By M. Shahid Alam
Zionists have worked hard and cleverly for their successes, but their cause has been greatly advanced at each stage by the logic of their colonial project aimed at the creation of a Jewish settler state at the very center of the Islamicate.
Most importantly, Zionism created a geopolitical realignment of great importance. It brought together two strands of the Western world, previously at odds – Christians and Jews – to join their forces against the Islamicate.
At every stage in its history, Israel has ratcheted its power by unleashing forces, even negative forces, that it has then turned to its advantage. Power, intelligence and luck have played into this.
Israel’s birth radicalized important segments of the Arab world, creating anxiety among Arab Jews about their future. Israel fanned this anxiety, with help from agent provocateurs – but also aided in some cases by myopic Arab policy – to force a Jewish flight from the Arab world. As a result, Israel doubled its Jewish population – and fighting force – within a few years after its creation.
Arab nationalism – if properly harnessed and directed – could end the Jewish state and Western hegemony in the Middle East. Unafraid, Israel took steps to fan this nationalism and used it to push the US to embrace Israel, firmly and openly, as the West’s bulwark against the Arab world. The plan worked, and by the late 1950s, if not earlier, the US was on Israel’s side.
Defeating the Arab nationalists too carried a risk. By eliminating the threat of Arab nationalism, Israel risked losing its strategic value to the US. Considering the payoff, Israel was eager to defeat the Arab nationalists. As for the risk, the Jewish lobby in the US, energized by Israel’s victory, ensured that US could only draw Israel tighter to its bosom.
A weak civil society in the Arab states also helped Israel. Although the mantle of resistance passed to the Islamists after 1967, they could not displace any of the discredited Arab regimes. US and Israel too gave a boost to these regimes. With US prodding, Israel returned a demilitarized Sinai to bring Egypt on its side. In return, Egypt switched sides.
In time, most of the Arab regimes would serve as Israel’s first line of defense against the Islamists. This was a self-reinforcing arrangement. As US-friendly Arab regimes lost legitimacy and became more repressive, they could only survive by drawing closer to the US and Israel.
At this point, luck too favored Israel, as it often has in the past. In 1979, Iran, the second pillar of US hegemony in the region, fell to Islamists who openly opposed US presence in the region. Instantly, Israel began to promote itself as the rampart against the rising Islamist tide.
In the wake of the Iranian Revolution, the Zionists also made renewed efforts to resurrect the old Western animus against Islam. Next to communism, Islam was now the principal threat to ‘civilization.’ After the Soviet collapse, the Neocons began drumming a new civilizational thesis. War between the West and Islam was inevitable.
Israel’s creation and military successes energized Christian Zionists in the US. In their millennial theology, the ingathering of Jews in Palestine was a precursor to the Second Coming. This theology demanded support for Israel. Over time, the Christian Zionists became the second organized force – next only to the Jews – that firmly backed Israel.
The end of the Cold War did not dent US commitment to Israel. It should have, since Israel was seen as America’s leading ally against Soviet influence in the region. On the contrary, in the absence of the balancing Soviet presence, the pro-Israeli forces tethered the US more firmly then ever to Israeli demands.
Israel now had a free hand in dealing with its foes. It used the Oslo Accords to neuter the PLO and assigned it to police the Palestinian resistance in the West Bank and Gaza. With the PLO neutered, Israel accelerated its colonization of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
This was also a signal for Israel to pursue more ambitious goals. In a 1996 document, the Neocons announced their plans to “engage” Hizbullah, Syria and Iran, “as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon.” Iraq, however, was their first target.
The 9-11 attacks offered the occasion to put these plans into action. Working in concert, Israel and its backers, convinced Bush to invade Iraq. There would be more wars to redraw the map of much of Middle East. Israel would emerge from these wars as the undisputed regional hegemon, and, possibly, a world power.
Just when Israel was grasping for the moon, history took a number of ‘wrong turns.’ Iraq became a quagmire for US troops. Iran’s Shi’ite allies Iran gained control over much of Iraq, barring the Kurdish region. Soon, Iran had extended its influence into eastern Afghanistan. Israeli policy had boomeranged.
In a strange reversal, Iran now cast its shadow over much of the Middle East. It mocked Israel, stood up for the Palestinians, showed up the pro-American Arab regimes for what they are, forcing them to openly identify with Israel. In bitterness, some Arab commentators blamed the US for resurrecting the ancient Persian empire.
Now, suddenly – so it appears – the US love fest with Israel has run into a spot of trouble. In a reversal of its previous policy, the US is insisting that Israel suspend new settlement construction in East Jerusalem to pave the way for ‘peace’ talks with the Palestinian Authority. For a change, the US is countering Israel’s ‘No’ with tough talk not heard in a while.
On March 9, when the US Vice President was greeted in Tel Aviv with news of new settlements in East Jerusalem, he was furious. Privately, he told Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel’s settlement activity “undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace.”
This was not a message right-wing talk artists could shout down. Joe Biden was echoing the message delivered by General Petraeus, commander of US troops in the Middle East, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Armed Services Committee. Hillary Clinton too reiterated this message in her speech to AIPAC.
What has occasioned this open rift between two spouses in a heavenly marriage? There have been tiffs before between them, but never before has a US administration told Israel that its policy endangers American troops or American interests in the Middle East? This talk is serious. It belies decades of rhetoric that has boosted Israel as America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Middle East.
It appears that the past is beginning to catch up with Israel. Adversaries it had long suppressed, forces it had harnessed for its expansionist policy, blowbacks from decisions made in hubris have now converged to limit Israel’s options. Is the Zionist logic that had brought endless successes in the past now working in the opposite direction? Is Israel running out of its fabled resourcefulness?
Israel’s stunning victory in June 1967 had produced two destabilizing results. Having solved its native problem in 1948, Israel had created it anew in 1967 by its decision to retain the West Bank and Gaza. The June War also swelled the ranks of extremist Jews who began to colonize East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza. Unable to drive out the Palestinians, this new round of colonization would turn Israel into an apartheid state.
In the 2000s, international civil society started taking notice. Movements were launched to divest from, boycott and sanction Israel. Activists began to use Western legal systems to prosecute Israelis for war crimes. Israeli leaders visiting Western campuses are now heckled routinely. Slowly, Western publics are turning away from Israel.
In 1982, in a bid to extend Israel’s northern border, Israel invaded and occupied southern Lebanon. The Lebanese Shi’ites responded by creating Hizbullah, a multi-layered grass-roots resistance, the most formidable adversary Israel had ever faced. In 2000, they forced Israel to withdraw unilaterally, and in July 2006 repulsed a fresh Israeli invasion, giving Israel a bloody nose.
No more was Tehran a distant threat for Tel Aviv: it was now positioned right next to Israel’s border. Although Hizbullah spoke to the grit and discipline of Lebanese Shi’ites, it could not have grown without Iranian support.
At about the same time, as part of its strategy to defeat the Second Intifada, Israel built the apartheid Wall cutting through the West Bank, and it pulled the Jewish settlements out of Gaza while sealing it from outside contacts. By stopping the suicide-bombers, the Wall gave Israel time to complete the creation of Gaza-like enclaves in the West Bank. In consequence, ‘peace’ talks with Palestinians lost their urgency and were shelved. This made the pro-US Arab regimes a bit nervous: they needed the charade of ‘peace’ talks to shore up what little legitimacy they had with their home audience.
The Egyptian-Israeli siege of Gaza brought Iranian influence to Israel’s southern border. The siege has stopped Hamas from become another Hizbullah, but their home made rockets reminded Israel that its native problem had not gone away – that it might someday return to haunt them.
In the 1990s, the Zionist logic had spawned al-Qaida, a group that would use terror to lure the US to wage war against the Middle East. After the Cold War, the Zionists too – led by the Neocons – pursued the same goal. Using the absurd thesis of the ‘clash of civilizations,’ they began to promote a Western war against the Islamicate. They urged the US to take out Iran, Syria and Iraq.
This was a departure from Israel’s long-standing war strategy. Israel took US money and weapons, but fought its own wars. This had several advantages. It built Israel’s military strength and prestige; it kept the US military out of Israel’s path to hegemony over the Middle East. Also, American support for Israel might wear thin if they saw their troops dying in Israel’s wars. If Israel was ready to abandon this strategy in the 1990s, that is because it could not take on Iran, Iraq and Syria on its own.
And so the die was cast. When al-Qaida struck on 9-11, Israel saw opportunity. The Zionists began to press full steam for the US to invade Iraq – and succeeded. Few Israelis worried that the chickens would come home to roost. In April 2008, Netanyahu said, “We are benefiting from…the attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, and the American struggle in Iraq.”
Now, some ten years later, the chickens are coming home to roost. The Iraq War has achieved little for Israel. It removed a defanged Saddam Hussein, but extended Iran’s influence into Iraq and it has brought Iranian proxies to its northern and southern borders. Iran now uses Palestine to undermine pro-US Arab regimes.
More ominously, the US military has now spoken. It has warned that Israeli policy raises tensions in the Middle East and endangers US troops on the ground. It will not be easy for Israel and its backers to shout down US generals with charges of anti-Semitism. That is why so many Zionist commentators look alarmed. One Israeli commentator warns that “Obama and Netanyahu are at point of no return.” Others are saying worse.
It appear unlikely that this ‘flap’ between the US and Israel will blow over soon. If it does not, attacks by Jewish groups – inside and outside Israel – against Obama will become more frequent and nastier. The loyalty of some Americans, both inside and outside the Congress, will be tested. It is hard to predict where this will go.
However, this much should be clear. Even if US-Israeli differences over the Middle East are finessed for now, that will not be the end of it. The pressures that have persuaded the US to insists on a ‘solution’ to the Palestinian problem will persist. The realities that have produced the present ‘flap’ are not going away.
M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave, 2009) and Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI, 2006). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.