What is the historic relationship between the US and Israel?
Haaretz, Israel’s main liberal newspaper, explained in 1951 that, “Israel is to become the watchdog”.
Israel could only survive by demonstrating its usefulness to the West, something Israeli leaders realised just three years after the state was created.
It could not have been founded without Western imperial power.
Israel knew that it had to earn its spurs, and it made itself useful to a number of powers. At first, France was as important to Israel as the US. It was France that gave Israel its nuclear technology.
But the relationship with the US really became important after the 1967 war, when Israel demonstrated its military capacity by defeating the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies.
The flow of funds from the US to Israel afterwards went up ten times.
Does that mean that the US effectively controls Israel?
I am Jewish, but became an anti-Zionist—opposed to the state of Israel—during the 1967 war. I learnt from Tony Cliff, the Palestinian Jew who founded the Socialist Workers Party, that you could see Israel as an attack dog with an American master.
So the US has Israel on a leash. But sometimes the dog can pull the owner—it can take them down alleys they don’t want to go. In my view, that’s where we are at the moment.
Israel has become more and more aggressive over the years. Now it has reached a point where it is almost completely out of control, which is why we’ve seen for the first time such an open intervention by the Pentagon.
The Pentagon effectively told Barack Obama, “You’ve got to cool these guys.” General David Petraeus, who is in charge of US operations in Afghanistan, said, “Israel is risking American soldiers’ lives.”
Does this represent a shift in relations between the US and Israel?
I wouldn’t go that far. There’s increased tension, but I don’t think there’s been a real shift. And this hasn’t just happened under Obama.
Israel went into Gaza, quite cunningly, between the presidencies. They got out just before Obama was inaugurated. So it was George Bush’s administration that was taking the hits as Israel went completely berserk.
But the pressure from the Turkish government was interesting. Turkey is very important to the situation. It signed a peace pact with Israel under US supervision in the 1950s.
Relations between Israel and Turkey had been really close. But at that point they were close to breaking down. That was deeply disturbing to the Americans.
Israel had been the key to stability in the region for the US. But now, to a degree, it was becoming a destabiliser. The problem for the US was managing that, which is what they’re trying to do at the moment.
Can the US draw in the leash without causing a huge fight?
Israel can be contained—but there are real tensions. Its prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, clearly thought he could go to Aipac—the Israel lobby in the US—and use it to bounce Obama into position. The opposite happened—it just infuriated the White House even more.
They’re trying to manage these tensions. As we speak, it’s not at all clear that they’re going to succeed. The US has to get a freeze on Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, one way or another.
Why do you think the US is so keen to do that?
It has to curb Israel’s aggression. It has to find a way to keep Israel in its useful ally role instead of it going completely over the top.
If you think about US power in the region, it’s not just about Israel—it’s also about compliant Arab states, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They are all dictatorships, threatened by their populations.
The Arab in the street is sick to death of what’s happening in Palestine. With satellite TV, they’re getting more accurate reporting about what’s happening than we get in the West, and that’s certainly a destabiliser for the Arab regimes.
Obama has had to take that into account.
What is the role of the Israel lobby in US politics?
These things don’t exist in isolation—you’ve got to contextualise them.
Israel was especially important to the US during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was, to a degree, a serious backer of Arab nationalism.
With the end of the Cold War, Israel became momentarily less important to the US. Then there was a new threat to American power in the Middle East—political Islam.
At that point, Israel became an ally in defence of US interests against political Islam. That relationship was very tight during the Bush presidency—probably the closest it’s ever been.
That’s what gave the illusion of Israeli power in the White House—but it was an illusion.
People underestimated the role of the Christian Zionists when it came to Bush.
But this was never a stable constituency, and it collapsed when the Bush presidency collapsed.
Has Obama changed things?
Obama had an opening when he came in. He tried to rewrite the script, but at first he was completely unsuccessful. From his own point of view he was far too slow at taking Israel on.
The Israel lobby is weaker than it was. It is important to understand who the paymaster is.
The US pays Israel up to $3 billion a year. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and that’s exactly what’s happening.
If you talk about lobbies, the core of the US ruling class run the corporations. They have a coherent view of Israel and its usefulness.
The Pentagon is more important than the Israel lobby. The Pentagon has been very close to Israel. Still, it’s not simply a seamless integrated relation.
What does the US want?
It now wants Israel to accept some kind of deal with the Palestinians that makes it possible for the Arab leaderships to say they’ve got something out of this.
You cannot rule out something being cobbled together, some halfway house solution. That would be a considerable advance for the Palestinians compared to what they have at the moment. But it falls far short of their legitimate national liberation aspirations.
What is the role of political Islam?
The failure of Stalinism and Arab nationalism in the Middle East opened the way for political Islam.
This is a many-sided movement, with progressive and reactionary aspects. The SWP gave it unconditional support against imperialism but pointed out its weaknesses and limitations.
Political Islam will compromise. It will go down the route Arab nationalism went down.
The idea that Hamas won’t talk to Israel is completely ridiculous. They talk to each other all the time about the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.
There’s no question that those negotiations are being used to test each other out and find a mechanism for bringing Hamas into the negotiating process.
I’m not saying it’s certain that they’ll go there—they may well not. There may be the most enormous regional explosion, which is another reason why the US is nervous.
Will Israel be forced to pull back from the settlements in East Jerusalem?
Obama is quite nervous about his own supporters, but he’s got more confident since he got his health reform through. The Israelis had calculated that when Obama looked weak they could do what they liked.
In the end, the US can yank Israel’s lead. But no one knows how it’s going to play out.
Obama would prefer not to put that pressure on in public, but in the end it will be put on somehow.
We shouldn’t forget the ideological fanaticism of the Israelis. Netanyahu says Jerusalem is the Jewish capital—as it was 3,000 years ago.
Netanyahu is an opportunist, so he’s perfectly capable of being dragged away from from this crazy argument. But his coalition allies really believe in all this stuff. This is a religious fundamentalist government.
Why does the Israeli population go along with that?
Most of the Israeli population believes that all the Palestinians are Islamists and all Islamists are terrorists.
So they think they’re surrounded by one and a half million Islamic terrorists. That’s cranked up by the government.
But, it’s interesting that the newspaper Haaretz did a survey where it asked, “Should we negotiate with Hamas?” A majority of those surveyed were in favour. Israel’s population is not as fanatical as its leaders.
I think opinion in Israel will become split the same way that Jewish opinion in the US is. There is now a growing minority of American Jews who are angry with the Israeli government and are very much on Obama’s side.
The Myths of Zionism by John Rose (£14.99)
The Nakba: Why Israel’s birth was Palestine’s catastrophe and what’s the solution by Anne Alexander and John Rose (£2.50)
The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe (£9.99)
Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky (£17.99)
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