The Repression of BDS Shows How the American and Israeli Ruling Classes Are Deeply Enmeshed
The latest Senate effort to crack down on peaceful protest against the Israeli occupation stems from a long-standing special relationship.
The first bill to be considered by the 2019 U.S. Senate defends Israel by giving American state and local governments the legal authority to punish U.S. companies that are participating in the Palestinian-led boycott against Israel. According to the legal advocacy organization Palestine Legal, 26 states have adopted anti-boycott measures. The federal bill strengthens the legal basis to defend those Israel-protecting laws from constitutional challenges.
Alarmingly, the bill could be used to punish individuals, given that, as The Intercept recently explained, because “individual contractors often work for state or local governments under the auspices of a sole proprietorship or some other business entity.” This danger is not theoretical: Texas elementary school speech pathologist Bahia Amawi recently lost her job because she refused to promise not to boycott goods produced in Israel or illegal Israeli settlements. The purpose of this part of the bill is to punish those who wish to pressure Israel and its American patrons to stop killing, dispossessing and discriminating against Palestinians.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is a lead sponsor of the legislation, which failed to pass in an earlier form introduced by Rubio and a bipartisan coalition that included Democrats such as Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Cardin of Maryland.
The bill would also codify a 2016 deal between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government guaranteeing Israel $38 billion in “security” assistance over 10 years, a provision that would undermine any current or future president’s ability to undo the arrangement. Such a move would hamstring what passes for American democracy by obstructing the population’s ability to stop participating in the mass murder of Palestinian civilians should it wish to do so.
Observers could be forgiven for wondering why the U.S. government goes to these lengths to suppress support for Palestinian liberation. In the following essay adapted from my book, The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel, & The Media, I explain why the U.S.-Israeli alliance is so deep and durable.
The U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” consolidated during Israel’s 1967 war against Egypt, Jordan and Syria though America has supported Israel for much longer. Even before the 1967 war, the United States gave Israel more aid per capita than any other country. In 1957, U.S. President Dwight D Eisenhower articulated the Eisenhower Doctrine, a declaration of U.S. support for any Middle Eastern government that it considered targeted by “overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism.” Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles considered states in the region allied with the USSR to be “controlled by International Communism” and this included Egypt, which was one of Israel’s primary adversaries at the time. By 1967, U.S. planners saw Israel as useful for preventing the disruption of oil supplies and as a CIA proxy for carrying out American operations in the Middle East, such as arming U.S.-allied Kurdish forces or assisting the security forces of Iran, which was a U.S. client at the time. The 1967 war cemented the U.S.-Israeli relationship as the U.S. came to see Israel as an indispensable tool against the USSR’s Egyptian and Syrian allies.
After the Shah of Iran, one of America’s most useful proxies, was overthrown in 1979, Israel became even more important to the United States. Starting with the 1967 occupation and throughout the 1970s, Israeli military attacks and assassinations decimated left-wing and Arab nationalist movements across the Middle East that were threats to U.S. client states. It was with full U.S. support that Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and attacked the PLO, Lebanese leftists and the Syrian army, all of whom were Soviet allies, to say nothing of thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians. The United States itself bombed Lebanon from the sea and sent troops into the country as part of its effort to install a government in Lebanon that would be friendly to the United States and Israel. In these ways, American elites supported Israeli violence as a means of weakening the Soviet Union in the Middle East and beyond, and of weakening progressive and nationalist forces in the Middle East.
There are pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington that urge American planners to adopt policies friendly to Israeli elites. However, as Chomsky argues, it is doubtful they would have much influence if Israel could not be used to support the U.S. ruling class’s “primary interest in the Middle East region, which is to maintain control over its energy reserves and the flow of petrodollars.”
The United States has also militarized Israel because of services that Israel’s ruling class has rendered beyond the Middle East. Israel is one of the world’s foremost purveyors of mercenaries who have shared their counterinsurgency knowledge with security forces in Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines and with narco militants and paramilitaries in Colombia. Israel, furthermore, helped the United States provide support to an assortment of African dictators including Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, Idi Amin in Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo (when it was still ‘Zaire’), Jean-Bédel Bokassa of Central Republic, and the apartheid regimes in Zimbabwe (when it was still ‘Rhodesia’) and South Africa, despite bans against doing so in the latter two cases. In Latin America, Israel acted as a U.S. arms broker and proxy by selling weapons that, because of congressional legislation, the United States often could not sell directly to the murderous military regimes in Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
While one major goal of U.S. Cold War maneuvering was to keep the USSR from having significant influence in the Middle East, the end of this period did not mean that the United States changed course on Palestine-Israel because the United States was in principle opposed to any radical nationalism, whether Soviet-influenced or not. In the post-Cold War era, Israel has remained as deeply integrated into the U.S.-led empire as ever. Israel, for example, has observer status in NATO.
Elliot Systems Ltd, an Israeli firm involved in building the separation barrier in Palestine-Israel, has also contributed to the “security” of the U.S.-Mexico border wall. In 2002 the United States “observed” the Israeli invasion of Jenin and “borrowed” its usage of bulldozers in the U.S.-led war on Iraq. Similarly, the U.S. Law Enforcement Exchange Program teaches Israel’s shoot-to-kill methods to American police.
U.S. support for Israel should be seen in part as a way for the United States to subsidize America’s military industry. Between 1997and 2007, Israel signed agreements for $10.50 billion worth of U.S. weapons imports, more than any country other than Saudi Arabia. Israel is also the only country allowed by American law to build its domestic military industry using a large portion of the military aid it receives from the United States. This right extends to developing Israeli weapons systems based on U.S. designs and using American FMF money to purchase materials and conduct research and development for the purpose of developing its own military sector. Thus, Israel has permission to manufacture and upgrade U.S. military technology and, according to a 2007 Memorandum of Understanding, can spend 26.3 percent of the FMF it receives from America on weapons systems manufactured in Israel. In these ways, U.S. aid to Israel subsidizes both the American and Israeli ruling classes.
The fact that Israel is deeply integrated into western capitalism also helps explain the U.S-Israeli special relationship. Israel has, for instance, preferential trade agreements with both the European Union and the United States. Accordingly, the American ruling class, and the global capitalist elite more generally, have material reasons to support Israel and to make the state profitable. The U.S.-Israeli special relationship can also be explained in part by the links between the two countries’ elites. As Nitzan and Bichler point out, “since the 1990s, Israel has emerged not only as a favourite destination for ‘high-tech’ investors, money managers, and illegal flight capital, but also as the source of much capital outflow, with locally based capitalists acquiring assets outside their country.” In 1995, Israel privatized Koor, a major holding company with a stake in the military industry, by selling it to the U.S.-based Disney family. Two years later, the Israeli government sold its 43 percent share in Bank Hapoalim (which in turn owned 20 percent of Koor) to a group headed by U.S. investor Ted Arison for over $1 billion. In 2013, the American billionaire Warren Buffet spent $2 billion to take full control of the Israeli company Iscar Metalworking. Facebook has an office in Tel Aviv as does Google, which also has a location in Haifa. HP has a lab in Israel that overlooks Haifa and Apple’s second largest research and development centre is in Herzliya, Israel. IBM, Intel, and Microsoft have all made major investments in Israel.
American support for Israel also needs to be seen as part of U.S. capital’s broader strategy for dominating the Middle East, which involves having as many pliable client states as possible. Israel is one of these and so are the undemocratic governments of countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and the countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Adam Hanieh describes U.S. support for Israel since the late 1980s as:
Pursu[ing] a policy of integrating its bases of support in the region within a single, neoliberal economic zone tied to the U.S. through a series of bilateral trade agreements. This vision is aimed at promoting the free flow of capital and goods (but not necessarily labour) throughout the Middle East region. The region’s markets will be dominated by U.S. imports, while cheap labour, concentrated in economic “free” zones owned by regional and international capital, will manufacture low-cost exports destined for markets in the US, the EU, Israel, and the Gulf. A central component of this vision is the normalization and integration of Israel into the Middle East. The U.S. envisions a Middle East resting upon Israeli capital in the West and Gulf capital in the East, underpinning a low-wage, neoliberal zone that spans the region. What this means is that Israel’s historic destruction of Palestinian national rights must be accepted and blessed by all states in the region.
An example of this process is the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ) in Jordan and Egypt, which were created through economic agreements between the United States, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. Most of the QIZs contain textile factories that act as subcontractors for U.S. firms like Walmart and GAP and the factories themselves are owned by international capital, mainly from the United Arab Emirates, Israel, China, Taiwan and Korea. Most of the workers are migrants from South Asia who are unprotected by labor laws, prevented from joining unions, make miniscule wages, get sexually assaulted and regularly beaten, work extremely long shifts, have their passports confiscated on arrival, and are forced to live in overcrowded and unclean conditions. The agreements for building the QIZs contain the unusual clause that goods produced there can get duty-free status in the U.S. if a certain proportion of the inputs are Israeli. The QIZs, Hanieh writes, “are constructed to weld Israeli and Arab capital together, integrating them with the U.S. market and the American empire, in the joint exploitation of cheap labour.” Similarly, the gigantic highways that run across the West Bank and that connect Israeli cities on the Mediterranean with settlements in the Jordan Valley are conduits for trade between Israel and the Gulf. Normalization between Israel and the Gulf states under the auspices of the US
Empire has also deepened in the context of each of these states’ hostility to Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. Thus, the United States supports Israel because Israel has long been a valuable proxy for U.S. initiatives in the Middle East and beyond and because the ruling classes of both countries are deeply enmeshed.