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The US & Israel: A Brutal Friendship

Gilbert Achcar
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002
    The following questions were submitted to Gilbert Achcar regarding the connection between US policy in the Middle East and its support of Israel. Below are the questions followed by the combined answers:
      1. How does the traditional US support of Israel’s brutal occupation of the 1967 Occupied territories as well as its recent permission to allow for the destruction of the PA [Palestine Authority] fit with the macro-regional strategy of US in the Middle East?
      2. Regarding the mass demonstrations in the Arab countries against their government’s position vis-‡-vis Israel and their proximity to the US: To what extent do these demonstrations constitute a threat to the Arab regimes? Why does the “Palestinian issue” raise such a strong solidarity among wide strata of the Arab world?
      3. Assuming that destabilization of the “moderate regimes” threatens US interests, how are we to understand this apparent contradiction in the US support for Sharon’s brutal military attack and putting all the blame on Arafat?
      4. How are we to evaluate the significance of the Saudi plan adopted by the recent Arab league summit in Beirut? To what extent are there genuine motives behind it? Has it been coordinated with the Americans in a joint effort to calm the Arab masses?

Combined Answers:

Israel has traditionally been a key component of US strategy in the Middle East. As everyone knows too well, this strategy has evolved primarily around the issue of oil: the leap in the importance of oil in general and Middle Eastern oil in particular to Western economies since World War II explains the increased involvement of the US in the area. This centered on the tutelage over the Saudi kingdom—a tutelage established since 1945, before the creation of the state of Israel. The latter would become the watchdog of US regional interests: as Israel has been congenitally a militarized state—i.e., a state with a very high degree of military readiness, a high ratio of military spending to its GDP and a high ratio of military mobilization to its population—and could not be otherwise due to its colonial origin and its hostile relationship with its environment, it was predestined to play that role.

Thus it would become a threat to any neighboring Arab regime challenging US interests in the area, and chiefly US control of Saudi oil. In this sense, the Saudi kingdom and Israel are two complementary key pieces of US regional strategy.

However Israel’s importance to US regional interests only became vital in the late 1950’s: before then there was no serious challenge to US interests in the Middle East. Rising Arab nationalism was still very weak and oriented primarily against traditional Western European colonialism. Its radicalization subsequently took place beneath Nasser, who was to become the chief enemy of the Saudi monarchy. Nasser’s project of unifying the Arab nation under his leadership—and the alliance that he established with the Soviet Union, giving it access to that part of the world—are the factors which elevated Israel to the rank of a decisive regional ally of the US.

This shift found expression in the change of US attitude from the 1956 war to the 1967 war. In 1956, Israel attacked Nasser’s Egypt in alliance with the two traditional representatives of European domination in the region: France and the UK. This was opposed by the US: not only because the US dissociated itself from traditional colonial interests, but also because the tripartite aggression could only inflame anti-Western sentiments among the Arabs at a time when the US still hoped to maintain friendly relations with Egypt.

In 1967, however, Arab nationalism was at the peak of its “socialist” radicalization, whether in Egypt since the early 1960s or in Syria since 1966, and the hostility of both states to the Saudi kingdom was intense. The US feared that a Cairo-Damascus radical alliance, along with Iraq where Arab nationalists were already in power, could establish a powerful vice around the Saudis. The green light was given to Israel therefore to launch its aggression on June 5, 1967.

1967 Watershed

In this war, the key watershed in the region after 1948—the Middle East is still coping with the direct results of the 1967 war—two different but converging sets of interests were at stake. On the one hand, US interests as explained, and on the other hand, the interests of the Israeli state which was never a mere “puppet” of the US but always had its own distinct agenda, as was obvious in 1956 and remains true to this date. For Israel, the accomplishment of the US mission of dealing a mortal blow to the two regimes of Cairo and Damascus matched perfectly its own agenda of finishing the work started in1948 by occupying the West Bank up to the Jordan river, as well as the Gaza Strip.

As a reward for its military feat, the US would lend Israel support for two claims the Zionist government made on its Arab neighbors: re-designing Israel's borders in light of Israel’s “security” and recognition by the Arab regimes of the state of Israel, thus ending the state of belligerence that existed since 1948. These claims were at the center of UN Security Council 242 approved by the US in November 1967, whether openly (recognition and peace) or implicitly (the famous “the” missing from the mention of Israeli withdrawal from “occupied territories”).[The French and English versions of 242 are worded different: the former calls for a full withdrawal from “the territories” occupied in the 1967 while the later calls for a withdrawal from “territories” occupied – BTL]

Israel’s territorial claims were all the more palatable to the US that the Palestinian population went into sharp radicalization after June 1967 and it became clear that any straightforward return of the West Bank to Jordan would put the Hashemite monarchy at risk. Thus the Israeli government could work on implementing the Allon Plan of establishing strategic footholds in the West Bank in order to control the territory, with a view to relinquishing its populated areas later on. This plan was to remain the major architectural conception of Zionist peace offers, including the Oslo agreement up to Barak’s offers in the 2000 Camp David negotiations. And it was and still is backed by the US.

Many observers thought that Israel’s strategic importance to the US would diminish sharply after 1991: this was the year of the Gulf War, involving massive US direct military intervention in the region and the establishment of a permanent US military presence in the Gulf Arab states, as well as the year of the demise of the USSR. Actually one could even consider that the turning point was Egypt’s shift in allegiance from the Soviet Union to the US in 1972, under Sadat, which explains the “more balanced” attitude of Washington in brokering a peace between Egypt and Israel after the 1973 war.

True, both 1972 and 1991 were major turning points, inciting the US to exert greater pressure on Israel for concessions in order to establish a pax americana. This is how the peace treaty between Begin’s Israel and Sadat’s Egypt could be concluded, and this is why the US exerted high pressure on the Shamir government in 1991 in order to join the “peace process.”

However, Israel’s importance as a strategic asset to the US did not wane to the point of vanishing. Given the highly volatile and explosive character of the social and political situation in the Arab countries, the US knows too well that it cannot bet on the stability of any alliances there. Compared to that, the strategic dependence on the US of Israel as a political entity makes it the most stable of allies.

Forward base

The US knows that there are narrow limits to the number of troops it can station in the region, as was well illustrated by the heavy cost paid already for keeping 5,000 US soldiers in the Saudi kingdom, including the Sept. 11 2001 attacks. It knows moreover that it takes time to get troops to the area and that it is not granted that it would always be as easy as during the military buildup of 1990 against Iraq. In this sense, Israel’s role as a forward positioned military base in this part of the world is still very precious, and the 5 billion dollars it costs the US taxpayer annually are a very sound investment compared to what could be achieved if the same amount were added to the huge US military budget instead.

Which brings us to the present situation. The Israeli military onslaught against the Palestinian controlled territories in the West Bank is the product of a convergence between several factors. The first is the dead end in the implementation of the Allon Plan framework a.k.a. “peace process”: it became clear that the Palestinian population would not accept what increasingly appeared as a fool’s bargain after the first illusions of 1993-94. It became clear as well that Arafat would not take the risk of confronting his people for the sake of what increasingly looked to him as monkey business and a deadly trap. Both aspects were closely related: it is only if the Palestinian population had been submitted to a harsh dictatorship that it could have been brought to swallow the very bitter pills of US-Zionist medicine.

The second factor is obviously Sharon’s accession to power in Israel, as an expression of a quasi-unanimous decision by the Zionist establishment of settling scores with the Palestinians. With the support of the Laborites, Sharon is doing what they could not have done themselves without jeopardizing their specific political capital at home and in the West.

The third factor is obviously Sept. 11 and its aftermath: by making the “war against terrorism” the new headline of US worldwide interventionism, the attacks on Washington and New York gave Sharon the needed political cover for his own design.

We are now reaching a point where this convergence will probably come to an end and the occasional allies will part ways. Sharon’s own agenda is not to destroy the “terrorist infrastructure” in order to pave the road for a renewed attempt at setting a Palestinian Bantustan. His real agenda is destroying the “Palestinian Authority” in order to establish a coercive direct grip over the Palestinian population which would compel them to leave the West Bank, thus achieving the “transfer” project which he always shared with his assassinated friend Zeevi.

The US, and their faithful Israeli allies in Zionist Labor, are aiming at a restored PA presiding more repressively over a much weakened Palestinian population, in the framework of a peace based more or less on Barak’s 2000 offer at Camp David, combined with the Saudi offer of “normalizing” relations between Israel and the whole Arab world. The latter offer was actually designed by the US State Department as a means to reinvigorate the agonizing “peace process”: it contains nothing new basically, except that it is formulated by the Saudi kingdom which had preferred to remain out of the picture until now from fear of the political spillovers of such a chaotic “peace process.”

The huge problem however is that Sharon’s onslaught against the Palestinians has created such a sharp and bitter resentment against Israel and the US in the whole Arab world that it became by itself a serious impediment facing any resumption of the “peace process.” That this is Sharon’s goal is beyond doubt.

The same does not hold true for Bush or Peres however, but both of them share political short-sightedness and lack of intelligence. What they have let Sharon accomplish, with a mixture of connivance and indulgence, might very probably prove to be a historical turning point destroying any prospect of US sponsored Arab-Israeli peace, and causing a destabilization of the whole region highly detrimental to US interests, as shown already by the huge mass mobilizations that occurred in all the Arab countries with almost no exception.

This would not be the first time—neither the last to be sure—that the US sows the seeds of rebellion against its own interests. Bush and Sharon are preparing for the US and Israel future disasters, which might well make Sept. 11 appear in retrospect as a mere starting point.

About the Author
Gilbert Achcar is a member of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) in France where he teaches political science and international relations at the University of Paris-VIII. His latest book, The Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder, will come out in English this fall from Monthly Review Press. This article was first published in Between the Lines ( in May 2002.