24 October 2006
Book Review: The Power of Israel in the United States by James Petras
There is perhaps no better example of the corrosive and divisive nature of racism as a weapon of imperialism than the debate (such as it is) about the power of the (misnamed) ‘Jewish Lobby’ and its relationship to or influence over US imperial strategy. I say misnamed because in reality it should be called the Israeli lobby. After all, there are many Jews who not only do not support Israel’s colonial and genocidal policies but who also do not even subscribe to the idea of a ‘Jewish Homeland’, thus the connection between being Jewish (whatever that is) and Israel has first to be defined, not in racial/ethnic or religious terms but in interests, both real and perceived, before we can attempt to get a handle on the issue.
“Close to 60% of Democratic Party and 35% of Republican Party funding comes from pro-Israeli Jews.” (p.36)
My mother, although both a Communist and an atheist, also thought of herself as Jewish, largely through her ‘inheritance’, that is, her folks were refugees from Russia (and also Communists and atheists) and she had experienced anti-Semitism growing up in a Leeds ghetto and her family exterminated in the then Soviet Union during WWII by the Nazis. But she never believed in the ‘Jewish homeland’ nor ever supported its existence or its policies. Thus what made her Jewish? I’ll let others scratch their heads over the apparent contradiction but it does point to why trying to deal with the issue of ‘Jews’ and especially their relationship to their alleged adopted countries is not only difficult but as slippery as an eel.
This apparent paradox also highlights why, in dealing with the ‘Jewish Lobby’, especially in the United States, the concept of ‘Jew’ slips and slides between definitions; one minute a ‘race’, the next, a nation and then both at the same time!
Consider and compare the current hysteria surrounding Moslems who now occupy a comparable position in Europe and the US to the one allegedly occupied by Jews. Imagine the outcry if the same racist stereotypes of ‘outsider’ and ‘separate’ were applied to Jews! Moreover, by treating Moslems as a ‘race’, it highlights the contradictions of what it is to be Jewish and why having multiple definitions makes the issue of analysis so difficult. One minute a race, then a religion, then a nation, all very convenient for the ideology of Zionism as it enables it to move the goalposts to fit the state of play.
The relationship that Jews, in all their various incarnations, have to Israel exemplifies the contradictions that exist between Israel as a religious fundamentalist, settler state and those who for whatever reason, consider themselves Jewish.
The relationship between Israel and the US is unique, not only in our time but in history. One would be hard-pressed to find two countries whose relationship is so intertwined that it is virtually impossible to disentangle them. And in fact, implicit in Petras’ book is the idea that Israel as a ‘nation state’ is in fact no more than the 51st state, a real irony considering it purports to be the ‘Jewish Homeland’. Petras makes one reference to the idea when he says in the context of the relationship between AIPAC (American/Israeli Political Action Committee) and the US state and the AIPAC’s role as a spy for Israel:
“Or is the very notion of hard-edge (as opposed to blurred) sovereignties separating the two countries moot?”(p.79)
It’s a pity that Petras doesn’t explore this further. But even the idea of Israel as a 51st state is perhaps misplaced as it can be argued that the economy and thus the very existence of Israel is so dependent on US ‘aid’ and support, that without it, Israel simply wouldn’t exist. Thus, Israel exists more in the minds of those who rule it than it does as a genuine nation state, based on common interests of history, language, culture and so forth. It was after all, created by white Europeans with all that this entails, Europeans who brought with them the same attitudes, ideas and above all, economic imperatives that drove Europeans to colonise Africa, Asia and the Americas.
But I contend the relationship goes much deeper even than the obvious economic dependency of Israel on US ‘largesse’, as does Petras but not, I think for the same reasons that Petras advances.
But if nothing else ‘The Power of Israel’ demonstrates in sordid detail the degree to which the very existence of Israel depends on the totally symbiotic relationship between the two nations and at every level. This is not merely a financial one but goes to the very heart of US strategic policies for the Middle East (and beyond).
“The Bush regime represented a qualitative advance in Zionist power in US policies, both foreign and domestic. The key economic policymaker was Alan Greenspan, head of the US Central Bank (Federal Reserve Bank), a long time crony of Wall Street interests and promoter of the major pro-Israeli investment houses—responsible for the speculative boom and bust economy of the 1990’s.
“The influence on US Middle East policy of this neo-conservative cabal far exceeded their formal positions because they were backed by an array of influential Zionist academic ideologues (Kagan, Cohen, Pipes), political pundits (Kristols, Krauthamer, Peretz etc), and directors of war think-tanks (Pipes, Rubin) who continue to be given constant access to the opinion pages of the major US newspapers, or interviewed as Middle East “experts” on pro-Israeli television and radio shows—advancing their war propaganda designed to promote US defense of Israel’s Middle East agenda, despite the evident quagmire in Iraq, and growing public rejection of that war.”(p.49)
Make no mistake, Petras supplies us with all the facts concerning the Faustian pact that unites the US ruling elite with Israel’s including large tracts of the Labour movement, organised crime, (including the ‘Mafia’), the ‘intelligence’ agencies, the media and so forth. These are simple enough to demonstrate and the book does it in spades.
The question which taxes all who attempt to unpack the US-Israeli axis is which came first? The proberbial tail wagging the dog. Petras makes some unsupported assumptions about this, for example when looking at the reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq, he pours scorn on the ‘it’s all about oil’ thesis, claiming that there is no evidence that Big Oil is behind the invasion. But by the same token, there is no overt evidence that Big Weapons are behind the invasion any more than there is overt proof that Big Banks are behind the invasion.
“The only major beneficiary of the war has been the state of Israel, which has succeeded in having the US destroy its most consistent adversary.” (p. 28)
But this is a highly dubious claim given the history of Saddam Hussein’s relationship to the US and in any case, in the larger scheme of things, as Petras paradoxically admits, the invasion is at best a Pyrrhic victory given the mess it’s got both the US and Israel into. Indeed, he admits as much when he says:
“What the intellectual colons and other Israeli publicists forget to mention is that Israeli security policy in the Occupied Territories is a total disaster.” (p. 38)
Now clearly it’s not just about oil anymore than it’s just about the military/industrial complex, it is after all, about capitalism and its continued survival. The question that those who oppose Israel’s expansionist objectives ask is whether US policies are driven/derived from Israel’s objectives rather than the traditional view that Israel is the US’s Middle Eastern rottweiler?
Petras maintains that US Middle Eastern policies are dictated more by Israel than by US imperial designs (even to the point of supplanting them) but the problem is that in spite of the incestuous relationship between the two states, he doesn’t prove his thesis, firstly because Israel would never have been created in the first place without the initial British and then US support (who, following the so-called Suez Crisis of 1956, supplanted a waning British imperialism).
In the attempt to prove his thesis that Israel is the ‘tail that wags the imperial dog’, Petras uses the argument that the US is acting against its best interests when it comes to its support of Israel, that for example the invasion of Iraq was done at the behest of Israel and what appears to be the coming invasion of Iran is also driven by Israel.
He does this by illustrating the disproportionate power and influence that some very rich and powerful Jews occupy in the US capitalist class and its corresponding political elite. And it’s true that Jews do occupy a disproportionate percentage especially in the media, banking and ruling elite but what of the overwhelming number of American Jews who don’t? Petras argues that here too, through an interconnected network of relationships via a number of very powerful organisations such as AIPAC and the AJC (American-Jewish Committee), Israel is able to harness their support both financially (through financial contributions to Israel) and politically, through their contributions to both the Republican and Democratic Parties.
“Pro-Israeli Jews are disproportionately represented in the financial, political, professional, academic, real estate, insurance and mass media sectors of the American economy. While Jews are a minority in each and every one of these categories, their disproportionate power and influence stems from the fact that they function collectively: they are organized, active, and concentrate on a single issue—US policy in the Middle East, and specifically in securing Washington’s massive, unconditional and continuing military, political and financial support for Israel.” (p.40)
All true no doubt, but it is also an accurate description of the ruling capitalist class as a whole and indeed as if to confound Petras’s thesis he goes on to say:
“The politics of Washington’s new imperialism coincides splendidly with the Sharon-Olmert conquest and destruction of the Occupied Territories.” (p.40)
The problem for Petras is that Israel as a weapon of imperialism predates the current US-Israeli relationship by almost 100 years, going right back to the initial Balfour Declaration and indeed right back to the founding of the Zionist Congress in the late 19th century.
But to get back to the nitty-gritty of Petras’s argument, he has to conclusively prove that Israeli objectives have actually completely replaced US strategic policies and objectives to the point whereby they actually work against US interests, not only in the Middle East but ultimately, globally. And this is what Petras claims has happened.
In an attempt to do this, he argues that by demonising Islam and the Arabs, attacking Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and exterminating Palestine, Israel (the US?) has turned not only the millions of Moslems and Arabs against the US, but indeed the great majority of the world’s population as well as increasing the threat of terrorism.
“The American alliance with Israel has been one of the great energizers of anti-imperialist movements, crossing racial, religious and gender boundaries—everywhere but among the American Left.” (p.56)
But equally and for precisely the same reasons, one could argue that these policies also work against the interests of Israel but it doesn’t stop them from pursuing genocide and imperial-colonial expansion anymore than it stops the US.
The issue of the American ‘left’s’ inability to deal with its own demons is in this context, a bit of red herring (if you’ll pardon the pun) and has more to do with Petras’s anger and frustration with the ‘comrades’, let alone the power of Zionist propaganda to confuse.
Once again, I argue that in fact, true to form, the invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Lebanon have been successful insofar as they have resulted in unprecedented profits for US capitalism. In addition, the $3 billion a year the US gives to Israel also benefits big business, especially the arms industry. There are therefore, very sound economic reasons for the US capitalist class to tie itself totally to the ‘little imperialism’ of Israel regardless that specific sections of US capital don’t benefit (directly anyway) from this ‘unholy’ alliance.
Okay, such actions might well work against the interests of Capital in the long term, but when has big business thought about the long term? It is driven by the needs of the owners of capital, who want profits today, not tomorrow. Much is predicated on the hope that they will be successful in crushing opposition to their plans. When they go to war, they go in the belief that they’ll be successful, else why go to war in the first place? And anyway, it’s not big capitalists and politicians who die on the battlefield but ordinary working people, so the question of winning and losing has to be considered on the basis of the economics of capitalism, not on winning or losing specific wars.
In fact, it can be argued on the basis of Petras’s analysis that the rulers of Israel and the United States are both equally stupid and shortsighted but in the final analysis, it matters little whether US interests are defined by Israel or not, what matters is that both think that pursuing such policies are in their joint interests.
That the US/Israeli relationship is unique and even bizarre should not divert us from understanding the underlying logic of capital that propels both ruling classes to operate as they do. The crying shame of the Zionist project is that it has managed to coopt so many millions of Jews (and others) into swallowing the line and created so much devastation in the process.
It’s also a shame that Petras, in his desire to create a Jewish ‘conspiracy’ (for this is how the book as whole reads) in order to explain the insane, genocidal policies of capitalism, loses sight of the simple fact that what unites the people and institutions of the US and Israel (as it does those who rule the UK) is the desire to hang on to what they have and apparently at any cost, including the destruction of the very thing they desire.
See also: The Armageddon Lobby: Dispensationalist Christian Zionism and the Shaping of US Policy Towards Israel-Palestine Rammy M. Haija and
The Rampart by Moshe Machover