Who Decides US Mideast Policy?

Mitchell Plitnick
JVP Newsletter Editor Commentary
A Jewish Voice for Peace

The comments by Rep. James Moran (D-VA), just before the invasion of Iraq, regarding the role of the Jewish community in the march to war set off a small firestorm in Washington. Moran's statement that "if it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for the war with Iraq, we would not be doing this" was obviously offensive to many Jews, especially the great many who were opposed to the war. More than just ascribing a pro-war stance to an entire community (one which, according to polls, was well in line with the general population in its stance on the war and less supportive than other groups of Americans of European descent), the statement carries with it the implication that there is Jewish control over American policy, a control that subverts US policy to its own ends. On that level, the reaction of many Jews is correct.

Yet it does not suffice to simply react to such a comment without a deeper analysis of what leads to such views. It is insufficient, and in the long term quite dangerous, to write such views off as nothing more than irrational hatred, and ignore any basis it might have in fact, whatever one might think of the interpretation of those facts. We need to ask what evidence might support these views, if we hope to refute them. Furthermore, as American Jews it is also incumbent upon us to examine these questions fairly. No one would deny that American Jews certainly work very hard to have influence well out of proportion to our numbers in the general population when it comes to matters regarding the Middle East. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the notion that a Jewish "cabal" has some sort of mystical sway over the policymakers in Washington holds in it a familiar ring of classical anti-Semitism. On the other hand, this notion that the war on Iraq was executed at the behest of Jews and for the sake of Jewish interests does not come out the ether. And while it is likely the case that some of the proponents and adherents to this idea are indeed motivated by hatred of Jews, it is also true that many also do so because of the evidence. We need to consider if that evidence is incomplete, deceptive or persuasive and, as Jews, to act accordingly.

The most obvious link that is repeatedly drawn is the fact that many of the key people in the Bush administration responsible for our Iraq policy have a long history of backing, and even recommending some of the most draconian Israeli policies. Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz are the people most commonly identified with this small group of neo-conservative hawks, and they are two of the primary formulators of Bush administration policy with regard to Middle East. There is also the fact that Israel has, from the earliest rumblings of war on Iraq been the most vocal supporter of military action against Iraq on the part of the United States and Britain. Underlying all of this is the near-mythical status the pro-Israel lobby enjoys. All of these deserve careful scrutiny to see where Israel and its supporters fit in to policy formation, but one can see easily how these factors lead to a conclusion like that of Jim Moran. Yet, if we are ever to hope to see American foreign policy wrested from the hands of those who hold it now, we must not ignore the fact that Israel, its supporters and its political position are integral parts of foreign policy formation. What we need to do is understand where and how they fit in, and to what degree they hold sway. In order to do that, we need to first review how the current state of affairs came about.

It is an obvious truism that American policy toward Iraq and American policy regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict are both parts of a larger American foreign policy regarding the Middle East. In 1945, the US State Department referred to the vast oil reserves of the Middle East as ".a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history . . . probably the richest economic prize in the world in the field of foreign investment." No major power, let alone a superpower, would ever willingly allow the fate of such a "prize" to be left to political chance or ideological whim, let alone to the capricious interests of those who actually live on the land above that great prize. If this was the case in 1945, how much more so is it now, with the global economy being even more dependent on oil now than it was half a century ago, and with anticipation that reserves may run dangerously low within a few decades? Indeed, it can hardly escape one's notice that the current administration is stocked with people with major interests in mid-level oil companies-companies which might well have prime access to some of the world's largest reserves, and, subsequently, may become considerably less "mid-level". But we ought not only look at the prurient self-interest of a few people in the administration, neither for greed nor for fanatical ideological devotion. The large contracts handed out to American corporations to "rebuild Iraq" were an inevitable consequence of any war, whether fought for legitimate reasons (whatever those might be) or not. Instead, we need to see the entire US policy in the Middle East in the context of the US desire to control "one of the greatest material prizes in world history".

After World War I, when the British and French carved up the Arab world and set the (very problematic, in many cases) borders that exist today, the preferred method of rule was to set up puppet governments that would serve the interests of the colonial masters. The British Lord Curzon described this as an "Arab façade", one which rules but which remains weak and reliant on the imperial power to maintain its authority. Curzon described the dynamics thusly: "There should be no actual incorporation of the conquered territory in the dominions of the conqueror, but the absorption may be veiled by such constitutional fictions as a protectorate, a sphere of influence, a buffer state and so on". After World War II, and the global move toward decolonization, the United States became the dominant power in the Middle East, and refined and adapted the method of control employed by the British. The US also had to contend with frequently shifting rulers in various key Middle East countries, most notably in Iraq and Egypt. And, of course, all of this happened against the backdrop of the burgeoning Cold War. While the USSR never quite had the reach of the United States, it certainly exerted its own influence on the Middle East and served as some degree of counterweight to growing US influence. But neither superpower directly controlled the Middle Eastern countries they counted within their respective spheres of influence. Instead, it was the dependence on the superpower that they cultivated in the Arab states, along with rewards to the elites who did their jobs properly and continuing insurance that those elites would always remain at risk from their own populations, thereby assuring the need for the superpower's weapons, aid and training. Thus, Curzon's "Arab façade" was cultivated and refined, allowing a bit more autonomy for the Arab rulers, but maintaining the essentials of control, with a much less visible physical presence required from the superpowers.

After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the first Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, immediately set about trying to secure and greatly enhance the support of the two superpowers, the US and USSR. Correctly reading the political landscape, Ben-Gurion maintained efforts to secure the support of both, but was much more interested in US support, as America was both more powerful than the USSR and had a Jewish community which was in a much better position to aid the Israeli cause. The US decided that, rather than rely only on the "Arab façade", which they still did maintain and do to this day, they would, in addition, employ non-Arab states in the region, principally Turkey, Iran and Israel to protect Western interests, especially from popular and nationalistic forces in the Arab world.

After the rise of Gamal abdel Nasser in Egypt in 1952, there was great concern over his pan-Arab ideology, a fear that Nasser was not only a socialist (heaven forefend!-Israel's less ideological, and ever-receding, brand of socialism was much less of a concern for US planners) but also a sufficiently charismatic and clever leader that he might be successful in uniting much of the Arab world. This was a great boon to Israeli hopes. Israel had certainly impressed the US with its war for independence. It enhanced this military reputation in 1956 with its part in the Suez war alongside England and France. Israel's reluctance to heed US orders to back off after the war ended concerned the Eisenhower administration, but in time, and with Democrats in the White House after 1960, Israel would be able to overcome that reservation. Indeed, Eisenhower was the last president to threaten to cut off all aid to Israel, which he did to force the Israeli withdrawal from Suez.

Support for Israel as a key Cold War ally grew steadily through the late 50s and 60s, as Syria and especially Egypt drifted closer to the USSR, sensing that the United States was not going in their direction. During this period, the significance of American Jews was minimal. Most of the lobbying for support came directly from Israel, in the form of high-level meetings and military cooperation in stemming the tide of "Nasserism". The perceived threat was that Nasser's growing popularity outside of Egypt represented a real possibility of widespread Arab unity, which could lead to a great force in the Middle East that would ally itself with the USSR and cause a huge shift in the Cold War balance of power. Even more frightening to superpower thinking (of both the US and USSR), such a unity of Arab states could have independent control of the oil resources, creating a very serious new player on the world scene, one capable of playing hardball with the big boys. There was no political movement of any gravity supporting the Palestinians at this time. The Palestinians were a people who were essentially off the map, never really discussed in any way in American (or most of the rest of the world's) discourse, beyond occasional, vague references to the "refugees" who had no other name. But while public attention was not on the Middle East at that time, oil interests were paramount in US policy formation. US policy in the Middle East was completely dictated by strategic concerns regarding the control of oil and, to a lesser extent, Cold War calculations.

The 1967 war cemented Israel as the US' chief agent in the region. It was after the 1967 war that aid to Israel began to skyrocket and take on a status that was very much removed from aid to other countries in the world. It would be several more years before the American pro-Israel lobby gained any serious strength, or before a devoutly pro-Israel individual could be said to occupy a key role in policy planning (that would be Henry Kissinger, the originator of both "shuttle diplomacy" and the American policy of rejectionism). So, all that had happened to that point had nothing to do with a "Zionist lobby". That does not mean, though, that sympathy for the Zionist cause, from many different roots, did not play a role.

Tom Segev, in his book, "One Palestine, Complete" details some intriguing sources of support for Chaim Weizmann's early push in support of the Zionist cause in Britain. What makes them so intriguing is that they were frequently motivated by hatred or fear of Jews in Britain, and often came out of the thinking of Dispensationalist Christianity, relatively new at the time, but quite popular among the elites of both England and the US, and the direct ancestor of today's Evangelical wing of Falwell, Robertson, et al. But there is no basis for an assertion of any significant power that Jews held in Britain at the time. Rather, it was simply the case that Weizmann's Zionist aspirations melded quite perfectly with British imperial designs for the Middle East in the early 20th century, and that, paradoxically, it was the very anti-Semitism of many British nobles that led them to wish to help the Jews and to see them move, en masse, to the Middle East. The Zionists offered the British a way to draw Europe's Jews off the continent and to establish a reliable colonial outpost in the key travel spot between Europe and Asia, and an outpost for British control of petroleum resources. Thus, the Balfour Declaration, which "view[ed] with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" is explicable by both a wish to rid Europe of its Jewish citizens and British imperial designs. This would be the case frequently over the decades.

To be sure, the situation in the United States regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict shifted dramatically after the 1967 war. The Israeli giddiness over that victory was shared and encouraged in the United States. And it was during this time, the decade of the 70s and into the early 80s, that the "Zionist lobby" began to grow more powerful. Israel's assertion of itself as a military power so vastly superior to any combination of Arab states greatly elevated it in the eyes of American strategists. An internal State Department battle was waged between William Rogers, who wanted the US to force Israel comply with UNSC 242 to resolve the 1967 war's after-effects, and Henry Kissinger, who believed that ongoing tension combined with an Israel that the United States would maintain as a regional superpower was the best way to safeguard US interests in the region both against the Soviets and against Arab nationalism. Only then did groups like AIPAC begin to wield significant influence. But the bedrock was laid from 1948-1967, and that foundation came down without significant political pressure from the Jewish community. What pressure there had been during that period was the result of there being absolutely no advocates on Capitol Hill for anything other than support for Israel, combined with the clear preference American planners had for investing their concerns in the one country in the Middle East they knew would never fall to anti-American populists.

AIPAC and other lobbying groups have attained a nearly mythical status in the minds of American political strategists and pundits. The reputation is not without its merits. Capitalizing on the progression of events described above, Jewish groups supporting Israel steadily increased their influence on Capitol Hill. In the 1970s, much of their people-power came from alliances with the major labor unions, the AFL-CIO and others. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 caused a sea change in Jewish politics, and the leadership began a dramatic shift from mainstream liberalism toward conservatism, a trend that has reached its apex in the 21st century, as the elements of Jewish leadership that have far and away the most political influence are those which represent the extreme right wing of American Jewry. The names are the familiar ones, along with others whose politics, like Abe Foxman, Mort Zuckerman and Morton Klein, have drifted farther and farther to the right over the years. In subsequent years, the right-wing Jewish leadership has forged strong ties with the Christian Right and with major arms suppliers. These ties are kept relatively quiet as they would not be met with enthusiasm among many American Jews, most of whom still fall on the liberal side of American politics. In the past two years, as even American liberals have moved more toward a conservative and fearful political position, these ties have been kept somewhat less guarded.

It was during the period of Reagan's assent that AIPAC gained national prominence, as it worked hard to defeat several members of Congress, including Senator Charles Percy, and Representative Paul Findley, whose names have become symbols of AIPAC's power. Percy in particular, as a multi-term and popular senator, was seen as an extreme show of power. Yet it was not an event likely to be replicated. A private activist raised money and launched his own anti-Percy campaign, thus imbuing a charge into the campaign against Percy with a big boon. Yet the Percy campaign did not lose on money alone, as they did raise and spend more money than his opponent, Paul Simon. But the private activity probably did turn the tide, something that has not been replicated and probably won't be. Subsequent targets of AIPAC have been carefully chosen. When people like Pete McCloskey, Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard have been defeated in recent years, and AIPAC has been visibly and publicly active in working against them, AIPAC's power reputation has been strongly reinforced. Yet, in every case, there is powerful and persuasive evidence to suggest they all would have been defeated anyway. Battles that AIPAC is not positive it will win are not entered into, as any defeat might greatly diminish the reputation AIPAC enjoys.

AIPAC is often used as a symbol for the political forces which work to support Israel in Congress, the State Department and the media. These are forces which are far vaster than any one organization, and certainly AIPAC is not the most powerful of them by a long shot. Campaign contributions from military-related industries (which include those who deal directly in weapons and planes and the like, but also hi-tech industries which are profoundly dependent on military applications for substantial percentages of their profits) dwarf those from pro-Israel PACs. In terms of rallying voters, help from trade and labor unions in the past, and the Evangelical Christians today is the source, not Jewish groups. These forces, put together, are a formidable combination.

In terms of the formation of policy, we can see its roots in several different organizations these days. As regards the Middle East, much attention has been paid to the Jewish Institute on National Security Affairs (JINSA), and rightly so. It should be noted that many of the people involved with JINSA are not Jewish. Other groups include the Center for Security Policy (CSP), the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs (WINEP), the Project for A New American Century (PNAC), and such old conservative stalwarts as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. While many Jews are prominent in some of these organizations, they are clearly and greatly outnumbered by others, yet they reflect almost identical stances as regards American foreign policy in the Middle East. Their conception of what America's "best interests" are is the paramount consideration.

All evidence suggests that the same could be said for Henry Kissinger, as well as those today that might be considered his disciples, such as Wolfowitz, Perle, Douglas Feith and Eliot Abrams. Indeed, it is striking to note how much greater a number of Jews who support both the Iraq war and the Sharon government are publicly visible compared to their relative numbers among those whose voices carry weight in policy formation. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the Jewish face is being put on these policies publicly, precisely to encourage the perception of a Jewish "cabal" subverting US policy. In reality, US policy regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict has been remarkably consistent since 1967, no matter what kind of administration was in power and no matter how much relative political power pro-Israel or Jewish groups have had in American politics.

Still, there is no doubt that members of Congress will go to great lengths to avoid running afoul of AIPAC. Why is that? There are several factors. One certainly is that AIPAC is probably the best at what they do. They employ a slew of analysts, strategists and marketing consultants and the results are clearly very strong. They know how to run a campaign, and how to exert pressure on representatives. But more important, in my view, is the field on which they play. They are a foreign policy action group, in a country where, in terms of elections, foreign policy is not high on the agenda of most voters, especially where American lives are not directly involved. They are also virtually unopposed in Washington. Lobbying efforts by groups supporting Palestinian rights or any other program aside from blind support of Israel have been woefully inadequate over the years. Thus, you have a group putting a great deal of energy and resources into an issue that most Americans are not going to base their votes on with little counterweight. Thus, there is no political purchase for politicians to dissent upon. That is why other lobbying groups, such as the National Right to Life Movement (a deceptive name if ever there was one) or the National Rifle Association, which have even more fundraising abilities and more supporters in key official positions than AIPAC are nowhere near as successful. There is significant opposition to them and thus, a political leg for politicians to stand on in opposition.

What about the media? Much has been made, and quite correctly, about the way mainstream media portrays the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is certainly true that the portrayal is distorted. It is equally true that Jewish organizations focus a good deal of effort and pressure on major media when they detect even a hint of movement away from the party line. But it is wrong to suggest, as many often do, that this is the result of Jewish influence over the media. Again, it is true that Jews are disproportionately represented in media industries. But if we look at this question we see quickly that what is portrayed in the media very much reflects US policy. And the Israel-Palestine conflict is far from unique. There is an ongoing problem in the Western Sahara, perpetrated by an American ally, Morocco, which bears in many ways, a striking resemblance to the Israel-Palestine conflict, yet few Americans even know about it, nor did they when the conflict was at its height in the 1980s. Exceedingly few Americans know that Kurds even live in Turkey, thinking they all live in Iraq (in fact, Kurds live in and face serious discrimination and persecution in Iran and Syria as well, though the problem is by far the worst in Turkey, far more so than in Iraq). Even fewer know about the programs in Turkey geared to wiping out the Kurds, and even fewer know that the US has actively supported these activities. Few Americans knew about Indonesia's brutal, 20+ years occupation of East Timor before the explosions there in 1999, and most have probably forgotten about them. Again, the real issue is not Jewish control of the media, nor is it true that the awful coverage of Israel/Palestine is unique, but rather that we in the United States have a subservient media which, particularly on matters of foreign policy, will avoid any deviation from the "party line".

The argument over the formation of US foreign policy is unlikely to end. The perception of Jewish control is intentionally enhanced both by right-wing Jewish leaders and others who may see a convenient scapegoat in the Jews should the need ever arise (a classic role of Jews over the centuries, and a fundamental building block of classical anti-Semitism). The real forces behind that policy formation are much more formidable. Yet they also remain vulnerable. The more Americans we can make aware of how their tax dollars are being spent, how much of their own money is being used to finance the grossest of human rights violations and occupation, and how that expense is being used to fatten the already fat in the US while promoting intense hatred of Americans (indeed, of Jews as well) in much of the world, the more we will chip away at the control those forces have over US foreign policy, a control they exercise very much to the detriment not only of Palestinians but also Israelis and Americans as well. As Americans, that is our responsibility. As Jews, it is even more so, as well as very much in our own best interests. The continuing growth of the belief that a "cabal of Jews" subverts US policy against its own interests, is only one more reason for us to do so. But we can only accomplish that if we get people away from their conspiracy theory beliefs and toward a better understanding of US policy formation and how the interests of military, corporate and political leaders differ from those of peace and justice. Many people believe that it is in American interests to be a truly fair player in the Israel-Palestine conflict. That conclusion is dependent on how those interests are understood, because the interests of arms dealers, the hi-tech industry, and US imperial interests are served neither by peace nor justice.

A Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) is a San Francisco Bay Area grassroots organization dedicated to the human, civil and economic rights of Jews, Palestinians, and all peoples in the Middle East.

For more information about JVP, please visit our web site at http://www.Jewishvoiceforpeace.org