To confront systems of power successfully, we first need to map them: to identify their driving interests, interpret their legitimating ideology, and, crucially, locate their strengths and weaknesses. In this process of reconnaissance, certain historical episodes will be worth paying particular attention to. It is often in specific moments that the system inadvertently reveals something of itself. So it is with the recent US-Israeli assault on Gaza.
US support for the state of Israel has both a material and an ideological basis. Let’s start with the material. Israel sits on the periphery of the planet’s energy producing heartland. Middle Eastern oil reserves represent an indispensable strategic asset for any state seeking primacy in the world system. As the region’s number one military power, Israel has long played an important role complementing US hegemony in the Middle East by helping to police the region on Washington’s behalf.
These material incentives for the US to support Israel are reinforced at the ideological level. Israel has always presented itself to its superpower patrons as an outpost of Western civilisation, holding out against a horde of racialised ‘others’. Western elites have largely accepted the invitation to look past their own deep antisemitism and identify with the state of Israel in shared ‘orientalist’ contempt for the Arab and Muslim world. For the US, a common history of settler colonialism adds another point of identification.
Notwithstanding these material and ideological bonds, the US-Israeli balance of power is entirely asymmetrical. The heart of Israeli military power is a state-of-the-art air force provided almost exclusively by the US, bankrolled with an enormous military aid package. This factor alone creates a high degree of dependence. Washington’s willingness to use its permanent seat on the UN security council to provide diplomatic protection to Israel is also highly significant for a state with few regional friends, and little public support internationally.
All this is obscured by the myth of an all-powerful ‘Israel lobby’: a lobby which in reality has no more than a marginal effect on domestic politics, not a decisive effect on geopolitics. The values, interests and actions of history’s greatest superpower are not dictated by a dependent mini-state with a population the size of London’s. The real effect of the lobby myth is to preserve an assumption of American innocence, particularly during outbursts of criminal violence like that seen over the past month.
But recent events have highlighted two important lessons. First, that Washington has significant power over (and therefore complicity in) Israel’s actions; and second, that the US-Israeli alliance is increasingly vulnerable to domestic political pressure within the US. This is demonstrable when we re-examine how the past few weeks unfolded.
The latest Israel-Hamas conflict had a structural and a proximate cause. The structural cause is the decades-old apartheid regime, with all its inherent violence, imposed on the Palestinians by Israel and underwritten by US support for Israel. Apartheid is classified as a crime against humanity under the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The proximate cause was Israel’s latest attempts to ethnically cleanse East Jerusalem by increments, and its violent policing of protests against these measures, which culminated in an attack on worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. Israeli colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territories is a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Hamas rocket fire (an indiscriminate attack on civilians, and therefore also a war crime) came on 10 May as a response to these Israeli assaults, with Israel’s bombardment of Gaza then commencing immediately. Amnesty International has observed that the Israeli attacks on civilian targets sustained over the following 11 days “may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity”, while the relief agency Médecins Sans Frontières noted that “no place in Gaza is safe”.
By the time the fighting stopped early last Friday, the final death toll comprised 243 Palestinians, including 66 children, and 13 Israelis, including two children. From the beginning, US president Joe Biden framed the violence as an Israeli response to Hamas rockets attacks, a response which he denied was disproportionate. Biden’s administration prevented the UN security council from demanding an immediate ceasefire on four occasions, which in turn empowered Israel to reject ceasefire offers from Hamas, made via Egypt and Russia as early as two days into the conflict.
Then on 19 May, Biden instructed the Israeli government that he expected “significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire”. That de-escalation duly occurred on 20 May, and a ceasefire came into effect in the early hours of the following day. In other words, US-built planes provided with US military aid dropped US-made bombs on Palestinian civilians for exactly as long as the US president was prepared to support it. When that support was withdrawn, the assault ended immediately.
Did the US-Israeli attack end because victory, or at least some significant military objective, had been achieved? There is a widespread sense in Israel that this is not the case, contrary to official boasts. 72% of Israelis thought the bombardment of Gaza should continue, with only 24% supporting the ceasefire – a frustration expressed by a range of politicians and commentators. Sharon Idan, a correspondent for the Israeli public broadcaster, captured the mood when he said that “Israel will go into a ceasefire because the world is tired of fighting. Not because the time has come.”
So what happened? Did Biden have a sudden attack of conscience, after nine days enabling the bombardment of one of the most densely populated and impoverished places on earth? Perhaps. But what has been well documented is that throughout that time, Biden was being subjected to a degree of domestic pressure on the Palestinians’ behalf, the like of which had never been felt by any previous US president.
With his tenuous hold on the US Congress, Biden simply cannot afford to ignore a left caucus within the Democratic party that has been steadily growing in power in recent years. That caucus is in turn fired from below by wider grassroots movements born of a deep, generational shift in political values at the societal level. This is the new base of the Democratic party, one defined by an explicit anti-racist consciousness now directly at odds with the party’s traditional support for Israel.
The instinct to give solid backing to an ally in a conflict situation will always be strong in geopolitics. In part, these displays provide signals to other allies of one’s reliability as a superpower patron, and thus serve to enhance broader structural power in the world system. But these advantages must be weighed against the domestic political costs of providing that support. What appears to have happened last week is a shift in Biden’s cost-benefit analysis.
Powerful denunciations of the US role from the floor of Congress – made by, among others, the Palestinian-American congresswoman Rashida Tlaib – raised the political cost to Biden of his support for Israeli violence. Not least at a time when he has presented himself to his voter base as an opponent of systemic racism. Moves in the Senate to block arms shipments to Israel served to increase the pressure, and the cumulative build-up seems ultimately to have forced Biden’s hand.
So what have we learned? Israel is ultimately subject to the power of its imperial patron. But Washington in turn is vulnerable, when there is a Democrat in the White House, to pressure from the pro-Palestinian left. And though Britain and the European powers do not have the same leverage over Israel as the US, there is a similar dynamic at work here, with major pro-Palestinian demonstrations taking place in London and elsewhere.
This points to what pro-Palestinian solidarity can mean, concretely, for those of us in the Global North. Amongst other things, it can mean working to remove the international support that sustains Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinian people. We’ve just witnessed a powerful example of how such pressure can literally save lives. We should redouble that pressure, and sustain it.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.