This question crops up quite frequently and did so at a recent seminar on Palestine that I attended. Most people, including those at this seminar, affirm that Israel is indeed a strategic asset to the USA. I disagree.
The reason for the question in the first place is of course the almost complete reliance of Israel on USA support. This support covers military assistance and an unprecedented willingness on the part of the USA to veto any motion critical of Israel in the UN. Whatever the issue, Israeli wars of aggression, illegal settlement buildings, killing civilians in international waters, destroying Palestinian houses and farms - the USA always, but always takes the Israeli side. One example from many - the recent UN report into the Gaza massacres, conducted by former South African judge Goldstone, himself a Jew, was highly critical of Israel. Yet the USA immediately followed the Israeli line of dismissing the report as one sided and biased. This kind of carte blanche support for Israel is deep seated within the US establishment. Though Democrats and Republicans disagree, often violently, on most issues, on Israel there is complete agreement. “We in Congress stand by Israel. In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel”. Thus speaks the leader of the Democrats, while the Republican leader intones, “We have no stronger ally anywhere in the world”.
This support however, does not come cheap for the USA. As Mearsheimer and Walt point out in their study, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, “Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing the amounts provided to any other side. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct US economic and military assistance since 1976 and the largest total recipient since World War 11. Total direct US aid to Israel amounts to well over $140 billion in 2003 dollars. Israel receives about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year, which is roughly one-fifth of American’s entire foreign aid budget. In per-capita terms, the United States gives each Israeli a direct subsidy worth about $500 per year. This largess is especially striking when one realizes that Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per-capita income roughly equal to South Korea or Spain”. These are just the official on the record figures. Israel almost certainly gets more financial and military aid, hidden within other budgets.
Why? The conventional and apparently obvious answer is that Israel is a strategic asset to US foreign policy. This view was widespread during the Cold War, and was memorably expressed by a former Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, who put it thus: “Israel is the largest, most battle-tested and cost effective US aircraft carrier that cannot be sunk, does not even carry one US soldier, and is located in a most critical region for US national security.”
This may have sounded plausible in the 1970s, but even then it is hard to imagine that the Soviet Union or its allies was about to launch an all out attack on the USA somewhere in the Middle East. Just after Israel had smashed its rivals during the six day war? Israel may have been in danger, though even that is improbable, but US national security?
Whatever may have been the alleged case during the Cold War, it is even more difficult to fathom out just what assets Israel brings to the USA nowadays. A recent article in the Jerusalem Post tried to enumerate the many benefits that accrue to the USA. They were: much of the money is spent on US weapons: the US and Israel are jointly developing missile defense capabilities; Israel is a port of call for US troops, ships, aircraft and intelligence operations; the US stockpiles arms, fuel, munitions etc; the US has real-time, minute to minute access to one of the best intelligence services in the world; Israel has destroyed Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear facilities; Israel has undertaken many operations to foil, slow and disrupt Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. So this is what the USA gets for its yearly $3 billion subsidy to Israel.
Does anyone, even in the USA believe any of this? And even if they did, would they really think this was value for money. Let’s just briefly go over this list. The USA subsides its own weapons industry - doesn’t need Israel to do this. Joint development of weapons - why pay Israel a subsidy for this, if it is of benefit to Israel? A port of call - what about Egypt or Turkey, no ports there? One of the best intelligence services in the world - really? This is the intelligence service that failed to spot Hezbollah’s capability and willingness to resist an Israeli attack? The destruction of Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear facilities - assuming they really did have a nuclear weapons capability, could the USA not do this on its own? And as for Iran - this seems to be simply an unproven and unprovable claim - all based on the assertion that Iran does have a nuclear weapon’s programme - something denied by Iran and unsupported by any independent evidence.
I would have thought that any independent observer would conclude that there is nothing in the above list that the USA really needs or could not get elsewhere for either nothing or considerably less than $3 billion a year.
On the other hand there does seem to be some very clear negatives for the USA as a result of its special relationship with Israel. When it has come to the USA actually going to war in the Middle East, Israel has been of no use whatsoever. The USA has in fact had to go out of its way to prevent Israel from helping out by supplying troops, aircraft and weapons etc. The Israelis would just love to have been involved in the two wars against Iraq and the continuing war in Afghanistan. I am sure the Israelis would have much to offer, especially in patrolling and controlling urban areas. But despite all the vast amount of dollars and weapons given to Israel, none of this was of any use to the USA in any of these recent wars.
The pro-Israel stance of the USA has also damaged the USA’s standing in not just the wider Arab world, but in the whole of the muslim world - a not inconsiderable part of the world’s population. Poll after poll shows that muslims have a negative view of the USA. This even after the election of Obama as President and his so-called opening to the muslim world. It seems that the reality of USA support for Israel counts for more among muslims that mere warm words.
It is also emerging into the public domain that this one-sided support for Israel is actually a threat to the lives of US soldiers. In March this year, in written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then Central Command chief, General David Petraeus, listed “insufficient progress towards a comprehensive Middle East peace” as number five on a list of 15 threats to US national security. Petraeus has also said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fomented anti-American sentiment due to a perception of US favoritism to Israel. He added that Al Qaeda and other militant groups exploited Arab anger over the Palestinian issue to mobilize support.
So not only does the USA get virtually nothing of real worth for its $3 billion yearly subsidy, but it seems that this money actually makes the USA more insecure. Some deal! So why does the USA continue to give all this money to Israel?
Here we come to the really difficult bit. I must admit that I can offer no satisfactory explanation for this continuing largesse. It just does not make any sense. Why would a superpower continue to waste money on subsidizing any ally that makes lives more dangerous for US citizens?
For what it is worth here is my off the peg stab at some possible rationales for this waste of money.
- the power of the Jewish/Israel lobby. This is Mearsheimer and Walt’s explanation. I am not convinced. Though financial contributions from the Jewish community is an important facet of the US electoral system, I still find it hard to see how so many American congressmen and women would choose to support Israel simply because of the Jewish vote.
- the power of the Christian Zionist movement. As with the previous explanation, I am not convinced. Though the Christian Zionists are almost certainly more numerous and more powerful than the Jewish lobby.
- inertia - never underestimate the force of inertia. Having got into supporting Israel during the Cold War, when there may have been some possible benefit to the USA, it can become very difficult to alter this mindset.
- Imperial hubris - this is much like the previous explanation. As the last remaining superpower, the USA can (just about) afford to bankroll Israel. Even though there is no benefit accruing.
None of the above on their own is particularly convincing. Though taken together they may account for the continuing unthinking support. What may have started as a realist Cold War opportunity has, through the money and efforts of the Jewish and Christian Zionist movements, and the simple passage of time, become the default position for most, almost all, American politicians. We do it because we can. Not altogether satisfactory, but I find it impossible to come up with a convincing explanation, perhaps because there is no convincing explanation. Any ideas out there?