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The Truth About Israeli Influence In The US
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NB: this post is adapted from a Twitter thread I did in a state of insomnia—which is how you know it’s the best content.
Since we are talking about the Middle East and Israel, I want to rectify a few narratives about the relationship between the US and Israel.
There are two ideas out there which I believe are wrong, or at least greatly exagerrated:
That Israel receives extraordinary, one-sided support from the US (this is typically manifested in pointing out the large amounts of US foreign aid Israel receives)
That the Israel lobby in the US is extremely influential.
The reality is that US policy in the Middle East since 1973 and the Oil Shock has been to put everybody on the payroll, and the self-conscious overarching goal has been stability and the status quo. Yes, that policy has exceptions, most notably the 03-06 neoconservative interlude, and it is very often clumsily implemented.
However, if you were able to get ten former Secretaries of State, National Security Advisers, etc. of both in a locked room and get them very drunk and ask them what they think they were doing in re: the Middle East, that’s what they would say. They wouldn’t talk about Israel as such. They would say, we basically tried to keep a lid on things and try to bribe/bully whoever we needed to to try to keep things mostly copacetic. There were other things but that was mainly what we tried to do.
I would add that given the total American inability to understand other countries and peoples and worldviews, this general concept is probably the least bad there is. It reminds me of a famous, now-decried-as-racist line in de Gaulle’s memoir, "I went to the complicated Orient with simple ideas."
This policy—keep everybody on the payroll, try to just keep the lid down—can be seen in many ways.
It is why, for example, famously, the US funded both sides in the Iran-Iraq war.
Israel is the biggest recipient of US foreign aid. Who’s number 2? Egypt, as this was the price for the Camp David Accords. Is this because of the Egypt Lobby?
As Trump famously pointed out, having US bases on your soil for free is a huge in-kind subsidy. The US grants this to countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, pro-Iran & pro-MB Qatar. Is it because they need the money? Is it because there are so many Saudis on the board of the New York Times?
As Republicans in Congress have been pointing out, the Biden Administration has been funding Iran, Israel’s mortal enemy.
As Twitter has been pointing out, the US spends money on Palestinian "aid", which everyone knows is funneled to Hamas.
So the US has been funding the Israelis—but they have also been funding Hamas! Which is the bigger scandal? And is this indicative of an over-the-top pro-Israeli policy? More often than not, in every Middle East conflict you can think of, they’re funding both sides.
Is there a pro-Israel tilt to US policy? Yes. Sure. A little. That’s right: a little.
Why is there this tilt? Does the over representation of Jews in the US elite play a role? It would be naïve to pretend otherwise, but as I have recently been documenting on Twitter during the past week, it’s at least equally as likely that those Jews, in the US, are self-hating liberal Jews who are guilt-driven to be ANTI-Israel. Where does Soros money in the Middle East go? Palestine. How do you describe the New York Times’ coverage of Israel? Virulently hostile. Brandeis University’s student union just released a pro-Hamas statement. Brandeis!
There is a generational effect at play: there used to be lots of American Jews who either had personal memory, or whose parents had personal memories, of the Holocaust, and who therefore had a very strong emotional attachment to Israel. The following generations will engage in Holocaust-victimology in a society where asserting victimhood is a status play, but they do not have the same personal understanding of it and do not make the connection to Israel. It also does not “help” that Israel has gone from being a secular-socialist poor country to a market-oriented rich country with a majority or plurality of orthodox believers. The influential Jews in American society (at least those who are left) are simply no longer pro-Israel and in many cases are often actively anti-Israel.
What else might account for US support for Israel? How about the fact that it is a Western-style liberal democracy with Western-style lifestyle and values which the American public naturally views as more sympathetic than crazy jihadi terrorists and bizarro oil sheiks and a terrorist regime whose motto is literally “Death to America”. I understand why people find talk of “our values” embarrassing and overdone, but it is just true that Israel does share our values (whatever you may think of those values) and that this makes them naturally sympathetic to the American public.
More to the point: let me let you in on some little secrets about the reality of power in Washington Dee-Cee.
The first is that the US Derp State, the State Department and Pentagon and CIA, don’t like Israel. At all. Thanks to the feminized struggle sessions at Foggy Bottom this is now public but it has been common knowledge for a long time. The story of the “pro-Israel lobby” is not the story of an Israel-infiltrated deep state pursuing pro-Israel policies, but of elected officials strong-arming the deep state into pursuing policies they don’t like and (therefore) try to undermine. In the US government, the Israel support happens at the political level a lot more than it does at the bureaucratic level, which, as we all know, is the more important level.
American Derp State apparatchiks tend not to like Israel because they are also self-hating libs. Therefore they primarily blame America for anti-Americanism; in this mythology, Israel and American support for Israel plays a huge role. They’re the kind of people who are likely to sagely say things like “The Middle East’s problems can’t be resolved until the Palestinian problem is resolved” even though the Palestinian issue has always been a convenient pretext and Arab countries care nothing for the Palestinians in reality.
US intelligence operatives in the Middle East spend time working with Arab intelligence services on catching terrorists and they tend to think the existence of Israel makes their lives worse by radicalizing Arab Muslims (again, blaming the West because they are libs).
While there is Israeli influence on US policy, to be sure, the influence of the State Department, which is virulently anti-Israel, cannot be overstated.
The entire Clinton Administration was an 8-year exercise in State Dept bullying of Israel to try to get them to lick the feet of Arafat who (it was already clear then but we now know for a fact) never considered doing a peace deal and never stopped directing terrorism against Israeli civilians.
How do you think the average US State Department bureaucrat feels about Trump moving the US embassy to Jerusalem? Do you think she thinks “Oh yes, thank you President Trump, Israel our greatest ally?” Of course not! They hate it!
They think Israel is an illegitimate state because Israel is mean, like a high school bully, and terrorists are poor misunderstood victims, and they are the kind of people who think in those terms.
Another example of this State Department control of US policy was the now-forgotten “realist turn” of 2006-2008 when President Bush sidelined the hardline neoconservatives in his Administration and handed the reins to, well, the State Department. It was during this period that the US forced the Palestinians to hold elections (and Israel to allow it), leading to the Hamas takeover of Gaza which is causing the problems we now see.
Even before then, through the 2000s the Bush Administration was constantly pressuring the Sharon government on settlements. As Republicans they understood (unlike Democrats) that Arafat was not a responsible interlocutor, but consequently they felt that the rise of Abu Mazen/Mahmoud Abbas was a golden opportunity for peace and so engaged in a milder, but still real, version of the Clinton “twist the Israeli’s arms until they get to the table” approach. And to be fair, it was not crazy at the time to think that it was worth a shot to try this approach. (It turns out Abu Mazen prefers to live than to sign a peace deal.)
But is not at all the case that the Israelis remember the “Bush-neocon-Jesus-Crusader” era (as some like to remember it) as some sort of golden age of American support and kowtowing to Israeli wishes.
Which brings me to another topic: why is US foreign aid to Israel so large?
Mainly because it’s what can be most directly influenced by Congress through the budget process. It’s an instance of political decision-making by US elected officials going against the Derp State.
On this score, it’s also worth pointing out, as Mitch McConnell pointed out recently, that a lot of that “foreign aid” never ends up directly in Israeli pockets because it goes to US defense contractors (another place where real Washington influence lies)—in other words the “foreign aid” is really a way for Congress to get Jorbs In My District.
By the way: Israel doesn’t need the money. It has a super advanced economy. They’ll take it! But things like tech support and weapons and intelligence and especially diplomatic support are much more important. And of course the US gives all these. But it does so reluctantly, and it does so because Israel is on a list with twenty other guys, fifteen of whom hate Israel, and seven of those are actively plotting to kill Israelis. Hardly slavish obedience to the Israel lobby.
The period that best exemplifies this syndrome of foreign aid as indicative of less-than-support is, of course, the Obama Administration. Obama’s entire “concept” for the Middle East was to pivot away from Israel and towards Iran, and Obama increased foreign aid to Israel as compensation for the fact that they were being screwed politically and militarily. Israel would gladly have traded all of the aid for the White House abandoning the JCPOA, in a minute.
There is another important thing to understand about how power works in Washington, and how that relates to the power of the Israel lobby: if a lobby group is loud, and the politicians supporting that group are loud, that is usually an indication of weakness, not strength.
You know what the most powerful lobby in DC is, by far? Not Aipac. Not the NRA. Not Soros. Not the AFL-CIO.
It is the AARP. You never read about the AARP but Congress lives in absolute abject terror of the AARP. They can move votes and they can move money and so they don’t need press releases and hand-on-the-heart tear-jerking statements and Presidential candidates speaking at their summit. Half of your federal tax dollars goes to the giant Boomer-run sheep-shearing operation. The entire foreign aid budget is literally a rounding error compared to the organized robbery of the public purse by the Boomer lobby. How often do you read about it? Where’s the protests? There aren’t any. There won’t be any. Just as there won’t be about the State Department or the Pentagon or the CIA or the Saudi lobby or the defense contractor lobby all of which are more powerful than the Israel lobby.
The reality is that politicians have two things they can give you: words or deeds. Words are a lot cheaper, and they’re usually what they give you when they can’t or won’t give you what you actually want, which is deeds.
Hand-on-heart speeches about “Israel are greatest ally Middle East democracy are values” are indications of weakness not strength. When Netanyahu went to speak to a Joint Session of Congress—the most public lobbying act possible—during the negotiation of the JCPOA, that was a gesture of desperation, a panicked response to the fact that the Democratic Party Establishment has turned against Israel.
Do you think MBS or Erdogan or Qatar—who are on the payroll—tremble when they see some hick Congressman from nowhere go on Fox and talk about “Israel are greatest ally”? They smile and change the channel.
If a politician is making a loud public statement for X, he is probably either trying to get the media to bring pressure on a topic (which means other channels have failed), or trying to leverage or play to the absolute weakest interest in DC: the constituents.
Is there an Israel lobby? Yes of course there’s an Israel lobby but there’s an everything lobby. Did you know the Audubon Society spends millions on advocacy and lobbying? (Here’s some real white identity politics.)
On this topic, I cannot overemphasize two facts which are completely misunderstood by outsiders but which are crucial, which is (a), the loudness of pro-Israel proclamations are an indicator of (relative) weakness not strength, (b) the over-representation of Jews in US elites more often than not works against Israel since most of them are self-hating liberal Jews.
Is the Israel lobby influential? Sure. Is it especially influential on Middle East policy as compared to other extrmely influential lobbies such as State Dept, Pentagon, CIA, Saudis, defense contractors, and so on? Nope. Not by a long shot.
Finally, I want to address another meme I see a lot: “Oh, why all this handwringing about the Middle East, who cares about these tribal conflicts in the middle of nowhere?”
Sure, I get it.
But I do feel a need to point out that, oh, more than half of the world’s oil and gas comes from the Middle East, and a huge chunk of world trade comes from the Suez Canal!
Can we be serious for two seconds? A world where the US washes its hands of the whole mess and there is a free-for-all in the Middle East is a world where oil is $200, $300, $500 a barrel, and we can all go home. Beff Jezos can forget about AI. Elon can forget about electric cars (which actually run on fossil fuels but that’s another topic for another day!). We can all start to stockpile firewood and canned food.
Maybe that would be a good thing in some sort of 4D chess way? I disagree but it’s not really relevant because no US Administration is going to walk away and literally watch the world burn because it just might stabilize into a better status quo in 10 years (which it won’t). Not even Trump. Not even Pat Buchanan would have done it.
Like it or not, as things currently stand, our entire way of life depends on oil flowing, relatively cheaply, but especially smoothly, from the Middle East.
And so, since the second Oil Shock and the Carter Administration, the way US policymakers have looked at the Middle East is to say: we’re going to put everybody on the payroll, bring everybody in (some more visibly than others), and we’re going to try to maintain as much status quo as we think we can.
US funding and diplomatic support for Israel is really just one part of that much broader policy and can only be looked at intelligently as part of that broader context.