I recently read a fascinating article by Scott McConnell, “The Special Relationship With Israel: Is It Worth the Cost?,” which appeared in the spring 2012 Middle East Policy Council Journal. Even for those of us who have closely followed the issue of Israel’s asymmetrical relationship with the United States, Scott provides some unique insights. He observes, for example, that the result of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel has been the wholesale adoption of Israeli policies and viewpoints by Washington’s policymakers and pundits. As Scott puts it, there exists “a transmission belt, conveying Israeli ideas on how the United States should conduct itself in a contested and volatile part of the world. To a great extent, a receptive American political class now views the Middle East and their country’s role in it through Israel’s eyes.”
I would add that Israel has not only shaped America’s perceptions, it has also supported policies both overseas and domestically that have fundamentally shifted how the United States sees itself and how the rest of the world sees the United States. This is most evident in failed national security policies, damaging interactions with the Muslim world, and the loss of basic liberties at home because of legislation like the PATRIOT Act. Israel and its powerful lobby have been instrumental in entangling Washington in a constant state of war overseas while at the same time planting the seeds for a national security state at home. In short, the end product of the relationship is that the United States has abandoned many liberties, constitutional restraints, and its rule of law to become more like Israel.
This all came about initially because of the false impression that somehow Israel knew more about the Arab world than did U.S. statesmen and diplomats. The Israelis were widely perceived as experts on what was going on in their backyard, but a more correct interpretation would have been that Tel Aviv was working hard right from the beginning to produce a negative perception of Arabs and their ways. American diplomats described as Arabists actually had quite a good understanding of the countries they served in, a vanished world in which the U.S. was welcomed and widely perceived in the most positive terms. After the Second World War, nearly all Arab countries were well-disposed toward the United States, and before the creation of Israel, the U.S. had only friends in the region. After the birth of Israel, Washington’s increasing tilt toward Tel Aviv meant that Israel’s enemies inevitably became America’s enemies.
I can personally recall intelligence reports from the Israelis that circulated through the U.S. government in the 1980s and 1990s. The reports were always designed to cast doubts on Arab leaders and their intentions while carefully avoiding any mention of the Israeli hand in regional instability. Information from Israel was regarded as something of a joke, never considered credible except by those in government who were already on message. Even then it was not wise to be seen as too critical of the Israeli relationship. And Israel had little else to offer Washington beyond its line of self-serving propaganda. Ironically, the reality was that Israeli leaders then and now did not treat the United States as an ally at all. Jeff Stein cites a poll of CIA officers that ranked Israel “dead last” among friendly countries in intelligence cooperation with Washington.
As part of the evolutionary process to change Washington’s perspective on the Middle East, politicians who criticized Israel found themselves confronting well-funded opponents at reelection time, sending the message that it was career-ending to do so. Meanwhile, the Arabists in the State Department were weeded out with the pendulum swinging so far in the other direction that the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv has abandonedmuch of its raison d’etre, rarely making any attempt to protect American citizens who are being mistreated or illegally confined by the Israeli government. By the time of the Gaza flotillas, the Obama administration made it plain that American citizen participants would receive no help from the embassy and even implied that such individuals were little more than criminals or terrorist dupes who might be prosecuted, accepting the Israeli definition of any critic as ipso facto a terrorist.
Since the Clinton administration, every senior diplomat or official dealing with the Middle East has had to pass through a vetting process to ensure full support of and deference to Israeli interests. Chas Freeman, who was named to head the National Security Council in 2009, was quickly forced to step down when it was determined that he was not sufficiently pro-Israel. Since 2001, many senior appointees throughout the federal government no longer make any effort to hide their strongly pro-Israel sentiments; witness the ascent of Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, William Boykin, and Eric Edelman at the Pentagon under George W. Bush.
The Israelization of the U.S. national security model entered a new phase with 9/11, a disaster for America welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asgood news because it would bind the two countries together in the fight against what his country perceived as terrorism. In the first few days after 9/11, Congress invited Netanyahu to come to Washington to present his “we are all targets” speech, unleashing a flood of Israeli guidance on how to conduct the newly minted War on Terror. This involved a “with us or against us” policy toward all Islamic countries combined with enhanced security at home and considerable infringements of civil liberties. In short, Israel and its lobby, ably assisted by friends in Congress and the media, pushed the United States into becoming more like Israel to defend itself against what was essentially an overblown terrorist threat.
A book by Israeli Diaspora Minister Natan Sharansky was a potent symbol of the shift in American attitudes. The Case for Democracy began to make the rounds within the Bush administration with the president himself recommending it, stating that it provided a “glimpse of how I think about foreign policy.” Condi Rice was also seen reading the book and even quoted from it in a Senate hearing. Sharansky, who claims to be a human rights activist even though he has never accepted basic rights for Palestinians, subsequently helped Bush write his second inaugural address, with a bit of assistance from leading neocons Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer. The address pledged the United States to launch what was described as a “global freedom mission.” Sharansky’s embrace of the democracy concept for the entire world, particularly the Muslim part of it, has at its heart the objective of encouraging Arabs to evolve into weak democracies riven by tribalism and religious conflict. The Arabs would therefore be no threat to Israel. That strategy was first developed in “A Clean Break,” a list of recommendations presented to Prime Minister Netanyahu in 1996 by a group of American neoconservatives.
By exploiting the influence of well-placed officials in the Pentagon, Israel’s leaders began to see that the United States could become an instrument for across-the-board regime change in the Arab world. The first target was Iraq, which was supporting the families of Palestinians killed on the West Bank and Gaza. Israel, in line with the Clean Break strategy, sought to create a fragmented Iraqi state that would no longer be a threat. The incessant Israeli drumbeat for war was not the only element in the near hysteria that led to the attack on Saddam Hussein, but it was the key enabling factor. If Israel had said no to the war and had directed its friends in Congress and the media to support that view, the war would not have happened.
Domestically, the imprint of Israel is also easy to find in the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, a phenomenon that hardly existed even in the immediately aftermath of 9/11. Islamophobia has become mainstream largely thanks to the work of a number of commentators who, not coincidentally, are also the most outspoken supporters of Israel. And the hatred has been institutionalized through the creation of a number of projects and institutes, not to mention websites and think tanks headed by Islamophobes such as Pamela Geller, Daniel Pipes, Frank Gaffney, and Robert Spencer. A number of pro-Israel resource centers emphasize the worst aspects of Islam and attempt to portray the religion and culture in completely negative terms. This perception has also spilled over into the political arena. The arguments seek to make the U.S. conform to the Israeli view of the Muslim world, and there are plenty of signs that they have had considerable success. Christian Zionists have taken up the issue of the evils of Islam. There have been suggestions that First Amendment rights and even citizenship should be denied to Muslims. Military academies and schools as well as the FBI have hosted training courses describing the evils of Islam. Also note the denunciations by Newt Gingrich of Shariah law and the denigration of Muslims in general by leading Republicans. Gingrich’s principal source of funds was casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major donor to Israeli causes whose wife is Israeli. Adelson is now reported to be funding Mitt Romney.
So what has the tie that binds with Israel wrought? The U.S. government has taken on Israel’s enemies as America’s enemies, including resistance groups such as Hamas and states such as Iran. Nuanced diplomacy is not possible and the U.S. national interest is no longer relevant anywhere in the Middle East that Israel believes itself to have a security problem. In one bizarre case, United States Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois actually sponsored an amendment that would strip most Palestinian refugees of their legal status. The amendment was reportedly drafted by Israeli politician Einat Wilf.
Israeli pressure also leads Washington to engage in reckless behavior such as the creation of the Stuxnet and Flame computer viruses, while the extension of the War on Terror to include countries that had nothing to do with 9/11, and to groups that do not directly threaten the U.S., is a perceived interest of Israel, not of the United States. It has made numerous enemies unnecessarily and has also turned every American into a target for terrorism.
Here at home, many of the passionate supporters of Israel, including Sens. Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain, are also advocates of more government snooping in areas that were once regarded as private. This is no coincidence, as supporting both Israel and the growing police state appear to go together. The Transportation Security Administration is modeled on Israeli border security, with its intrusive searches and ability to engage in largely arbitrary behavior. There are frequent demands from Congress to force the TSA to copy exactly Israeli air travel security practices, including profiling and prolonged interrogations of travelers. Indeed, many of the private security companies operating in the United States, particularly relating to air travel, are already Israeli. The PATRIOT Act also derives from the Israeli model of limiting civil liberties in terrorism cases to enable the police and security services to operate more freely. Unlimited detention without charges for terrorism suspects, recently introduced in the U.S. as part of the National Defense Appropriation Act of 2013, is similar to Israeli practices when dealing with Palestinians. In a step toward the “disloyal” second-class status afforded to Arab citizens of Israel, American Muslims have been singled out as enemies of the state by Rep. Peter King and others, a convenient label that also allows critics to indict their countries of origin as terrorist havens.
So we are Israel and Israel is us. Although the synergy has benefited Israel in the short term in that it has enabled the Netanyahu government to act with relative impunity, it is difficult to see what Americans might have gained from the exchange apart from a now well-established tradition of constant warfare against numerous enemies overseas and diminished rights and the seeds of sectarian conflict planted here at home.