from a bully-boy into a sullen and docile dependent. American policy must therefore respect the most deep-seated and fundamental zionist tenets.

For example, while from a purely American point of view the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state - suitably shackled and emasculated - might not be such a bad idea as part of the pacification of the region, American policy must respect the absolutely fundamental zionist rejection of this idea.

'This opposition is not based on short-term military considerations but on long-term historical ones, which concern the very nature of the zionist claim over Palestine. This claim is absolutely exclusive - "A land without a people (Palestine!) to a people without a land (the Jews)" - and cannot be reconciled with the recognition of Palestinian Arab national rights over, or even in, the Holy Land. For unavoidable reasons of realpolitik, Israel may agree to concede sovereignty over part of Palestine to an external power, say Jordan. Such a concession, as far as zionism is concerned, is in any case purely pragmatic and temporary; and Israel always reserves the right to "liberate" such conceded territories as the need or possibility arises. But to allow the establishment within Palestine of a sovereign national entity of the indigenous people - that would undermine the whole self-justification and legitimation of the zionist enterprise.

A concession of this kind would be historically √Źrreversible. Moreover, though that state may initially be small and weak, there is no telling what changes might take place in the more distant future. The balance of forces, and the borders, between that state and Israel - like any other balance of forces, and any borders between states - would be subject to the vicissitudes of future history. After all, had Israel itself not started as a small state, and later expanded by sword and fire to dominate the whole of Cisjordanian Palestine, the Sinai peninsula and the Syrian Golan heights?'8

American policy must heed this very deep-seated zionist rejection of the idea of creating even a small Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan. For this reason a sovereign Palestinian mini-state is not part of the American blueprint for a Middle East settlement - a fact that has by now become unmistakably clear.9

But in Israel's role in the American scheme of things, there is not only continuity; there must be change as well. As the ruling class in one Arab country after another moves into the American sphere of domination, there is a growing need for 'stability'. Whereas in the heyday of nasserism Israel could be allowed (and even encouraged) to confront and threaten toe Arab East as a whole, in a socially undifferentiated way, US interests now require that the zionist state should learn to collaborate peacefully with the Arab ruling classes, while continuing to bare its teeth to the Arab masses. It is this need to normalise relations between the Israeli state and the Arab regimes, to institutionalise the- former's role as guarantor and protector of the latter against their own working classes, that has motivated American imperialism in the quest for comprehensive Middle East settlement.

The path to such a settlement is anything but smooth. The main obstacle is the expansionist appetite of the zionist state - an appetite which is inherent in zionism, and which has been sharpened and become prodigiously voracious since 1967. As time has passed and as the cancerous growth of Israeli settlements has spread further into the newly occupied territories, most zionist leaders and their followers have become accustomed to regarding these territories (except perhaps parts of Sinai) as their own, not only by divine right but also by possession, which is nine points of the law. And yet, if there is to be a settlement, Israel must be made to hand back the bulk of these territories; hand them back to Egypt, to Jordan and - provided the Syrian regime behaves itself and toes the American line - to Syria. If the regimes of these countries were to sign away the occupied teritories in a humiliating peace settlement, that would jeopardise their own stability - and defeat the American purpose of the whole exercise.

The Sadat spectacle

The zionist state is not a mere instrument which American policy can simply switch on and off at will. Of course, the US has, in principle, a tremendous economic, military and political leverage on Israel. But in practice, American pressure on Israel is subject to very real constraints.

First, there is the formidable pro-Israeli lobby in the Congress and the mass media. This goes far beyond the so-called' Jewish vote' and in fact includes many politicians and 'opinion makers' who do not really depend on Jewish votes. Secondly, there is the weakness of the present American administration. It is not just that Carter has proved to be less forceful than had been widely believed, and has taken inordinately long to come to grips with the major issues of American policy; it is mainly that the White House as an institution has been weakened by Watergate and its aftermath. But beyond all this, there is an inherent constraint: American policy does not aim to crush Israel, humiliate it or cast it away. As already explained, a powerful and confident Israel is an essential linchpin in the new American hegemonic structure in the Middle East. Therefore Israel and the pro- Israel lobby must not be brutally browbeaten but rather coaxed, cajoled or at most, subjected to polite pressure.

While Carter and his advisers were wondering how on earth they were going to impose a comprehensive settlement without putting excessive pressure on Israel, the latter had a change of government; the extremists of the Ma'arakh were replaced by the fanatics of the Likud. This made Carter's task both harder and easier: harder in the short term, because Begin is not open to gentle persuasion; but easier in the long term, because Begin's very intransigence might be exploited to create fissures in the hitherto monolithic pro-Israel lobby.

Begin, who is no simpleton, of course realised all this. On his first visit to the US, in the early summer of 1977, he exuded charm - without actually giving anything away. The pro-Israeli lobby was duly won over, and solidly closed ranks behind him. In order to call Begin's bluff, something very spectacular was required.

Something very spectacular indeed soon took place. The world-wide TV-viewing public was treated to the most sensational performance in the annals of political show business, starring Sadat in the Israeli Knesset.

Let petty-bourgeois Arab nationalists fulminate and denounce Sadat's 'betrayal of the Arab cause'. By this they are only exposing their own illusion that there exists such a thing as a classless Arab national cause. Sadat did not 'betray' anything; he simply blew away the cobwebs of a musty petty-bourgeois nationalist myth, and acted brazenly in the best interest of the new class whose power he represents.

We, revolutionary socialists of the region, must sadly admit that Sadat has put us to shame. If he had the audacity to put his class interest first and befriend his potential class allies across the national borders - could we not be at least equally audacious in forging our own internationalist solidarity against these oppressors? If Sadat, to save his own skin and avert the danger of a socialist Arab revolution, made a dramatic appeal to the Israeli people - should we not be more forward in appealing to the Israeli masses for the revolution?

The invasion of Lebanon

It is difficult to say whether Sadat really hoped that the zionist leaders would continue to clasp his outstretched hand and agree to conclude a peace settlement that, while of course defrauding the Palestinian people of their national rights, would save the face of the Arab ruling classes. If he did, then events were soon to disabuse him.

Sadat's performance in the Knesset was directed not only at the Israeli stalls; he was most certainly playing to the American gallery. And there he was duly applauded. While the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations predictably ran aground on the rocks of zionist in- transigence, the pro-Israeli lobby in the US was beginning to show clear signs of strain, and the Carter administration felt able to be a little bolder with the Begin government.

Begin was scheduled to go to Washington on 12 March 1978; and as that date approached, there were unmistakable signs that his reception there would be less than cordial and that a confrontation between him and Carter was imminent. The Israeli government was desperately looking for a diversion. A pretext was handed to them just in time, in the form of the indiscriminate Palestinian bus raid of 11 March, which united the Israeli people behind the government and momentarily revived the waning support for Israel in world public opinion. Begin immediately postponed his US trip, and after a few days' delay, caused by the bad weather, the Israeli army invaded the south of Lebanon up to the Litani river.

The Palestinian bus raid was of course only a pretext. The raiders had come not from the south of Lebanon but almost certainly from a small port close to Beirut. What were the real motives for the invasion?

First, there was the need to create a diversion. Begin hoped that American attention would be diverted from the older zionist occupation and colonisation of the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai. This tactic had been used successfully by Israel several times in the past. Secondly, the Israeli leaders had long been waiting for a chance to exterminate the Palestinian guerrilla forces concentrated in southern Lebanon.

But beyond this, the zionist state has always coveted the waters of the Litani, as well as the lands south of that river, which are part of the biblical Promised Land, and are considered fair game for ex- pansion and colonisation. Thus, in a secret plan which Ben-Gurion proposed to the French just before the Suez war of 1956, he demanded that southern Lebanon (as well as the West Bank of Jordan) be annexed to Israel. Syria was to annex another part, and the remainder would be turned into a Maronite Christian state.10 The military strategy employed in the invasion also suggests that it was part of a long-term colonisation plan.

If the main aim had been to exterminate the Palestinian forces, then it would have made better sense to start by landing strong forces along the Litani, thus sealing off the guerrillas' escape route, and then to proceed and occupy the area between the river and the international border by a pincer movement. In the event, the Israeli army advanced slowly towards the river, leaving the escape routes open not only for the guerrillas, but also for the local peasant population. The peasants were encouraged to flee by being subjected to barabaric Vietnam-style bombing. A quarter of a million people fled, leaving the land vacant for colonisation.

However, the Israeli invasion failed to achieve any of its major aims. The Palestinians managed to' extricate and preserve most of their forces. It is true that the introduction of UN forces to police the area may severely restrict the guerrillas' freedom of movement and operations, but the presence of these UN forces will also partly inhibit Israeli military incursions. The international reaction to the invasion - especially after its scale and brutality were realised - was quick and angry. The pressure that forced Israel to withdraw was very great. Finally, the invasion failed to create a diversion. When Begin arrived in Washington, Carter refused to be distracted by the Lebanese events and insisted that they conduct their talks according to the previously arranged agenda. The atmosphere was icy.

In Israel itself, even inside the army, the invasion gave rise not to a greater feeling of national unity, but to a very noticeable malaise. Some Israelis were appalled by the large number of civilian casualties and the enormous scale of devastation. Many more were simply disappointed by the failure of the invasion to achieve any far-reaching result.11

What next?

As signs of American pressure began to increase, internal dissent became more visible in the zionist camp, both inside Israel and in the pro-Israeli lobby. The Peace Now movement, which held a fairly impressive demonstration in Tel-Aviv, is certainly made up of very loyal (and very middle class) zionists, and only a small minority within it would accept Palestinian self-determination in any real sense. But it expresses a widespread feeling that Begin's fanaticism is leading Israel towards a dangerous confrontation with the US. This feeling was clearly articulated by none other than Yehoshafat Harkavi, a former Chief of Military Intelligence turned academic expert on Arab affairs.12 Harkavi started by pointing out that in any case Israel would not be able to rule indefinitely over a large Arab population; the West Bank mut revert to Arab rule. No half measures, like Begin's plan for 'self administration' would be able to prevent that in the long run. While Arab rule over the West Bank would certainly constitute a danger for Israel, he continued, this must be weighed against the greater danger that would arise in the absence of a settlement.

'If peace is not achieved, the conflict will not return to its previous level, but to a much graver situation. And in that case one has to realise that sooner or later a war will break, out. Even if we win it, we shall not be allowed to turn military achievements into long-lasting political gains. . . We shall need to restock our arsenal; but if the peace process were to collapse and the US were to blame that on us, it would not hurry to arm us as in the past, without an obligation on our part to accept the very same conditions that we now reject.

'I hope that I shall be proved wrong, but I believe that we shall have to evacuate the West Bank, either while our arsenals are full as they are today, or after a war and many casualties, when our arsenals are empty. Certainly, territory has a great military value. But arms are no less important militarily. The basic problem facing us is that our holding on to territory which the US is opposed to letting us rule, is inconsistent with obtaining arms.'

Harkavi is well aware of the fundamental American commitment to Israel: 'True, the US will not abandon us completely, and will continue to arm us in a conventional way. But our problem is that in order to confront the Arab states . . . we need the US to take exceptional measures to arm us, as it did after 1973, since modern warfare requires huge quantities of equipment and arms. For this we shall need the goodwill of the US, but by quarreling with it we are destroying that goodwill with our own hands.'

Of course Harkavi, like the vast majority of zionists, is totally opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. The plan he recommends is quite different. 'Instead of adhering to the policy of remaining in the West Bank - which cannot last - it is better for us to think of how to minimise the damage of handing it over. The possibility is still open that the West Bank will become part of Jordan, whose power and stability are incomparably greater than those of all the Palestinian organisations, and whose effectiveness in suppressing the PLO it proved in 1970. This effectiveness is superior to all the Israeli efforts against the PLO. It should also be remembered that in 1970 Jordan acted alone, whereas now it can gain Arab support, for example from Egypt.'

This fissure inside Israel, clearly induced by signs of American pressure, itself encouraged a split in the pro-Israeli lobby on Capitol Hill. This, in turn, will enable the White House to apply still more pressure. In mid-May, Carter had his first important victory in the Washington tug-of-war. The significance of the package deal, whereby the sale of American war-planes to Israel was made conditional on sales of war-planes to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, was largely symbolic - but symbols are very important indeed. Moreover, the size of the majority in the Senate against the attempt to block the deal was very encouraging for Carter and his advisors.

American pressure on Israel will almost certainly intensify, but one should not rush into unwarranted predictions. As explained above, the constraints to which such pressure is subject are quite considerable, and it is therefore not clear how far that pressure will go, or how soon.

Even if great pressure is applied, its effects on Israel are difficult to predict. After a long period of remarkable stability, the Israeli party system has begun to undergo a series of upheavals.13 These are not over by any means, and new splits and realignments are likely to occur before an equilibrium is reached. The Begin government is already under considerable internal pressure: in addition to the small but significant middle-class opposition to his foreign policy, there is a deepening working-class resentment against the worsening economic situation (rapid inflation - 50 per cent in one year - and a sharp decline in real wages).

In these circumstances, intensive American pressure can perhaps lead to the isolation of Begin and his fanatical close supporters, and the formation of a new government based on a new alignment of forces, and more responsive to US needs.

On the other hand, as Harkavi points out, the acceptance of the policy proposed by him 'will involve a psychological upheaval in Israel, when it wakes up to see that its hopes of becoming a large country are frustrated. The bitter soul-searching - with which Israel will be afflicted when it sobers up and realises how, since 1967, it has flown from the ground of reality to illusions which it found pleasant to regard as a policy - may severely damage its self-image.'14

Precisely because of the present instability of Israel's political scene, there is a very real danger that in order to avert this painful 'psychological revolution' the more fanatic section of the Israeli leadership will try to reverse the whole situation in the Middle East, by embarking on a huge military adventure - compared to which the invasion of Lebanon will seem like child's play.

May, 1978.

  • 1Hazonah mikrakey hayam ve'anahnu (The harlot from the cities of the seas and we) in Ha'aretz, 30 September 1951.
  • 2Eugene V. Rostow, 'The American stake in Israel', in Commentary, April 1977.
  • 3'Playing Russian roulette in the Middle East', full-page advertisement by ZOA in the New York Times, 2 May 1978.
  • 4Socialist Organisation in Israel, 'On the current situation in Israel and the Middle East', September 1977, in Matzpen 83, November 1977.
  • 5Musa Hadida, 'The Middle East - what kind of settlement?' in Revolutionary Socialism (Big Flame journal) , July 1977.
  • 6Israel's services to imperialism in fact constitute its most important 'export industry'. This is recognised by that cynical reactionary economist, Milton Friedman: 'American aid is provided in exchange for the foothold that Israel provides for the US in the Middle East. This aid must therefore be regarded as payment for the export of interests, which falls under the export of services.' (Quoted in Ha'aretz, overseas edition, 8 July 1977.)
  • 7The extent of the military aid which Israel receives from the US is of course truly prodigious and absolutely unparalleled. For some interesting comments, see David Nes, 'America's very special relationship with Israel', in the earlier editions of The Times, 5 February 1971. (This article, written by a veteran American diplomat, mysteriously disappeared in later editions of the same day.)
  • 8Musa Hadida, op cit.
  • 9Failure to grasp this fact early enough greatly added to the confusion of the split in the Palestinian movement between 'acceptists' and 'rejectionists'. Both among those who were ready to capitulate to an imperialist-imposed diplomatic settlement and among those who were determined to oppose it, there were many who believed that such a settlement was likely to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Acceptance or rejection of the idea of such a state was therefore conflated with acceptance or rejection of a pax americana. The demand for the immediate creation of a sovereign Palestinian state was widely regarded - by many of those who raised it as well as by their opponents - not as a challenge to the proposed imperialist settlement, but rather as an application for membership in the diplomatic club. (In this regard, see my letter in Khamsin 2; also note correction to that letter in Khamsin 3.)
  • 10M. Bar-Zohar, Ben-Gurion, a political biography, vol. 3, p1234. (Hebrew), Tel-Aviv, 1977. Bar-Zohar's information is taken directly from Ben-Gurion's diaries.
  • 11Yisra'el Har'el reports in Yedi'ot Aharonot (31 March 1978) on conversations he had with Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. 'They told me about young terrorists, some of them 13 or 14 years old, and even a young girl, found dead next to some Kalachnikov machine guns and hand grenades. These kids had not carried out any raids deep inside Israel. Those who had, managed to get away. Why was this not foreseen and prevented? The conversation turned to what they [the soldiers] felt when they discovered against whom they had been fighting and whom they had killed. And they said their feeling was lousy. Nevertheless, they hope that they have killed the vipers when these were still small and less harmful. But they cannot see much purpose in the whole war. The UN will replace them; the terrorists will infiltrate through the UN ranks or return openly as "inhabitants coming back to their villages", and the whole story will begin again.' This report is fairly typical of many that were published in the Israeli press at the time.
  • 12Y. Harkavi, 'Policy in the place of illusions', in Ma'ariv, 31 March 1978.
  • 13For an analysis of the background of this process, see A. Ehrlich, 'The crisis in Israel - danger of fascism?' in Khamsin 5.
  • 14Y. Harkavi, op cit.