Imperialism, Palestine and Israel

Is the Israeli tail wagging the US dog? In this edited version of a talk given to the London branch of the Campaign for a Marxist Party in August, Moshé Machover looks at the history of western intervention in the Middle East

I do not need to argue the importance of the Middle East as the arena of the most acute conflict internationally. Beyond this the specific relationship between the United States and Israel is also of key importance.

If the thesis of Mearsheimer and Walt1 and those who support them is right, then this is the most important relationship in the world, because Israel, through the pro-Israel lobby, is actually determining US foreign policy in the Middle East, including the American invasion of Iraq. But even if they are wrong, as I think they are, this relationship remains crucial.

Imperialist interests

The importance of the Middle East goes back quite a long way - at least to 1869, when the Suez Canal was opened as a lifeline for the British empire's route to India. The Middle East as the juncture of three continents (Europe, Africa and Asia) is strategically placed from the point of view of any empire. At least since 1913 the Middle East has acquired exceptional strategic importance as the world's largest source of oil. 1913 is significant because it was then that Churchill, as first lord of the admiralty, converted British navy vessels from coal to oil.

It is an axiom to say that nothing that happens in the Middle East is unconnected with oil. The oldest exploitation of oil took place in the north of what was then Persia (now Iran) and in the south of what was then the Russian empire in the area of Azerbaijan. Later oil was discovered in other parts of the Middle East in even greater quantity, especially in Saudi Arabia, the biggest producer, from 1938.

The map of the Middle East as it is now was essentially created after World War I. With the exception of Egypt, the oldest state in the world, none of the Arab states of the Middle East existed before this time. They are creations of imperialism. After World War I, Britain, in collusion with France, redrew the map of the region, dividing the old Ottoman possessions according to their imperialist interests. A lot of the problems we currently see in the Middle East have their origin in this post-war redivision. Iraq, for example, was created out of three Ottoman provinces.

Greater Syria, on the other hand, was divided into the modern-day state ('Little Syria') and three other states: Lebanon, Jordan (formerly Transjordan) and Palestine. Now Palestine is further divided into Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza strip.

To see how Jordan, for example, was specifically created to serve particular imperialist interests you need only look at the map, such as its strangely shaped 'sleeve' in the north-east, where it borders Iraq: this was specifically designed as the route of an oil pipeline.

Palestine, now further divided, did not exist until the end of World War I, either as a country or even as a province. It is a new creation, having been neither a political nor administrative entity under the Ottoman empire. Its name is not Arabic, but derived from the Latin Palestina, which probably goes back to the old Philistines who inhabited what is now more or less the Gaza strip.

Now we come to the roots of the actual topic we are discussing. An important reason for the creation of Palestine was to serve as a place for Zionist colonisation. The Balfour declaration was in formal terms a letter sent by Lord Balfour, foreign secretary in the Lloyd George government, on November 2 1917 to Lord Rothschild, a representative of the Jewish community and a supporter of Zionism. The letter declared British support for the creation of a 'national home for Jews' in Palestine. The text was included verbatim in the League of Nations mandate to Britain in relation to Palestine.

The situation is a little more complicated because the Palestine mandate originally included what is now Jordan and what was then referred to as Transjordanian Palestine: ie, the part of Palestine east of the river Jordan. The mandate also stipulated, however, that the provisions for encouraging Jewish-Zionist colonisation might be suspended or deferred as far as the eastern part was concerned. Therefore Britain actually divided Palestine into two and created an emirate of Transjordan, which was administered separately. From 1923 Palestine was the remaining part, west of the Jordan river.

Palestine existed historically for only 25 years - from 1923, when the two parts were separated, until 1948. Nationalist movements - both oppressive and liberationist - have myths, and one of the myths of the Palestinian movement and others is that Palestine goes back a long way, but that is untrue. The Zionist myth is that Israel goes back 2,500 years ...

What was the idea behind it? Zionist colonisation is one of a large number of colonisation projects in modern and pre-modern history. But Zionist colonisation has certain unique features. In North America or Australia, for example, the colonisers were sent by the metropolitan country that owned and controlled the territory in question. Citizens were sent to claim and settle in that part of the world.

The Zionist project, however, was to colonise the 'holy land' with Jews, mainly from central and eastern Europe. They were not sent there by any empire, and the Zionist movement, when it first planned to colonise that part of the world, was very conscious that it needed the sponsorship of the great power in control. This was quite explicit. For example, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Jewish state, wrote in his 1896 programmatic book The Jewish state: "For Europe we would form part of the rampart against Asia, serving as an outpost of civilisation against barbarism. As a neutral state we would remain in contact with all of Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence."2

You can see the outline of the deal: sponsorship by whichever power was in control of that part of the world in exchange for services rendered - and these services were to be the provision of a sort of garrison for western imperialism. That was quite explicit and was repeated many times.

The first serious relationship between Zionism and imperialism, that with the British empire, lasted between the mandate and Balfour until 1948. Things went sour, however, in the late 1930s, when their interests diverged. The Zionist movement wanted much more than Britain was prepared to provide as a sponsor and it proved not to be cost-effective for Britain to continue encouraging Zionist colonisation.

New sponsor

By 1948 Israel was looking for a new sponsor and the United States was the rising power and replacing Britain as the dominant force in the Middle East.

In September 1951 the editor of Ha'aretz, the most important Israeli newspaper, wrote: "The feudal regime in these Middle Eastern states must be mindful to such a great extent of secular and religious nationalist movements that sometimes also have a decidedly leftist social hue, that these states are no longer prepared to put their natural resources at the disposal of Britain and America and allow them to use their countries as military bases in case of war." He is exaggerating here. This was the demand of popular movements, and governments were making such noises because they wanted a little bit more consideration.

The editor goes on to say: "True, the ruling circles in the countries of the Middle East know that in the case of the social revolution or Soviet conquest they will surely be physically liquidated. But the immediate fear of the bullet of a political assassin outweighs for the time being the impalpable fear of annexation to the communist world.

"All these states are militarily weak. Israel has proved its military strength in the war of liberation against the Arab states and for this reason a certain strengthening of Israel is a rather convenient way for the western powers of keeping a balance of political forces in the Middle East. According to this supposition, Israel has been assigned the role of a kind of watchdog.

"It is not to be feared that it would apply an aggressive policy towards the Arab states if that would be clearly against the wishes of America and Britain. But if the western powers will at some time prefer for one reason or another to shut their eyes, Israel can be relied upon to punish properly one or several of its neighbouring states whose lack of manners towards the west has gone beyond the permissible limits."3

In relation to last summer's war in Lebanon, this explains a lot.

But the period from 1948, when Britain was ousted from Palestine, until the mid-1960s was a problematic one for Israel because the United States, although showing signs of being interested and accepting Israel as a sort of junior partner, was not keen on anything like the present very close relationship.

Certainly Israel did not get any substantial arms from the US. In fact there was an agreement between the three western powers - the US, France and Britain - over dividing the arms market in the Middle East. Who would supply arms to whom? In fact, Israel was allocated to France. The idea behind this was that France was then fighting a colonial war in Algeria, and the war was supported by the masses throughout the Arab world. Israel was in this sense a desirable ally for France.

This lay behind the Suez war in 1956, directed against Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the most charismatic leader of Arab nationalism. Israel was receiving arms from France, which saw the nationalisation of the Suez Canal as an opportunity to topple Nasser, who was regarded as aiding the FLN liberation movement in Algeria. Beyond that, the secular Arab nationalist movement was encompassing the whole of the area, including north Africa. Britain was rather hesitantly pulled into this collusion. It was a conspiracy in which Israel's attack on Egypt gave France and Britain a pretext to intervene.

However, it did not work out so well for them. The United States was not consulted and had other plans for the region. It was planning to sponsor a military coup in Syria at the time and as far as Egypt was concerned it was relying on diplomatic inroads to get Nasser to comply with its interests. So the US compelled Britain, France and Israel to withdraw.

1956 is an actual watershed, marking the end of the post-war period and the beginning of late 20th century Britain. It was basically the end of the British empire, the last gasp after which Britain was not able to sustain any kind of imperialist policy in the larger sense.

Israel came out of Suez with an important gain which was realised only later, because part of the deal with France was that Israel got the facilities for building nuclear weaponry. Israel is now the fourth or fifth nuclear power in the world. It has a considerable arsenal of a few hundred warheads.

Israel proved militarily that it is capable of achieving much in relation to the surrounding Arab countries and the Americans were watching and becoming very interested. They were engaged in various attempts to counter Arab nationalism. The Middle East at that time was awash with radical nationalism of a left-leaning kind, supported by the Soviet Union (and also usually betrayed by the Soviet Union). The leading figure was undoubtedly Nasser, who headed the revolution in the early 1950s.

Arab nationalism

Country after country underwent a left-leaning nationalist revolution. When in 1958 the monarchy was overthrown in Iraq, the biggest organised movement was the Communist Party, which was huge and very well organised and on the verge of actually being able to take power. It was dissuaded by the Soviet Union and later its cadre were massacred. This is a story that was repeated both before and after 1958 in many other parts of the world. The Iraqi revolution had received the backing of the country's relatively large working class, especially in the oil industry, working in very large enterprises.

The United States realised it needed to take extreme measures to undermine the nationalist movements which were rising and gaining greater influence in the whole area. It needed to take military measures.

So in 1966 the US began to arm Israel. This is the beginning of the story of the present relationship between the US and Israel. It started in 1966, just before the June war of 1967, in which Israel attacked Egypt with prior American approval. It was at this point that the Middle East, as we see it now, was created, and the Palestinian problem assumed its present form.

If you do not understand the importance of Arab secular nationalism in the middle of the 20th century, you cannot grasp the significance of the service that Israel rendered to the west and to the United States specifically. In 1967 Israel basically defeated and destroyed Nasserite Egypt. Nasser offered to resign after Egypt's defeat, but the masses forced him to remain in power. However, he died a few years later. The demise of Arab secular nationalism dates back to this war and the defeat of Nasser. Israel played a pivotal role in that turning point.

The US-Israeli relationship was further consolidated in 1973, when Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, succeeded in getting back some of the territory captured by Israel in 1967. But the US stepped in with a massive arms lift, which enabled the Israelis to push back the Egyptian onslaught.

A further turning point came in 1979-80. Up to this point, the US had had two major allies in the Middle East - Israel and Iran. But in 1979 the shah was deposed in an islamic revolution. Israel was left as the United States' most dependable ally, since a revolution of the kind that happened in Iran is, of course, unthinkable in Israel. The whole of the Israeli project as a settlers' state is, as I have said, underpinned by the protection it receives from imperialism in return for services rendered.

Unlike Iran, Israel is not economically exploited by the United States. Israel is not productive in this sense. It is a guard dog, and hence needs to be fed. General Haig described Israel as the US's unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Middle East, its presence assuring security. As such, Israel's role can be compared to that of a gunboat, whose threat of force is often enough to deter the enemy, making war unnecessary.

Dog and tail

The question is: who is taking the lead in this US-Israeli special relationship? Who is deciding policy. Is Israel a loyal, junior partner of the US or the tail wagging the dog?

We have to be careful here. The actual pro-Israel lobby is sometimes called the 'Jewish lobby'. This is a misnomer. The Jewish lobby is a relatively small part of the pro-Israel lobby. There are about six million Jews in the US, roughly the same as in Israel. They represent around two percent of the American population (although in New York this figure rises to nearly 25%). Perhaps 22% of the American Jewish population declare themselves to be Zionists.

In comparison, the pro-Israel lobby's backing from the christian evangelical right is hugely more important - it has the electoral support of some 40 million US citizens. The lobby has great power in suppressing any criticism of Israel or Israeli policy in the US Congress. This fact is undeniable. Nevertheless, I would not go as far as do Mearsheimer and Walt in arguing that it is actually the pro-Israel lobby and Israel itself that actually determine the foreign policy of the United States.

(Mearsheimer and Walt certainly do not adhere to the anti-semitic conspiracy theory which alleges that Jews control the world and that the US has to bow before the 'Jewish lobby'. They belong to the American establishment and are rightwing political scientists.)

It is certainly true that the United States is paying a price. The policy of supporting Israel, of giving it a free hand with regard to the Palestinian question, is not cost-free. It entails certain disadvantages.

What are they? A huge resentment among the masses in the region - the US is hated throughout the Middle East. The masses not only regard themselves as being exploited economically, but they have massive sympathy with the Palestinian cause. However, the same cannot be said about the Arab regimes - which is what the US policy-makers really care about. This was very clear in the case of last year's war in Lebanon, in which the Israelis were supported by the leading conservative Arab regimes - Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They did not come out publicly in support of Israel, but their glee at what Israel was doing was unmistakable. Behind the scenes, the Jordanian regime is actually an ally of Israel, something which goes back to secret agreements reached in 1948.

This suits American policy-makers. So long as the regimes remain in the American camp, that is satisfactory. The masses can say what they want.

Anti-American-motivated support for terrorism is another cost that comes from the US-Israel relationship. The US-Israel special relation is not the basic cause of al-Qa'eda terrorism, but it is a significant factor in winning it wide sympathy among muslims. Frankly, I do not believe that US policy-makers are too concerned about this terrorism. It is not a serious threat to the US. In fact it is something which western governments can exploit. In comparison with the cold war, when they were facing a superpower with huge armies and sophisticated weaponry, terrorism is not a structural threat to the American or British states.

There are those who think the tail is wagging the dog because, as Mearsheimer and Walt describe, the pro-Israel lobby silences almost any criticism of Israel in Congress or in the media, and they think that the lobby does indeed dictate policy. There is a certain naivety in this, because, as we Marxists know, policy is not made by parliament or the press.

Let me cite a famous statement: "Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul this unholy alliance between corrupt government and corrupt politics, is the first task of the statesmanship of today" (Theodore Roosevelt, April 19 1906).

For Marxists this is not new. The American Congress and the American press do not create policy - although their role is nevertheless important and I do not want to minimise the role of the lobby. The role of the lobby is primarily to stifle opposition to policy that is made by the invisible government, by the interests which are really formulating policy.

A real example is that of the invasion of Iraq. Mearsheimer and Walt allege that the Israeli lobby was actually critical in deciding to carry out this invasion. I do not see how this can be true. Israel had no specific interests in attacking Iraq. Going back to the time immediately following the first Iraq war in 1991 after the invasion of Kuwait, the head of Israeli military intelligence gave an interview in which he said that Iraq was not a threat to Israel: the real threat came from Syria and Iran, especially the latter's efforts to acquire a nuclear military capability. This remains true. As far as Israel is concerned, the main obstacle to continuing American-Israeli hegemony is Iran.

However, once Cheney and the rest decided to invade Iraq, they did mobilise the considerable power of the pro-Israel lobby to support the invasion and to prevent opposition. The lobby did actually raise its voice fully in support of the war, although it was not in any rational way a prime Israeli interest.

Israel and Iran

Speculating about the future, there is lot of talk of a possible military attack on Iran. From the point of view of both Israel and the United States Iran is a big problem because it is the major force in the whole area that is out of control, resisting local Israeli domination and, beyond it, the hegemony of the United States in the region.

Israel and the US would love to attack Iran if they considered it to be worthwhile. Given the fiasco in Iraq, however, it is not really likely that an American Congress now dominated by the Democrats will allow the present administration to attack Iran just like that (I am not talking here about a land invasion, which is out of the question in a country like Iran, but about an air attack and massive bombing).

But the following scenario is possible: Israel attacks Iran under pretext of pre-empting 'a second holocaust'. Iran retaliates. No Democratic Congress, given the power of the pro-Israel lobby, would under such circumstances try to prevent the administration from 'going to Israel's aid'. This is a kind of variation on the Suez war scenario, whereby Israel provided the pretext for French and British intervention. In such a situation, the role of the pro-Israel lobby is very important, because it will endorse that kind of way of dealing with Iran.

According to Newton's third law, when the dog is wagging the tail, the tail is to a certain extent wagging the dog in return. There is something in this idea, but in the case of the US-Israeli relationship it is highly exaggerated.