Knowing Too Much and the Jewish Lobby

by Gabriel Ash

Is American support for Israel's occupation a reflection of US interests or the machinations of the Israel lobby? Both—and neither.

First published: 01 July, 2013 | Category: Foreign policy, International, Politics, Terror/War

Norman Finkelstein’s recent book Knowing Too Much surveys the trajectory of American Jews' infatuation with Israel in order to show—this is Finkelstein's main point—that it has entered a stage of disenchantment. But are the political implications of this disenchantment the ones Finkelstein himself draws?

One chapter particularly worth reading in Finkelstein’s book is dedicated to a thorough debunking of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's "The Israeli Lobby made me do it" explanation of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and especially the Iraq War. In an essay and subsequent book, Walt and Mearsheimer famously argued that U.S. support for Israeli policies harms rather than serves American interests, and explained it, along with much of the U.S.'s behaviour in the Middle East, in terms of the machinations of pro-Israel lobby groups.

In his chapter, Finkelstein establishes a core communality of interests between Washington and Tel Aviv. Both fear indigenous local self-assertion that would limit their ability to project power in the region. Yesterday the principle threat was Egypt's Nasser; today it is primarily Iran. Israel is fundamentally 'a creature of the West' and therefore the only U.S. ally in the region whose subservience to the U.S. stems from deep cultural and popular roots. It therefore continues to be useful to the U.S. Moreover Finkelstein argues, correctly I believe, that the probable effect of the 'Arab Spring' in the short-term will be to increase U.S. foreign policy reliance on Israel, as an island of pro-western stability in an increasingly volatile region.

Debunking 'The Israel Lobby'

Finkelstein meticulously exposes the leaps of logic that underpin Mearsheimer and Walt’s theories, such as their claim that the failure of Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon shows that the Bush administration was coerced into supporting it, and their insistence that the Iraq war was contrary to U.S. interests because it failed. (But did the war “fail”? Only if one accepts the ridiculous justifications and pie-in-the-sky metrics offered to the public.)

Finkelstein debunks the theory that different U.S. administrations differed on policy towards Israel because of domestic electoral concerns. He traces the common thread, ignored by Lobby enthusiasts, connecting President Truman's tepid support for Israel's creation with President Eisenhower's purely tactical disagreement with Israel regarding the best way to remove Nasser from office. Finkelstein argues cogently that, their protestations notwithstanding, Mearsheimer and Walt are in fact accusing the American Jewish establishment of disloyalty on the basis of alleged 'Jewish interests', an accusation Finkelstein exposes as both false and based on flimsy reasoning.

The bulk of the proof takes Finkelstein into a deconstruction of the terminology that serves as the basis of the allegations. He takes apart the term 'neo-conservative', revealing the ingrained opportunism of its alleged disciples, their almost full alignment with the mainstream U.S. political vision of the world, and the impossibility of dividing Jewish from non-Jewish advocates for the same U.S. dominance. He runs methodically through the record of the Iraq War to demonstrate that Mearsheimer and Walt's contentions are unsubstantiated and incoherent. The coup de grace is an approving cite of the demolition of their thesis on the Iraq War by Norman Podhoretz, a neoconservative himself. Mearsheimer and Walt's supreme achievement seems to be to have made at least one neoconservative sound reasonable.

Room for the lobby?

Having demolished the claim that the major contours of U.S. policy in the Middle East are decisively shaped by the power of a domestic lobby, Finkelstein turns around to argue that on certain issues the Lobby is influential. He identifies a sub-category of 'secondary' policies, in which the vital interests of the U.S. are not at stake, and where the U.S. caving to Israel can only, he alleges, be explained by the power of the Lobby. The key and only example provided is Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory. Finkelstein claims that U.S. support for Israel's occupation doesn't stem from any direct U.S. interest in it. On the contrary, such support 'comes at a price of alienating public opinion in the Arab-Muslim worlds' and making the U.S. 'a likelier target of terrorist attacks'.

Here, Finkelstein's distinction between 'vital' and 'secondary' U.S. interests seems all too neat and prefabricated to support a distinction between full opposition to Israeli apartheid and his own recommendation for Palestinian solidarity activists to focus exclusively on ending the occupation. For the political upshot of this distinction is that 'vital' U.S. interests such as support for Israel as a militarily powerful allied state cannot be reasonably challenged, whereas attempts to confront the narrower, 'secondary' interest of Israel's occupation need only defeat the lobby, and not the U.S. ruling class. The latter, Finkelstein wants us to see, is a much more reasonable goal, made easier by the book’s overarching thesis, namely the growing disenchantment of American Jews with Israel . That it is convenient for Finkelstein’s broader argument does not prove the distinction wrong. But it does justify a closer examination, and there are in my opinion two major difficulties with it.

First, Finkelstein's argument unrealistically inflates the importance to U.S. planners of both terrorism and world public opinion. Second, while Finkelstein discredits the specific evidence (or lack thereof) cited in support of Mearsheimer and Walt’s thesis, he nevertheless falls for their simplistic and mechanical concept of 'interest'. Thus, after challenging Mearsheimer and Walt for failing to ask what makes supporting the most extreme right wing positions in Israel a 'Jewish' interest, Finkelstein's own argument implicitly rests on the same assumption, namely that maintaining the occupation is, or at least has been, a specifically Jewish interest. Let’s take these two issues in turn.

How much do U.S. policymakers care about the 'costs' of U.S. support for Israel's occupation (an increased threat of terrorism, greater popular hostility to the U.S.) listed by Finkelstein? With respect to terrorism, regimes generally benefit so handsomely from the public's perception that the nation is under attack, and so many U.S. policies are so utterly inimical to the welfare of American citizens, that it is doubtful whether the occasional terrorist attack is perceived in Washington as anything other than a gift. The idea that the U.S. government would sacrifice anything of value, even of little value, to reduce the number of terrorist attacks, unless they spread to a level that threatens its legitimacy, is unpersuasive.

As for world public opinion, there is no doubt that the U.S. values 'soft power' and invests heavily in 'perception management'. Finkelstein notes that already in 1951, the U.S. responded to Arab disaffection with propaganda rather than by substantively addressing grievances. This is typical. Karen Hughes’s appointment as propaganda czar in response to unflattering Arab public opinion after the invasion of Iraq is another example. But from maintaining its base in Okinawa through to its embargo on Cuba, is there a single example of the U.S. giving in to a foreign public opinion (exception made, not always and not by much, for a public in open rebellion)? Now how 'vital' is it to the U.S. to maintain the Cuban embargo or to have a base in a specific location in Japan? It seems to me that the U.S. policy establishment’s default response to foreign public opinion is to attempt to bamboozle it with propaganda, often by throwing money at it.

I would argue that this is not a 'mistake'. The job of U.S. foreign policy, in one way or another, is to snatch milk from the mouths of babies in order to feed the interests of global capital. Put simply, while how it does it can occasionally mitigate resistance, imperialism is inherently unpopular because of what it does. The U.S. policy establishment understands the importance of managing public opinion, but almost never obeys it. Indeed, those perceived as excessively attentive to it are considered confused about proper loyalties, as was the fate of the 'Arabists' in the State Department.  To sum up, even accepting that the Israeli occupation is not a 'vital' U.S. interest, there is no basis for believing that the U.S. governing class would ever have a serious interest in ending it, absent actual rebellion.

Incoherent 'interests'

Overarching strategic doctrines issued by successive administrations articulate how the U.S. government conceives its long term maintenance and aggrandisement. It is here that one locates the basic imperatives driving U.S. foreign policy: containing rival imperial powers, advancing the powers of markets through pro-U.S. and pro-capitalist regimes and defeating indigenous and popular challenges to capitalism in general and to friendly regimes in particular. It is at this level that Israel fits in to U.S. foreign policy. Israel is part of a network of states under U.S. hegemony. It must be defended not only for what it does for the U.S., but primarily for what it is, namely, an element of the global assertion of western power. The strategic importance of the Middle East and Israel's own lack of alternatives further make it one of the U.S.'s safest allies.

What happens when U.S. and Israeli interests clash? The mechanistic model that Finkelstein borrows from Mearsheimer and Walt relies implicitly on the assumption that U.S. and Israeli interests are independent of each other. Israel wants the West Bank. The U.S. wants global domination and therefore would prefer to placate Arabs by giving Palestinians sovereign power over Ramallah. Because interests are independent, a third force, Jewish interests operating domestically in the U.S., is appealed to in order to explain why the stronger will is bent by the weaker.

But in a conflict between allies the game is never zero sum, as both sides value the alliance itself. Thus the interests of key U.S. allies tend to be adopted by the White House, in the service of maintaining them as allies. That junior partners in such alliances wield disproportionate power is unremarkable. Indeed, some scholars conclude that 'the dominant feature in the relation between international and regional powers is the manipulation of the former by the latter.’[1] Conversely, specific Israeli interests developed within and were constrained by its dependence on superpower support for its development. The early decision of the nascent Israeli regime to develop through militarism had internal motives, including maintaining the gains of the Nakba and managing the new social divide between veteran Israelis and the new immigrants from Arab countries. But that path relied on Israel’s ability to attract support from colonial powers and therefore on the existence of colonial interests in the region. Israel could never have desired a 'special relationship' with the U.S., as an 'iron wall' against decolonisation, absent the latter’s project to dominate the region for its own ends. Indeed the tight dependence of Zionism on imperialism was fundamental and was stated as such at numerous occasions by Zionist leaders and thinkers . Given this degree of interdependence it is misleading to ask why the U.S. ruling class fails to promote its own trivial interests to breaking point against what Israel considers absolutely vital, as if such an outcome represents a mystery.

Furthermore, as Finkelstein himself shows, influential, upwardly mobile American Jews articulated their 'Jewish' interest with their better eye to what the U.S. political establishment as a whole considered acceptable, and the other eye to what Israel demanded. This has been so because the 'Jewish' interest that the Jewish Lobby articulates was not an independent variable rooted in American-Jewish identity, but precisely the positional privilege that (some) American Jews acquired by virtue of being able—thanks to an 'ethnic' or 'national' construction responsive to various specificities and conjunctures of the U.S. situation at the time—to mediate the alliance between the superpower and its regional ally.

The Six Day War: a victory for the lobby?

Finkelstein's prime example of U.S. government capitulation before the lobby is its move, in 1967, to accommodate Israel's occupation by watering down the language of UNSC 242.[2]  Was the power of the lobby decisive? In relation to the mechanism of decision making, it clearly played a role; which Finkelstein’s chapter details. But consider the situation in which this lobbying power was tested. Israel had just won a war in which it defeated the U.S.'s greatest regional challenger, as well as a Soviet proxy, and thereby proved its great strategic value. As McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor, described it, standing with Israel was a no-brainer: America’s Cold War ally won, the other side lost.[3] After the war, the demand for unconditional Israeli withdrawal was led by U.S. enemies and rivals (the USSR, its regional clients, and non-aligned countries). The prospect of a pro-U.S. regional alliance including Israel was proving remote, and Nasser’s defiance made clear that compromise would be more expensive than expected. Clearly, the U.S. preferred Israel to be more pliable than it was, more ready to dangle the carrot of returned territories in front of Arab regimes. That is precisely why the U.S. supported UNSC 242 and continued to work for the kind of Israeli-Arab alliance that would eventually emerge after the war of 1973, into which Israel was dragged kicking and screaming. But to side with Nasser against Israel in 1967 would have been an altogether different proposition.

Finkelstein cites ample evidence for the Johnson administration’s domestic concerns with Jewish pressure, and these undoubtedly carried weight in the decision making process. He cites Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s indictment of Israel for dooming the region to decades of revanchism, an accusation that certainly hits home. But already on 6 June, the same Rusk had formulated the principles of U.S. foreign policy in relation to the war as aiming at 'full peace, with Israel accepted by its neighbours'. This was also the position of Undersecretary for Political Affairs Eugene Rostow, who was adopting a suggestion from the Israeli Ambassador.[4] Finkelstein cites other incriminating statements, including McGeorge Bundy’s doubts about the willingness of the administration to put pressure on Israel 'in view of the feeling of the people of Israel and their supporters in the US'. But Bundy, like Rusk, puts the blame primarily on Israel, and he himself acted to champion Israel’s preferences from the moment he was called back to help handle Middle East policy. Already on 11 June he informed President Johnson that ‘old boundaries cannot be restored.’[5]

In other words, the fundamental U.S. foreign policy objective, as it emerged within days of the 1967 war, was to use Israel's territorial gains in the war to push Arab governments on a better deal for Israel, not to push for a better deal from Israel. Thus by the time the war ended Israel and the U.S., despite differences on the final desired borders, were in basic agreement on the strategy of seeking to leverage Israel’s victories, specifically those 'territories acquired by war', to extract Arab concessions. When arguing that Israel has been a strategic asset for the U.S., Finkelstein quotes the U.S. desire from before the 1967 war to 'cut Nasser down to size'. Yet this very goal also explains why the administration declined to pressure Israel too hard to withdraw while Nasser remained defiant.

This fundamental asymmetry in U.S. foreign policy outlook between Israeli intransigence, which frequently infuriated U.S. officials, and Arab demands, which had to be decisively defeated, was thus a continuation of the policies of the Eisenhower administration, geared towards defeating Nasser. This asymmetry empowered Israel to repeatedly derail U.S. plans. It was also this asymmetry that empowered American Jewish organizations to intervene on behalf of the west's new champion in the Middle East, without threatening their own standing in American society. American Jewish organizations surely pushed for the White House to back Israel. But they pushed a demand that was vehemently considered non-negotiable by Israel while also being in line with longstanding U.S. strategy—namely, getting Arab governments to acquiesce to Israel’s existence (with the implied renunciation of the Palestinian refugee questions and other matters of contention) as a condition for withdrawal.

Pressure from the lobby thus aligned with the strategic outlook of key national security figures, fitted the public discourse of the Cold War (with Israel as the victorious U.S.-backed horse), matched Johnson’s white supremacist appreciation of Israel’s settler ethos, and took advantage of Johnson’s obsession with liberal (and Jewish) opposition to the Vietnam War. Needless to say, neither Johnson nor any of his advisors considered for even a second getting out of Vietnam to please Jewish opinion. It wasn’t Jewish opinion, or even the power of a Jewish political contingent per se, that made the White House indulge Israel on the occupation. It was a group of insiders and institutions that took advantage of the full conjuncture of disparate factors, including the new American Jewish attachment to Israel, which created an opportunity for Israel to pursue policies of territorial encroachment that the U.S. in fact opposed. The point is not to dismiss the important role played by these organizations in enabling Israel, but to argue that their actions cannot be isolated as an independent factor—a power—that 'explains'  why political decisions went a particular way.

That was in 1967, when the occupation was still young. Then, the Israeli regime would have been merely bruised had it been forced to withdraw. Today, as many Israeli commentators have critically noted, the occupation has become intractable and intrinsic to the regime itself.[6] To separate the West Bank from Israel may be straightforward in international law, but in practical terms, the implications for the stability of the Israeli state would be no different than if one were trying to partition Spain. Is it really strange that the U.S. has not adopted such a high risk strategy?

Regional transformations can bring about conditions in which partition would represent the lesser risk, and this would lead to a profound reconfiguration of U.S foreign policy. Changes in the way American Jews view Israel cannot, and that is partly because they are not the force behind the occupation. In itself, this is no reason not to pursue an independent Palestinian state. But neither does the record prove that the great Jewish disenchantment which is upon us—and which I do believe is important—will make getting Israel out of the West Bank that much easier.

Gabriel Ash is an activist, writer and filmmaker. His writing regularly appears at Jews sans frontieres and he is member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN).

Norman Finkelstein's Knowing Too Much is published by OR Books, and can be purchased here.


[1] Wm Roger Louis and Avi Shlaim, The 1967 Arab-Israeli War, 2012, p. 6.

[2]  Removing from the English version the definite article before ‘territories occupied in the recent conflict’, and, more substantially, tying withdrawal to the security of borders in general, i.e. a negotiated peace agreement in general.

[3] Charles D. Smith in ibid., p. 188.

[4] Ibid. p. 182.

[5] Gershom Gorenberg, The Accidental Empire, 2007, pp. 53-56.

[6] Meron Benvenisti, The West Bank Data Project: A Survey of Israel's Policies, 1987; Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir, The One-State Condition, 2012.

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