Is the U.S. foreign policy agenda, and more specifically the U.S. position before the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, dictated by the Israeli lobby? If so, why?
The Israeli – Palestinian conflict is ongoing and no real progress in peace negotiations is taking place. In the meantime, Israel is continuously building further settlements in Palestinian territory and breaching international law, and the U.S., under Trump’s Administration, is showing ever increasing support to Israel, demonstrated by e.g. the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the support to Israel’s claim of Syria’s Golan Hights, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and supporting further control of Palestinian territory under the recent ‘ultimate deal for Palestinians’.
In this article we will explore the reasons of the seemingly unconditional support of Israel by the U.S., in detriment of a peace process that brings a resolution to the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.
It is widely accepted that the U.S. support to Israel, seemingly unconditional, is the result of the Jewish pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., mainly directed to the U.S. Congress. A number of pro-Israel organisations, including American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, among other organisations and individuals, are actively lobbying the U.S. Congress not only obtaining support for Israel, but also putting at risk the careers of those Congresspeople who dare to criticise Israel and its government. However, there are other groups and factors that influence the unconditional support to Israel by the U.S. government and these will be explored in this paper.
- Is the Jewish pro-Israel lobby responsible for the U.S.’s unconditional support to Israel?
Many Jewish groups, organisations and individuals work towards influencing U.S. policymakers to the benefit of Israel and to protect the special relationship that the U.S. and Israel have. These groups include the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, among others. They are not necessarily a unified entity but rather a number of organisations and groups that defend similar interests (Foreign Policy, 2019). The emergence and reasons of existence of this pro-Israel lobby have not been really sufficiently researched and remain rather obscure (Cambridge Core, 2018).
This Jewish pro-Israel lobby uses a number of strategies to influence policymakers, including contributions to political campaigns, carrying-out public outreach activities with articles, books, position papers, media appearances, and also through the role that pro-Israel individuals and/or Jews may play in the U.S. government itself (Foreign Policy, 2019). To influence policymakers and the public opinion in general, some of these groups go beyond legal and transparent practices including paying holidays in Israel for U.S. journalists and members of Congress, feeding them with ready-made stories for publication, pressuring the media and members of Congress, even with money, in order to obtain support for Israel, among other practices. (The Nation, 2018)
On the one hand, in the U.S. there is a strong sentimental attachment for Israel, particularly from the post-war generation, resulting from guilt regarding Western anti-Semitism, friendship with Jewish Americans who identify strongly with Israel, identification with Israel’s democracy, social institutions and even with historical parallelisms between the two countries, ‘building a nation based upon noble, idealistic values while simultaneously suppressing and expelling the indigenous population’. (Foreign Policy In Focus, 2002)
On the other hand, there is enormous fear of criticising Israel and be categorised of anti-Semitic, and a climate of intimidation has been created that drives policymakers to remain highly sensitive to the lobby’s concerns, putting in risk their careers if they are not careful enough when addressing Israeli and/or Palestinian issues, as testified by a large number of former officials. This fear is one of the main pillars underpinning the U.S. government position of not acknowledging Israeli violations of human rights and international law. (Foreign Policy, 2019)
Support for Israel from U.S. policymakers transcends the Republican-Democrat divide. For example, Barack Obama, who did not have a close relationship with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, approved a significant increase of military aid to Israel just before leaving his Presidency. (The Nation, 2018)
The role of the Jewish pro-Israel lobby, although effective in censuring criticism to Israel in U.S. internal and external politics, is not, however, the primary factor influencing U.S. external policy in the Middle East (Foreign Policy In Focus, 2002). The U.S. external policy, characterised by orchestrating military interventions and CIA-backed coups, supporting right-wing and human-rights violating dictatorships, imposing economic policies for their own benefits, undermining international institutions, agreements and laws, imposing sanctions against nationalistic governments, etc., is actually consistent not only in the Middle East but elsewhere in the world. To claim that the pro-Israel lobby controls U.S. foreign policy, would mean that, without it, the U.S. would be aligned with the vast majority of the international community and supportive of the Climate Emergency Paris agreement, the International Criminal Court, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the banning of land mines, the non-interference in democratic processes of countries like Egypt and Venezuela, the embargo against Cuba, among other examples. (Mother Jones, 2006)
According to Mother Jones (2006), the Jewish pro-Israel lobby ‘appears more powerful than it really is because its agenda normally parallels the interests of those who really hold power in Washington.’
- What other groups support the U.S. unconditional support to Israel?
According to NPR (2019), U.S. Evangelical Christians outpace U.S. Jews in their support of pro-Israel governmental policies. The great majority of U.S. Evangelical Christians believe that modern day developments in Israel, and the return of Jews to the ‘Holy Land’ in their millions, are reflective of a bible prophesy that will end with the return of Jesus Christ and the conversion of Jews into Christianity. In their opinion, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and the growing occupation of the region by the former ones, is part of God’s plan for the second coming of Christ (Foreign Policy, 2002).
Christians United for Israel and Christian Zionism Movement are among the groups that support Trump’s strong pro-Israel policies, the former group comprising of around 7 million members, about the same number of U.S. Jews. (NPR, 2019)
Support of Israel by U.S. Evangelical Christians is seemingly directly related to their travel to the Holy Land, where they have become the fastest growing tourism sector in Israel. According to the tour organisers, 100% of travellers return from Israel ‘extremely pro-Israel in their political views’. And although only a small percentage of Evangelical Christians have travelled to Israel, their views resonate across the entire community (NPR, 2019), throwing their immense media and political influence in support of Israel’s leaders (Foreign Policy, 2002).
- How does the U.S. benefit from supporting Israel?
The U.S. was not an unconditional supporter of Israel right after the founding of Israel in 1948. At that time, the most active supporters of Israel were U.S. Zionist Jews, but not the U.S. government. The U.S. started strongly supporting Israel much later, starting in the 1980s. (Cambridge Core, 2018). 99% of the U.S. historical military assistance to Israel was granted only after Israel proved that it was militarily significantly stronger that its neighbours, after the 1967 war between Israel and its neighbours, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. From then on, U.S. military aid increased significantly alongside the wars fought and won by Israel against their neighbours during the 1960s and 1970s (Foreign Policy In Focus, 2002). This way, Israel became the strongest and most efficient U.S. ally in keeping away the Soviet influence and penetration in the Middle East (Washington Institute, 2006).
Thus, the U.S. support to Israel did not grow from a moral commitment to the country or on the basis of security needs, but rather, because the dominance of Israel in the region coincided with the U.S. strategic interests in the region at the hight of the cold war. For this reason, both democrat and republican U.S. governments have ensured during the past few decades that Israel would not just achieve military balance with its neighbours, but rather a significant military superiority. (Foreign Policy In Focus, 2002)
According to the Washington Institute (2006), supporting Israel has been a ‘low-cost way of keeping order in part of the Middle East’, without the need of stationing troops, as the U.S. did in Europe or South Korea, or engaging directly in conflict. Israel’s military superiority has not only resulted in peace agreements between Israel and its neighbours since 1973, but also in the neighbours entering the ‘American orbit’.
Besides supporting the U.S. strategic interests in the region, intelligence sharing and collaboration plays an important role in strengthening the Israel-U.S. relations, since Israeli intelligence is considered as ‘unparalleled’ information and insight into middle Eastern affairs (Business Insider, 2017).
- What is the role of the arms industry in the U.S. unconditional support to Israel?
The U.S. dedicates a significant amount of military budget to maintain its thousands of troops in Europe and Asia. Compared to this, the U.S. military aid granted to Israel may seem a small percentage, however, until recently, most of the military aid was spent in purchasing weapons and technology from U.S. manufacturers, resulting in the return of most aid back to the U.S. From this perspective, military aid to Israel cannot be summarised as special treatment to one people, but rather as ‘the logical extension of America’s postwar power projection’ (The Atlantic, 2019), and as mentioned earlier on this paper, at a much lower cost than that spent in Europe and Asia.
During the George W. Bush administration, the return to the U.S. of the military aid to Israel was of 73.7% of the annual US$3 billion aid package. The Obama administration signed a new agreement with Israel increasing military aid to US$3.8 billion by 2028, but requiring that 100% of aid is spent with the U.S. defense industry. Furthermore, since the signing of peace agreements with Israel by both, Egypt and Jordan, the U.S. has also been providing military aid to both countries (Mitchell Plitnick 2019). There has been increasing arms sales by the U.S. to Middle Eastern countries, as arab countries demand greater arms deals when military aid to Israel is increased, and the more arms are sold to arab countries, the more military aid is increased to Israel. (Mother Jones, 2006)
The defense lobby in Washington spends over US$ 100 million per year in average (Cato Institute, 2018), and an amount that is much greater than that spent by the pro-Israel lobby (Mother Jones, 2006). Both government and the opposition support major arms deals, on the one hand because it looks supportive of U.S. national security and, on the other hand, because it’s good for American industry and jobs. All U.S. states are home to defense industry manufacturers and in many districts defense industry is the dominant economic actor. For Congresspeople, opposing arms deals and the defense industry in general can be seen as going against national industry and destroying jobs, risking not only loosing financial support but also votes. For this reason, hardly anyone in Congress opposes the government’s arms sales agenda. (Cato Institute, 2018)
The Jewish pro-Israel lobby is highly effective in ensuring that U.S. policymakers remain sensitive to the lobby’s concerns and in keeping them away from being critical to Israel. Meanwhile, the Evangelical Christian, or Evangelical right lobby has been influential in obtaining government support for Israel. However, it is not these lobbies the primary factors that has driven the U.S. to unconditionally support Israel over the past decades.
The main factors driving the U.S. unconditional support to Israel are Israel’s usefulness in supporting the U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East, and the power that the arms lobby has over the U.S. economy and jobs.
Business Insider (18 February 2017), Here’s why the US and Israel are such close allies
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https://fpif.org/why_the_us_supports_israel/ (accessed on 24 January 2020)
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