“Some in the United States question the levels of aid and general commitment to Israel, and argue that a U.S. bias toward Israel operates at the expense of improved U.S. relations with various Arab states. Others maintain that democratic Israel is a strategic ally, and that U.S. relations with Israel strengthen the U.S. presence in the Middle East.” Clyde R. Mark, Israeli-United States Relations, Congressional Research Service, May 27, 1997.
Americans over 40 can recall exactly where they were when they first heard of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Muslims over 40 can recall exactly where they were when they first heard of the capture by Israel of the Old City of Jerusalem in June 1967. I can recall exactly where I was when I first heard Israel described as a U.S. “strategic asset” in January 1981.
I had retired a month or two earlier after 31 years of full-time government employment. Twenty-nine of those years had been in the foreign service and, since 1956, the year of the Suez War, nearly all of my time had been spent in the Middle East or working on Middle East Affairs.
Now, as a “re-employed annuitant,” I was working part-time in the Department of State’s freedom of information operation among other recent retirees. It was fun. Every day I would work my way through a foot-high stack of past classified telegrams and dispatches from embassies and consulates all over the Middle East. The object was to spot and protect information that should be blacked out when the documents were declassified in response to requests from journalists, scholars or private persons.
That was mostly information about sources that would embarrass those still living or their families; unverified personal gossip about kings, presidents and prime ministers that would be given media currency simply by having been mentioned in official U.S. government correspondence; and the occasional politically incorrect comment by an American official that would be newsworthy only because it would make the country he was commenting on look very bad, or the official himself look even worse.
That was the name of the declassification game. But the little side game I played with myself each day was to watch as I plowed through these highly classified telegrams for anything significant that had happened in the area over the previous 24 years of which I had remained unaware. There was nothing like that.
There wasn’t much pressure. Most of this material had remained classified for a long, long time and few people at State were in a rush to have it declassified. So we took leisurely coffee breaks, and on the long walks to and from the State Department cafeteria, I always seemed to run into some old friend still on duty who had interesting things to say.
“I’ll tell you one thing. There’s going to be no pressure to cut aid to Israel.”
One day in January 1981, I encountered a former colleague who was working with the “transition team” headed by General Al Haig, who soon was to be appointed the incoming Reagan administration’s secretary of state. Most of the 25 or so members of the team were workers in Reagan’s successful presidential campaign who now hoped to be rewarded with a political appointment in one of the foreign affairs agencies.
“How bad are they?” I asked my friend, with the disdain we career officers displayed for the potential political appointees–but only behind their backs, since some of them always ended up as our bosses.
“Probably no worse than the Carterites when they first came in,” he said. “Some of these guys are bursting with energy but pretty naive. It’s important to find something to keep them busy right away before they start dismantling the place.”
“Do any of them know anything about the Middle East?” I asked. “None that I’ve met so far,” he said, “but I’ll tell you one thing. There’s going to be no pressure to cut aid to Israel.”
“That’s crazy,” I said. The Israel lobby didn’t like Carter, but they didn’t try to get American Jews to vote for Reagan. The Republicans don’t owe the Israel lobby anything. So how can they justify not cutting aid to Israel?
“They’re going to call Israel an American ‘strategic asset,'” he said. “They’ll probably try to formalize a ‘strategic relationship’ with the Israelis by signing some treaties.”
A “Moral Obligation”?
I was just as stunned as if I’d been told another president had been assassinated. Americans had been told since the end of World War II that we had a “moral obligation” to help the Israelis. I was never sure why, because Americans my age had spent the years they should have been in college fighting the Nazis, and some of my neighbors and schoolmates had been killed doing it. Then when the “moral obligation” began to fade, it seemed we had a “moral responsibility” for the protection of Israel, no matter how many wars it started in the Middle East. We acquired this “responsibility” because President Harry Truman had twisted arms in the U.N. to get Palestine partitioned in 1947, and then had decided to recognize the new Jewish state even before it had a name and had defined its borders.
I had learned in preparing for service in the Middle East that those things had been done on the advice of domestic political adviser Clark Clifford, who told Truman he might lose the 1948 presidential election if he didn’t. I also knew that those same actions had been strongly opposed by Truman’s secretary of state, Gen. George Marshall, who was so enraged at Truman’s 1948 decision in favor of premature recognition of Israel that, as he described his ensuing conversation with Truman: “I said bluntly that if the president were to follow Mr. Clifford’s advice and if in the elections I were to vote, I would vote against the president.”
So I hadn’t felt much “moral obligation” to help Israel for a long time, and I had never accepted the “moral responsibility” to get this little apartheid state out of its constant scrapes with its neighbors, which usually ended up with both an expansion of Israel’s territory and an expansion of America’s financial obligations. But I recognized that most Americans unquestioningly accepted both obligations, even if they hadn’t even been born at the time of the Nazi slaughter of Europe’s Jews.
It was just totally outrageous, however, to think that our “moral obligation,” which by then had thoroughly alienated 200 million once-friendly Arabs, and was rapidly having the same effect on the rest of the Muslim one-fifth of the human race, was now going to be presented as a “strategic asset” instead of the “strategic liability” that was obvious to anyone who could read a map.
I recovered from my shock enough to say: “Of course you’re joking.”
“The Joke’s on Us”
“No, the joke’s on us,” my friend replied. “I’m dead serious.”
“Well, they’ll never make it stick,” I said. “The American people don’t know much about either geography or the Middle East, but they’re not that gullible.”
Later that day I told some of the retired Middle East hands what I’d heard. I thought they would get a laugh out of it. In fact, however, none of them believed me. “You must have misunderstood,” they concluded.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t. And in the intervening years I’ve often wondered if when Abraham Lincoln said, “You can’t fool all the people all of the time,” he might have made an exception for a society in which all of the media, either out of complicity or fear, gangs up on all of the people to make them believe a hoax, even a ridiculous one.
So who does believe the hoax that Israel is a U.S. “strategic asset” or “strategic ally”? Or the derivative lie that the U.S.-Israeli “strategic alliance” later cooked up by the Israel lobby and foisted on the Reagan administration does, in fact, serve U.S. interests in the Middle East? No one, I submit, who actually works for the U.S. government except those who for reasons of ethnicity or careerism want to believe it. And those who fit that description generally are those who came to the U.S. government directly from the Israel lobby, like Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs-designate Martin Indyk, whose entire pre-government career was in Israel or in Washington with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) or its spin-off think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Or like Middle East peace talks czar Dennis Ross, who before he got a political appointment to the State Department had a study grant from the same think tank. Or like his deputy, Aaron David Miller, who knew Indyk when both lived in Israel.
Do members of Congress believe Israel and the U.S. have parallel interests in the Middle East? Some Jewish members, perhaps motivated by wishful thinking, may. Others, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, or House Speaker Newt Gingrich, probably don’t but pretend to. It gets both of them big-time contributions from pro-Israel political action committees. The majority, however, merely go along, admitting to friends they trust that they would vote against outlandish quantities of aid and arms to Israel in a flash–if they dared to. Congressmen don’t call AIPAC “the Lobby” without a reason. In any secret ballot among members of Congress, AIPAC would easily be voted not only the most effective, but also the most hated lobby on the Hill.
A secret poll of the media would yield some similarities. There are a handful of highly visible columnists–A.M. Rosenthal, William Safire, Charles Krauthammer, Amos Perlmutter, Cal Thomas–who would defend to the death the “strategic asset” hoax. There are also a lot of virtually invisible publishers and editors who probably would defend it too–by giving prominent placement to stories that support the hoax, and suppressing the other kind. Other journalists go along, not because they believe it but because they don’t want to jeopardize their careers.
Leftist critics of both Israel and of the U.S. are worth many battalions to the Israelis.
In academia there may also be a few conservative friends of Israel, most of them Jewish, who accepted the premise in the Reagan era, and don’t plan to question it now. But there is another significant group in academia that is not found in the executive branch, the Congress, or the media.
These are the leftist critics of both Israel and of the United States. Trapped in the rhetoric of the Vietnam protests and perhaps of the Cold War as well, when they regarded the United States as the prototypical evil empire, some have embraced the notion that the documented evils so casually carried out by Israel must also have roots in United States policy.
No one disputes the fact that Israelis sold arms to Guatamalan colonels to commit genocide against the country’s Mayan Indians, carried out nuclear weapons tests with the apartheid government of South Africa, sold U.S. military technology to China, helped the communist Dergue government in Ethiopia exterminate its opponents, trained death squads for Colombian drug dealers, and set up transportation networks in Noriega’s Panama to move cocaine from South America into the United States. And indisputably the U.S. not only pretended not to notice, but actually increased U.S. military and economic aid to Israel during the period the Jewish state was doing all these terrible things. So, these America-bashers rationalize, since the United States is too mean-spirited to do anything that doesn’t serve its own imperialistic interests, it must want Israelis to carry out these loathsome acts.
It’s not such a leap of logic for America- haters, and it must be a comforting thing to believe if you grew up Jewish and were told your people were special. Perhaps that explains Noam Chomsky, one of Israel’s severest critics, but one who can defend himself against the charge of being a “self-hater” leveled by other Jews by saying, “look, I’m not saying the Israelis want to do these things.”
But does anyone who is not Jewish and not in academia believe the U.S. really instructs Israelis to do American dirty work–things Americans are too squeamish to do for themselves? Or, as a caller insisted on a talk show in which I once participated, “test American weapons on Arabs”?
The answers, in my opinion, are yes and no. The only non-Jews who seem to have bitten, hook, line and sinker, are Arab Palestinians. Perhaps the very first was George Habbash, leader of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He declared America the enemy, probably to increase his subsidies from the Soviet Union. His actions in the 1960s and 1970s against American commercial aircraft and American civilians did far more to create pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian sentiment in the U.S. than anything the Israelis were able to do themselves.
Even now, however, long after the end of the Cold War, there are a handful of prominent Palestinians, all in academia, whose rhetoric seems almost unconsciously to drift back to this tragically erroneous premise. They are worth many battalions to the Israelis, who will be quite incapable of further mischief in the Middle East if the American public ever frees itself of the myths of “moral obligation,” and “moral responsibility” and, most of all, the hoax of Israel as a “strategic asset.”
To hasten that day, supporters of a Palestinian state and of peace and justice in the Middle East could better serve both by applying the test of “who benefits?” from Israeli human rights violations anywhere, and from current Israeli policies of occupation and exclusion in Palestine. It certainly is neither the government nor the people of the United States.
Mr. Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.