US congresswoman Ilhan Omar was right to draw attention to the lobbying power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on social media last Sunday. And given the long-standing antisemitic trope depicting the Jewish people wielding nefarious financial influence over governments, she was right in subsequent tweets to clarify her stance, apologise for inadvertently straying close to those themes with her original choice of words, but also to steadfastly refuse to back away from her substantive position.
Anyone who supposes Omar was forced into issuing that clarification and apology should watch her exchange with the Trump administration diplomat Elliott Abrams during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, and reflect that this is clearly not a person who is easily intimidated. Indeed, her open, dignified and principled approach to the entire furore provided an object lesson in how instances like this should be handled.
Omar’s supporters were right to defend her against the strenuous (and evidently failed) efforts of more disingenuous critics to exploit this issue and bully her into silence. However, in doing so, and for understandable reasons, many of them exaggerated the significance of ‘the Israel lobby’ in US politics and the importance of talking about its role. The view that Washington’s support for Israel can be substantively explained by the power of lobbying groups like AIPAC to effectively buy that support – in violation of the supposed national interest of the US – has long been popular in parts of the left. But it is not a strong analysis, and certainly of little use in efforts to challenge Western complicity in Israel’s dispossession and subjugation of the Palestinian people.
The ‘Israel lobby’ thesis was most notably articulated in 2006 by two international relations scholars with impeccably conservative, establishment credentials: John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. As the Palestinian academic Joseph Massad argued in a critique published at the time in the Egyptian press, it is a thesis that effectively “exonerates the United States’ government from all the responsibility and guilt that it deserves”, by shifting that blame to the likes of AIPAC. US support for Israel is not some lobbying-induced malfunction, but rather flows directly from the nature of US power itself. We are better served by situating our analysis of US-Israeli relations within a broader critical account of imperial US power, rather than within a conservative alibi for Washington’s record on this issue.
Start with the fact that the value of the Middle East to Washington lies in its vast energy reserves: a major geopolitical and material prize. For this reason, global hegemony requires dominance of the Middle East, and most other aspects of Washington’s approach to the region flow from that fundamental fact. Israel proved its worth to the US and its Global North allies in 1967 when it smashed the forces of Arab nationalism in six days. What had hitherto been major threat to the capitalist powers’ dominance of the world’s energy heartlands was thus extinguished at a stroke. The Gulf Arab monarchies, the post-Nasser Egyptian military and the Shah’s Iran have all been backed to similar ends: as bulwarks against any challenge to a US-oriented status quo.
The value to US imperial power of Israel – a dependable, militarily powerful ally in a geostrategically crucial region of the world – is perfectly obvious, and requires no lobbying to be understood. As Massad points out, the US has a long record around the world of backing human rights abusing regimes against popular forces attempting to resist its agenda, from Pinochet’s Chile to Suharto’s Indonesia and Diem’s South Vietnam. Again, no lobbying efforts were required to force the US to take these stances. They are simply the predictable measures taken by an imperialist power to secure and entrench its position while crushing all challengers.
There is some consistency in the Israeli case with long-established imperial practices in the Middle East: find a minority in a given area, and then build them up so they can dominate others on your behalf while being dependent on you for their power and position. The British did this in Iraq between the wars, as the French did in Syria, creating and exacerbating divisions which scar the Arab world even today.
The balance of power in the US-Israel relationship lies with the US, a point which should hardly require argument. The suggestion that a nation with a population the size of London holds the whip hand over the greatest superpower of all time is one that lacks basic credibility. Of course, Israel has some bargaining power in the relationship, partly through AIPAC’s efforts on Capitol Hill, and partly through its own freedom to act, which is real if limited. But what the ‘Israel lobby’ thesis glosses over is that the US, not Israel, is the superpower in the relationship. Israel’s crimes and misdeeds are not external to Washington. They are Washington’s too since they are only possible with continued US support. Indeed, the real reason for AIPAC’s existence and its efforts may lie in a recognition of that dependence, and a real anxiety over what might happen were Washington’s strategic calculation to change.
AIPAC may therefore best be seen as performing a disciplinary function within US politics. One can certainly argue that US support for Israel is made somewhat firmer given AIPAC’s role, and these marginal factors matter. But they are still marginal. They are not the substantive reason for the relationship or its fundamental nature. It is fine to talk about AIPAC so long as we do so carefully and accurately, but we distract and mislead ourselves by becoming preoccupied with it. A serious challenge to US imperialism and all its devastating effects – from Iraq, to Gaza, to Yemen – requires a substantial and thorough account of its nature as a structured force in the world. The ‘Israel lobby’ thesis, and its implication of an innocent Washington corrupted and misdirected by a public affairs committee serving a medium-sized foreign power, is one best left to the establishment intellectuals and state loyalists who originally produced it.