As Israel again wields brutal military power on a captive Gaza, trapped Palestinians seem numb with resignation. Tweets from the ground reveal Palestinians preparing for the worst, scrambling to gather their entire families so they can all die together. They read less like cries for help and more like goodbyes.
It can be hard to tell from the United States, but Israeli occupation and apartheid are highly unpopular across the globe. That’s been true since Israel was established in 1948.
Yet Israel today has diplomatic relations with most of the world, due in large part to the maneuverings of the United States. Washington worked hard to normalize Israel and integrate it into the world economy. The United States has a “special relationship” with the state of Israel, as characterized by the US State Department:
Israel is a great partner to the United States, and Israel has no greater friend than the United States. Americans and Israelis are united by our shared commitment to democracy, economic prosperity, and regional security. The unbreakable bond between our two countries has never been stronger.
Politicians are constantly invoking the US commitment to Israel, and constantly branding any criticism of Israel as “antisemitic.” Each year, Washington sends $3.8 billion in aid and an additional $8 billion in loan guarantees.
It’s less clear why Israel is an untouchable ally of the United States.
Over the years, the US public has heard a litany of justifications for Washington’s support for Israel: because of the Holocaust, because it’s “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and so on. Both points are demonstrably wrong.
But it’s not enough for us to expose lies. We have to explain the US-Israeli romance, and why their “special relationship” has endured for over half a century.
Some argue Washington does whatever Israel wants. But the United States is the most powerful capitalist nation in the history of the world. Explaining its actions as cunningly manipulated by the tiny Israel gets you into “Jews secretly control the world” territory.
The actual story is different, but still simple. US and Israeli interests have converged in important ways. The United States has served as a critical sponsor for Israel financially and politically. And Israel has played an invaluable role in helping the United States dominate the Middle East.
“Right-Wing Separatist Movement Seeks Imperial Sponsor”
To understand why, let’s review a few of the important early developments in the US-Israeli love story.
In the late nineteenth century, oppression of European Jews was widespread. At this time, Jewish people were overrepresented in the socialist movement. These socialist Jews understood themselves as part of the working class, and saw internationalism as the road to their liberation.
When Zionism emerged around this same time, its animating idea was a different one: because antisemitism was so vehement and intractable, Jews and non-Jews could not live together. So an exclusively Jewish homeland was necessary.
In these early years, Zionism was by no means naturally dominant within Judaism; for decades, it was marginal. Most Jews preferred to work for equality and democracy in a pluralist society, to integrate into rather than abandon the countries their families had called home for generations.
The early Zionist movement, on the other hand, had a grand vision of colonizing territory for a Jewish, separatist state. Leading members drew up various plans for the political economy of their desired home: how to find land they could take and defend it against what they knew would be a hostile indigenous population, and how to grow an economy and integrate it into the world market.
Theodor Herzl, a leading Zionist at the time, argued the main aim of Zionism should be to win the sponsorship of the great powers for a new Jewish state. Early Zionists initially appealed to a number of colonial powers, including the Ottoman Empire, which was in control of the Middle East. But the Zionists had little to offer and no money to support themselves, and were rebuffed.
When Britain took control of Palestine in World War I, Zionists decided their best bet was an appeal to London. Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist leader working for the British government, led efforts to convince London to declare a protectorate and encourage the settlement of European Jews, who would defend British interests in the region. “A Jewish Palestine,” he argued to a British cabinet minister, “would be a safeguard to England.”
Weizmann’s case was well received by British leaders. World War I had revealed the strategic importance of the Middle East. It surrounded the sea routes to Britain’s most important imperial colonies: India, Southeast Asia, and East Africa. It bordered new oil fields in Persia and Egypt, where nationalist movements chafed mightily against British rule. And not least important, France, Britain’s greatest rival, had secured Syria. In France, Zionists were able to win support by playing to France’s objectives in its imperial rivalry.
With the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain began supporting the Zionist movement, legitimizing the colonization of Palestine. Jewish immigration to Palestine increased sharply for the next few decades. Unsurprisingly, as colonization and violence increased, so, too, did skirmishes between Palestinians and Jews.
In November 1947, the United Nations authorized partitioning the land into two states. Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States all saw value in a Zionist presence in the region, and lobbied to pass the UN resolution 33-13.
By May 1948, Zionist provocations and land grabs led Jewish-Arab skirmishes to blow up into an all-out battle. It was as unequal then as today: “A few thousand ill-directed Arab volunteers faced well-armed Zionist militias prepared by years of training,” describes Phil Marshall in Intifada: Zionism, Imperialism and Palestinian Resistance.
The haganah [Zionist military organization] strategy was to take possession of territory allotted to the Jews under the UN plan and to strike out along routes to isolated Jewish settlements in Arab areas. They quickly took many of the towns and means of communication. In these areas the Zionist state apparatus was put into place and on 14 May [David] Ben Gurion proclaimed a State of Israel in the territories under Zionist control.
Eleven minutes after Ben Gurion’s proclamation, US president Harry S. Truman recognized the new state.
“Emerging Superpower Seeks Local Client State”
As World War II ended, capitalist competition was rapidly globalizing. The United States was an emerging superpower, hungrily eyeing the Middle East’s newly discovered and vast oil deposits. A 1945 State Department memo described these deposits as “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”
As much as the US ruling class wanted that oil, invasion and colonization wasn’t an option. That would have required ongoing direct rule, which would have been fantastically difficult — and expensive — to support from thousands of miles away.
Additionally, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Arab nationalism was sweeping across the Middle East. In Egypt, President Gamal Abdel Nasser struggled to throw off British imperialism and unite Arab countries. Anti-imperial struggles erupted across the region, threatening to expel Western powers. These uprisings meant a highly unstable region, which made for a terrible investment climate. Still worse from the American point of view, many of these nations were moving closer to the Soviet Union.
The United States was forced to seek allies in the region. To pull Arab countries into its orbit, it argued that capitalist democracy was superior to Soviet Communism for their development.
In June 1967, the Six-Day War made it clear to both the United States and Israel that a partnership was a good idea. A central motivation for Arab nationalism was an opposition to Israeli intervention in the region. Military tensions rose on all Israel’s borders, until Israel invaded the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, launched airstrikes over Syria, and attacked Egypt. Within six days, Israel had won a decisive land war and took control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
Israel proved its ability to militarily overpower its neighbors. If made an ally, American power brokers realized, the United States could use Israel to exert control indirectly.
The United States quickly replaced Britain and France as Israel’s new, more committed imperial sponsor. In the year before the Six-Day War, total US aid to Israel was $23.7 million. In its aftermath, US support skyrocketed to $106 million annually.
Huge sums faithfully appeared in Israel’s ledgers on the first of every fiscal year, underpinning its technology and defense sectors. This is the basis of the Israeli “miracle economy” that Zionists recall as “making the desert bloom.” Today, the World Power Index ranks Israel’s military and economy as the tenth most powerful in the world.
In return, Washington got what was effectively a US military outpost in what American military strategists determined was the most important region in the world. No price tag was too high for what the United States got out of the deal: an indigenous intelligence service; troops, trained and familiar with the territory and ideologically committed; and all the weapons they would ever need, there in the Middle East. There was no need to convince the US public for a military incursion or to deploy the US military thousands of miles away. A conservative estimate of the cost of the United States to handle all this itself is at least $125 billion. Getting all that for an initial outlay of $106 million per year was, for Washington, a bargain.
It’s been a windfall for US defense corporations, too. Billions of dollars the United States sends to Israel wind up coming back to its military industry. For example, a 2010 agreement between the United States and Israel allows for Israel to use a total of $15.2 billion in military grants from the United States to buy F-35 fighters from Lockheed Martin.
Thus began the United States and Israel’s “special relationship.” In the ensuing half century, much of this special relationship has been based on geostrategic positioning and a growing interpenetration of the two economies.
The “Special Relationship” Is Cemented
In 1973, Israel still had not abandoned the territories it snatched in 1967 from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Israel further inflamed tensions by refusing to remove its military, threatening more of the kind of regional instability that Washington loathed.
But the United States had more limits to its influence than at any other time since rising as a superpower. Many things were not going well for Washington. The US military was finally declaring defeat to Communists in Vietnam, amid mass anger at the country sending working-class men on imperial adventures across the globe. Communists had forced US retreat in Indochina, and anti-colonial battles had erupted across Africa, in Kenya, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence discovered that Egypt and Syria planned to attack in the hopes of seizing back Sinai. Israel’s habit was to launch preemptive strikes, but Prime Minister Golda Meir worried about being perceived as the aggressor yet again. Undermining its claim as a perpetual victim would lose Israel its go-to justification for military attacks. Her advisors also worried it would alienate the United States, an assessment later confirmed by secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Had Israel struck first, Kissinger said, the United States wouldn’t have sent over “so much as a nail.”
The Egyptian and Syrian armies attacked Israel, striking on different fronts and each seeing early victories. But Israel was able to fight back, scoring air and sea wins and driving the Egyptian and Syrian armies back.
To draw in US support, Meir ordered planes with nuclear missiles to stand by on alert. It worked: Nixon ordered weapons and supplies to be airlifted to Israel. The supplies arrived just as Israel was starting to get the advantage, trapping a section of the Egyptian Army with no access to food or water. Israelis were eager to destroy the cornered Egyptians, but were stopped by Kissinger. He told the Israeli ambassador it was “an option that does not exist.”
The Israelis complied. After the war, Kissinger continued to work on the Israelis to withdraw from some Arab lands.
Kissinger saw the situation as a strategic opportunity. Israel had again demonstrated definitively that it could militarily dominate other nations in the region and keep its enemies at bay. But Israeli might was dependent on Washington for funds, weaponry, and diplomatic cover. And the United States got to position itself as the only force that could keep Israel in check.
Kissinger was not alone in recognizing this value. In 1973, total US aid to Israel stood at $492.8 million. The following year, funding exploded to $2.6 billion — an increase of 530 percent.
With this good cop, bad cop routine, the US-Israeli relationship settled into its current form. When Israel behaves belligerently, it gives the lie to Israel’s claim of being the only democracy in the Middle East. And it reinforces the understanding that Israel can do whatever it wants, with the United States the only force capable of holding it back.
This is a tidy arrangement for the United States and Israel. The United States is able to exert its influence without direct involvement. And Israel continues on its course: settlements, military bombardments, displacement, and murder of Palestinians. The displacement and ethnic cleansing of Palestine is one of the great crimes of the last century, made possible by Israel’s utility to the US imperial project.
Why We Should Fight for Palestine
Thankfully, there is increasing space in this country to describe and decry the injustice that Israel inflicts on Palestinians.
Israeli aggression is all too predictable at this point, but something entirely unprecedented happened this week in Washington, DC. Usually, an Israeli attack is an occasion for Democrats and Republicans to come together in support of Israel, a collective blind eye turned toward injured, dead, and displaced Palestinians. But at least half a dozen Congress members punctured the bipartisan display of support, with powerful denunciations of Israel and support for Palestinians.
They were led by democratic socialists like Rep. Rashida Tlaib, herself a Palestinian. “It is our duty to end the apartheid system that for decades has subjected Palestinians to inhumane treatment and racism,” said Tlaib.
Socialists should join Tlaib and fight for Palestinian liberation like it is a fight for our own liberation — because it is. If the United States and Israel have interconnecting interests, then so, too, do the people they oppress.