Something’s rotten in the State of Israel

As Israel continues its attacks on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, called “collective punishment” by the U.N. and the Swiss government, and “war crimes” by Amnesty International, we should remember that the assault would cease immediately following one word from President Bush: “Stop.”

Many in the Arab world claim that the pro-Israel lobby controls U.S. policy in the Middle East, a claim that was popularized in the U.S. earlier this year by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their working paper The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. But rather than being motivated by “the lobby,” Holocaust guilt or a belief that supporting Israel will hasten the second coming of Christ, U.S. policy in the Middle East has the same motive as U.S. foreign policy in general, that of maximizing control of vital resources and influence in regions of strategic importance. The Middle East, with two-thirds of global energy reserves, is the most strategically significant region on earth, and U.S. support for Israel is no different from U.S. support for Middle East dictatorships. U.S. aid to Israel goes primarily to U.S. corporations. To U.S. planners, Israel is an advanced and effective military base, useful in controlling the region.

In the Middle East, the U.S.-allied authoritarian Arab governments exploit the belief in the power of “the Jews” over U.S. policy to control their populations, and it is surely flattering, or at least comical, to some Israelis to think that they control the world’s most powerful state.

So long as Israeli interests align with U.S. interests, as they almost always do, there is no U.S.-Israeli conflict, and the belief in the power of “the lobby” can be maintained, but on the rare occasions when Israeli interests differ, the real U.S. motive becomes obvious.

When Israel tried to sell advanced weapons to China against U.S. orders last year, the U.S. suspended Israeli involvement in a joint strike fighter project and ceased contact with a senior official in the Israeli Defense Ministry, and then forced Israeli officials to publicly humiliate themselves. Although Israel lost millions of dollars by canceling the sale, and had to pay China millions in compensation, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom apologized to the U.S., saying, “If things were done that were not acceptable to the Americans, then we are sorry, but these things were done with the utmost innocence.” After Israeli apologies for disobeying U.S. orders, the U.S. forced Israel to sign a memorandum of understanding, essentially requiring that the U.S. approve the terms of Israeli weapons contracts before Israel can sell arms. The pro-Israel lobby was mysteriously absent.

On June 22, five days before the kidnapping that gave Israel a pretext to punish the Palestinians for having voted incorrectly in free democratic elections, John Dugard, the special rapporteur on human rights for the U.N., reported on the situation in the Palestinian territories. Following Hamas’ election victory earlier this year, the U.S. pressured other nations to designate Hamas a terrorist organization, leading to the cut-off of international funding that caused unemployment and poverty to rise and put critical health services in danger. Dugard said the effects of the aid cut-off were so extreme that the Palestinian people had been suffering “possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions imposed in modern times,” and that Gaza was already under siege, with Israel controlling its airspace, resuming sonic booms that “terrorize and traumatize its people,” and increasing targeted killing of militants, which had killed and injured innocent bystanders.

Since the invasion, Israel has kidnapped half of the Palestinian government and a quarter of its parliament, and has destroyed three key bridges, part of a university, and the Gaza Strip’s only electricity generation plant, cutting off electricity to 750,000 people and forcing 20,000 people to flee their homes. By Monday, according to the BBC, Israel’s invasion, supposedly to rescue one Israeli soldier, had killed more than 40 Palestinians. According to Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, the invasion makes the Israeli government “no longer distinguishable from a terror organization.”

Under the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, states receiving military hardware sold by the United States can use it only for defensive purposes or to maintain internal security. Legally, the U.S. government is required to suspend weapons sales, and if the Israeli government is a terrorist organization, the U.S. must advocate a cut-off of international aid to Israel as well.

The invasion of Gaza should have little effect on the belief in the power of “the lobby,” however. Conflicts between the U.S. and Israel only arise when their interests diverge on important matters. To U.S. planners, unfortunately, weapons sales matter, while Palestinian lives do not.