Why the US alliance with Israel?

A long-running debate on the left has been revived by the controversial report "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Why is the US alliance with Israel so strong?

It's a puzzling question because the level of commitment the USA has given Israel is without comparison. The USA devotes about one-fifth of its total foreign aid budget to Israel and Israel has been the leading recipient of foreign aid every year since 1976, for a total of $140 million since World War II (cited in Mearsheimer and Walt). Mearsheimer and Walt succinctly demolish the idea that the reason for these incredible levels of support has anything to do with the moral superiority of Israel, and they throw into question strategic rationales for the alliance. Their answer is that the incredible influence of the Israel lobby over foreign policy is responsible for the alliance.

Mearsheimer and Walt, two leading academic proponents of foreign policy "realism", argue that American interests are not served by the alliance with Israel, and that the Israel lobby distorts America's rational self-interest. Many people on the left basically agree, and in addition to the moral imperative of ending support for the human rights violations of Israel, argue against the alliance.

But other leftists have a different explanation for the USA-Israel alliance. They argue that it's not the Israel lobby that explains the alliance, but the strategic necessities of American imperialism. Israel is a proxy for the United States in a region that the USA insists on dominating because of its unmatched energy resources. Norman Finkelstein makes this argument on ZNet. Michael Neumann responds to Finkelstein, arguing strongly against the idea of strategic interests driving American Israel policy, on Counterpunch.

The analytical disagreement on the left often falls along radical/liberal lines. Radicals tend to argue that deep structures (capitalism or the state) are driving foreign policy, whereas liberals tend to argue it's more individuals and ideology. The radical demand for revolutionary change follows from their argument, while the liberal prescription of convincing our leaders of their follies follows from theirs.

On Israel, the arguments break down similarly: liberals like Neumann say the alliance is just a result of the Israel lobby and that our leaders should recognize that the alliance is actually detrimental to national interests. Radicals like Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky say the alliance is actually a structural imperative, and if we want to help the Palestinians we have to fundamentally attack American imperialism and the very concept of national interests.

As to the merits of their arguments, Neumann overstates a number of his arguments to the point of disingenuousness. He tries to play down the strength of Israel, the unreliability of other regional American allies, and the precariousness of Gulf state elites. But Israel really is many times militarily stronger than any other state in the region. Popular feeling in Israel really does make it a far more dependable ally than any Arab state will ever be. And the grip on power of Gulf state elites is far more tenuous than Neumann acknowledges. This has been a constant concern of US planners for 60 years. Furthermore, statements like "The US relies on its fleet and can easily launch devastating attacks without any land bases at all" and "Egypt's instability would quickly vanish were it so lucky as Israel with American largesse, and were America to wean itself of its attachment to Israel" - are simply completely wrong.

On the other hand, he makes a good point: the USA really doesn't seem to be getting much out of Israel strategically. So why the alliance?

I don't think it's simply because of the Israel lobby. The China lobby, which supported the Guomindang against the Communists in the Chinese civil war, makes an instructive comparison. It was extremely powerful in Congress and counted many influential and wealthy people in its ranks, yet the USA dropped the Guomindang in an instant as soon as the strategic realities called for it.

Another interesting point is something Finkelstein mentions: before the 1967 war, the USA was pretty much indifferent to Israel, afterward it became one of America's most important allies almost immediately. This points strongly to something other than the Israel lobby at work. Chomsky argues the 1967 war showed Israel to be the preeminent military power in the region, and that's what made it newly attractive as an ally.

I do think the alliance is primarily strategic. Yet I'm not convinced that it's because Israel is useful for projecting American power. Israel probably is seen as a trump card in case anything really catastrophic for American domination of the region happens, but I’m not sure this is adequate to explain the extraordinary levels of support it receives. Despite the destabilizing effects of the alliance on the USA’s other regional client states that Neumann points out, planners may also be acting to actually stabilize the Middle East. By making Israel far stronger than any of its opponents, the Arab countries have been forced to give up the idea of starting another war. Israel has also long provided secret aid to American projects around the world, from training counterinsurgency forces in Central America to aiding covert American operations in the Middle East.

I’m not really satisfied with these answers either, and must admit that I can’t fully explain the alliance with Israel. But I will come down on the side of the radicals in that I don’t think American support for Israel can be separated from the larger question of American domination of the Middle East, and that we should oppose not only the Israel lobby but the idea of national interests itself, which animates the Mearsheimer and Walt critique and is at least exploited by otherwise humanitarian-minded liberals.

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