Every fish looks strong when it’s swimming with the current, on the Israel lobby

Philip Weiss asked in September on Mondoweiss, “How powerful is the Israel lobby?” It’s a good question but he didn’t get the answer right. His take, like most such analyses, doesn’t look at power at all, but rather just assumes it. I’m not primarily concerned with the specifics of Weiss’ claims, even though some are wrong — for example it was an economic recession combined with Ross Perot’s candidacy that sank Bush I’s reelection, not the Israel lobby. I’m concerned instead with the thesis that gives those claims meaning.

The Israel lobby thesis claims that the lobby is a force that distorts US policy away from supporting Palestinian liberation, institutes reactionary US policies throughtout North Africa and Southwest Asia, and for both these reasons is against the US national interest. The overwhelming majority of Israel lobby theses on the US-Israeli relationship do not examine how the US government operates, how policies are made, and whose interests they serve. This is surprisingly true even of many who acknowledge Israel’s role in US imperialism. For this reason they ignore the obvious question, “What would US policy be like if there were no lobby?” But to ignore systemic analysis is to ensure movement failure. So what do we know about power in the US and the US’s power?

John Dewey wrote in 1931 that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” This does not mean that guys in smoky back rooms make decisions that US legislators then take up, although that is sometimes the case. Instead, as Dewey wrote, “politics in general is an echo, except when it is an accomplice, of the interests of big business.” So when the Democratic Party advocates for increased migration to the US — usually with quite limited protections and rights for migrants, and the Republican Party advocates for restricting reproductive rights, these both are campaigns for the demographic growth necessary for capitalist economic expansion. Increased migration seems the more progressive option but supporting policies that force emigration from peripheralized states robs origin countries and communities of populations they paid to birth, raise, educate, and train. This is sometimes referred to as “brain drain” and is tremendously harmful. This is to say that moral expressions for how capital shapes society takes forms that are not always immediately obvious. In this example, one takes the form of authoritarian patriarchy and the other imperialist population plundering.* Both are Dewey’s “echoes” of big business and its demands for permanent growth.

So when Weiss (and Mearsheimer & Walt and others ad infinitum) argue that the Israel’s lobby’s “policies are against the American people’s interest,” how is he defining interest? Is US policy against Palestinians against the interests of big business? If so, how? Is it against the interests of the US war industries that benefit from billions in guaranteed annual subsidized sales and a combat proving ground for its technologies? Is it against the interests of those labor unions that enjoy high wages and benefits manufacturing and transporting weapons that kill Palestinian workers, peasants and refugees? Is it against the interests of oil companies that get huge windfalls everytime Israel escalates the ongoing nakba, Palestinians escalate armed anti-colonial resistance, or Israel attacks Lebanon or Syria? Is it against the general foreign policy interests of the US when Israel uses US weapons against Palestinians that other prospective or existing client states and allies can then anticipate receiving or procuring with the knowledge that they are battle tested?

In just those four examples we have: the military-industrial complex, labor unions, the oil industry and US policy towards all other client and allied states. Two of those are two of the most important economic interests in the US, up there with banking and real estate. A third is a major power broker inside the Democratic Party. And the last facilitates US efforts everywhere else.This is before we even get to how the US, being a settler colony itself, also expresses settler-colonialism through foreign policy. Or how US foreign policy has always been reactionary. Or any Israel lobby.

We don’t need the existence of a lobby to arrive at the general orientation of the US’s policies against Palestinians. We come to the Israel lobby being the answer when we avoid a class analysis. Or a gendered analysis. Or a black liberation analysis. Or an anticolonial analysis. Or any kind of systemic engagement at all. In the example of the military industrial-complex we can examine US support for other client states like Colombia and look for a Colombia lobby. Or how the US never intervenes for the rights of natives in Canada and look for the Canada lobby. We don’t really find these lobbies but we find harmful US policies anyways.

So what do we make of the Israel lobby? Clearly various groups arguing against Palestinian freedom are at work in US politics. These include groups who oppose Palestinian liberation because they are ideologically Zionist and groups who oppose Palestinian liberation because they are messianic antisemitic death cults that fantasize about a genocidal end of days. These groups celebrate their own perceived efficacy and can plausibly claim many results. They certainly appear powerful. But every fish looks strong when it’s swimming with the current. The power these groups wield is mostly not their own, they operate inside the “shadow cast on society by big business”. It would be a challenge to not appear powerful when everything is already going your way. We can see the hard limits on their capacity when they run up against US interests as defined by one of the forces mentioned above: the military-industrial complex.

In 1981 the Reagan administration proposed an arms sale to Saudi Arabia that Israel vigorously opposed, especially because it included fighter jets as advanced as those sold to Israel and several planes fitted with early warning radar systems. Israel saw those radar systems as potentially restricting its capacity to carry out regional airstrikes with impunity as it had done over the previous year in Lebanon and Iraq. The Israel lobby went all out to oppose the arms sale which would have been, adjusted for inflation, $25 billion dollars today, the largest foreign arms sales in US history to that point. The Israel lobby lost. It could not beat McDonnell-Douglas and Boeing and the arms industry unions. Nor could it sway the Reagan administration from firming up the Saudi monarchy as another anchor of US power in Southwest Asia.

In 2004 the same “neoconservative Zionists” Weiss incorrectly says were behind the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, specifically Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, cost Israel hundreds of millions of dollars by forcing it to not return drones it had previously sold to China that were sent back to Israel for upgrading, just as the previous US administration did in 2000 when it spiked a prior military sale to China after the contracts were already signed. The US, led by Feith and Wolfowitz, so forcefully pressured Israel about the drones that at least one Israeli official ended up resigning over the affair. When Israel is in opposition to big business the Israel lobby does not succeed. Because that fish is not strong enough to swim against a strong current.

But because the various Israel lobby groups are well organized and are well funded and are swimming with the current most of the time they can have real effects. The various anti-BDS bills in state legislatures almost certainly are because of the lobby alone. Perhaps the larger quantity of military aid the US gives to Israel over Colombia is as well although the primacy of Southwest Asia in US foreign policy is at least part of the reason. And some individual election results, usually in primaries, can also be in part attributed to the lobby as Weiss points out. None of that affects the general orientation of US policy towards Palestine, only some of the details of how it happens. Those details sometimes matter a lot and this can absolutely be a terrain of struggle but only in the context of fighting the US’s general orientation. Otherwise it’s an empty gesture at best, and a quest for a mythological progressive empire at worst. A great example for this being done well by US movements is the fight against Caterpillar. It’s a fight over US policy based against big business and not its shadow.

The forces lobbying for right-wing US policies in Colombia are historically based in the same right-wing groups that advocate for the Cuba embargo and other regressive policies. Which brings us back to John Dewey again and the “shadow cast on society by big business.” When the US took over patronage of Israel from France in 1967, it did so under the banner of a colonial anti-communism that sought to fight Third Worldist, nationalist and Soviet-aligned movements and states in North Africa and Southwest Asia. 

The US had already gotten behind the Gulf monarchies and the Shah in Iran. Becoming more active supporting settler rule in Palestine was an extension of already existing US reactionary policies, not a deviation from them. When the US created a tripartite alliance with Israel and South Africa starting in the late 1960s — from whence the War On Terror discourse eventually comes, this was done specifically to fight decolonization and communism, politics the US already had in places no Israel lobbyist has ever cared about. This is where US hostility to Palestinian liberation comes from.

The Israel lobby thesis to explain US hostility to Palestinian liberation is popular for several reasons. It appeals to a vision of a United States that would do the right thing if only it had a free choice even though the United States very nearly never does the right thing. It provides an answer that doesn’t require systemic analysis nor systemic change. Defeating one lobby is a lot easier than defeating the fundamentals of empire. And yes, it also appeals to antisemitic ideas of behind the scenes Jewish control. Perhaps the best evidence of the lobby thesis’ limitations is that it cannot even explain the existence of the lobby itself. But critiques of colonialism and capitalism can both explain the lobby’s existence as well as the goals of US policy. The original critiques of major US support for Israel were based in anti-colonialism and revolutionary anti-imperialism and their analyses reflected a systemic analysis that contextualized US foreign policy in US empire. The anti-Vietnam War movement, the early PLO and varieties of Third Worldism and Black Internationalism, provided systemic critiques of US imperialism and Zionism that ‘the lobby’ proponents seem to have forgotten. But the further we get from systemic critiques the less able we are to effect change and the hollower our cries for Palestinian freedom sound.

Coming back to the brief point about the US never intervening for the rights of natives living under Canadian rule (or Australian or New Zealander, etc.). What Weiss and others see as proof of the lobby’s strength looks to me more like a sign of weakness and political precarity. If a US politician stood in Congress and railed against settler rule in Canada or against its colonial violences they would be met with bewilderment. The end of settler rule in Canada, or the US or Argentina, or any of the big settler states, is so unthinkable in US national politics that it’s hard to imagine it having any discursive effect at all at the moment. So it doesn’t appear as threatening (except to the FBI!). 

But ending settler rule in Palestine is thinkable. Which is perhaps why the lobby has to stay so busy and why it has to work so hard. Even though Israel fits coherently and consistently inside US empire without any lobby, Israel might not be, or might no longer be, necessary for US empire. The US eventually and reluctantly supported the end of direct settler rule in South Africa. It could well do the same in Palestine. It would still support right wing policies that oppose Palestinian freedom — it already backs neoliberal capitalist Palestinian politicians in the PA — but it might not need Israeli rule to push these policies. It is precisely because the end of settler rule seems like a possibility that the Israel lobby has not only to exist, but to do all that work. Empire explains the lobby. The lobby does not explain empire.

* There is not time to go into it here but I am NOT saying patriarchy comes from capitalism, only that capitalism can articulate through patriarchy.