Back to issue 4
| PDF Version of this article
International Socialist Review Issue 4, Spring 1998
Israel: The U. S. Watchdog
By Lance Selfa
THE ESTABLISHMENT of the state of Israel coincided with the rise of the Middle East as an oil producer and with the displacement of Britain by the U.S. as the main imperialist power in the region. Until the Second World War, imperialist strategists considered the Middle East primarily as a passageway to trade in the Far East. But in the 1930s and 1940s, according to a U.S. oil industry report prepared in that period, "The center of gravity of world oil production is shifting from the Mexican Gulf and the Caribbean area to the Middle East-Persian Gulf area and is likely to continue to shift until it is firmly established in that area." 1
The U.S. wasn't the only power to recognize the Middle East's importance in the aftermath of the Second World War. So did the other major superpower, the USSR. In 1947, the USSR voted with the U.S. to approve the partition of Palestine in the United Nations. Later, in 1948, a shipment of Soviet Bloc arms from Czechoslovakia to the Zionist Haganah militia aided Israel's conquest of Palestine. 2 In the geopolitics of the time, the U.S. and Russia competed to win allies in the Third World to their side. Both the Russians and the U.S. considered the loss of an ally an automatic gain for the other side. Although it seems absurd today, some U.S. Zionists argued for U.S. support on grounds that failure to aid Israel would drive the Jewish state to seek support from the USSR. "The United States is going to have to grant sufficient financial support to the present Israeli regime to avoid seeing the country go bust and perhaps swing into Communist hands," wrote The New York Times' Cyrus L. Sulzberger in 1948. 3
Nevertheless, Zionist leaders like Ben-Gurion knew that the USSR could not provide the kind of financial and military aid to Israel that the U.S. and American Zionist organizations could. They continued to woo the U.S. to become Israel's chief patron. The U.S. took the first step to underwriting the Israeli venture in 1949, when it extended a $100 million loan to Israel from the newly created Export-Import Bank. The U.S. justified its support for Israel as necessary to counteract "the Soviet threat" to the Middle East oil fields. But its true enemy was rising nationalism in the region.
When the moderate Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh announced his intention to nationalize Anglo-Iranian oil properties in 1952, the West responded with frenzied denunciations of the prime minister as a communist. The CIA overthrew Mossadegh in 1953, installing the pro-U.S. Reza Pahlavi as Shah of Iran. During the Mossadegh crisis, the "moderate" Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz made an offer to the West:
The West is none too happy about its relations with states in the Middle East. The feudal regimes there have to make such concessions to the nationalist movements...that they become more and more reluctant to supply Britain and the United States with their natural resources and military bases...Therefore, strengthening Israel helps the Western powers maintain equilibrium and stability in the Middle East. Israel is to become the watchdog. There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive policy towards the Arab states when this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the U.S. and Britain. But if for any reason the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied upon to punish one or several neighboring states whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible. 4
In the first decade of Israel's existence, the U.S., France and England took turns holding the watchdog's leash. Between 1948 and the early 1960s, France served as Israel's chief arms supplier and sponsor of Israel's nuclear power (and weapons) industry. In exchange for French patronage, Israel supported French colonialism in Algeria and Vietnam. When a 1952 coup brought the Arab nationalist regime of Gamel Abdul Nasser to power in Egypt, Ben-Gurion worried that Nasser "raised [Arab] spirits, changed their character and turned them into a fighting nation." 5 To provoke Western intervention against Nasser, Israeli spies in Egypt set off bombs at the U.S. and British embassies in 1954. The plot backfired. Egyptian authorities arrested, tried and executed the Israeli agents in 1955. In response, Israel attacked Gaza (then under Egyptian rule), killing 37. Subsequent revelations showed that Israel's military intelligence chief, most likely with the knowledge of Ben-Gurion's inner circle, ordered the bombings in Egypt. The resulting scandal, known as the "Lavon affair" because Ben-Gurion tried to pin the blame for it on Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, forced Ben-Gurion from office. 6 Yet, as the Lavon affair showed, terrorism and assassination have been central to Israel's foreign policy.
Despite Israel's best efforts, the U.S. wasn't yet convinced that Israel could serve as the main prop to U.S. power in the region. The U.S. maintained ties with Arab regimes, including Egypt, throughout the 1950s. When Israel, Britain and France went to war against Egypt in 1956, the U.S. opposed the war and forced its allies to back down. The U.S. could afford to show this kind of independence because it knew that Britain's and France's influence in the region was waning. The U.S. thus positioned itself to assume full dominance in the region without its "allies" getting in the way. In 1958, the U.S. sent the Marines to prop up the right-wing Christian regime of President Chamoun in Lebanon. But U.S. efforts didn't stop the rise of Arab nationalists--who overthrew pro-Western regimes in Iraq in 1958 and Yemen in 1962--or their courting of Russian support. The U.S. began to look more favorably on Israel's value as a "strategic asset." A 1958 National Security Council document stated that the "logical corollary" of opposition to radical Arab nationalism "would be to support Israel as the only strong pro-West power left in the Near East." 7
U.S. strategic doctrine relied on building a network of pro-Western states to hem in any Arab regime which bucked the West. Over the years, the U.S. relied on combinations of Turkey, the Shah's Iran, Israel and the Gulf monarchies to forge this alliance. But Israel became the first among these only after its quick victory in its 1967 war. Following months of provocations against its Arab neighbors, Israel struck in June 1967, having planned the war with an eye to throttling Nasserism and conquering what parts of Palestine it hadn't seized in 1948. 8 In six days, Israel crippled the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian military forces. It seized the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. Nothing proved Israel's value to the U.S. better than its blitzkrieg through the Arab states. The U.S. was even willing to forgive and forget Israel's attack on a U.S. surveillance ship, the Liberty, anchored off the Sinai coast. Israeli planes bombed the Liberty, and naval vessels torpedoed it. Thirty-four U.S. sailors died in the attack. 9
The payoff from the U.S. to Israel was immediate. Between 1967 and 1972, total U.S. aid to Israel jumped from $6.4 billion per year to $9.2 billion per year. U.S. loans for Israeli purchases of U.S.-made weapons jumped an average of $22 million annually in the 1960s to a yearly average of $445 million between 1970 and 1974. The U.S. Congress even allowed the Pentagon to hand weapons to Israel without expecting any payment. House Speaker John McCormack noted in 1971 that "Great Britain, at the height of its struggle with Hitler, never received such a blank check" in U.S. military aid. 10 Israel had finally gained its desired status as "strategic asset" to the U.S. in the Middle East. Democratic Sen. Henry ("Scoop") Jackson, nicknamed the "Senator from Boeing" for his hawkish views, pronounced in May 1973 that "the strength and Western orientation of Israel on the Mediterranean and Iran on the Persian Gulf safeguards U.S. access to oil." They have "served to inhibit and contain those irresponsible and radical elements in certain Arab states, who, were they free to do so, would pose a grave threat indeed to our principle sources of petroleum in the Persian Gulf." 11
Israel's role as regional enforcer for the U.S. fit the Nixon Administration's post-Vietnam policy of subcontracting U.S. foreign policy to local client states. Nixon and his errand boy, National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, assembled a "strategic triangle" of Saudi Arabia, the Shah's Iran and Israel to guard U.S. interests in the Middle East. The Nixon administration remained "firmly committed to Israel's security and to her military superiority in the Middle East, for only Israel's strength can deter attack and prevent a call for direct American intervention," the pro-Zionist New York Times explained. 12 During the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel, Nixon put U.S. forces on nuclear alert. Nixon willingly risked nuclear war to protect the U.S.'s "strategic asset."
Doing the U.S.'s Dirty Work
Israel took to its newfound U.S. responsibilities with gusto. When King Hussein moved to crush Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan in September 1970, Syrian tanks invaded Jordan. Fearing that Palestinian and Syrian resistance would topple his regime, Hussein pleaded with the U.S. and Israel to intervene. Kissinger relayed this message to Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin: "King Hussein has approached us, describing the situation of his forces, and asked us to transmit his request that your air force attack the Syrians in northern Jordan. I need an immediate reply." Rabin objected to the U.S. acting as a "mailman" for Jordan, but he agreed to comply with the request. The IDF mobilized its forces, giving Jordan cover to attack the Syrians. Within a day, Hussein had regained control of Jordan and proceeded to expel Palestinian guerrillas. The IDF never carried out its attack plans. 13
The Jordanian crisis highlighted one of Israel's chief values to the U.S.--helping to prop up reactionary regimes in the Middle East. But Israel didn't confine its dirty work for the U.S. to the Middle East. Since 1948, just about every pro-U.S. repressive dictatorship in the world has received some kind of overt or covert Israeli aid. The U.S. funnels weapons and aid through Israel when it wants to evade congressional bans on aid to repressive regimes. The U.S. and the CIA subcontract training of death squads and terrorists to Israel.
Consider the following examples: