Distorting U.S. Foreign Policy: The Israel Lobby and American Power

Article excerpt

Until recently, America's Middle East policy was a peripheral part of its global strategy, which focused on preventing the Soviet Union from intimidating US. allies in Western Europe and East Asia. Britain was the dominant Western power in the Middle East until the 1960s, and U.S. influence was countered in much of the region by the Soviet Union until the end of the Cold War. The indifference of much of the national security elite and the public to the region, in between crises, permitted U.S. policy to be dominated by two U.S. domestic lobbies, one ethnic and one economic-the Israel lobby and the oil industry (which occasionally clashed over issues like U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia).

Times have changed. The collapse of the Soviet empire created a power vacuum which has been filled by the U.S., first in the Persian Gulf following the Gulf war, and now in Central Asia as a result of the Afghan war. Today the Middle East is becoming the center of U.S. foreign policy-a fact illustrated in the most shocking way by the al-- Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. A debate within the U.S. over the goals and methods of American policy in the Middle East is long overdue. Unfortunately, an uninhibited debate is not taking place, because of the disproportionate influence of the Israel lobby.

Today the Israel lobby distorts U.S. foreign policy in a number of ways. Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, enabled by U.S. weapons and money, inflames anti-American attitudes in Arab and Muslim countries. The expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land makes a mockery of the U.S. commitment to self-determination for Kosovo, East Timor and Tibet. The U.S. strategy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran pleases Israel-which is most threatened by them-but violates the logic of realpolitik and alienates most of America's other allies. Beyond the region, U.S. policy on nuclear weapons proliferation is undermined by the double standard that has led it to ignore Israel's nuclear program while condemning those of India and Pakistan.

The debate that is missing in the U.S. is not one between Americans who want Israel to survive and those-a marginal minority-who want Israel to be destroyed. The U.S. should support Israel's right to exist within internationally recognized borders and to defend itself against threats. What is needed is a debate between those who want to link U.S. support for Israel to Israeli behavior, in the light of America's own strategic goals and moral ideals, and those who want there to be no linkage. For the American Israel lobby, Tony Smith observes in his authoritative study, Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy (Harvard), "to be a 'friend of Israel' or Ipro-Israel' apparently means something quite simple: that Israel alone should decide the terms of its relations with its Arab neighbors and that the US. should endorse these terms, whatever they may be."

The Israel lobby is one special-interest pressure group among many. It is a loose network of individuals and organizations, of which the most important are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-described by the Detroit Jewish News as "a veritable training camp for Capitol Hill staffers"-and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The Israel lobby is not identical with the diverse Jewish-American community. Many Jewish-Americans are troubled by Israeli policies and some actively campaign against them, while some non-Jewish Americans-most of them members of the Protestant right-- play a significant role in the lobby. Even pro-Israel groups differ on the question of Israeli policies. According to Matthew Dorf in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: "The Zionist Organization of America lobbies Congress to slow the peace process. Their allies are mostly Republicans. At the same time, the Israel Policy Forum and Americans for Peace Now work to move the process along. …