We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Today Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his much-hyped speech to a joint session of Congress. He needn’t bother. After all, he held forth to as many U.S. lawmakers and other influential types as he needed at yesterday’s conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. The yearly AIPAC event typically receives at least half of Congress, plus White House officials, from both sides of the aisle. When I attended in 2006, Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton, and Dick Cheney ascended the podium on the same weekend. John Kerry spoke to a delegation from Massachusetts, which he then represented in the Senate.
At yesterday’s conference, Netanyahu drew on a revered American, Mark Twain, for his headline-grabber: “Reports of the demise of Israeli-U.S. relations are not only premature, they’re just wrong.” It is hard to disagree.
Although Americans are a little grumbly about the congressional speech itself, where the relationship counts—in the White House, Congress, Likud Party headquarters, and the corporate offices of U.S., Israeli, and other international arms dealers—it’s steady as she goes. Critics of the Israeli right—to say nothing of the state itself—are not elected to federal office in the United States unless they keep mum. Meanwhile the United States continues to give Israel diplomatic cover at the United Nations and elsewhere and supplies billions of dollars each year in financial and military aid.
There is no reason to believe any of this will change. The speech to Congress is evidence enough. What other world leader enjoys such entrée? Which would snub our own president along the way? As Kerry said, attempting to defuse tension surrounding the speech, Netanyahu is welcome.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power also addressed the U.S.-Israel relationship at the AIPAC conference. The alliance “transcends politics,” she said.
That is a preposterous claim. For one thing, Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is nakedly political. It is a campaign ploy ahead of Israeli elections and an attempt to shore up American voters’ support for politicians who toe the Likud-Republican line on negotiations over Iranian development of nuclear weapons.
More importantly, if the U.S.-Israel relationship is not political, then what is it? It’s certainly not strategic. There is no longer a strategic basis for the U.S.-Israel relationship, as there once was. This is true on both sides.
American support enables Israel’s aggression, but not its security in any significant sense. Thanks to its overwhelming nuclear and conventional military capacity, Israel is well defended. There is no better demonstration than its frequent offensive wars. Israel has not fought in its own defense in forty years; all of its conflicts since 1973 have been aggressive. Last year’s bombing campaign in Gaza is a case in point. U.S.-supported technology—the Iron Dome system—worked as advertised, but Hamas’s rocket fire posed no serious threat and was, in any case, a response to the war waged against it. Israel needlessly toyed with Gaza, at the cost of thousands of lives and billions of dollars of damage. Israel does what it wants without fear of meaningful reprisal, and it can do so because it is able to protect itself.
From the American perspective, Israel is at best strategically inconsequential, at worst a meddlesome presence in the Iran talks and source of grievance to Islamic extremists, who pose minor hazards to U.S. security and interests.
At one time, Israel was a valuable ally, joining Turkey as the only American points of entry in the Middle East. This is no longer the case; the U.S. has bases in Iraq and throughout the Arabian Peninsula as well as strong naval presence in the Persian Gulf and air superiority across the region.
Surrounded by states aligned with the Soviet Union, Israel also was once an asset in the geopolitical chess match of the Cold War. The U.S. protection guarantee put another country in the West’s column, and backing that guarantee with aid and diplomatic support showed other allies that the United States could be counted on.
Most importantly, in 1967 and 1973, Israel did America’s dirty work by beating back secular nationalist Arab regimes that threatened to nationalize or otherwise divert oil reserves upon which the United States relied. Israel had its own concerns in those wars, but what counted stateside was the black stuff. As Middle East strategic concerns go, nothing comes close to oil access—not even terrorism, which can cause damage here and there but is trivial next to oil, the literal and figurative fuel of the global economy. Without oil, there is chaos, and, for a time, Israel stood against that chaos.
Today American access to oil is well assured, and Israel, through its nose-thumbing toward Middle Eastern petro states, is more likely to upset that access than secure it. Though really there is little connection one way or the other.
Where the U.S.-Israel relationship seemingly leaves day-to-day politics behind is in the value it continues to offer American war profiteers such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing; British war profiteers such as BAE Systems; and Israeli war profiteers such as Israel Military Industries, Aeronautics Defense Systems, and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. These companies do business with each other and with governments all over the world. Even this, though, is hardly apolitical, as anyone who has explored the influence of the military-industrial complex can attest. Not for nothing did President Dwight Eisenhower, inventor of that enduring term, intend it as the “military-industrial-congressional complex.” His advisors talked him out of it.
Ambassador Power’s notion of politics transcended is a testament to precisely the sort of politics the U.S.-Israel relationship in fact maintains. It is a subterranean politics of corporate largess, where arms dealers absorb subsidies from the government, and the government establishes security and appropriations policy to ensure that the subsidies keep flowing. It is underground because it faces no significant ideological opposition within the governments that take part and therefore is not an issue on which voters get to decide.
In other words, Netanyahu is right about the strength of the alliance because Power is wrong about its apolitical nature. As long as the politics of public subsidy—American, Israeli, and other—to private war profiteers—American, Israeli, and other—continue, there is little that can upset the tight U.S.-Israel relationship.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Our well-being depends on a better understanding of how the logic of labor has twisted our relationship with pleasure.
“I was my father’s son. My father was Nai Nai’s least favorite.” A Taiwanese American man, driven from home by a secret, reevaluates his childhood memories of his grandmother.
MacArthur Genius Kelly Lytle Hernández makes the case for why U.S. history only makes sense when told as a binational story.