From the USS Liberty to The Iraq War
In spite of its small geographical size and population, Israel’s influence on US policy making and on US media editorial lines has been long known. For some Americans, the extent of Israel’s influence on US decision making first became clear during US President Johnson’s cover-up of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, while sustained media silence on the incident further emphasised how few US media outlets would go out of their way to expose the cover-up and background of the tragic attack. But for virtually all Americans, the 1973 oil embargo hammered home just how far the US was willing to go for Israel, in spite of the consequences. This was true even under a Nixon administration that unlike its predecessor or most of its successors, did not necessarily play favourites in geopolitics.
As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, the Lebanese Civil War and Iran’s Islamic Revolution gave Israel’s highly skilled propagandists an opportunity to push a narrative in the US that Israel was a lone modern democracy in a volatile region. This strategy helped to persuade secular (however uninformed) Americans to generally support Israel unconditionally no matter what it did and to whom, while the Evangelical Protestant revival of the 1980s became incredibly important to the US based Israel lobby as the new religious wave that swept through much of America at that time was incredibly pro-Israel. As the Evangelicals began to take over the Republican party, this helped to transform the American right from being pro-Israel for self-described pragmatic reasons to becoming pro-Israel for increasingly fanatical reasons. In this sense, the Evangelical movement helped Israel to solidify its position as a key international adviser shaping America’s foreign policy.
Israel’s influence on US policy making reached a zenith in the 1990s and early 2000s as the Republican party’s foreign policy making positions were taken over by the so-called neocons. In 1996, future George W. Bush adviser Richard Perle authored the influential A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm. This policy document first presented to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu by Perle, argued for America to abandon its policies of being pro-Israel while still attempting to respect the dynamics of the Arab world and instead proposed that the US adopt a hard-line pro-Israel strategy whereby Israel’s regional rivals and adversaries would effectively be treated as rivals and adversaries of the United States. To put it bluntly this new policy was unambiguous in conveying the message: ‘a nation Israel names as an enemy is now an enemy of the United States’.
Perle and fellow neocons would later found the so-called think tank ‘Project For A New American Century” which began arguing for regime change in Iraq while hinting at the same for Libya, Syria and Iran. The reliance of George W. Bush on neocons with deep ties to Israel as policy makers, represented the zenith of Israel’s influence on US policy. That being said, Obama retained many of these policy makers in spite of his different domestic agenda vis-a-vis George W. Bush.
Trump and the Soviet Union
While the USSR was an early supporter of Israel, by the late 1950s this had changed inexorably. For the remainder of the Cold War, America’s support of Israel and the Soviet Union’s support for Palestine and the wider Arab Nationalist cause became part of the fabric of geopolitical bipolarity in the Middle East.
While the US and Russia still disagree on much when it comes to the Middle East (to put it mildly), Israel plays a very different role in Russo-American relations in the region today than it did during the Cold War. Today, Russia and Israel are incredibly close partners, so much so that the strongest point of agreement that President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump were able to achieve at their Helsinki Summit was a commitment on the part of both superpowers to protect Israel’s security.
While few other concrete agreements were made in Helsinki, this was certainly one for the history books. If Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan were able to get Leonid Brezhnev to agree with the United States that Israel’s security was of paramount importance to both countries – the US Congress, media, military establishment and intelligence community would likely have called this a great achievement in the most bipartisan manner imaginable.
As Russia and Israel’s goals converge regarding the situation in south-western Syria in particular, it has been a Russio-Israeli agreement that has led the US and Russia to a profound agreement on a vital issue in spite of disagreeing on much else in the wider world.
Donald Trump, having lived through an age where Moscow and Washington were on totally opposite geopolitical sides in the Middle East, has touted the collective Russo-Israeli-American achievement by saying,
“We came to a lot of good conclusions. A really good conclusion for Israel. Something very strong”.
Trump continued saying that Putin is a great “believer in Israel” and is a “fan of Bibi” (Benjamin Netanyahu) while continuing to state that Putin is “Really helping him (Netanyahu) a lot and will help him a lot, which is good for all of us”.
At a time when organisations like Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) continue to shed light on Israel’s crimes against Palestinians, having two of the three most powerful leaders in the world come together on the matter of protecting Israel, Israeli media have been quick to declare the summit a victory. Objectively one can see why this is the case.
But what is awkward is how silent the US media has been regarding a summit that led to an historic agreement between Russia and the United States over Israel, in spite of the fact that in Donald Trump’s own words, relations between Washington and Moscow just prior to the summit were at their lowest in history.
Declining Israeli influence in the USA
The fact of the matter is, as the US gradually and asymmetrically pivots from its role as the undisputed global hegemon at the turn of the 21st century to a country that must now share geopolitical power between the Russian and Chinese superpowers, Israeli influence in the US is also gradually and asymmetrically declining.
The profound hatred of Donald Trump among the Democratic party has ushered in an era where many Democrats, including Jews who once shared steadfast support for Israel with Republicans, are now coming to see things (at least from the level of rhetoric) more from the perspective of Palestinians. This trend has been noticed and articulated both by American and Israeli mainstream media. While both US and Israeli outlets exaggerate this gradual and asymmetrical trend for obvious reasons, they are nevertheless correct in identifying this new reality. At the same time, growing numbers of young American Jews are expressing either a disinterest in Israel or outright opposition to contemporary Israeli policies and social dynamics.
While Donald Trump remains a staunch supporter of Israel’s foreign policies and of Netanyahu personally, Israeli officials recently expressed shock when the Trump White House failed to exempt Israel from the new steel and aluminium tariffs. Thus it becomes clear that like India, Israel is still valuable to the US military-industrial complex but this has not saved either ally of mutual convenience (from the Trumpian neo-realist perspective) from Trump’s tariffs.
At the same time, while openly mocking Israel or casting stereotypical Israelis as villains in US media was once considered taboo, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has adopted a new character – a stereotypical militant Israeli anti-terrorism specialist who has successfully tricked several famous American conservative politicians and activists to support measures aimed at arming children, including toddlers and infants in the United States.
Unlike Baron Cohen’s anti-feminist, occasionally anti-African American and frequently anti-Semitic character Borat whose comedy exposed various forms of bigotry across American society, his new Israeli character is something of a dramatic straight man used to trick prominent US politicians (on the clear pro-Trump end of the political spectrum) into endorsing absurd policies regarding giving guns to extremely young children.
The subtext here is very clear. Baron Cohen’s show which is designed to appeal primarily to those of an anti-Trump persuasion has cast the Israeli as a villain who has experience in arming children while the conservative Americans the character tricks are portrayed not as villains but as individuals whose stupidity ultimately makes them patently irresponsible. All of the sudden an only slightly watered down version of the well known stereotype of intelligent and cunning foreign Jews fooling naive and unintelligent gentile Americans is being shown on mainstream American television in an age where politicised censorship is otherwise at an all time high in the land of the First Amendment.
In an age where telling “sexist” and racist jokes is becoming ever more taboo in America, mocking Israelis appears to be a legitimate form of entertainment. This says a great deal about the shifting cultural atmosphere in the United States and it is one that does not bode well for Israel.
A different story in Russia
Due to Russia’s pragmatic approach to geopolitics, Israel has found that in many respects, while Russia is a less adoring partner than the US has traditionally been, it is in many ways a more reliable partner. Because of Russia’s contemporary Middle Eastern policy of having no entangling alliances while also having no enemies, Israel has come to rely on the only country capable of convincing Iranian and Hezbollah troops to vacate western Syria without provoking military blow-back from pro-Iranian forces who already appear eager to engage Israel.
The fact that all parties in the Syria conflict must now necessarily use Russia as the only natural arbitrator has clearly played not only to Moscow’s advantage but to a win-win advantage for all involved. Israel has achieved support for its desire to remove Iranian troops from Syria while Iran is still a close partner with Russia in terms of trade and in terms of the Astana peace process. The mutual partnership between Russia and Turkey and the parallel partnership between Russia and Syria has meant that the dangers of open military conflict between Damascus and Ankara have now been dramatically reduced while Russia’s ability to communicate with the United States in a businesslike fashion has led to both sides working to avoid striking the other’s assets in the country.
But it is not only in security matters where Israel has come to rely on Russia. Expanding trade and tourism between Israel and Russia continues to be prioritised by both sides. Trump’s failure to exempt Israel from the steel and aluminium tariffs will only help to push Israel further towards Russia in this respect.
While the number of American Jews immigrating to Israel continues to ebb, many Russian Jews continue to seek Israeli passports and purchase property in the Levant. Notably, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich recently attained Israeli citizenship due to Britain’s Russophobic visa policies that previously put him in a difficult situation. For men like Abramovich, the Russo-Israeli partnership has most certainly been a win-win. Likewise, while Israel has expressed interest in selling weapons to the anti-Russian and antisemitic Kiev regime, this ‘business minus ethics’ approach that most nations of the world engage in has not distracted from the fact that Russian remains grateful that Israel has remained totally outside of the Anglo-American/European sanctions war on Russia, while Israel has also never joined the western chorus of excoriation aimed at Russia regarding outrageous allegations of “political meddling”. Here too, Moscow and Tel Aviv can point to an objective win-win.
Israel has made the 9th of May Victory Day an official holiday (as it has long been in Russia) with many Israelis admitting that Russia does not have the alleged antisemitism problems that Europe has. One can see that while the US and Israel are gradually and asymmetrically drifting apart in terms of the importance of the security relationship, in terms of Israel’s standing among the next generation of politically active Americans (including Jewish Americans), cultural perceptions of Israel in the US and the US treating Israel favourably in the tariff war – Russia is now a clear viable superpower alternative to the United States. Many Israelis are now equally happy about their warm relations with Russia as they are regarding warm relations with the Trump administration (on the whole).
No change for Palestine
Throughout all of this, the situation in Palestine continues to become direr. As Israel responds ever more violently to the increasingly frequent Great March of Return protests in Gaza, little is being done at an international level to end the violence. While Russia continues to back the Palestinian position at the UN, the impotence of the UN as an organisation is obvious when it comes to the Israel-Palestine issue.
What this means is that those who have stated that Israeli influence in the United States is the factor primarily responsible for the suffering of Palestine, have been mistaken. The fact of the matter is that as Israeli influence in Washington gradually and asymmetrically declines and as Russia and China become more important partners to the leadership in both Israel and Palestine – the fate of ordinary Palestinians has not changed.
This is the case for two main reasons. First of all, Israel’s illegal nuclear arsenal can operate autonomously from the United States and therefore is a very real deterrent against those in the region wishing to intervene in Palestine.
Secondly, even beyond the scope of a full scale war, at the end of the day, Palestine is primarily an Arab issue, not an American, Chinese or Russian one. Yet aside from Syria which is self evidently in no position to do anything for Palestine, few Arab states say anything meaningful about Palestine anymore.
Because of this, supporters of Palestine throughout the world must accept that unless they can convince major companies to engage in a 1980s anti-Apartheid style boycott (something which itself is not very likely), there is little that the wider world can do for Palestine unless Arab leaders themselves come to grips with a reality that at present they all have chosen to ignore. If anything, Turkey is now better placed to foment a peace process for Palestine more than any Arab nation, owing to Turkey being the first Muslim majority nation to recognise Israel combined with the fact that President Erdogan has become the most prominent spokesman for Palestine in the Sunni Muslim world. Still though, Turkey is not going to start a war with nuclear armed Israel anymore than anyone else is. This too should not be denied.
In this sense, no superpower is in a position to “save Palestine”. Ultimately this is the task and responsibility first and foremost of the Arab nations whose abrogation of a basic fraternal duty cannot be blamed on any other nation, including the United States at this point.
The key phrase that has been repeated throughout this piece has been “gradually and asymmetrically”. Geopolitics is rarely a dogmatic matter of zero-sum realities, however much some would like it to be. Instead, realities evolve generally on an issue-by-issue basis over time. Nevertheless, at heightened and accelerated moments of change, clear patterns begin to emerge that should neither be denied nor interpreted through the lens of yesterday’s obsolete analysis.
In this sense, while the strong US relationship with Israel will likely never be as strong as it was in the Bush years, in spite of Trump’s rhetoric to the contrary, it is also true that Russia is not likely to return to its stance of the Cold War where it strongly backed anti-Zionist resolutions at the UN General Assembly.
For friends of Palestine, the key is changing minds not so much in the US or Europe, let alone in Russia or China, but in doing so among elites in the Arab world. If the Arab world is not prepared to save Palestine, one should not be so naive as to think that well meaning activists in New York, Rome, Berlin, Paris or London could ever do so, not least because at the end of the day the three superpowers are not willing to sacrifice themselves for any Middle Eastern cause.