The Trump administration’s recent steps in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should surely lay to rest any doubts about the enormous, and dangerous, power of the Israel lobby in Washington.
Under Trump, the lobby has shown it can wield unprecedented influence – even by its usual standards – in flagrant disregard for all apparent US interests.
First, there was the move this month of the US embassy to Jerusalem, not quietly but on the 70th anniversary of the most sensitive day in the Palestinian calendar, Nakba Day. That is when Palestinians commemorate their mass expulsion from their homeland in 1948.
By relocating the embassy, Trump gave official US blessing to tearing up the 25-year-old peace process – and in choosing Nakba Day for the move, he rubbed the noses of Palestinians, and by extension the Arab world, in their defeat.
Then, the White House compounded the offence by lauding Israeli snipers who massacred dozens of unarmed Palestinians protesting at the perimeter fence around Gaza the same day. A series of statements issued by the White House could have been written by Israel’s far-right prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, himself.
At the United Nations, the US blocked a Security Council resolution calling for the massacre to be investigated, while Nikki Haley, Trump’s UN envoy, observed to fellow delegates: “No country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has.”
None of these moves served any obvious US national interest, nor did Trump’s decision the previous week to tear up the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that has long been reviled by the Israeli government.
In fact, quite the contrary: These actions risk inflaming tensions to the point of a regional war that could quickly drag in the major powers, or provoke terror attacks on US soil.
Wall of silence
It should be recalled that two decades ago, it was impossible even to mention the existence of an Israel lobby in Washington without being labelled an anti-Semite.
Paradoxically, Israel’s supporters exercised the very power they denied existed, bullying critics into submission by insisting that any talk of an Israel lobby relied on anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish power.
The wall of silence was broken only with the publication in 2006 of a seminal essay – later turned into a book – by two prominent US academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.
But in a sign of the immense weight of the lobby even as it was being dragged into the light, the pair were unable to find a publisher in the US. Instead, the essay found a home across the Atlantic in the prestigious, if obscure, London Review of Books. One of the pair, Stephen Walt, has publicly admitted that his career suffered as a result.
Since then, a little leeway has opened up on the subject. Even New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a staunch advocate for Israel, has conceded the lobby’s existence.
In 2011, he explained a well-established, if astounding, ritual of US politics: that the Congress greets every visiting Israeli prime minister more rapturously than the American president himself.
Friedman observed: “I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”
Friedman was alluding to the network of Jewish leadership organisations and political action committees in the US, all of them hawkishly pro-Israel, that at election time can channel large sums of money for or against Congressional candidates.
It is not that these pro-Israel organisations control the Congress. It is that they have mastered the techniques of political intimidation. They understand and exploit a flawed American system that has allowed lobbies and their money to dictate the agendas of most US lawmakers. Congresspeople are vulnerable as individuals – not only to the loss of donations, but to a generously funded opponent.
In Trump’s case, the follow-the-money principle could not have been clearer. In the early stages of his battle to become the Republican party candidate for president, when most assumed he stood no chance and he was funding the campaign himself, he was relatively critical of Israel.
Hard as it is to believe now, he promised to be “neutral” on the Israel-Palestine issue; expressed doubts about whether it made sense to hand Israel billions of dollars annually in military aid; backed a two-state solution; and refused to commit to recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
All of that got ditched the moment he needed big funders for his presidential bid. The kingmaker in the Republican party is Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire and champion of the kind of Israeli ultra-nationalist, anti-Arab politics in which Netanyahu excels. Adelson likes Netanyahu so much he even bought him a newspaper, Israel Hayom, which Adelson has grown into the largest-circulation daily in Israel.
In the end, Adelson backed Trump’s election campaign to the tune of $35m. It was the need for Adelson’s support that ensured Trump appointed David Friedman, a long-time benefactor of the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, in the supposedly non-partisan position of US ambassador to Israel. And it was Adelson who was among the honoured guests at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem this month.
The anti-Semitism canard
Those who accuse anyone raising the issue of the Israel lobby of anti-Semitism either misunderstand or intentionally misrepresent what is being claimed.
No one apart from easily identifiable Jew haters is updating the century-old Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious forgery by supporters of the Russian czar supposedly proving that “the Jews” sought world domination through control of the banks and the media.
For starters, the argument for the existence of an Israel lobby does not refer to Jews at all. It is about a country, Israel, and its outsize influence over the policies of the US.
Other countries or groups of US citizens try to exercise such influence, either through similar lobbies or through subterfuge.
No one would deny there is a Cuba lobby that helped influence US policy in seeking to oust revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. And most US lawmakers are currently frothing at the mouth about what they see as covert Russian efforts to influence US politics to Moscow’s advantage.
Why would we expect Israel to be any different? The question isn’t whether the lobby exists, but why the US political system is doing nothing to protect itself from its interference.
If Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s supposed hidden hand in the US is such a threat, why isn’t Israel’s?
Five lobbies in one
Rather than exposing and confronting the Israel lobby, however, US presidents have more typically bent to its will. That was only too obvious, for example, when Barack Obama folded in his early battle with Netanyahu to limit the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
But under Trump, the Israel lobby has come to exercise unrivalled power, because it is now far more than just one lobby. It is a five-headed Hydra worthy of Greek mythology, and only one of its heads relates directly to Israel or organised American Jewry.
In fact, the lobby’s power now derives not chiefly from Israel. Since Trump’s election, the Israel lobby has managed to absorb and mobilise an additional four powerful lobbies – and to a degree not seen before. They are: the Christian evangelicals, the alt-right, the military-industrial complex, and the Saudi Arabia lobby.
Domestically, Trump’s election victory depended on his ability to rally to his side two groups that are profoundly committed to Israel, even though they are largely indifferent, or actively hostile, to the Jews who live there.
Leaders of the US alt-right – a loose coalition of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups – are infatuated with Israel but typically dislike Jews. That sentiment has been encapsulated by alt-right leader Richard Spencer, who describes himself as a “white Zionist”.
In short, the alt-right treasures Israel because it has preserved a long-discredited model of a fortress-like, belligerent racial homeland. They want the US reserved exclusively for an imagined “white” community, just as Israel defines itself as representing an exclusive Jewish community.
Trump’s reliance on the alt-right vote was highlighted by the early appointment to his administration of several leading figures associated with the movement, including Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Michael Flynn, Julia Hahn and Sebastian Gorka.
Fulfilling God’s prophecy
But more significant still has been the role of evangelicals. That is why Mike Pence, a devout Christian, was chosen as Trump’s running mate. Trump’s team understood that the votes of tens of millions of Americans were assured if Trump pandered to their prejudices.
And happily for Netanyahu, their keenest prejudice is fanatical support for Israel – and not just for Israel inside its internationally recognised borders, but also for Greater Israel, which includes many dozens of illegal Jewish settlements built on Palestinian land.
The Christian Zionists believe that Jews must be corralled into their biblical homeland to fulfill divine prophecy and bring about the Second Coming of the Messiah.
It was primarily for the sake of these Christian Zionists that Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem. And it was why two evangelical pastors with a history of anti-Semitic remarks, John Hagee and Robert Jeffress, were called on to offer their blessings at the opening ceremony.
Trump’s indebtedness to the evangelicals is one reason to be worried about his policies in the region. The Christian Zionists have no interest in fairness, justice or international law. Rather, they are prepared to inflame tensions in the Middle East – and even trigger Armageddon itself – if they think it might benefit Israel and further God’s prophecy.
The military-industrial complex has enjoyed a much longer, if more veiled, influence on US politics. A former US army general who became president, Dwight Eisenhower, warned of the looming threat posed by an increasingly dominant corporate sector dependent on war profits back in 1961.
Since then, the power of these corporations has accreted and expanded in precisely the ways Eisenhower feared. And that has only helped Israel.
In the early 1980s, Noam Chomsky, the dissident US intellectual, observed in his book The Fateful Triangle that Israel and the US had different conceptions of the Middle East.
The US was then what Chomsky termed a “status quo power” that was mostly interested in preserving the existing regional order. Israel, on the other hand, was committed to destabilisation of the region – its Balkanisation – as a strategy to extend its hegemony over feuding, internally divided neighbouring states.
Today, it is not hard to see which vision of the Middle East prevailed. The US-headquartered war industries lobbied for – and have profited enormously from – an endless, global “war on terror” that needs their expensive killing toys. The West has even been able to market its wars of aggression against other sovereign states as “humanitarian” in nature.
The benefits to the military industries can be gauged by examining the ever-surging profits of large US arms manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon over the past decade.
Cultivation of fear
Israel has not only benefited from the sanctioning and dismemberment of regional rivals, such as Syria, Iraq and Iran, but it has exploited the opportunity to make itself indispensable to these war-profiting industries.
It has, for example, been the linchpin in developing and refining new ways to exploit the cultivation of fear – most significantly, the ever-expanding “homeland security” industry.
Using the occupied Palestinian territories for experimentation, Israel has specialised in developing surveillance and biometric technologies, lethal and non-lethal crowd control methods, complex incarceration systems, psychological profiling of subjugated populations, and highly dubious redefinitions of international law to lift existing restraints on war crimes and wars of aggression.
That has proved invaluable to the military industries that have sought to profit from new wars and occupations across the Middle East. But it has also meant Israel’s expertise is much sought-after by US political and security elites who wish to pacify and control restless domestic populations.
Israel’s encouragement of the Middle East’s destabilisation has raised new threats in the US – of protest, immigration and terrorism – for which Israel has then supplied readymade solutions.
Israel has helped to rationalise the militarisation of police forces in the US and elsewhere, and provided the training. It has also gradually introduced to the US and other Western countries the kind of racial and political profiling that has long been standard in Israel.
That is the reason why Israeli academic Jeff Halper has warned of the danger that the “war on terror” could ultimately turn all of us into Palestinians.
Alliance with Saudi Arabia
But perhaps the most significant additional boost to Israel’s power in Washington has been its newfound and barely concealed alliance with Saudi Arabia.
For decades, the oil lobby in the US was seen as a counterweight to the Israel lobby. That was why Israel’s supporters traditionally reviled the US State Department, which was viewed as an Arabist outpost.
No longer. Trump, ever the businessman, has cultivated even stronger ties to the Saudis, hoping that arms and technology sales will revive the US economy and his political fortunes.
During a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to the US in March, Trump noted: “Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world.”
But Washington’s close ties to the Saudis are increasingly a boon to Israel rather than an impediment. The two have found common cause in their feverish opposition to Iran, and its Shia allies in Syria and Lebanon, and their determination to prevent them from gaining more power in the region.
Israel wants a military hegemony over the Middle East that Iran could undermine, while Riyadh needs an ideological and financial hegemony that Iran might be able to disrupt.
And the Palestinians – the only issue that continues formally to divide Israel and Saudi Arabia – are increasingly viewed by bin Salman as a chess piece he is ready to sacrifice in exchange for Iran’s destruction.
Trump tore up the nuclear accord agreed by Obama with Iran with such incendiary abandon this month because his two Middle East allies jointly demanded he do so.
And the indications are that he may do worse – even attacking Iran – if the pressure from Israel and the Saudis reaches a critical mass.
Time for a little humility
All of these various lobbies have long wielded significant power in Washington, but remained largely separate. In recent years, their interests have come to overlap considerably, making Israel ever more unassailable in US politics.
Under Trump, their agendas have aligned so completely that this multi-headed lobby has as good as collectively captured the presidency on matters that concern it most.
That is not to say that the Israel lobby will not face future challenges. Other pressures are emerging in reaction to the unaccountable power of the Israel lobby, including progressive voices in US politics that are, for the first time, breaking with the long-standing bipartisan nature of the debate about Israel.
Bernie Sanders’s unexpected surge in the Democratic nomination race for the presidency, the rise of the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the growing alienation of young US Jews from Israel, and the US public’s ever-greater exposure on social media to Israel’s crimes are signs of trends it will be difficult for Israel to counter or reverse.
Israel is getting its way at the moment. But hubris is a fault we have been warned about since the time of the ancient Greeks. Israel may yet come to learn a little humility – the hard way.
• First published in Middle East Eye