The Israel Lobby

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, London Review of Books, 23 March 2006

For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread ‘democracy’ throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only US security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the US been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides.

Instead, the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.

Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing that given to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance since 1976, and is the largest recipient in total since World War Two, to the tune of well over $140 billion (in 2004 dollars). Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance each year, roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. This largesse is especially striking since Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to that of South Korea or Spain.

Other recipients get their money in quarterly installments, but Israel receives its entire appropriation at the beginning of each fiscal year and can thus earn interest on it. Most recipients of aid given for military purposes are required to spend all of it in the US, but Israel is allowed to use roughly 25 per cent of its allocation to subsidise its own defence industry. It is the only recipient that does not have to account for how the aid is spent, which makes it virtually impossible to prevent the money from being used for purposes the US opposes, such as building settlements on the West Bank. Moreover, the US has provided Israel with nearly $3 billion to develop weapons systems, and given it access to such top-drawer weaponry as Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets. Finally, the US gives Israel access to intelligence it denies to its Nato allies and has turned a blind eye to Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Washington also provides Israel with consistent diplomatic support. Since 1982, the US has vetoed 32 Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, more than the total number of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members. It blocks the efforts of Arab states to put Israel’s nuclear arsenal on the IAEA’s agenda. The US comes to the rescue in wartime and takes Israel’s side when negotiating peace. The Nixon administration protected it from the threat of Soviet intervention and resupplied it during the October War. Washington was deeply involved in the negotiations that ended that war, as well as in the lengthy ‘step-by-step’ process that followed, just as it played a key role in the negotiations that preceded and followed the 1993 Oslo Accords. In each case there was occasional friction between US and Israeli officials, but the US consistently supported the Israeli position. One American participant at Camp David in 2000 later said: ‘Far too often, we functioned … as Israel’s lawyer.’ Finally, the Bush administration’s ambition to transform the Middle East is at least partly aimed at improving Israel’s strategic situation.

This extraordinary generosity might be understandable if Israel were a vital strategic asset or if there were a compelling moral case for US backing. But neither explanation is convincing. One might argue that Israel was an asset during the Cold War. By serving as America’s proxy after 1967, it helped contain Soviet expansion in the region and inflicted humiliating defeats on Soviet clients like Egypt and Syria. It occasionally helped protect other US allies (like King Hussein of Jordan) and its military prowess forced Moscow to spend more on backing its own client states. It also provided useful intelligence about Soviet capabilities.

Backing Israel was not cheap, however, and it complicated America’s relations with the Arab world. For example, the decision to give $2.2 billion in emergency military aid during the October War triggered an Opec oil embargo that inflicted considerable damage on Western economies. For all that, Israel’s armed forces were not in a position to protect US interests in the region. The US could not, for example, rely on Israel when the Iranian Revolution in 1979 raised concerns about the security of oil supplies, and had to create its own Rapid Deployment Force instead.

The first Gulf War revealed the extent to which Israel was becoming a strategic burden. The US could not use Israeli bases without rupturing the anti-Iraq coalition, and had to divert resources (e.g. Patriot missile batteries) to prevent Tel Aviv doing anything that might harm the alliance against Saddam Hussein. History repeated itself in 2003: although Israel was eager for the US to attack Iraq, Bush could not ask it to help without triggering Arab opposition. So Israel stayed on the sidelines once again.

Beginning in the 1990s, and even more after 9/11, US support has been justified by the claim that both states are threatened by terrorist groups originating in the Arab and Muslim world, and by ‘rogue states’ that back these groups and seek weapons of mass destruction. This is taken to mean not only that Washington should give Israel a free hand in dealing with the Palestinians and not press it to make concessions until all Palestinian terrorists are imprisoned or dead, but that the US should go after countries like Iran and Syria. Israel is thus seen as a crucial ally in the war on terror, because its enemies are America’s enemies. In fact, Israel is a liability in the war on terror and the broader effort to deal with rogue states.

‘Terrorism’ is not a single adversary, but a tactic employed by a wide array of political groups. The terrorist organisations that threaten Israel do not threaten the United States, except when it intervenes against them (as in Lebanon in 1982). Moreover, Palestinian terrorism is not random violence directed against Israel or ‘the West’; it is largely a response to Israel’s prolonged campaign to colonise the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

More important, saying that Israel and the US are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards: the US has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around. Support for Israel is not the only source of anti-American terrorism, but it is an important one, and it makes winning the war on terror more difficult. There is no question that many al-Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden, are motivated by Israel’s presence in Jerusalem and the plight of the Palestinians. Unconditional support for Israel makes it easier for extremists to rally popular support and to attract recruits.

As for so-called rogue states in the Middle East, they are not a dire threat to vital US interests, except inasmuch as they are a threat to Israel. Even if these states acquire nuclear weapons – which is obviously undesirable – neither America nor Israel could be blackmailed, because the blackmailer could not carry out the threat without suffering overwhelming retaliation. The danger of a nuclear handover to terrorists is equally remote, because a rogue state could not be sure the transfer would go undetected or that it would not be blamed and punished afterwards. The relationship with Israel actually makes it harder for the US to deal with these states. Israel’s nuclear arsenal is one reason some of its neighbours want nuclear weapons, and threatening them with regime change merely increases that desire.

A final reason to question Israel’s strategic value is that it does not behave like a loyal ally. Israeli officials frequently ignore US requests and renege on promises (including pledges to stop building settlements and to refrain from ‘targeted assassinations’ of Palestinian leaders). Israel has provided sensitive military technology to potential rivals like China, in what the State Department inspector-general called ‘a systematic and growing pattern of unauthorised transfers’. According to the General Accounting Office, Israel also ‘conducts the most aggressive espionage operations against the US of any ally’. In addition to the case of Jonathan Pollard, who gave Israel large quantities of classified material in the early 1980s (which it reportedly passed on to the Soviet Union in return for more exit visas for Soviet Jews), a new controversy erupted in 2004 when it was revealed that a key Pentagon official called Larry Franklin had passed classified information to an Israeli diplomat. Israel is hardly the only country that spies on the US, but its willingness to spy on its principal patron casts further doubt on its strategic value.

Israel’s strategic value isn’t the only issue. Its backers also argue that it deserves unqualified support because it is weak and surrounded by enemies; it is a democracy; the Jewish people have suffered from past crimes and therefore deserve special treatment; and Israel’s conduct has been morally superior to that of its adversaries. On close inspection, none of these arguments is persuasive. There is a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence, but that is not in jeopardy. Viewed objectively, its past and present conduct offers no moral basis for privileging it over the Palestinians.

Israel is often portrayed as David confronted by Goliath, but the converse is closer to the truth. Contrary to popular belief, the Zionists had larger, better equipped and better led forces during the 1947-49 War of Independence, and the Israel Defence Forces won quick and easy victories against Egypt in 1956 and against Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 1967 – all of this before large-scale US aid began flowing. Today, Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. Its conventional forces are far superior to those of its neighbours and it is the only state in the region with nuclear weapons. Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with it, and Saudi Arabia has offered to do so. Syria has lost its Soviet patron, Iraq has been devastated by three disastrous wars and Iran is hundreds of miles away. The Palestinians barely have an effective police force, let alone an army that could pose a threat to Israel. According to a 2005 assessment by Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies, ‘the strategic balance decidedly favours Israel, which has continued to widen the qualitative gap between its own military capability and deterrence powers and those of its neighbours.’ If backing the underdog were a compelling motive, the United States would be supporting Israel’s opponents.

That Israel is a fellow democracy surrounded by hostile dictatorships cannot account for the current level of aid: there are many democracies around the world, but none receives the same lavish support. The US has overthrown democratic governments in the past and supported dictators when this was thought to advance its interests – it has good relations with a number of dictatorships today.

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Amira Hass: Strangled in Gaza

1.5 million Arabs under Israeli siege

Amira Hass, Haaretz, Mar 22, 2006

In the elections, Israelis will not be voting just for themselves. Not only will they choose parties that affect their own lives for four years, but also those of 3.5 million occupied Palestinians – as they have done for 39 years now. The winners in Israel will form a government that will determine the most minute details of every Palestinian’s life.

This is the essence of occupation. One people casts its votes and thereby authorizes its democratic government to be a dictator in a place that it rules by military hegemony. In that place there lives a separate nation that is entirely excluded from any rights in this democratic game.

For the past two months the dictator democratically elected by the Israeli public has determined that Gaza’s residents should go on a “diet,” as Attorney Dov Weissglas advised the cabinet, immediately after Hamas’ election victory.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided that Gaza’s residents should eat less and less fresh produce and dairy produce, then less and less rice and then no bread.

By closing the Karni crossing to merchandise for prolonged periods, Mofaz intervened (as a cabinet representative) not only in the Palestinians’ eating habits. He also sent tens of thousands of Gazan Palestinians on unpaid leave. Drivers, merchants, porters, sewing workshop workers, farmers, construction workers and contractors, whose materials are not arriving, are all out of work. The already large number of people dependent on charity in Gaza will grow. The chain reaction will affect every family’s life and choices: the children’s education, medical treatment, visiting relatives, building an additional room to alleviate the crowded conditions at home.

No elected Palestinian government, headed by Hamas or Fatah, has ever intervened in everyday life to such an extent, or had such an influence on it.

At Israel’s order, the Palestinian security branches dug four tunnels with a total length of 1.5 kilometers, but did not find the suspected tunnel that served as the rationale for closing the merchandise terminal. On the day five kilos of explosive was found on Road No. 1 in a car carrying Palestinians – security explanations are all Israelis want to hear.

Since the disengagement Israel has claimed that “Gaza is no longer occupied territory,” so whatever happens there is not its responsibility. This version is more palatable to Israelis than hearing that Israel’s control over the Palestinians’ life in Gaza has ended; that Gaza is only one part of the Palestinian territory and that its population, economy and health and education institutions are tied to those in the West Bank; and that the international community has decided that the Palestinian state would be established on both parts, Gaza and the West Bank.

But the Israeli voter scorns the international community’s choices. It has decided that Gaza would be “returned” to Egypt. That is the logical meaning of closing the Karni crossing for a long time – after the number of Palestinians passing through the Erez crossing has already dwindled. Even if international pressure enables bringing “humanitarian” aid through the Karni crossing here and there – as though Gaza had been struck by natural disaster – Israel’s leaders will probably close it again for “security reasons.”

All this is intended to accustom Gaza residents and the international community to think that perhaps it is logical to direct Gaza’s products, business and plans southward, to Egypt, which will not be able to remain idle while almost 1.5 million Arabs are being strangled under the Israeli siege.

Thus Israelis will not be voting only on the Palestinians’ fate, but will also intervene in the lives of Egypt’s citizens.

Amira Hass
Haaretz Correspondent

April 6, 2006
DISCORDIA: When Netanyahu Came to Town

Humanities Building, Room 1111
455 N. Park St
Thursday, 7:00 pm

Al-Awda, the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, the Havens Center and The Social Justice Films Series present: DISCORDIA: When Netanyahu Came to Town

What happens when Middle East politics touch down on campus? Discordia examines the September 2002 riot that prevented former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking at Concordia University in Montreal. Through a portrait of three students (a member of Hillel, an anti-Zionist Jew, and a Palestinian) the film delves into issues that are highly relevant for the UW-Madison community, including military recruiting, the politics of multiculturalism, free speech, student movement strategies and tactics, and the repression of activists on North American campuses.

The film will be followed by a short discussion with members of Al-Awda: The Palestinian Right To Return Coalition, the Arab Student Association, and a former Concordia University student who was involved in the protests.

Milk from Wisconsin to Rafah

The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project (MRSCP) is partnering with the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) in Rafah to send powdered milk to the people of Rafah.

In January 2005 MRSCP sent a delegation to Rafah to meet with governmental and non-governmental community leaders. Although the humanitarian needs of the people of Rafah are many, nutritional supplements were among the most pressing concerns.

A 2003 study by Al Quds University and Johns Hopkins for CARE and the US Agency for International Development found increasing deficiencies in protein, vitamins A and E, iron, folic acid, and zinc in the diet of Gaza children 1 to 5 years old.

MRSCP has raised approximately $6000 to purchase powdered milk and ship it to Rafah. An initial purchase of over 1000 pounds of powdered milk will be purchased from the Land O’Lakes cooperative. The milk will be labeled with instructions in Arabic and distributed by our partners in Rafah.

Your contribution will provide much needed nutrition for the people of Rafah, whose health status has been severely undermined by the military occupation and closed borders.

Malnutrition in Occupied Palestine

In 2003:

  • Over half of the populations of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were unemployed and more than two-thirds were living below the poverty line.
  • Problems of malnutrition and anemia had resurged in the Occupied Territories and problems of micronutrient deficiencies are highly prevalent all over the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) area of operation.
  • Micro-nutrient deficiencies – what the World Health Organization calls “hidden hunger” – is just as serious as the protein-energy malnutrition that plagues many parts of Africa. Micronutrient deficient children fail to grow and develop normally; their cognition is damaged, often severely and irreversibly; and their immune systems are compromised. In both adults and children, mental and physical capacities are impaired. Extreme cases can result in death or blindness.
  • Almost one-quarter of Palestinian children are suffering from acute or chronic malnutrition, largely because of the Occupation. Nursing and pregnant mothers are suffering, too. On average they consume 15-20% fewer calories per day than they did before the outbreak of the intifada in 2000. The consequent anemia, low folic acid intake, and lack of proteins threaten both their health and the normal development of their children.
  • The UN’s relief agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, feeds 1.3 million Palestinians and all but a few Palestinians now depend to some extent on foreign aid to survive.

See “Nutritional Assessment of the West Bank & Gaza Strip,” CARE International, 02 Jan 2003; “Hungry in Gaza,” Peter Hanson, The Guardian, March 4, 2003; and the 2003 UNRWA “Annual Report of the Department of Health”.

Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project (MRSCP) was founded in 2003 to foster people-to-people relationships between the citizens of Madison and Rafah. Located on the border with Egypt, Rafah’s economy and city infrastructure have been devastated by Israel’s ongoing military occupation. All aspects of life there, whether cultural, physical, political, or educational, have been negatively affected.


  • Checks made to “MRSCP” with the memo “Milk” can be mailed to
      Madison-Rafah Sister City Project
      P.O. Box 55371
      Madison, WI 53705
  • Receipts can be provided for check payments only.
  • As a tax-exempt 501(c)3 corporation, all donations to MRSCP’s Milk Project are tax deductible.

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  • April 1, 2006
    Joint benefit with Madison-Arcatao Sister City


    Dave Lippman is widely known on many coasts for his sharp send-ups of topics ranging from weapons of mass distraction to SUVs and the wars to defend them.

    He has joined the “Wheels of Justice” tours against the occupations of Iraq and Palestine, and the “Collateral Damage” tour with a Mexican Maquila organizer.

    Following a 2004 tour of Palestine and Israel, including a visit to our sister city, Rafah, Lippman created the “Star of Goliath” audio-visual presentation which he will perform in Madison after his comedy routine. He also visited our sister city Arcatao, in El Salvador, and will perform a similar piece he created in 1986 about that experience.

    Lippman’s notoriety began in 1969 when he was named an unindicted co-conspirator for singing about the “Guatemala sweepstakes” at a rally against the United Fruit Company. Lippman co-founded the ‘Reagan for Shah Campaign,’ in which he introduced the permanent character George Shrub, Singing CIA Agent. Shrub went on to tour as security for the ‘Ladies Against Women.’

    Lippman has performed in war zones in Central America. He has campaigned as George Stump, Moderate Clearcutter with Earth First! In Germany he sang for squatters and anti-nuclear activists. Stateside, he joined a caravan of Salvadoran refugees through Texas.

    Ex-CIA agent John Stockwell declared Lippman prescient for writing a song about the Grenada “rescue” a year before it happened; Lippman declared it manifest destiny, based on the size of the island.

    Lippman has brought Agent Shrub to the School of the Americas, CIA Headquarters, the White House, and countless events for peace, global justice, living wages, fair trade, environmental sanity, and apple pie.

    Lippman has ten releases to his credit, not counting jail. The latest is Shrub and Lippman Live in Manhattan Kansas. (To hear Lippman and Shrub live, visit

    Mr. Lippman is the founder of the International Federation of Investigative Songwriters, which no one has joined. He remains one of America’s foremost non-corporate comedians.

    Play About Demonstrator’s Death Is Delayed

    JESSE McKINLEY, New York Times, February 28, 2006

    Potential Off Broadway production of play My Name is Rachel Corrie is delayed because of concerns about show’s political content; play follows story of Rachel Corrie, idealistic American demonstrator and Palestinian rights activist who was crushed to death by Israeli bulldozer while trying to stop destruction of Palestinian home in Gaza in 2003

    A potential Off Broadway production of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” an acclaimed solo show about an American demonstrator killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to stop the destruction of a Palestinian home, has been postponed because of concerns about the show’s political content.

    The production, a hit at the Royal Court Theater in London last year, had been tentatively scheduled to start performances at the New York Theater Workshop in the East Village on March 22. But yesterday, James C. Nicola, the artistic director of the workshop, said he had decided to postpone the show after polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work.

    “The uniform answer we got was that the fantasy that we could present the work of this writer simply as a work of art without appearing to take a position was just that, a fantasy,” he said.

    In particular, the recent electoral upset by Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, and the sickness of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, had made “this community very defensive and very edgy,” Mr. Nicola said, “and that seemed reasonable to me.”

    The play, which received strong reviews in London, follows the story of Rachel Corrie, an idealistic American demonstrator and Palestinian-rights activist who was crushed to death in March 2003 in the Gaza Strip.

    The play was written by the actor Alan Rickman, who directed the piece, and Katherine Viner, a journalist at The Guardian newspaper in London, who pieced together snippets of Ms. Corrie’s journals and e-mail messages to create the script. And while the show had not been formally announced, Ms. Viner said yesterday that she and Mr. Rickman had already bought plane tickets to see the production at the workshop.

    “I was devastated and really surprised,” Ms. Viner said in a telephone interview from London. “And in my view, I think they’re misjudging the New York audience. It’s a piece of art, not a piece of agitprop.”

    But Mr. Nicola said he was less worried about those who saw the show than those who simply heard about it.

    “I don’t think we were worried about the audience,” he said. “I think we were more worried that those who had never encountered her writing, never encountered the piece, would be using this as an opportunity to position their arguments.”

    Mr. Nicola said that he still hoped to produce the play during the 2006-7 season but that he hadn’t heard back from the Royal Court yet. A call for comment to the Royal Court’s general manager, Diane Borger, was not returned.

    “It seemed as though if we proceeded, we would be taking a stand we didn’t want to take,” he said.

    Anglicans Vote to Divest From Concerns in Israel-Occupied Areas

    NEELA BANERJEE, New York Times, February 9, 2006

    WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 – The governing body of the Church of England voted Monday evening to divest from any corporations that it contends support Israel’s activities in Gaza and the West Bank, a move sharply criticized by Jewish groups in Britain and the United States.

    The resolution is to “heed the call from our sister church, the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, for morally responsible investment in the Palestinian occupied territories and, in particular, to disinvest from companies profiting from the illegal occupation, such as Caterpillar Inc., until they change their policies.”

    The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the 77 million Anglicans, sided with the synod in its vote, which came as a surprise to many.

    The idea of divestiture was ushered in almost two years ago by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. at its annual meeting, straining relations between Presbyterians and Jews.

    But the Presbyterian Church has yet to divest from any company, and the idea has largely failed to gain support elsewhere, including with the Episcopal Church U.S.A., the American branch of the worldwide Anglican communion. The Church of England’s own Ethical Investment Advisory Group recommended against divestiture last fall.

    While the vote is not binding on the church, it would probably compel the influential advisory group to review its decision when it meets in May, said Lou Henderson, a spokesman for the Church of England.

    The vote carried symbolic weight with many Jews and Anglicans, although to varying degrees and in disparate ways.

    Rabbi Jonathan Romain, a spokesman for the Movement for Reform Judaism in the United Kingdom, said the Church of England’s vote was “puzzling and annoying, but it’s not a Christians-against-Jews issue.”

    “It’s the wrong signal at the wrong time, because of the massive changes going on in Israel right now,” Rabbi Romain said, alluding to the Palestinian vote for Hamas and the coming Israeli general elections.

    Michael Whine, defense director for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a representative organization, said, “The vote was simplistic and unbalanced, and fails to take into account the realities of the Middle East and the threat that Israel continues to face from terrorists.”

    Some Jewish groups in the United States and Europe welcomed the church’s decision. “I think it is a powerful message,” said Dan Judelson, secretary of European Jews for a Just Peace, which has called for Israel’s immediate withdrawal from the occupied territories. “It shows that people are not prepared to lie down and let the issue rest.”

    American Jewish leaders, who thought they had managed through discussions with Protestant denominations to dispose of the idea of divestment, were alarmed to see it revived by the Church of England.

    “You could say that it was naïveté on the part of the Presbyterians when they voted like this two years ago,” said Rabbi David Elcott, director of United States interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Congress. “But you can’t say that now, with the election of Hamas and the other changes. The Anglican decision pulls them out of the coalition for peace and puts them on the side of violence.”

    Some well-known Anglicans dissented sharply from the decision. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post earlier this week, the former archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. George Carey, called the resolution “a most regrettable and one-sided statement” that ignored “the trauma of ordinary Jewish people” in Israel faced with terrorist attacks.

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