The annual conference of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), America’s premier pro-Israel lobbying group, began over the weekend and we will see the familiar ritual of leading American politicians, including the US president, dutifully attending and swearing their undying loyalty to Israel. It is really quite an extraordinary spectacle to see the leading political figures of one state swearing their unwavering devotion to the interests of another. Even Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems surprised at how easy it is to get the US to do Israel’s bidding, expressing amazement that 80% of Americans support Israel, calling this ‘absurd’.
In an election year, an American presidential candidate in a tight race has to pander to the Israel lobby even more than usual and the Israeli government knows this. It is clear that Israel wants the US to attack Iran on its behalf and while Netanyahu is in Washington this week, he will undoubtedly use the occasion try to whip up feeling in the Congress and the media that if Obama does not act against Iran, he will be seen as weak or even siding against Israel. Glenn Greenwald notes how the Israeli propaganda machine and its media allies in the US are in full war-mongering mode and that Obama has just this past week seemed to provide a guarantee that the US will take care of Iran.
In his speech to the AIPAC delegates at the conference on Sunday, Obama repeated his willingness to use force against Iran, repeating the bellicose “all options are on the table” language, although he qualified it by suggesting that diplomacy is the best option. In another post, Greenwald points out that issuing threats of attacks on another nation is a violation of the UN charter but of course, the US is long past caring about such niceties and seems to think that it can do whatever it wants in the international arena. This latter post is an excellent one with links to other articles that is well-worth reading.
This process of caving in to Israel’s demands in order to satisfy the Israel lobby in the US goes all the way back to Harry Truman. As historian Geoffrey Wawro says in his book Quicksand: America’s pursuit of power in the Middle East (2010):
Truman, true to his nature, had more pragmatic aspirations. There were more Jewish voters in America than Arab ones and the Jewish lobby was better organized. Thus, Truman gave almost unconditional political support to Israel and tended to make light of the severe damage which that position wrought on his cabinet and his relations with the Arab states. His secretary of state, George C. Marshall, regularly complained that Truman was too quick to compromise the United States on vital “international questions” in order “to pick up a few [Jewish] votes” at home (p. 10)
Already in 1948, the Truman administration regretted the arrogance and brutality of Jewish ethnic cleansing in the Arab parts of Palestine but did nothing about it because of Cold War rivalry and fear of what Truman called the “pressure boys” of the Israel lobby. Each subsequent administration cried foul – “Henry, they can’t do this to us again,” Nixon wailed to Kissinger in 1973 – but failed to crack down on Israeli foul play because of the same worries that creased Truman’s brow. Today, the Cold War threat has been replaced by the terrorism threat, all the more reason to exert massive pressure on the Israelis to concede a real Palestinian state that will gather in lots of foreign aid and interest, and either sink or swim by its own efforts. To security hawks, who would say that conditions do not permit such an experiment, the answer is simple enough. The Israelis had decades to compensate or resettle the refugees and restore the occupied territories; they never did. They have always harped on the dangers of the Palestinians and presumably always will, and have always counted on collusion in Washington, as Golda Meir put it, “because of the Jewish vote.” As in the case of Saudi Arabia, the United States cannot exert real influence for positive change in the Middle East until it first breaks a lance for the people who were run out of their homes in 1948. Kissinger reminded the Israelis in the 1970s that they are “not the Prussians,” free to annex territories and expel or intimidate inhabitants. (p. 606)
(For my review of Wawro’s book, see here.)
Stephen Walt says that Obama has better options.
Instead of giving “ironclad” guarantees that we will launch preventive war, we’d be better served if Obama merely reminded Netanyahu that Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak doesn’t think Iran is an existential threat, and that the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, has called an attack on Iran the “the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
Walt may be right that some Israelis think an attack on Iran is stupid. That is why the government of Israel would prefer that the US attack Iran so that they get the benefit while we get the blowback. During an election year, we can expect to see constant nagging of Obama by the Israel lobby to attack Iran. (Walt is the co-author along with John J. Mearsheimer of the 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy that explored the composition and workings of the Israel lobby that was based in their 2006 article in the London Review of Books. I reviewed the book when it came out and you can read part 1, part 2, and part 3.)
There are those who are putting an optimistic spin on Obama’s aggressive language, that by indicating that he will attack Iran if necessary, he is reducing the risk of Israel attacking Iran, and that this is therefore a way of avoiding war. I am not so sanguine. Ratcheting up war talk tends to put leaders in a box in that it creates its own dynamic because if those words are not followed by actions, the leader seems weak.