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Why the US backs Israel

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The US sometimes poses as a friend of Palestinians—but will never end its support for Israel. Sophie Squire explains what’s behind their relationship
Issue 2757
Joe Biden embraces Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu (left)
Joe Biden embraces Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu (left) (Pic: US Embassy Jerusalem)

In the wake of Israel’s horrifying assault on Palestinians last month, the US now claims to want to fund the “reconstruction” of the Gaza Strip.

First, president Joe Biden backed Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza. Then he intervened to rein Israel in. Now he claims to want to send aid to Palestinians. What’s going on?

The relationship between the US and Israel has not always been ­straightforward. Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu made no secret that he preferred Donald Trump as US ­president over Barack Obama.

But support for Israel has been a precondition for every US president for the last five decades at least. The relationship between Israel and the US is about much more than which personalities and parties are in charge of their respective governments.

It’s about the much more fundamental question of the US’s aim to keep its grip on the Middle East, and Israel’s role in supporting that.

From the very beginning, Israel has relied on the support of bigger imperial powers. It wouldn’t exist without this.

Its founders—the leaders of the Zionist movement that aimed to establish a Jewish state in Palestine—explicitly sought this out.

They appealed to the British Empire by offering to help police the Arab population in Palestine, which it seized for itself after the First World War.

Bloody Balfour’s century of oppression in Palestine
Bloody Balfour’s century of oppression in Palestine
  Read More

British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour responded with a promise of a “the ­establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

It was only after the decline of the British Empire—and its exit from Palestine in 1948—that the US began to play a more fundamental role in supporting Israel.

The US was the first country to recognise Israel as a state in 1948.

This came after Israel expelled some 850,000 Palestinians in a campaign of ethnic cleansing designed to ensure they would be a ­minority in the new state of Israel.

But it was still another two decades before the US began to treat Israel as its most ­important ally in the Middle East.

While the US did offer some financial aid to Israel through the 1940s and 50s it was mostly in the form of loans. At the time the US even opposed some arms sales to Israel.

The US ruling class wanted to build links with several states in the Middle East against Russia, and Israel was just one among many. And most ordinary people in Arab countries supported the Palestinians.

The US worried that ­appearing too friendly to Israel would scupper its deals with Arab leaders. Israel had to prove to the US that its support was indispensable.

During the 1960s, US military loans to Israel averaged £17 million a year. Between 1970 and 1974, that rose to £345 million

In 1951, after the Iranian government nationalised its oil industry, Israeli newspaper Haaretz explained the role Israel’s leaders hoped they could play.

“Strengthening Israel helps Western powers maintain stability in the Middle East. Israel is to become the watchdog,” it wrote.

“If the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied upon to punish one or several neighbouring states whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible.”

As anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 60s weakened Britain’s and then the US’s hold on the Middle East, Israel saw its opportunity.

In 1967 Israel provoked a war with Jordan, Egypt and Syria—whose Arab nationalist governments threatened the US’s interests and were allied to Russia.

It defeated them all. This not only began Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Syrian Golan Heights. It also proved that Israel could use its militarily strength in the Middle East on the US’s behalf.

In return the US poured funding into Israel so it could build up its military.

US funding for Israel ­skyrocketed after this. During the 1960s, US military loans to Israel averaged £17 million a year. Between 1970 and 1974, that rose to £345 million.

Six days that entrenched imperialism
Six days that entrenched imperialism
  Read More

In return, Israel has ­continued to serve the US in this way ever since. The US itself is explicit about this.

In 2008 its congress passed a law to ensure that Israel keeps a “qualitative military edge” over all other states in the Middle East. To make sure Israel’s military is the most powerful in other words.

That’s because Israel is, in the words of a US congress briefing, “a vital partner in the region.”

It adds, “US aid packages for Israel have reflected this calculation.”

In fact, the US has given at least £95 billion worth of aid to Israel—and this is increasingly in the form of military aid.

Israel’s economy is entirely dependent on this. Its own arms and tech industries, central to its economy, developed out of this.

Its protection of the US’s “strategic interests” has meant the US has had an important part in crushing Palestinian revolts.

The Palestinian uprising that began in December of 1987, the First Intifada, posed a threat to the Israeli state. It also threatened to inspire revolts across the Middle East.

The US knew something had to be done and so organised the Oslo Accords between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership in 1993 to try and crush resistance.

The US still relies on Israel to defend its interests in the Middle East, and even “progressives” inside the Democrats are committed to this

This helped the US to ­contain the Palestinian ­resistance by ­co-opting the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

The PLO abandoned its calls for a single state where Jews and Palestinians could live alongside each other—essentially giving up Palestinians’ claim to all of their land.

Ever since then, the Palestinian Authority (PA) cooperated alongside Israel in “security coordination” in the occupied West Bank. But it has never been allowed the state it was promised.

The two-state promise was a fiction designed to contain Palestinian resistance and keep the US’s control of the Middle East stable. That’s why, while the relationship between the US and Israel is still a close one, it is fraught at times.

As Israel extends its occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem, it shows ever more clearly that the two-state solution is a lie.

This tension was shown in 2017, for instance, when US foreign secretary John Kerry criticised Israel’s settlement building program in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

One thing the Democratic Party in the US now has to worry about is growing support for Palestinians among ordinary people in the US. This is even reflected inside its own ranks.

Oslo deal betrayed Palestinians
Oslo deal betrayed Palestinians
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In recent years a small number of Democrat senators have voiced their opposition to the close relationship between Israel and the US.

As Israel continued its 11-day assault on Gaza Democrat ­representative Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian, confronted Biden over US complicity in the bloodshed.

She reportedly told him that, “atrocities like bombing schools cannot be tolerated, much less conducted with US supplied weapons.”

Representatives Ilhan Omar and André Carson signed a joint statement asking Biden to reconsider the over £2 billion in military aid the US sends to Israel annually.

But those who stand up for Palestine within the Democrats are still in the minority.

The US still relies on Israel to defend its interests in the Middle East, and even “progressives” inside the Democrats are committed to this.

Senator Bernie Sanders recently said that supporters of Palestinians should “tone down” their language and stop calling Israel an apartheid state.

The even bigger threat to the US is that Palestinian resistance could erupt again, spreading across the Middle East, threatening the rulers of Arab states that are its allies.

So now the US is trying to contain this by funnelling Gaza’s aid through the PA, in an attempt to sideline the resistance group Hamas that governs the Gaza Strip.

“We will do this in full ­partnership with the Palestinian Authority—not Hamas—in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal,” said Biden. But the new wave of revolt that sprung up in Palestine is under in Hamas’ control.

The protests and strikes in Palestine in the last few weeks started as resistance to attempted evictions of Palestinian families in Jerusalem.

That revolt shook Israel, worried the US’s Arab allies, and so worried the US too.

It caused cracks in the close relationship the US has tried to build between them. That’s ultimately why the US ­intervened to stop Israel’s assault on Gaza.

More protests and resistance everywhere can start to prise those cracks open, and end the relationship between the US and Israel that underpins Palestinians’ oppression.

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