How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

In the UN vote demanding that Israel  "desist from any act of deportation and cease any threat to the safety of the elected president of the Palestinian Authority.", 133 nations supported the resolution.   The US and Israel could count only on their faithful allies, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.  In other words, not one NATO or EU country was on their side.  The same can be said of every Latin American country, every East Asian country, and every African country.   The US stance is not one of principle; the US disapproves of Israel's threats.   It can hardly be one of expediency.   How does a nation get itself into this position?   More to the point, what keeps it there?   The reasons for the alliance are historical, not practical, and its survival causes nothing but trouble.


How Israel became an Ally


Jewish organizations and prominent Zionists have always exerted an important pro-Israel influence in Washington:  there is nothing unsurprising, unusual or even particularly improper about this sort of lobbying.   But the US would never have allied itself with Israel merely to serve Zionist interests.   The alliance with Israel was above all a child of the Cold War.


From before 1948 until the mid-1950s, both the US and the Soviet Union attempted to extend their influence in the Middle East by helping both Zionists and Arabs.  Both sides hastened to recognize Israel.  But the US imposed an arms embargo on Israel in 1948, and maintained it with minor exceptions until the Hawk missile sale of 1962.  (Even then, according to some authorities, the sale was to be linked to the repatriation by Israel of some 100,000 to 150,000 Palestinian refugees!)  The US also signed a mutual defense pact with Saudi Arabia in 1951, and initially endorsed the 1952 coup that brought a nationalist government to Egypt.   As for the Soviets, as late as 1956 the Soviet Union was supplying Israel with cheap oil to circumvent the Arab boycott, and Israel refused to supply NATO with military bases to counter a Soviet threat.  But starting in the early 1950s, Israeli-Soviet relations soured and Arab-Soviet relations prospered.  What changed the face of Middle East politics was not Zionist lobbying, but Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser.


Nasser, as much an Egyptian as an Arab nationalist, quite naturally sought to improve his position by exploiting great power rivalries.  This alienated him from a United States increasingly concerned about Soviet influence in the Middle East.  In March 1955, Nasser refused to join the anti-communist Baghdad Pact.  A month later, at the Bandung Conference, he moved to form a neutral bloc of exactly those nations the West was trying to recruit against the Soviet Union.  Next he announced a sale of cotton to Communist China, a country then embroiled in a frightening confrontation with the US over Quemoy and Matsu.   The West's alarm compounded when he built on barter agreements with the Soviet bloc to conclude, in September 1955, a major arms deal with Czechoslovakia.  Its impact was felt throughout the Arab world and beyond.


In May 1956, while the Quemoy-Matsu crisis was still smoldering, Nasser recognized China.  With his modern weaponry and vigorous diplomacy, he was widely seen as the leader of the entire Arab world.  The West became dismayed enough to withdraw financing for his most important development project, the Aswan Dam.  In response, Nasser nationalized the Suez canal.  In the ensuing 1956 Suez invasion, America sided with Egypt against Israel, Britain and France, but only to co-opt the Soviet Union, which had stated that any further Franco-British advances into Egyptian territory would be met by force.  For the superpowers, that marked the end of serious efforts to play both sides of the street. 


The 1956 war for the first time showed Israel as a militarily capable power which  could, on its own, defeat Arab forces armed with Soviet weaponry.  And to the US, communist-backed Arab forces began to seem worth defeating.  Nasser maintained increasingly close relations with the Soviet Union, and the launch of Sputnik in October 1957 aggravated American anxieties about a worldwide Soviet threat.   Egypt's union with Syria in February 1958 made its ties with the USSR all the more disturbing.


By October 1958, when the Soviet Union announced it would provide financing for the Aswan Dam, the lines were clearly drawn.  The Arabs, led by Egypt, were on the Soviet side, and the Israelis became the very useful proxies of the West.  (One of the first services Israel rendered to the West was when, in July 1958, it allowed "a British and American airlift of strategic materials through Israeli airspace to prop up the embattled Jordanian monarchy that was being challenged by a radical nationalist uprising fomented by Egypt's Nasser."(*))  This is the origin of the United States' deep commitment to Israel.  Zionist influences certainly helped form this commitment, but they were never decisive. In the end it was American security concerns that cemented the US-Israel alliance.


With the fall of the Soviet Union, the rationale for the alliance ceased, but the alliance itself rolls on, its inertia abetted by the disinclination of Americans to put any obstacle in its course.   Stale ideology has enshrined a counterproductive alliance at the heart of American foreign policy.


The Alliance Today


Nowadays, the alliance with Israel is typically defended on nebulous grounds:  Israel is 'our friend', 'shares our values', is 'a staunch ally in the war on terror'.   These phrases disguise the fact that, in contrast to most alliances, there is virtually no confluence of Israeli and American interests.  


That Israel is 'our friend' implies an affection for which there is little evidence:  even discounting spy scandals and the Liberty incident, the relationship is certainly prickly enough.  So the only sense in which Israel is truly 'our friend' is that Israel is our ally.  This of course begs the question at hand.  No one would dispute that Israel is our ally in the sense that we have allied ourselves with her; at issue is whether this alliance is to America's advantage.


As for 'sharing values', this is too nebulous to take seriously.  Alliances involve common interests, not common mentalities.   Iran and the United States, at least in its post-Reagan incarnation, share deeply felt family values.   In the Second World War, Italy and France probably shared more values than Italy and Germany, or France and Russia; the alliances did not reflect these facts.   And it must be said that, though Israel does indeed believe in democracy, the American conception of democracy would not permit territorial control of three million Palestinians for thirty-five years without any role in the election of their ultimate rulers, the Israeli government.


With communism no more a common enemy, the Israelis had to worry about the appearance of a common cause.  In this respect, 9-11 was a godsend, because it enabled Israel to present itself as a comrade in the war on terror.  But to say the US and Israel both want to fight terror is a bit like saying that the US and Iran both want to defend themselves against external attacks.  In this blatantly insufficient sense the US and Iran do indeed have some basis for an alliance, namely a common interest in weapons development.   Even enemies can share an interest in certain military technologies.  An alliance requires a deeper sort of common interest, objectives that involve more than the technical means to further possibly opposing ends.


This is not the case when it comes to American and Israeli efforts against terror.  Terrorism experts tell us that Al Qaeda is a semi-organization whose roots lie in Sunni Wahabist fundamentalism.  It has made sympathetic noises but done nothing useful for the Palestinians, who are so little inclined to fundamentalism that, in the l970s, the Israelis thought it wise to encourage the Moslem Brotherhood as an alternative to Arafat.(**)   The defeat of Al Qaeda would help Israel as little as the defeat of Hamas will help the US.   "The war on terror" does not name a common cause but an abstraction so vague as to give the false impression that such a cause exists.   Even supposing that both American and Israeli struggles against terror are entirely legitimate and productive, there is simply no significant linkage between them.


On the other hand, the claim and pretense of linkage is itself strategically damaging to the US.   Hizbollah and Hamas want to attack Israel, not America.   But of course the more Israel induces the Americans to strike directly at these terrorist organizations, the more they will turn their attention to the United States.   The false claim that America and Israel have these common enemies itself does much to make Israel's enemies our own.  This hardly speaks for the alliance.


Even if the America's and Israel's wars on terror are quite different struggles, Israel might still, through its expertise and technology, be a valuable ally.   But for this to be true, the US-Israel alliance would have to have technical advantages outweighing any political or strategic disadvantages.   This is not the case.


For one thing, the technical advantages of doing business with Israeli firms should not be confused with the technical advantages of the US-Israel alliance.   Israel of course benefits at least as much as the US from technological cooperation.   So, if only for defense and commercial reasons, it would want such cooperation to continue whether or not the political alliance with the US continued.   Countries need not be allies to do business with one another, which is why the US, even as it was planning its attack on Saddam Hussein, continued to buy his oil.  Moreover Israel's technical excellence is impressive but hardly indispensable.   Other advanced Western countries, not to mention American firms, could do the same work, and the latter alternative would naturally have security advantages.  Israel's technological contributions to America's arsenal may benefit the United States, but not moreso than readily available alternatives.


On the other hand, Israel does nothing but harm the strategic and political position of the United States.   This is apparent whether you look at the purported advantages of the alliance, or at its known disadvantages.


The purported advantages


It is often claimed that the US alliance with Israel is motivated by oil politics.   This is implausible.  Why would American concerns about its oil supply prompt it to ally itself with the one power in the world that drives its suppliers to distraction?  Were it not for that alliance, the US would be able to apply much more direct and finely tuned pressure on oil-rich governments.  Israel is (a) best positioned to pressure states which are not significant oil producers - Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt - (b) utterly superfluous for pressuring the very feeble Gulf states, and (c) politically unsuitable, as the Gulf Wars showed, for pressuring militarily strong producers like Iraq and Iran.  And what is true of oil is true, mutatis mutandis, of other US economic interests:  Israel is more a hindrance than a help in furthering them.


The portrayal of Israel as America's stationary aircraft carrier is equally  unconvincing in this context.  Again, this made a certain paranoid sense when the enemy was communism, because the states bordering on Israel were considered the most likely to go communist.  But the US does not need or want Israel to strike through Jordan and Syria to Gulf oil fields.  This 'solution' would be much more of a problem than simply occupying the oil fields with American troops.  The US today would have no more difficulty securing or controlling Middle East oil supplies than the Allies did during World War I, long before Israel existed.  The one thing that might conceivably come in handy - lots of expendable ground troops - only friendly Arab governments, not Israel, could provide.


As for more immediate objectives, there is no common interest at all.   America has absolutely no desire for Israeli settlers to dispossess the Palestinians of the little that remains to them, no desire whatever to persecute the Palestinians in any way.   Israel benefits from these activities; America merely pays the price, in dollars and lives.   This is an offense not only to morality but to common sense.


Why the alliance should end.


Despite the air of unshakeable piety that surrounds the US-Israel alliance, it has never been, even at its height, the sacred bond that we habitually suppose it to be.   Even after the Yom Kippur war, when the US replenished Israel's arsenal, US aid to Egypt was very substantial and preceded the Camp David agreements of 1977.   In 1974, for instance,  Nixon signed a treaty providing  Egypt with nuclear technology 'for peaceful purposes'.   Saudi Arabia, still at war with Israel, is armed by the United States.  And how soon we forget the amazing fact that, in 1990, the US and Syria were military allies.


In fact, America would be far better off on the other side of the Israel/Palestine conflict.   It would instantly gain the warm friendship of Arab oil producers and obtain far more valuable allies in the war on terror:  not only the governments of the entire Muslim world, but a good portion of the Muslim fundamentalist movement!   The war on terror, which seems so unwinnable, might well be won at nominal cost, and quickly.   All it would take would be to make Israel, in the absence of withdrawal from the occupied territories, the object of the kind of coalition forged against Iraq in the first Gulf War.  Of course, against Israel the coalition would be far broader and stronger, including all the countries of the former Soviet Union, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, and many others.   And though Israel is quite strong enough to persist in its policies without US support, it could not stand up to such a coalition.(***)   Israel would be forced to follow its own best interests and make peace.


Perhaps most important, switching sides would revitalize America's foundering efforts at non-proliferation.   The there are two main reasons why other countries resist these efforts:  fear of American attack, and the outrageous exemption of Israel from non-proliferation initiatives.   It is simply absurd to suppose that any serious effort to stem the development of nuclear weapons can proceed in the absence of any attempt to disarm Israel, which is estimated to possess between 200 and 500 nuclear warheads.  Having launched its own satellites, it clearly has the capacity to hit targets anywhere in the world, and possesses cruise missiles that have hit targets 950 miles away.   Until it is forced either to disarm or to establish good relations with its neighbours, the pace of proliferation will simply increase.    On the other hand, US efforts to neutralize the Israeli nuclear threat would win support for proliferation efforts from Pakistan and Iran.   In these circumstances, in a radically different political environment, the problem of North Korea would no longer seem intractable.   Meanwhile the US contents itself with hollow victories such as Libya’s recent gesture, the nuclear disarmament of a country that never had nuclear weapons in the first place.


In short, one has only to conceive the end of the Israel-US alliance to be overwhelmed with the benefits of such a move - very likely, even to Israel itself.   That once-beneficial alliance, a legacy of the Cold War, has turned poisonous to America's security and its future.




(*)   Michael Rubner, review of Decade of Transition: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Origins of the American-Israeli Alliance, by Abraham Ben-Zvi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998, Middle East Policy, Volume VI, Number 3, February 1999,


(**)  This policy prepared the ground for the emergence of Hamas in the 1980s.  see


(***) According to Andrew Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, that Israel could fight for two years before needing US help.  (