Christisons: Does the Israeli Tail Wag the American Dog?

By Kathleen and Bill Christison

A quarter century ago, the executive director of AIPAC —the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—established an analytical unit inside the organization to write in-depth advocacy papers for policymakers.  The year was 1981, the president was Ronald Reagan, and AIPAC had just lost a hard-fought battle in Congress over the sale of AWACS surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia.  The AIPAC leader was an energetic former congressional aide named Thomas Dine, who used the setback to build AIPAC into a formidable political force.  Over the next few years, Dine quadrupled AIPAC’s grassroots membership as well as its budget and aggressively expanded contacts with Congress and policymakers.  He set out to supply politicians with analyses geared toward advancing Israeli interests, in the stated belief that anyone who wrote papers read by policymakers would effectively “own” the policymakers.

This was a seminal moment in the decades-long growth of the lobby’s influence on US Middle East policy, often to the detriment of US national interests.  Many have characterized the relationship between what the United States does in the Middle East and what the lobby wants it to do as a case of the Israeli tail wagging the US dog.  Israel and its US supporters, although constituting the junior partner in the relationship, are seen as virtually dictating policy to whatever administration and Congress are in power.  There are myriad examples of this dynamic, most notably Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which dragged the US into a disastrous intervention, and Israel’s invasion of the West Bank in 2002, during which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon openly and repeatedly defied President George Bush’s demand for a withdrawal.  Others maintain that the tail-wagging is the other way around: that the United States, as the superpower, patron of Israel, and its major aid donor, is unmistakably the senior partner and the dog that wags the tail.  The question, therefore, is which is the accurate assessment, or is the cynical view of Israeli commentator Michel Warschawski correct, that “there is neither a dog nor a tail, but one global war of re-colonization, and one aggressive monster with two ugly heads”?

Silence Broken

Despite the growing power of the Israel lobby, and the growing convergence of US and Israeli efforts toward global and regional Middle East domination, public debate over the size and substance of the lobby’s role in US policymaking was almost non-existent until two political scientists, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University, issued an 81-page report in March 2006 analyzing lobby strength.  Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, and Walt, Belfer Professor of International Affairs, are leading proponents of the realist school of foreign policy, which argues that states act to further military and economic power rather than pursue idealism and ethics.  Their report sparked widespread interest when it was published in abbreviated form in the London Review of Books.  Defining the lobby broadly as “the loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to shape US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction,” Mearsheimer and Walt conclude that the thrust of US policy in the Middle East is overwhelmingly the result of the lobby’s activities.  They observe that, while other lobbies and interest groups have also demonstrated an ability to skew policy, “no lobby has managed to divert US foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US and Israeli interests are essentially identical.”

The report aroused instantaneous and vocal opposition from the very individuals whom the authors identify as members of the lobby.  Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a vociferous advocate of Israel, called the authors “liars” engaging in “crass bigotry” and likened their arguments to neo-Nazi propaganda, filled with “thinly veiled charges of Jewish control of American thought” reminiscent of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  Abraham Foxman and his Anti-Defamation League (ADL) charged that the report’s main thesis “is the embodiment of classic, anti-Jewish conspiracy theory.”

Most criticism from Israel’s strongest advocates fails, however, to address the principal points of the Mearsheimer-Walt study: that influential elements in the United States—non-Jews as well as Jews—who have as a primary objective the advancement of Israeli interests have gained undue influence over US Middle East policy and use this influence to tilt policy toward Israel in ways that are contrary to US national interests.  Instead, critics argue off the point, raising straw men that distract from the report’s main thesis.

The accusation that Mearsheimer and Walt are “anti-Semitic” is the charge most commonly heard from supporters of Israel across the political spectrum.  Not coincidentally, it is also a line of attack long used by the lobby to silence and indeed attack anyone who dares question Israeli policies or the United States’ close ties to Israel.  The question of anti-Semitism was addressed during a major debate in New York in September that pitted Mearsheimer and two allies against a former Israeli official and two policymakers from the Clinton administration, Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk.  These three opponents of Mearsheimer, although clearly supporters of Israel, are generally regarded as centrists, neither particularly hard-core like Dershowitz nor rightwing, but all three echoed Dershowitz in charging that the report “lowers itself to the level of anti-Semitism” or “has connotations of anti-Semitism,” simply because it discusses the role of some Jews in positions of power and influence. 

This debate around anti-Semitism is a diversion from the main issue and is undoubtedly intended as such.  The New York panel spent fully one-third of its allotted time examining whether Mearsheimer and Walt are anti-Semitic before getting to any substantive analysis of the report’s conclusions and evidence.  Criticism of former President Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid follows the same pattern.  Critics charge poor scholarship or hint at anti-Semitism because Carter uses the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territories.  Many, including the Democratic Party leadership, have criticized the book, but few have provided evidence to support their charges or seriously examined the evidence behind Carter’s thesis.

A member of the New York panel who spoke in support of the Mearsheimer-Walt report, New York University professor Tony Judt, has written about the crippling effect that Americans’ induced fear of being labeled anti-Semitic has had on public discourse about anything relating to Israel and ultimately on policy.  During the panel discussion, he highlighted the phenomenon by observing that, although there are “hundreds of distorting lobbies” in the US, the Israel lobby is the only one that not only acts energetically in pursuit of its cause, “but acts constantly and very effectively to silence criticism of its cause.”  In a similar vein, Mearsheimer observed in an interview with Mother Jones that the main reason the strong affinity between the US and Israel continues is the absence of open and candid discussion about the relationship.  There would be far less sympathy for Israel, he said, if Americans knew what Israelis are doing in the occupied territories.  “In essence, America’s present relationship with Israel could not withstand public scrutiny.”

Jimmy Carter’s book makes a major effort to provide more scrutiny, but its success is so far uncertain.  Scott Ritter, who worked closely with Israel as a military intelligence officer and as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq, reiterates both Judt’s and Mearsheimer’s observations in his new book Target Iran.  While many nations maintain active lobbies in the US, he writes, none has “the scope and clout” of the Israel lobby and none operates in its “brazen manner.”  Ritter foresees a potentially catastrophic US-Israeli confrontation with Iran and believes the only way to avoid this will be by bringing the nature of the US-Israeli relationship into the national discourse, fundamentally re-examining why the US operates in “continued national impotence as another nation, Israel, dictates national security policy for all America.”

In a 2003 critique of Israel and the U.S.-Israeli relationship in the New York Review of Books, Judt touched on what Mearsheimer and Walt later laid out as their principal thesis.  Judt wrote that Israel continued “to mock its American patron” by building illegal settlements even as the US was pushing the “Roadmap” peace plan calling for a freeze on settlement construction.  Israel had reduced the powerful president of the United States, he said, to a “ventriloquist’s dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli cabinet line.”  Its behavior “has been a disaster for American foreign policy.”  The United States’ unconditional support for Israel “is the main reason why most of the rest of the world no longer credits our good faith.”

James Abourezk knows the lobby well.  A US senator from South Dakota from 1972-1978, Abourezk says, from his experience in Congress, that “the support Israel has in that body is based completely on political fear”—fear that “anyone who does not do what Israel wants done” will be defeated by the lobby.  Abourezk reinforces the point about the lobby’s efforts to silence.  “Even one voice is attacked,” he writes, “on grounds that if Congress is completely silent on the issue, the press will have no one to quote, which effectively silences the press as well.  Any journalists or editors who step out of line are quickly brought under control by well organized economic pressure against the newspaper caught sinning.”  Jimmy Carter has described a similar phenomenon in recent commentaries, noting that AIPAC’s “extraordinary lobbying efforts” have silenced all debate in policymaking councils, in Congress, and in the media about Israeli policies.

Abourezk describes pressure tactics that were already in full swing before AIPAC set out to “own” policymakers, and Carter has made it clear that the lobby’s stranglehold on discourse and on decisionmaking has tightened.  The pro-Israeli tilt that has, to one degree or another, been characteristic of most administrations and most Congresses since Israel’s creation was clearly not Dine’s invention or a phenomenon that emerged only in the 1980s.  But Dine institutionalized the process, strengthening it significantly.

In 1984, in addition to the internal analytical unit, AIPAC spun off another body, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), that remains a pre-eminent think tank—one that has placed its analysts in policymaking jobs in several administrations.  Dennis Ross, who was the senior Middle East policymaker in the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, came from WINEP and returned there after leaving government service.  Martin Indyk, an original member of AIPAC’s analytical unit and WINEP’s first director, entered a senior policymaking position in the Clinton administration from there.  Mearsheimer and Walt correctly describe both men as situated “at the core of the lobby.”

This assertion addresses a critical aspect of the lobby question by emphasizing the reality that the lobby has in recent decades actually become a part of various administrations.  The lobby is also not confined to the formal Jewish-American organizations such as AIPAC and the ADL and think tanks like WINEP and JINSA, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, but also includes numerous individuals who work on Israel’s behalf and encompasses the very large fundamentalist Christian right.  The Christian right strongly supports Israel’s continued control over the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem as the essential prerequisite to the so-called Millennium, when they believe Jesus Christ will reappear.  During the last several years in particular, the Christian right has used its vast numbers to lobby both the administration and Congress in support of Israel’s policies and in opposition to any proposal that would require Israeli concessions.

The kind of blunt pressure on decisionmakers that Abourezk describes is only one way in which the organized lobby operates.  The bond between Israel and the US has always had its grounding as much in soft emotions as in the hard realities of geopolitical strategy.  Over the years since Israel’s creation, there has been a pervasive atmosphere in which Israel is simply assumed to be so close to the US, its interests so closely intertwined with American interests, that it is accepted almost as a part of the US.

The lobby reinforces this sentiment, channeling it into institutional ways of involving ordinary Americans in supporting Israel.  Jeffrey Blankfort, a northern California radio host and long-time commentator on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other Middle East issues, points out, for instance, that 1,700 unions in the US own more than $5 billion of Israel bonds.  This effectively obliges the unions to support Israel, Blankfort believes, making the American labor movement a part of the lobby.  It is one reason that the organized left in the United States has opposed making the Palestine issue part of the anti-war movement.  Many states and universities also invest in Israel bonds, as well as in Israeli companies, giving these local governments and institutions an interest in supporting Israel’s policies in order to keep the Israeli economy going.

The pervasiveness of the lobby’s influence makes Tony Judt’s reference to the US president as a “ventriloquist’s dummy” particularly apt.  As Walt pointed out in a Mother Jones interview, no matter what Israel does, the United States continues to support it.  “They continue to build settlements even though every president since Lyndon Johnson has thought that was a bad idea.  They spy on us routinely.  They’ve given or sold American military technology to other countries.  Also…they have conducted a wide variety of human rights violations, and yet none of those activities ever slows down American support.”  For the last several decades, AIPAC has frequently involved itself directly in the legislative process, writing legislation relating to the Middle East and pushing a series of anti-Arab, pro-Israeli resolutions that state the stance of the Senate and the House on various issues, such as Israel’s construction of the separation wall and Israel’s summer 2006 attack on Lebanon.  AIPAC often boasts that it vets and exerts influence over presidential candidates.  During the 2004 presidential campaign when Howard Dean issued a mild and seemingly non-controversial call for an “even-handed” US policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, he was roundly condemned by the lobby and by fellow Democrats, and he quickly dropped the call.  Long-serving congressmen who deviate are targeted for electoral defeat.  In the 1980s, Representative Paul Findley and Senator Charles Percy, who had each served multiple terms in Illinois, were defeated through the efforts of AIPAC after both spoke out in favor of negotiating with the PLO.  More recently, Georgia’s Cynthia McKinney has twice been the target of AIPAC’s electoral interference.

The list goes on.  Israel and its lobby have been the policy initiators, the US the follower, in Israel’s 1967 war, its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, its 2002 invasion of the West Bank, its 40-year settlement-construction enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territories, its disproportionate attacks on Palestinians, its assault on Lebanon.  The scope of the lobby’s infiltration of government policymaking councils has been unprecedented during the current Bush administration, and there is strong evidence that neo-conservatives inside the administration—whose ties to Israel’s right wing are undeniable—were the architects of the invasion of Iraq and of the administration’s push to “transform” the Middle East and spread “democracy” throughout the region.  Mearsheimer and Walt assert that the Iraq war was “at least partly intended to improve Israel’s strategic position”—a reality that would seem to be confirmed by the fact that some of these same neo-cons authored a strategy paper, entitled “A Clean Break,” in the mid-1990s for then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, laying out a plan for attacking Iraq that was later pushed when the neo-cons entered the Bush administration.  The strategy was designed explicitly to assure Israel’s regional dominance, to undermine the Oslo peace process, and to relieve Israel of pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians.

One of the authors, David Wurmser, remains in government as Vice President Richard Cheney’s Middle East adviser; the others, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, were closely involved in Iraq war planning as, respectively, an adviser to the Pentagon and an undersecretary of defense.  Almost all the other neo-cons, both Jews and non-Jews, have also compiled long records of advocacy on behalf of Israel.  These include Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, and their cheerleaders on the sidelines such as William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Norman Podhoretz, the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, and numerous rightwing, pro-Israeli think tanks in Washington.

In response to the lobby’s pressure on legislators and policymakers, the US has given Israel massive amounts of military and economic aid over the years.  Mearsheimer and Walt cite statistics from the US Agency for International Development indicating that between 1976 and 2003, the US gave Israel a total of $140 billion in aid, in constant 2003 dollars.  One economist, Thomas Stauffer, who has long tracked aid to Israel, put the figure much higher in 2002, estimating a total of $240 billion in the preceding 30 years, adjusted to current dollars.  Israel now receives an automatic $2-3 billion annually in grant aid, mostly military, in addition to large increments of additional aid to compensate for the cost to Israel of such actions as the Lebanon war and the Gaza withdrawal.

Defining the National Interest

The truly important part of the debate over the lobby’s power swirls around the issue of national interests—what constitutes national interests, who determines them, and whether real national interests are harmed by the lobby.  A group of commentators and analysts on the left who are highly critical of Israel’s policies have nonetheless been dismissive of the notion that the lobby has particular influence over policy.  Their arguments center on the issue of what actually constitutes the US national interest.  Noam Chomsky has frequently indicated that Middle East policy is determined largely by what he calls the “tight state-corporate linkage” where domestic power is concentrated—in other words, the military-industrial complex working in cooperation with the government, whose special interests, Chomsky believes, ultimately define US national interests.  The Israel lobby has some impact on determining policy in Chomsky’s estimation, but to a far lesser extent and generally only insofar as the lobby’s interests conform to corporate-government interests.

Chomsky and the other left critics of the lobby study essentially believe that US policy has always been directed at the advancement of US imperial and corporate interests, and that Israel, far from leading the US into harmful policies and foreign adventures, has always done the US bidding.  The US would pursue its imperial objectives even without Israel, and it has pursued these in areas outside the Middle East, such as Chile, Indonesia, Central America, and elsewhere, without benefit of any lobby.  The Israel lobby, in this view, functions as merely a handy adjunct to US policy, not an agent with any control or particular influence.

One thing this argument ignores, however, is that the lobby and its close ties to US arms makers strengthen the ability of the military-industrial complex to control what are defined as US national interests.  The Israel lobby holds unquestionable sway over many individual congressmen and executive branch officials, including in the White House, making it difficult for anyone to influence the alleged national interests of the US in ways that the lobby might feel weakened Israel’s uniquely special relationship with the US.  Any debate involving this taboo subject, even indirectly, would almost certainly be quashed before it started, buried under paeans for Israel from both Republicans and Democrats. 

Afif Safieh, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization Mission in Washington, makes another point.  He calls the approach of Chomsky and others on the left a “mechanistic” view that does not allow for the fact that each situation has its own specificity, the specificity in this case being that the junior partner can often “hijack” and “monopolize” decisionmaking on Middle East issues.  The left’s argument comes from a kind of determinism that assumes US policy has rarely if ever deviated from a clearly laid-out imperial strategy designed to promote corporate interests.

But simply because the US overthrew a government deemed inimical to American business interests in Chile or supported a dictator in Indonesia where the oil industry had interests does not prove that whenever Israel has attacked Arab countries, as with Egypt in 1967 and Lebanon in 1982, it was acting to serve the United States or was, as Chomsky has alleged, performing a “huge service to the US-Saudis-Energy corporations by smashing secular Arab nationalism.”  Israel in no way serves to ensure US access to or control over the Middle East’s oil resources, nor does it work in conjunction with the oil industry.

There is no denying the intricate interweaving of the US military-industrial-financial complex with Israel’s military, industrial, and financial interests, as Chomsky and others on the left contend, but rather than a relationship in which Israel does the bidding of the US corporate-government conglomeration, in reality the entanglement is much more one between two independent players.  And the lobby essentially functions to sustain and manipulate the entanglement.  Blankfort maintains that the influence of the lobby “is actually underestimated.  Not only does it keep Congress in thrall to its demands on issues pertaining to Israel and the Middle East in general, it also serves, less conspicuously, as a powerful lobbying force for maintaining America’s high levels of military spending and for integrating the Israeli arms industry with that of the US.”  This integration, Blankfort says, “goes a long way to explain why there has been no significant opposition to the annual military budget from any sector of Congress.”

Israel and its lobby work hand in glove with the US arms industry to advance their combined, usually compatible interests.  The relatively few powerful, wealthy families that dominate the Israeli arms industry are just as interested in pressing for aggressively militaristic US and Israeli foreign policies as are the CEOs of US arms corporations.  As globalization has progressed, so have the ties of joint ownership and close financial and technological cooperation among the arms corporations of the two nations grown ever closer.  The relationship is symbiotic, and the lobby cooperates intimately to keep it alive; lobbyists can go to many in Congress and tell them credibly that if aid to Israel is cut off, thousands of arms-industry jobs in their districts will be lost.  The lobby does not simply passively support the desires of the military-industrial complex.  It actively twists arms in Congress and the administration to perpetuate acceptance of certain “national interests” that many Americans believe is wrong.

A Two-Headed Monster

As Tony Judt noted, much of the rest of the world now “no longer credits our good faith.”  Strong US support for Israel has long roiled Arab public opinion, but since the collapse of the peace process and the start of the Palestinian intifada and Israel’s harsh crackdown in September 2000, opinion polls in Arab and Muslim countries have repeatedly shown strong and growing distrust of the United States, linked principally to US support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and more recently to the Iraq war.  Hostile attitudes reach into the 70-80 percent range in many Arab countries.  Similar, although not as strong or pervasive, distrust of the US emerges in polls in Europe.  The growing anti-US sentiment resulting from the close US relationship with Israel is a principal emphasis in the Mearsheimer-Walt report.  The authors point out at the opening of their report that Bush administration policies, heavily influenced by the Israel lobby, have helped produce a “resilient insurgency in Iraq, a sharp rise in world oil prices, and terrorist bombings in Madrid, London, and Amman.”  The United States’ “unwavering” support for Israel, they write, has “inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized US security.”  They believe the US has actually set aside its own security to advance the interests of another state.

The obvious result has been more terrorism against the US and its allies.  Osama bin Laden’s videos and taped statements from the 1990s talk about the Palestinians and his anger with the US because of its alliance with Israel.  His anger and that of other radical Islamists is on behalf of Muslims who have been killed and exploited by the US, Israel, and the West for decades, and Palestinians are perhaps the most prominent among these.  His anger is shared by millions of the oppressed, and he can attract the radicals among them to his struggle on the basis of his stance as a defender of Palestinians and all oppressed Muslims.  This is a danger to the United States, arising directly from the strong US-Israel tie and the lobby’s strenuous efforts to sustain it, that cannot be underestimated.

The tragedy of the present situation is that it has become impossible to separate Israeli from alleged US interests—that is, not what should be real US national interests, but the selfish and self-defined “national interests” of the political-corporate-military complex that, in conjunction with the lobby, dominates the Bush administration, Congress, and both major political parties.  The specific groups that now dominate the government are the globalized arms, energy, and financial industries, and the entire military establishments, of the US and of Israel—groups that have quite literally hijacked the government and stripped it of most vestiges of democracy.  The “aggressive monster with two ugly heads” that Michel Warschawski speaks of is a reality.

This convergence of manipulated “interests” has a profound effect on US policy choices in the Middle East.  If the United States is unable to distinguish the world’s or its own real needs from those of another state and that state’s lobby, then it simply cannot say that it always acts in its own best interests.  In the face of the massive human rights violations being committed against Palestinians today, the failure to recognize this reality is where those who belittle the lobby’s power and accept US Middle East policy as simply an unchangeable part of a longstanding strategy are particularly dangerous.
-Bill Christison is a former senior official of the CIA.  He served as a National Intelligence Officer and as Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis. Kathleen Christison is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years.  She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.

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