John Rees looks at why one popular explanation of US foreign policy misunderstands imperial strategy in the Middle East
As the barbarism of the Israeli invasion of Gaza accelerates daily and the risk of a regional war increases, the US and its allies support for Israel has never wavered. Yet such loyalty has come at a cost. It has seen them become more isolated on the international stage, opposed both by global public opinion and a huge majority of the world’s governments.
Clearly, support for Israel is costing the US money and reputational damage. It’s already the case that the US advocacy for Ukraine has now lost both centrality as a foreign-policy project and what moral high ground it ever had. All Putin’s outrages have now been committed many times over by the Israelis without a single criticism passing the lips of the representatives of the US state.
So why do the US and its closest allies continue with uncritical support for Israel? One widely held view is that this support is a result of the activities of the Zionist lobby: pressure groups capable of wielding considerable political and financial muscle are so powerful that they can compel support for Israel even when such support is not in the best strategic interests of the US and its supporters.
This theory has many adherents. It crops up everywhere from official statements by Houthi rebels to casual chat on social media. But its origin and still its most effective statement lie in an article by two American academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. In ‘The Israel Lobby’, a 12,000 word essay in the London Review of Books in March 2006, Mearsheimer and Walt laid out their account of the influence of pro-Israel pressure groups on US foreign policy. The essay was a condensation of a longer paper and it eventually became a book. It was immediately both controversial and influential and it has remained so ever since.
Let’s take a look at what Mearsheimer and Walt had to say, because it is often more illuminating and more carefully argued than some subsequent accounts of the Zionist lobby.
Mearsheimer and Walt on the Israel Lobby
The core contention of ‘The Israel Lobby’ essay was really very simple. It was, as Mearsheimer and Walt’s second paragraph declared, that ‘the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. The authors list the overwhelming military and diplomatic support that Israel receives from the US and conclude that no other lobby group has managed to divert the US ‘as far from what the national interest would suggest’.
Mearsheimer and Walt go on to insist that there are ‘neither strategic nor moral arguments’ that can ‘account for America’s support Israel’ and that the real ‘explanation is the unmatched power of the Israel lobby’. This lobby, particularly the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is so powerful, in Mearsheimer and Walt’s account, that it was one of the main reasons why the US fought the Iraq War: ‘Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was critical’. And again: ‘There is little doubt that Israel and the Lobby were key factors in the decision to go to war.’
These are all huge claims to which I shall return below. But before that, it is worth recording Mearsheimer and Walt’s qualifications about the Israel Lobby, especially since the lazy use of their theory often dispenses with such careful use.
Firstly, the authors were at pains to point out that the Israel lobby did not represent the views of all American Jews, recording one survey that found that some 36% of Jews in America were ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ attached to Israel. And that is still true today. In fact the attack on Gaza has seen a remarkable rebirth of anti-Zionist Jewish radicalism.
Secondly, and especially in the US, where lobby politics is a considerable amount of politics as a whole, the activities of the Israel lobby are not unique. There are many lobbies, and the Israel lobby is just one of them: ‘In its basic operations, the Israel Lobby is no different from the farm lobby, steel or textile workers’ unions, or, other ethnic lobbies.’ Mearsheimer and Walt concluded, ‘the Lobby’s activities are not a conspiracy’. Indeed, the Israel lobby is not even seen as the most effective lobby. In 1997, Fortune magazine ranked AIPAC behind the American Association of Retired People and just ahead of the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association as the most effective lobby groups. The National Journal in 2005 ranked it joint second alongside the American Association of Retired People.
Indeed, we might amplify Mearsheimer and Walt’s point with some figures on dollars spent on lobbing. In this register AIPAC is not even in the top twenty biggest spending lobby groups. And even if we focus on the biggest lobby spenders in government and politics,AIPAC is still not in the top twenty large spenders. AIPAC’s 2.7 million dollars is dwarfed by the 84 million dollars spent by the National Association of Realtors, the largest spender, and even by Unilever’s eleven million dollars, which makes it the twentieth largest spender. Saudi Arabia spends 25 million dollars on lobbying in the US.
Thirdly, Mearsheimer and Walt note that the Israel lobby does not have a decisive effect on mass consciousness. It targets government and the media but, like other lobbyists, ‘they enjoy a disproportionate amount of influence when they are committed to an issue to which the bulk of the population are indifferent’. For many years, this has been the case on the Palestinian issue. There are committed minorities both for and against the Palestinian cause, but opinion polls show unusually high figures for ‘don’t knows’.
Finally, the authors were clear that the Israel lobby is not one co-ordinated campaign, but a variety of pressure groups with a similar aim but not a single command structure: ‘a loose coalition of individuals and organisations.’ Their own use of ‘the Lobby’, with a capital L, mitigates against this understanding, but the text itself is clear enough on this point.
So much for the qualifications, but what of Mearsheimer and Walt’s central contention: that US foreign policy in the Middle East is dictated by the Israel Lobby?
Misunderstanding the imperial architecture of the Middle East
In Mearsheimer and Walt’s account, imperial policy in the Middle East is straightforward. It aims ‘to help Israel remain the dominant regional power’ even if this ‘complicated America’s relations with the Arab world’. This is far too simplistic and can only be asserted because it omits any historical account of the rise of modern imperialism in the region.
Modern imperialism, indeed modern nation states, arrived in the Middle East with the collapse of the Turkish Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The Ottoman Empire was a pre-capitalist structure which allowed a relative freedom to its imperial subjects as long as they paid taxes and caused no trouble. It was allied to the Germans in the war and its make-shift structure was no match for the modern, industrialised European imperialisms which contested its territory in the Middle East.
In the wake of German defeat, the Middle East was carved up, predominately by British and French imperialism. The secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, named after a British Tory politician and a French diplomat, drew the borders of the modern Middle East. The 1928 Red Line agreement carved up the oil fields, just as the industrialised economies began to transition from one fossil fuel, coal, to another, oil.
In the midst of this, in 1917, Lord Arthur Balfour, like David Cameron, a previous prime minister become a Lord and returning as foreign secretary, promised the fledgling Zionist movement that Palestine could become a homeland for the Jewish people. This is often, and rightly, seen as the moment when British foreign policy became committed to the Zionist project. But it is not the whole story.
The British did not just make one promise to the Zionists. They made a second promise to the Arab leaders of the day. The promise to the Arab leaders, notably the house of Saud, rulers of what would become Saudi Arabia, was essentially the same: national independence and Arab rule in the Middle East.
So while Sir Ronald Storrs, convinced Zionist and first Military Governor of Jerusalem (informed of his appointment by Colonel Rees Mogg) was declaring that he saw the Zionists as ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of hostile Arabism’, his friend T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, and his senior officers were busy engaging Arab forces to fight alongside them, justified with the sentiment that such an alliance ‘marches with our immediate aims, the break up of the “Islamic bloc”, …the disruption of the Ottoman Empire, and because the States he [Sharif Hussein of Mecca] would set up…would be…harmless to ourselves…The Arabs…would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion’.
So the British issued two contradictory promises about the same land to both the Zionists and the Arab leaders. In the post-First World War world the British governed Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, but increasing Zionist immigration fuelled the insurrection by Zionist terror organisations and the British quit Palestine after the Second World War.
The British soon made their peace with the Zionist state, but they maintained the policy of divide and rule. They made alliances with the Arab states, or at least with their Kings, princes, and dictators, while at the same time allying themselves with Israel. That is why, to this day, there is a so-called ‘Arabist’ wing to the Foreign Office, why the alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States is as important as the alliance with Israel.
The effective architecture of imperialism in the Middle East, inherited by the US after the British were forced to scale back their interest following the disaster of the Suez war in 1956, is that Israel is paid to keep not just the Palestinians but the Arabs of the whole region in check, and the Arab governments are paid not to attack the Israelis.
It is via the inter-state tension and instability, the weakness and jealousies, that this policy of divide and rule creates, that the imperial powers attempt to manage the Middle East. Specifically, the real but rarely named enemy, is neither Arabs or Israelis, but the Arab masses which detest both their own dictators and the Zionists. The instability is not US policy misfiring, it is the pre-condition of imperial rule. Is such a policy dangerous? Yes. Does it regularly produce unintended consequences? Yes. Are these dangers a ‘price worth paying’for imperialism, to quote Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s response to the death of half a million children in the Iraq War? Yes.
Mearsheimer and Walt see only one side of this imperial policy. They see that Israel is the largest recipient of US military aid, but not that Egypt is the second biggest recipient. They see the US military supply of Israel, but not the British military supply of Saudi Arabia. They see the diplomatic special relationship with Israel, but not the ever-forgiving, multi-billion relationship with the Gulf States including Bahrain’s hosting of a new British naval base. They see economic links with Israel, but not the fact that Israel has no oil and the vital interests that the US and its allies therefore maintain with the oil economies of the Middle East.
Getting the Iraq war wrong
The Zionist-lobby theory’s capacity to lead analysis astray can be clearly seen in Mearsheimer and Walt’s contention that the Iraq War of 2003 was a result of the persuasiveness of the Israel lobby. This phantasmagorical interpretation should be dismissed on first sight, because the idea that the US’s biggest military operation since Vietnam was simply the result of pressure by a lobby group less effective than the American Association of Retired People beggars belief.
In fact, the Iraq war was launched precisely because it was necessary for the US to intervene in the Middle East to try and bolster its control over the Arab world. Since the end of the Cold War, US relative economic decline combined with US overwhelming military superiority had encouraged the American ruling class to use its military strength to reassert its global supremacy. This had become especially, but not only, necessary in the Middle East.
Here, US hegemony had suffered successive blows. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution had removed a vital regional ally by toppling the Shah of Iran, and it rebooted militancy in the region just when the pan-Arabic form of radicalism seemed to be exhausted. Control over Iraq had slipped as Saddam Hussein moved from reliable US ally to leader of a rogue state in the first Gulf War of 1991. Further, Saudi discontent with US foreign policy had meant that the Kingdom had closed its borders to US bases. US control, and US control over vital (and the most profitable in the world) oil supplies was being eroded. The neo-conservative thinkers in the Project for the New American Century had long foreseen and campaigned for something like the Iraq War as a way of resetting the regional and global balance of forces in the US’s favour. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre was, as President Bush’s National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, observed, the opportunity for which they had been waiting.
In their enthusiasm for the Israel lobby as the main cause of the Iraq war, Mearsheimer and Walt dismiss oil interests as relevant. Yet post-war analysis confirms these interests as a key reason for the war. As CNN reported: ‘From ExxonMobil and Chevron to BP and Shell, the West’s largest oil companies have set up shop in Iraq. So have a slew of American oil service companies, including Halliburton, the Texas-based firm Dick Cheney ran before becoming George W. Bush’s running mate in 2000. The war is the one and only reason for this long sought and newly acquired access’.
The neo-cons were of course Zionists. And Israel and the Israel lobby were enthusiasts for the Iraq war. But they did not cause it to happen. Indeed they did not feature very much in the neo-cons long-held desire to attack Iraq and, when it happened, Israel was merely an enthusiastic by-stander. Israel was given Patriot missiles to protect itself should Iraq target them, but they would have been an inflammatory addition to the invasion force and so left in peace.
Iraq turned into a disaster, but it was a disaster made in America not in Israel. American interests – strategic, diplomatic, military, and economic – were quite sufficient to get the Bush administration to go to war. They may well have been glad of Zionist support, but their action was not caused by it and, operationally, they did not need it.
People and structure
One unfortunate by-product of the Zionist-lobby theory is that it over-emphasises the personal connections between lobbyists and those in power. Did you know, a thousand social-media posts ask, that the MP for Great Tedium is on the Defence Select Committee and that his wife is a shareholder in this or that arms-procurement firm, the firm that supplies grommets for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system? Of course this a perfectly valid form of argument if what it intends to show is that the chumocracy that characterises capital-state relations in every area also applies in relations with Israel. As it does with private suppliers to the NHS. As it does with arms supplies to Saudi Arabia.
But if what is intended is to show that these personal connections are the main cause of US/UK support for Israel, then it is a badly deficient analysis, because it has put the cart of personal connection before the horse of imperial interest.
The US\UK support Israel because it is one part, and a vital part, of how they remain hegemonic in a strategically and economically essential part of the globe. Even if there were no graft or corruption or private relationships involved, they would still have the same strategy. The fate of the whole ruling order, independent of its private relationships, is at stake in this strategy. So even if we imagine a model democratic state with full transparency and the strictest division between state and private capital, such states would still support Israel.
Of course, in the real world such personal links, corrupt practices, private-state interactions grease the wheels of imperialism, but to diminish the structural aspects of this relationship is to attribute imperial policy to corruption and lack of transparency, which is both to misunderstand and excuse imperialism. It encourages the illusion imperialism might somehow be ‘cleaned up’ and reformed out of its exploitative and oppressive ways. It sounds radical to blame the Israel lobby, but ultimately it belittles the true unregenerate nature of empire.
This is indeed the upshot of Mearsheimer and Walt’s analysis. They write that if it were not for the Israel lobby, then America’s power would be used to ‘achieve a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians’ which would ‘help advance the cause of democracy in the region.’ The US support for Israel ‘undercuts Washington’s efforts to promote democracy abroad.’They assume that America’s ‘true’ national interest lies in promoting democracy and in peace with the Arab states and that the Israel lobby undermines these goals and diverts US policy from its natural course. Moving our analysis away from the influence of the Israel lobby and into the register of the structural imperial relationships that enmesh the globe gives us a very different take on US imperial power. It cares little about democracy or the rights of nations to self-determination. What it cares about is perpetuating imperial power, and oppression and exploitation are the means by which this is achieved.
Furthermore, understanding the fact that backing Israel is something that the US\UK do for their own reasons allows us to get the Israel lobby in perspective. The lobby is asking the relevant states to do something they want to do. Unlike, say, climate-change lobbyists, the Israel lobby are not pressuring governments to do something which they oppose. Israel lobbyists are not just pushing at an open door, the door has always been wide open and the red carpet rolled out. Being an Israel lobbyist is the easiest job in the world.
But that is not to say the lobby is ineffective. It is not the cause of US policy, but it does help facilitate and amplify the Zionist message. The Zionist lobby is effective, and spends a lot of its time, promoting specific, often domestic, policies which help provide cover for western support for Israel. Examples include promoting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, or the anti-BDS bills, or trying to fund candidates to stand against Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. So the Zionist lobby is not inconsequential, but its activities function within the imperial structure and not against it. And the degree of its success is ultimately a function of this fact.
Israel and imperialism now
In this scheme, although it is true that Israel is internally structured as a settler-colonial state, an apartheid state whose very structure requires the oppression of the Palestinians, this by no means captures all the vital aspects of the Israeli state. It is equally important to understand Israel as a garrison-state, the imperial watchdog in ‘a sea of hostile arabism’, as Sir Ronald Storrs put it.
But watchdogs can be difficult to control. They sometimes slip the lead, cause havoc in their neighbourhood, and bite the locals. The US has struggled to control the watchdog before, having twice had to threaten Israel to prevent it bombing the sites of Iranian nuclear reactors.
The current war in Gaza is an example of the dynamic we have analysed in this article. The US is not backing Israel because it is forced to do so by the Israel lobby. It is doing so because Israel is a strategic asset. As Senator Joe Biden said in 1986, ‘Three billion dollars a year to Israel is the best investment America makes. If Israel didn’t exist, America would have to invent an Israel to protect America’s interest in the region’. President Joe Biden made exactly this claim in almost exactly the same words in October 2023 as the Gaza war began. Hamas is seen by the US as an Iranian proxy and the US is very interested in dealing Iran a blow for its own regional geopolitical reasons.
But the ferocity of the Israeli attack is upsetting US alliances with Arab states and provoking resistance across the region, notably in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. It has already broken up attempts to normalise relations between Israel and the Gulf states. The US is quietly trying to stop the damage spreading. It remains to be seen how much damage it can suffer before real pressure is applied to the Israelis.
What is definitely true is the Israel lobby, as a propaganda operation, has proved much weaker than many thought. For all its advances in the Corbyn leadership era, the Israeli lobby cannot dress up genocide as self-defence. Its effectiveness has evaporated as millions of people across the globe see what apartheid at war looks like. To sustain that movement, a deeper understanding of imperialism, as well as of its propaganda operation, will be necessary. To do that the Zionist-lobby explanation needs to be cut down to size. It is not the cause of imperial support for Israel, merely its publicist. It should be combated, but the best way to do so is to fight the beast that gives it life: Western imperialism.