US imperialism and Israel’s role
The ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ is central to the US military-industrial complex, observes Moshé Machover
Israeli-made Super Heron drone
Let’s start by recalling four recent dates. In December last year Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu engineered a cabinet crisis, well before a general election was due - he had a mandate of about two more years for his government, but called an election for March 17 2015. The election itself is the second date and the third was March 3, exactly two weeks before polling day, when Netanyahu appeared in front of the US Congress and gave a warmongering speech against Iran.
What is the connection between these three dates? Some people, including people who should know better, concluded that Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress was to serve his electoral campaign in Israel. They failed to explain exactly why there had to be a cabinet crisis in December. There was no obvious cause for it. There was a coalition government and, of course, there is always going to be friction between the various components. In my opinion the cause relates to a fourth date: the March 30 deadline for the interim agreement in the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran.
This was the reason why all the other dates happened. That is to say, Netanyahu wanted to do his utmost to sabotage the agreement with Iran. For this he had to appear in Congress and overtly take sides in the dispute within the US elite on this question. This was a departure from the traditional Israeli policy of, at least on the face of it, being bipartisan and certainly not publicly offending the White House. This traditional policy was supported by the two ministers whom he sacked from his government in December. In other words, without sacking those ministers he would not have had the cabinet authorisation to make that speech.
Of course, in political life almost nothing is unicausal. There was also an internal Israeli electoral calculation that did not quite work out for him. The main reason, however, was to make a significant turn in Israeli policy vis-à-vis the United States: departing from bipartisanship and openly siding with the hawkish element of the Republican Party. I say the hawkish element, because even the Republican Party is not unanimous in the view that the deal with Iran should be subverted. For example, one of the candidates for the presidential nomination, Ron Paul, is definitely against subverting the deal and is generally against military intervention in the Middle East.
However, Netanyahu deliberately insulted the White House. In an unprecedented slight to Obama he came at the invitation of the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives without even informing the US president. Diplomatically this is a slap in the face. A couple of days earlier the Israeli ambassador had been speaking to Obama at the White House and did not mention that his prime minister would be coming. So clearly Netanyahu was out to subvert the negotiations with Iran.
I have long been saying that, while there are some similarities in the interests of the US and Israel in relation to Iran, they do not coincide. Israel is clearly much more hawkish towards Iran, whereas the establishment in the US, which takes the mainstream line, would be prepared to make a deal with Iran under certain conditions. Israel is much more inimical to such a deal.
These reasons are not transient and will operate whether or not the deal goes through (it probably will be struck, although nothing is certain). The final deadline is the end of June, so there is still time for all kinds of machinations from the Republican hawks in alliance with Netanyahu’s government.
Israel v Iran
Although Iran probably cannot be the regional hegemon, Israel believes that Iran could become a considerable power in the Middle East. If there is an agreement between the US and Iran, then it is possible - if not under this regime then another - for Iran to become an important power in the region. This would, relatively speaking, reduce the status of Israel as the top (in a very special sense) American ally in the Middle East.
First of all Iran already is, after Israel, the main local power. Israel is a big power in terms of its military, including military production, and is the only modern capitalist country in the area. However, Iran - under the carapace of the theocratic regime - is also one of the most advanced capitalist countries in the region. It has about 10 times the population of Israel, it is huge territorially and it has a large army. The total military forces of Iran number something approaching half a million.
Only Egypt has a similar-sized population and army, although, compared to the Iranian army, it is very much second-rate. Egypt has not won any war in living memory, except the surprise war of 1973 against Israel, which it initially won, but went on to lose after Israel received a huge injection of military aid. Egypt also lost in Yemen, and it lost decisively against Israel in 1956 and 1967. By contrast, the Iranian army is hardened by its war against Iraq, which it basically won, although at an enormous cost.
Israel is a military giant compared to its size and in a sense in absolute terms, since it is a nuclear power. However, Israel has about 170,000 persons in active service, both professional and conscripts, and it is able to mobilise reserves of up to 450,000 for a short period. This means Israel is only able to fight short wars. The whole of Israeli strategy is geared to fighting such short wars because you cannot mobilise half a million people of military age for long before the economy grinds to a halt.
Iran is a different story - it has the same number of people in active service. Iran is also the only country in the region other than Israel to possess a substantial military industry. Compare Iran to Turkey (a country of similar size): Turkey has a relatively small military industry. The difference is due to the isolation of Iran and the incorporation of Turkey in Nato. Turkey has received a lot of hardware from Nato and so has not felt the need to build a large military industry, although it has been catching up since the 1980s. In some branches of military production Iran is ahead. Israel occupies a special niche: it does not produce much that requires heavy industry, instead modifying what it receives from the US and other states. However, Iran has a certain amount of heavy military production, partly based on Russian and partly on domestic technology.
Do not misunderstand me. It is not a question of Israel being afraid that it would lose in a military confrontation with Iran. (Such a confrontation would only be on the cards if Israel attacked Iran - stories about Iranian nuclear weapons threatening the existence of Israel are rubbish and are exposed as such by Israeli military intelligence officials, when they are speaking professionally.) However, the existence of Iran’s military strength gives it clout. You know the old reference to gunboat diplomacy: you do not actually need the guns to shoot. You just need to show a big stick, as Theodore Roosevelt once said. And the military industry is also an economic asset, which Israel knows well from its own experience. So Iran is an important potential competitor to Israel in terms of the region.
The imperialist arrangement in the region is not straightforward - there is no linear hierarchy. Each country has its own role in the complex. That of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, aside from oil production, lies in being a source of capital and a hub through which capital dominates the Arab east and north Africa - read Palestinian Marxist Adam Hanieh’s wonderful books on this. In the case of Israel, its role is very different: it is Israel’s military might that is the important factor. The main role of Israel is not primarily economic, but that of the watchdog of imperialism (although it goes beyond this - I will return to this later). Israel needs this domination of the region in order to protect its conquests of Palestinian territory. It needs to dominate militarily in order to intimidate its neighbours and preserve its acquired territory (with further expansion always a possibility).
So what is likely to happen in the next few months? The worst case is that the Iran-P5+1 deal fails and the ‘crazies’ have their way. That may even lead to a nuclear attack on Iran, though I seriously doubt it. Some kind of Israeli strike is possible, however, and it would lead to Iranian retaliation and a major conflagration in the region.
As a by-product of such a conflagration Netanyahu may well try to carry out large-scale ethnic cleansing in the West Bank. This is not mere speculation: there are known plans for this, as explained by Martin van Creveld in an article published in April 2002 in connection with the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.2 Netanyahu himself is on record as having advocated, when he was a junior minister, large-scale ethnic cleansing in the West Bank, using an international crisis as a smokescreen. This is the worst-case scenario.
What is the least-worst-case scenario? The deal with Iran goes through. Perhaps the Republican ascendancy in the US, upon which Netanyahu is banking, is reversed and the Democrats retain the presidency and perhaps even win back congress (though this seems unlikely). In this event Netanyahu would have lost his gamble. Would he be punished by the US in this scenario? I say, do not hold your breath. The role of Israel for the US, regionally and globally, is founded on very solid foundations. Israel would still be the favoured junior partner in the region and Netanyahu would still be in a position to cause trouble in the longer term and to try and undermine the US-Iran relationship, so as not to cede Israel’s position as sole favoured junior partner.
So what is the basis for this relationship? There has been a lively debate over this since 2006, initially sparked by an article and then a book by two US political scientists of the realist school, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.3 They basically argue that US policy towards the Middle East is dictated by the pro-Israel lobby. Judiciously they do not refer to the ‘Jewish lobby’ because they recognise that the majority of this lobby is not in fact Jewish. There are many more Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israel than Jewish ones. An important institution in this lobby is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), which is a coordinating committee for mobilising support for Israel.
Is the Mearsheimer-Walt analysis is correct? There are some on the left today who put forward a similar analysis - Jean Bricmont is one and a very crude version is put forward by James Petras, a retired US academic who writes well about Latin America, but in relation to Israel suddenly becomes an American patriot, claiming ‘we are colonised by Israel’. This view I call ‘Itwad’ - the Israeli Tail Wags the American Dog. Ian Donovan is another proponent of this theory, according to which Israel determines US policy, at least towards the Middle East (if not beyond it, which would make Israel the most powerful country in the world, because who else is stronger than the US?).
Another part of this theory is that the Israeli lobby influences US policy in a way that is against the real interests of the United States. Petras is especially sharp on this, as are Mearsheimer and Walt. But this theory shows both a deficiency of materialism and a deficiency of dialectics.
Donovan has put forward a sort of materialist explanation: he argues that this is all the doing of US Jewish-Zionist capitalists, who are in the vanguard of imperialism. This theory sounds materialist because of its reference to capitalists. He is correct when he says Jews are overrepresented among the US capitalist class. The proportion of Jews (depending on how you define them) among the general US population is around 2.5% and among American capitalists the figure is certainly higher (Of course, Jews in America are not the only ethnic or religious group overrepresented among the capitalist class).
However, do these Jewish capitalists actually need to influence US policy in such a way? Do US capitalists who are Jewish have interests distinct from US capitalists in general? Do they have a special material interest in Israel? There is no evidence for this. (As an aside, the idea that the foreign policy of imperialist states is dictated by rich individuals is ludicrous.)
Take, for instance, the famous case of Sheldon Adelson, a big capitalist and big supporter of Israel. Does he have any investments in Israel? He does: he invests in a free daily newspaper, Israel HaYom, which is a propaganda sheet for Netanyahu. But this is done as a political contribution - he has no material stake in Israel, but is a Las Vegas gambling magnate. Not a very strategic position from which to be influencing US policy on the Middle East.
What part of capital actually has influence on US policy on the Middle East? We know it from the horse’s mouth: the military-industrial complex. President Dwight D Eisenhower’s parting address to the nation in 1961 warned that the military-industrial complex has “unwarranted influence” on policy and must be stopped (in connection with the Middle East I would add oil corporations). It is corporations, not individual capitalists, that exert hidden influence on policy and there is plenty of evidence that the military-industrial complex has a stake in Israel. Sheldon Adelson may not have a material stake, but this section of US capital does and Israel is strongly integrated with it.
The most concentrated collection of evidence for this can be found in the report published in 2011 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy authored by Robert Blackwill and Walter Slocombe. A summary of the report was published in the Los Angeles Times. But there is older evidence. Israeli expert Yoram Ettinger, chair of special projects at the Ariel Center for Policy Research, wrote in 2005 that the relationship between Israel and the United States was not one-sided. Israel provides important services. He quotes former US secretary of state and ex-Nato commander Alexander Haig, who said he supported Israel because it is “the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier [this is no longer true by the way], and is located in a critical region for American national security”.
What Ettinger mainly concentrates on is the contribution of Israel to the military-industrial complex - especially in terms of modern IT and robot technology. Israel is a pioneer of drone production and in the use of drones for surveillance and assassination - particularly relevant now drones are becoming an important tool of US global domination. In this niche Israel has played a vital role for the military-industrial complex. The vice-president of the company that produces the F-16 fighter jets is quoted by Ettinger as saying that Israel is “responsible for 600 improvements in the plane’s systems, modifications estimated to be worth billions of dollars, which spared dozens of research and development years”.4 This is where Israel specialises in the absence of its own heavy industry. The US companies provide the hardware, but Israeli companies provide vital scientific and electronic expertise and have been responsible for many improvements. These modifications are worth billions of dollars.
Israel’s utilisation of American arms guarantees our existence, but at the same time gives US military industries a competitive edge compared to European industries, while also boosting American military production, producing American jobs and improving America’s national security. Japan and South Korea, for example, preferred the Hawkeye spy plane and the MD-500 chopper - both purchased and upgraded by Israel - over comparable British and French aircraft.
This is the international role of Israel and its link to US global domination. It is nothing to do with Jewish-Zionist capitalists: it is to do with the military-industrial complex.
Now let me quote from the Blackwill and Slocombe report. First of all, they make a very pertinent point which I have also made myself, using different words: the US relationship with Israel is different from those it has with any other country in the region:
In a political context, it is important to note that Israel - unlike other Middle Eastern countries whose governments are partners with the United States - is already a stable democracy, which will not be swept aside by sudden uprising or explosive revolution: a fact that may become more important in the turbulent period ahead.5
This is a reference to what happened in Iran, whose regime was a ‘partner’ of the US, but was swept aside by the revolution in 1979. They continue:
Moreover, for all our periodic squabbles, Israel’s people and politicians have a deeply entrenched pro-American outlook that is uniformly popular with the Israeli people. Thus, Israel’s support of US national interests is woven tightly into the fabric of Israeli democratic political culture - a crucial characteristic that is presently not found in any other nation in the greater Middle East.
They then go on to detail the various ways in which Israel helps the military-industrial complex. This is from the summary of the report in the Los Angeles Times:
Through joint training, exercises and exchanges on military doctrine, the United States has benefited in the areas of counter-terrorism, intelligence and experience in urban warfare. Increasingly, US homeland security and military agencies are turning to Israeli technology to solve some of their most vexing technical and strategic problems.
This support includes advice and expertise on behavioural screening techniques for airport security and acquisition of an Israeli-produced tactical radar system to enhance force protection. Israel has been a world leader in the development of unmanned aerial systems, both for intelligence collection and combat [‘combat’ here means assassination], and it has shared with the US military the technology, the doctrine and its experience regarding these systems. Israel is also a global pacesetter in armoured vehicle protection, defence against short-range rockets, and the techniques and procedures of robotics, all of which it has shared with the United States.6
And here comes a very remarkable passage. I have quoted Haig referring to Israel as an unsinkable aircraft carrier without US soldiers on it, but this is no longer the case apparently:
In missile defence, the United States has a broad and multifaceted partnership with Israel. Israel’s national missile defences - which include the US deployment in Israel of an advanced X-band radar system and more than 100 American military personnel who man it [the first admission I have seen of US troops stationed in Israel] - will be an integral part of a larger missile defence spanning Europe, the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf to help protect US forces and allies.7
And so it goes on and on - we can see that Israel’s role as a US ally is not just regional. Note that there is a very intimate synergy between the Israeli military industry and the American military-industrial complex. If you believe that Eisenhower was right, and I do, then this provides a material basis for the very special relationship between these two states.
I want to quote from another source: a leftwing commentator, William Greider, discussing a recently released report from the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington dating from 1987. He notes that the report implicitly confirms the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons; this is, of course, a non-secret that everyone knew. He says:
However, the IDA’s most powerful message may not be what it says about Israel’s nukes, but what it conveys about the US-Israel relationship. It resembles a technological marriage that over decades transformed the nature of modern warfare in numerous ways.8
Note the global implications of this. The article continues:
The bulk of the report is really a detailed survey of Israel’s collaborative role in developing critical technologies - the research and industrial base that helped generate advanced armaments of all sorts. Most Americans, myself included, are used to assuming the US military-industrial complex invents and perfects the dazzling innovations, then shares some with favoured allies like Israel.
That is not altogether wrong, but the IDA report suggests a more meaningful understanding. The US and Israel are more like a very sophisticated high-tech partnership that collaborates on the frontiers of physics and other sciences in order to yield the gee-whiz weaponry that now defines modern warfare. Back in the 1980s, the two states were sharing and cross-pollinating their defence research at a very advanced level.
Today we have as a result the ‘electronic battlefield’ and many other awesome innovations. Tank commanders with small-screen maps that show where their adversaries are moving. Jet pilots who fire computer-guided bombs. Ships at sea that launch missiles over the horizon and hit targets 1,000 miles away ... These experts were talking in the 1980s about technological challenges that were forerunners to the dazzling innovations that are now standard. The Middle East wars became the live-fire testing ground, where new systems were perfected:
“Scientists at Rafael [another Israeli centre] have come up with an ingenious way of using the properties of a glow discharge plasma to detect microwave and millimetre waves,” the report said. “The attractiveness of the project lies in the ability of the discharge to withstand nuclear weapons effects.”
This observation gave me a chill because the earnest defence scientists have yet to find a way for human beings “to withstand nuclear weapons effects”.
Now I have mentioned materialism and the material basis of the US-Israel relationship, but what about dialectics? Nobody can deny that the American pro-Israeli lobby has immense political influence in the United States - it is an observable fact. The question is, why is it allowed to have this power? Is it beyond the power of the real engines of American capitalism to mobilise, if they wanted to, enough funds to counteract this lobby? After all, corporations are now regarded as persons for the purposes of political contributions in the US. If the military-industrial complex felt the Israeli lobby in the US is against American interests, it could surely counteract it. However, they have no interests at all in doing so. What Aipac and other such bodies are doing is simply to silence dissent against US Middle East policy and American support of Israel, in the interests of the real engine of American capitalism.
What about the claim that this policy contradicts US interests in other ways? Blackwill and Slocombe deal with this question dialectically, as it happens - though, of course, they are not Marxist in any way. They say, ‘OK, the US has conflicting interests. This happens in relation to Israel and in relation to any other of our allies in the Middle East.’ Especially nowadays (although it has always been the case to some extent), the interests of any imperialist power are not entirely coherent. There is no such thing as the American interest: it is about conflicting interests, which have to be balanced. Blackwill and Slocombe show that in no way does American support for Israel damage US interests to such an extent that it is counterproductive. The contradiction with other American interests is a matter of the dialectics of interests of any power.
This does not simply apply to states, by the way. No class or any other power in the world has interests that are entirely monolithic and coherent. There is always some conflict that has to be resolved one way or the other.
So my conclusion is that Israel will remain for the foreseeable future America’s top ally in the Middle East and will continue to make trouble regarding its relationship with Iran.
3. ‘The Israel lobby’ London Review of Books March 23 2006: www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/john-mearsheimer/the-israel-lobby. The full academic article, ‘The Israel lobby and US foreign policy’, is in the Faculty Research Working Papers Series, Harvard University, March 2006 (https://research.hks.harvard.edu/publications/workingpapers/citation.aspx?PubId=3670). Or see J Mearsheimer and S Walt The Israel lobby and US foreign policy New York 2007.
4. Y Ettinger, American and Israeli military interdependence’: www.freeman.org/serendipity/index.php?/archives/46-Yoram-Ettinger-AMERICAN-AND-ISRAELI-MILITARY-INTERDEPENDENCE.html.
5. R Blackwill, W Slocombe Israel: a strategic asset for the United States Washington 2011, p14: www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/Blackwill-Slocombe_Report.pdf.
7. This is a reference to the US-operated twin towers near Dimona, which are the world’s tallest radar towers. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimona_Radar_Facility.