Stephen Zunes and the Zionist Tinderbox

By Michael Barker

“[A]nti Zionism may be a ‘fool’s anti-imperialism,’ where Jewish nationalism itself is erroneously seen as the problem rather than the alliance its leaders have made with exploitative Western interests.”
Stephen Zunes, 2006.1

Who is Stephen Zunes? Well according to his web-site, he is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, who in 2002 won recognition from the Peace and Justice Studies Association as Peace Scholar of the Year. Although Zunes describes himself as a committed peace loving, anti-imperialist activist, by reviewing just one of his books this article will demonstrate that in actual fact his scholarly actions belie such intent. The book in question is Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Zed Books, 2003), a popular text that received glowing accolades  from Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Richard Falk, and Saul Landau (amongst others). This essay will illustrate how Zunes’ proclivity for defending Zionism ultimately leads hims to promote a “fool’s anti-imperialism.”

That is not to say that Zunes is uncritical of U.S. foreign policy, far from it, just that his work serves as a smokescreen for understanding the real drivers of U.S. foreign policy vis-a-vis the Middle East.

For example, on the antagonist relationship between U.S. elite interests and human rights, he recognizes that:

    Human rights violations by foreign governments and their lack of democratic institutions generally get the most attention in the United States when a given administration has called attention to them in order to mobilize domestic and international opinion against a regime the U.S. government opposes. (p.10)

However, Zunes continues, “since at least the 1970s” U.S. administrations — or should we say regimes — have “to some degree” been forced to respond to “public and Congressional pressure regarding the lack of democracy and human rights in allied countries.” Typical responses often “constitute little more than lip service and damage control,” but significantly, “the very region that receives the largest amount of American arms and aid has been notably absent from the public debate: the Middle East.” Indeed, with regard the U.S.’s special commitment to Israel, U.S. aid “has generally increased as the government’s repression in the occupied territories has worsened.”2 Moreover, Zunes points out, this relationship…

    … is unlike any other in the world, or indeed, like any in history. In sheer volume, it is the most generous foreign aid program ever between two countries, totaling over $100 billion. No country has ever received as much Congressionally mandated aid as has Israel. What is perhaps even more unusual is that Israel, like its benefactor, is an advanced, industrialized, technologically sophisticated country, as well as a major arms exporter. (p.109)

So how might we come to understand the existence of this enduring toxic relationship? Well according to Zunes, such aid actually runs counter to the best interests — that is, “legitimate defence needs” — of both Israel and the United States. Therefore, as neither State profits from this situation U.S.-based arms manufacturers must be largely to blame, as he says, they are the people who profit most from this insecurity. To support this point Zunes draws upon the words of Matti Peled, the late Israeli major general (and Knesset member), who in the early 1990s “argued that he and other Israeli military leaders saw the [$1.8 billion Israeli military] aid package as little more than a U.S. government subsidy for American arms manufacturers.”3

Zunes does not seriously consider the possibility that an alternative explanation for this state of affairs is that neither the U.S. nor Israel are intent on pursuing peace in the Middle East. Indeed it seems fairly obvious that Israel has no interest in promoting what Zunes considers to be its “legitimate defence needs,” as leading Zionist elites are quite happy escalating tension in the region to facilitate the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. This might explain why “it appears that the priority of both the executive branch and Congress in recent decades has not been Israeli security, but maintaining the flow of American arms exports.”4 Yet, Zunes is convinced that the root of the problem lies not with Zionism but with the arms manufacturers, thus he writes:

    Much attention has been given to the clout of pro-Israel Politcal Action Committee (PACs) and their alleged role in convincing members of Congress to support these taxpayer-funded arms transfers to Israel. However, contributions by PACs affiliated with military contractors far surpass the pro-Israel PACs. For example, during the 1999-2000 election cycle, just slightly over $2 million in campaign contributions came from the pro-Israel PACs, while PACs affiliated with the arms industry came close to $5 million.5

This gross underestimation of the power of the Israel lobby is almost identical to Noam Chomsky’s arguments which have already been thoroughly rebutted elsewhere. Thus it is fitting that Zunes, like Chomsky, plays the oil card, and says that the “primary reason” why the U.S. supports Israel is because of their need to control oil supplies, which is facilitated by Israel’s ability to prevent “victories by radical nationalist movements” in the Middle East.6 As before, this is an erroneous, unsupported statement that has been convincingly debunked.

Either way if one follows Zunes’ assertion that aid to Israel threatens their national security, “should U.S. policy,” Zunes asks, “then, really be considered ‘pro-Israel?’” He argues not: such aid is counterproductive, as it endangers Israel by encouraging militaristic elements within Israel’s ruling class.7 This inelegant mislogic is used to bolster his case that U.S. support for Israel must be predominantly driven by arms manufacturers and big oil; no need for hard evidence though.

Now that Zunes has cajoled his readers into accepting his fallacious arguments, he provides other “evidence” to help understand what “motivates the strong American bias against the Palestinians.” Thus in addition to the military and oil lobbies, Zunes identifies four other contributing factors to explain this bias: these are (1) a mixture of sentimental attachment combined with guilt (driven by the history of Western anti-Semitism), “friendships with Jewish Americans who identify strongly with Israel, and fear of inadvertently encouraging anti-Semitism,” (2) the rising power of the Christian Right in the United States, which interprets the Israeli-Palestine conflict as “simply a continuation of the Biblical battles between the Israelites and the Philistines,” (3) the “failure of progressive movements in the United States,” and (4) the Israel lobby. No doubt the first three points are all relevant to some degree, but their contemporary significance have all been amplified, and in some cases driven, by the far-reaching influence of the Israel lobby.8

On point four however — that is, the Israel lobby — Zunes suggests that caution must be heeded, because Jews are generally peaceful and only make up a small percentage of the U.S. population (“less than 4 percent”): moreover, “[m]any of the most outspoken members of Congress supportive of Israel’s occupation policies are from states or districts with very small Jewish populations.”9 Yet here Zunes’ argument is nonsensical (again), as the number of active Zionists is insignificant, as ultimately it is the power they exert, not their numbers, that matters most. Furthermore, no one is arguing that all Jews are Zionists, indeed it is only the small but extremely influential Jewish population residing in the American ruling class — along with their non-Jewish Zionist recruits — who give the Israel lobby its tremendous clout. Here as an example of the influence of the Israel lobby we might look to Stephen Green’s book, Taking Sides, America’s Secret Relations with Militant Israel (William Morrow, 1984), which Jeffrey Blankfort observes

    … was the first examination of State Department archives concerning US-Israel relations. Since the Eisenhower administration, wrote Green in 1984, “Israel, and friends of Israel in America, have determined the broad outlines of US policy in the region. It has been left to American Presidents to implement that policy, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and to deal with the tactical issues.”

Although  Blankfort admits that this is a “slight exaggeration, perhaps,” it is ironic that Zunes refers to Green’s book to support his contention that Israel helps U.S. foreign policy elites, not vice versa.10 But irrespective of contrary evidence, Zunes asks that we put aside our critical faculty’s because “the strength of the lobby is often greatly exaggerated.”11 Furthermore, to ensure his readers are less likely to believe that the Israel lobby has a significant impact on guiding U.S. foreign policy, Zunes caricatures proponents of this point of view as belonging to the radical Right. No mention is made of Leftists who have long warned of the power of the lobby, like Edward Herman, Alexander Cockburn, and Jeffrey Blankfort; instead, Zunes points to anti-Semitic conservatives, like the politician Patrick Buchanan.12 Lest we forget, oil is the “primary issue.” Thus following Zunes’ example of using Zionists to back his unconvincing case for the overwhelming power of the U.S. arms industry, we could just as easily cite such Zionist sources to undermine his oil argument. For example, in the early 1980s, Morris Amitay, the former executive director of AIPAC, said: “We rarely see them [oil corporations] lobbying on foreign policy issues… In a sense, we have the field to ourselves.”

As this essay has demonstrated, being a progressive scholar does not necessarily guarantee that your analyses will effectively challenge the status quo. Thus while Zunes self-identifies as an anti-imperialist activist, he is a liberal Zionist at heart, and he is certainly not comfortable with advocating the type of systemic social change that we need to eradicate capitalism: by way of a contrast even the moderate civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, recognized that “the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism” (King’s words). This explains why Zunes counsels U.S. citizens that “bringing about a more enlightened foreign policy is necessary for national security.”13

Instead of problematising the obvious contradictions between democracy and capitalism, Zunes suggests that the United States political system is simply being misused. He writes that “there is a growing sense that the Bush Administration is cynically manipulating the country’s genuine need for security for the sake of its rigid ideological constructs and its wealthy financial supporters.”14 Unbeknown to Zunes, cynical manipulation is nothing new, it is simply part and parcel of the misnomer that is capitalist democracy. Such shallow thinking necessarily leads Zunes to observe that one of the key problems of Americas counter-terrorism policies is that they confront “the symptoms rather than the cause.” But this will always be the case under capitalism: one would hardly expect the ruling class to attempt to address the root cause of injustice — that is for us to do. A capitalist elite would have lost its marbles if it ever traced universal exploitation back to capitalism itself.

Finally, it is critical to recognize that Zunes’ failure to differentiate between polyarchy (or low-intensity democracy) and more popular understandings of democracy, enables him to suggest with no sense of irony that “worldwide trends [have been] toward democracy and greater individual freedom throughout the world”. Furthermore, he is naïve enough to believe that the popularity of the United States “can be restored, but only if the United States shifts its policies to become more consistent with support for human rights, international law, sustainable economic development and demilitarization.” What Zunes fails to recognize is that the U.S. is already the foremost promoter of human rights — along with Israel — but only a neutered, low-intensity form of rights better known as humanitarian imperialism (see “The Project for A New American Humanitarianism”). Zunes, however, closes his eyes to such suggestions, which he refers to as “conspiracy theories,” and instead argues that what the world needs is just a more benign form of capitalism. “Foreign aid,” he writes, “should be directed toward poorer countries and in support of grassroots development initiatives and away from support for the wealthier countries and/or corrupt and autocratic governments.”15 But here he misses the point, the real solution is not capitalist foreign aid, the real solution is grassroots organizing unhindered by the manipulative funding regimes of U.S. foreign policy elites. This is why Zunes, like capitalism and Zionism, fails to provide the radical theory will be necessary to eradicate both capitalism and Zionism.

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who is currently based in the UK. His web site is The author submitted this piece to PULSE.


  1. Stephen Zunes, “Defending Israel While Challenging its Policies,” in Alan Dershowitz (ed.) What Israel Means to Me (John Wiley & Sons, 2006), p.359. Zunes’ contribution to this book by the notorious Alan Dershowitz speaks volumes of the manner by which Zunes is willing to lend his anti-imperial writings to support Zionism. This is similar in many respects to Zunes’ service as the chair (since 2006) of the academic advisory board of the misnamed International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, and his willingness to help run a “Middle East Orientation Course” for the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School (Hurlburt Field, March 15-16, 2007) — a fact advertised nonchalantly on his current CV (pdf).
  2. Zunes, Tinderbox, p.13.  For example, in October 2000, “after a series of scathing human rights reports from reputable non-governmental organizations criticizing Israeli actions, Congress approved a foreign aid allocation of $2.82 billion to Israel, which critics charged was essentially rewarding the government for its repression.” (p.26) The reputable groups referred to here include Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.Likewise on May 2, 2002, the U.S. Senate, in a 94-2 vote, passed a resolution which referred to “the Israeli assault on Palestinian towns and refugee camps as ‘necessary steps to provide security to its people by dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas.’” Such actions are obviously interpreted by “observers in the Arab and Islamic world as an act of racism”; indeed, “the majority of liberal Democrats — most of whom were on record in support of human rights in Guatemala, East Timor, Colombia, Tibet, and elsewhere — had decided, in a situation where the victims of human rights abuses were Arabs, to instead throw their support to the perpetrator of the human rights abuses. In fact, one of the two sponsors of the House resolution was California Democrat Tom Lantos, who is the long-time chairman of the Human Rights Caucus.” (p.30) Although not mentioned by Zunes, the late Tom Lantos, “the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress,” was a well known Zionist.
  3. Zunes, Tinderbox, p.40
  4. Zunes, Tinderbox, p.40 Zunes later adds: “The irony of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf is that is has little strategic justification given the costs.” He continues, that their policies “actually endangers the security of both the United States and its Gulf allies.” Yet to Zunes this imperialist foreign policy should be deemed some sort of mistake, “a kind of foreign policy by catharis rather than based on any rational strategic calculation.” (p.104) If only Zunes would read such foreign policy blueprints like those of the Project for a New American Century, it would become apparent that U.S. foreign policy is based on very rational criteria, but of course not criteria that is in the rational best interests of either the U.S. or global populous. Zunes observes that: “The worst single terrorist atrocities in the Middle East in recent decades were committed by Christians: the Phalangists, a Lebanese Maronie militia, were responsible for the massacres of thousands of Palestinians at the Tal al-Zataar refugee camp in June 1976 and the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982.” (p.171) Later Zunes fills in more details on the background of this group, writing: “The ‘Muslim’ side of the Lebanese civil war in the mid-1970s was actually a largely secular grouping known as the Lebanese National Movement (LNM)… Seeking to block the LNM’s demands for constitutional reform to create a more representative political system that would likely enact policies less sympathetic with the West, the United States clandestinely supported the Phalangist militia, a neo-fascist grouping based in the country’s Maronite Christian community.” (p.184) On a related matter, “the most serious single terrorist bombing against a civilian target in Middle East history was the March 1985 blast in a suburban Beirut neigbourhood that killed 80 people and wounded 200 others.” As Zunes relates, this attack “was ordered by CIA director William Casey and approved by President Reagan as part of an unsuccessful effort to assassinate an anti-American Lebanese cleric.” (p.200)
  5. Zunes, Tinderbox, p.41. Zunes reference for this point is  On the previous page of his book to support the same point he refers to Alan Kronstadt et al, Hostile Takeover: How the Aerospace Industries Association Gain Control of American Foreign Policy and Doubl e Arms Transfers to Dictators (Project on Demilitarization and Democracy, 1995).
  6. Zunes, Tinderbox, p.161. Zunes say that this policeman service is supplemented by Israel’s role in allowing “battlefield testing of American arms,” in exporting homegrown munitions to U.S. allies, and in funneling U.S. arms to groups “too unpopular in the United States for openly granting direct military assistance”. (p.161)
  7. Zunes, Tinderbox, p.154. “The rise of the rightist Likud Bloc in Israel and the right-ward drift in the Labor Party since 1967 is in large part due to this large-scale American support. Rightist Israeli political leaders such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Benyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon would certainly have existed without U.S. backing, but they would have likely been part of a small right-wing minority in the Knesset and would have never become prime ministers.” Zunes, Tinderbox, p.155.
  8. Zunes, Tinderbox, pp.157-8. With respect to the peace movement, Zunes writes: “For many years, most mainstream peace and human rights groups avoided the issue, not wanting to alienate many of their Jewish and other liberal constituents supportive of the Israeli government.” (p.158)
  9. Zunes, Tinderbox, p.158, p.159.
  10. Zunes, Tinderbox, p.162 (footnote 110)
  11. Zunes, Tinderbox, p.159. “For an elaboration of this argument,” Zunes points us to his article, “The Roots of the U.S.-Israeli Relationship,” New Political Science, Nos 21-22, Spring-Summer 1992. He also points to A.F.K. Organski’s, The $36 Billion Bargain: Strategy and Politics in U.S. Assistance to Israel (Columbia University Press, 1990).
  12. Zunes adds that: “In a classic case of exactly this type of anti-Semitic scapegoating, members of Congress and their aides will claim — always off the record — that they or their boss has to take pro-militarist and anti-human rights positions towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of the need for Jewish campaign contributions. Similarly, as a means of diverting Arab criticism from U.S. policy makers, American diplomats routinely tell representatives of Arab governments that wealth Jews essentially dictate U.S. Middle East policy. The senior President Bush made it clear that such scapegoating is acceptable when — during the debate on the proposed $10 billion loan guarantees to Israel in 1992 — he claimed that he was just ‘one lonely little guy’ standing up to ‘a thousand lobbyists’ swarming on Capitol Hill.” (p.164)
  13. Zunes, Tinderbox, p.217.
  14. Zunes, Tinderbox, p.221. Ironically, the majority of the U.S. governments “wealth financial supporters” happen to be Jewish.
  15. Zunes, Tinderbox, p.14, p.225, p.226. Zunes later adds that: “There is nothing inherently wrong with the United States or other countries supporting democratic opposition movement against autocratic regimes”; although he counsels that in the case of Iraq this would be counterproductive owing to the United States’ damaged credibility in the region. However, he adds that before the United States can work in such a manner it must first “encourage greater freedom in countries it considers it allies, such as Saudi Arabia”. (p.229)

7 thoughts on “Stephen Zunes and the Zionist Tinderbox”

  1. Stephen Zunes is a shill. He is a place marker for the phenomenon called “the postmodern coup d’etat,” or a neoliberal op that sneaks in under cover of a people’s movement.

    The concept was developed in the Reagan Administration after the Church Commission shut down secret “gladio” type CIA op. Reagan just went public with the coup machinery. Sometimes it’s best to hide in plain sight.

    I think that Gene sharp with his Albert Einstein Institution (AEI) and US Army Colonel Robert Helvey and later the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with characters like Peter Ackerman developed the concept.

    After that it morphed into NGO type organizations like USAID, Freedom House (Frank Gaffney), National Endowment for Democracy (NED), George Soros Open Society Institute.

    It is sometimes referred to as “colored revolutions”. It no longer works. Putin has shut them down with Nashi. Venezuela has shut them down. China, Burma, Vietnam have been attacked. Their last disaster was the “green revolution” in Iran.

    One of Zunes’ principal tasks is to convince you that “revolutions” like the “green revolution” in Iran are spontaneous and legitimate and that there is no “neoliberal” angle

  2. Well, there’s not much I can add after reading Jesus’ insightful research. In fact, my comments may seem crude by comparison.
    I am happy to see Zunes deconstructed; he is a bad penny. It is very important to be watchful and discerning in the 21st c. neocon security state, formerly known as a USA. What I’m wondering is whether Zunes is on the AIPAC payroll.;. or whether there are other incentives. To be a neocon is to be a functionary in a highly-developed surveillance – hasbara network. Beware.

  3. When US finance capital’s world war to secure global domination was being defeated by capitalist rivals led by China & Russia, and by unbeatable national resistance – “terrorism” / :al qaeda” etc. per u.s. state terrorism’s media – geostrategists pushed a major tactical shift to ‘smart power’, institutionalizing and greatly expanding hard and soft power merged as ‘smart power’, under pentagon and state dept.
    Extensive documented info. on this neoliberal ‘friendly faced fascism’ is at:

    liz burbank

  4. Zunes is essentially a coward who realizes that the zionists are a threat to world peace and US independence but chooses to either keep quiet or downplay the influence of Israel in the US because his tenureship will be in jeopardy otherwise. The Zionists have this nasty habit of silencing people who are critical of them (either by revoking their positions in educational institutes, blacklisting them from the media or in the case of Russia, putting a bullet in their head) and he doesn’t want to lose his job. I mean, why else would a supposed ‘critic of Israel’ find NO evidence of Zionist influence in the US media? I first saw him on RT’s news programme ‘Crosstalk’ (hosted by Peter LaVelle) where he was one of the guest speakers; the dude was SQUIRMING in his seat trying hard not to say anything that would harm his position at his college; while his fellow guest Grant F. Smith (a REAL American patriot) was assailing Israel left, right and center! I don’t think Zunes is a total shill – but he IS an apologist since he in all probability must have been threatened at some point in his career and knows how powerful the zionists are.

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