Council for the National Interest

Chomsky on Oil and the Israel Lobby

Jan 31 2009 / 3:57 pm

By. M. Shahid Alam.

Dissident Voice – In the slow evolution of US relations with Israel since 1948, as the latter mutated from a strategic liability to a strategic asset, Israel and its Jewish allies in the United States have always occupied the driver’s seat.

President Truman had shepherded the creation of Israel in 1947 not because the American establishment saw it as a strategic asset; this much is clear. “No one,” writes Cheryl Rubenberg, “not even the Israelis themselves, argues that the United States supported the creation of the Jewish state for reasons of security or national interest.”1 Domestic politics, in an election year, was the primary force behind President Truman’s decision to support the creation of Israel. In addition, the damage to US interests due to the creation of Israel – although massive – was not immediate. This was expected to unfold slowly: and its first blows would be borne by the British who were still the paramount power in the region.

Nevertheless, soon after he had helped to create Israel, President Truman moved decisively to appear to distance the United States from the new state. Instead of committing American troops to protect Israel, when it fought against five Arab armies, he imposed an even-handed arms embargo on both sides in the conflict. Had Israel been dismantled [at birth], President Truman would have urged steps to protect the Jewish colonists in Palestine, but he would have accepted a premature end to the Zionist state as fait accompli. Zionist pressures failed to persuade President Truman to lift the arms embargo. Ironically, military deliveries from Czechoslovakia may have saved the day for Israel.

Once Israel had defeated the armies of Arab proto-states and expelled the Palestinians to emerge as an exclusively Jewish colonial-settler state in 1949, these brute facts would work in its favor. Led by the United States, the Western powers would recognize Israel, aware that they would have to defend this liability. At the same time, the humiliation of defeat had given an impetus to Arab nationalists across the region, who directed their anger against Israel and its Western sponsors.

This placed Israel in a strong position to accelerate its transformation into a strategic asset. In tandem with the Jewish lobby in the United States, Israel sought to maximize the assistance it could receive from the West through policies that stoked Arab nationalism; and as Israel’s military superiority grew this emboldened it to increase its aggressive posture towards the Arabs. Israel had the power to set in motion a vicious circle that would soon create the Arab threat against which it would defend the West. As a result, at various points during the 1950s, France, the United States, and Britain began to regard Israel as a strategic asset.

America’s embrace of Israel did not begin in 1967. Israel’s victory in the June War only accelerated a process that had been underway since its creation – even before its creation. Indeed, the Zionists had decided in 1939 to pursue the United States as their new mother country; they knew that they could use the very large and influential population of American Jews to win official US backing for their goals.

This paid off handsomely in 1948; but thereafter, the United States sought to contain the damage that would flow from the creation of Israel. However, these efforts would be self-defeating; the die had been cast. Israel – not the United States – was in the driver’s seat; and Israel would seek to maximize the negative fallout from its creation. As Israel succeeded in augmenting – within limits – the Arab threat to itself and the United States, the Jewish lobby would regain confidence; it would re-organize to reinforce Israel’s claim that it was now a strategic asset.

We have here another vicious circle – virtuous, for Israel. The Jewish lobby would gain strength as the Arab-cum-Soviet threat to the Middle East grew. When Israel scaled back the Arab threat in 1967, the Jewish lobby would step in to spend the political capital the Jewish state had garnered in the United States. The Israeli capture of Jerusalem in 1967 also energized the Christian Zionists, who, with encouragement from Jewish Zionists, would organize, enter into Republican politics, and soon become a major ally of the Jewish lobby. The sky was now the limit for Israel and the Zionists in the United States. The special relationship would become more special under every new presidency.

Several writers on the American left have pooh-poohed the charge that the Jewish lobby has been a leading force shaping America’s Middle East policy. They argue that the United States has supported Israel because of the convergence of their interests in the region.2 Oil, primarily Saudi Arabian oil, they maintain correctly, is “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”3 Incorrectly, however, they insist that this is what has driven US policy towards the Middle East.

A priori, this is an odd position to maintain, since Britain – up until 1948 – had managed quite well to maintain complete control over Middle Eastern oil, a dominance the United States could not sustain ‘despite’ the ‘strategic support’ of Israel. Successively, they argue, Western control over oil came under threat from Arab nationalism and militant Islamism. Israel has demonstrated its strategic value by holding in check and, later, defeating, the Arab nationalist challenge. Since then, Israel has fought the Islamist challenge to US hegemony over the region.

It may be useful to examine Noam Chomsky’s analysis of this relationship, since he enjoys iconic status amongst both liberal and leftists in the United States. Chomsky frames his analysis of ‘causal factors’ behind the special relationship as essentially a choice between “domestic pressure groups” and “US strategic interests.” He finds two limitations in the argument that the “American Jewish community” is the chief protagonist of the special relationship between Israel and the United States.

First, “it underestimates the scope of the “support for Israel,” and second, it overestimates the role of political pressure groups in decision-making.” Chomsky points out that the Israel lobby is “far broader” than the American Jewish community; it embraces liberal opinion, labor leaders, Christian fundamentalists, conservative hawks, and “fervent cold warriors of all stripes.”4 While this broader definition of the Israel lobby is appropriate, and this is what most users of the term have in mind, Chomsky thinks that the presence of this “far broader” support for Israel diminishes the role that American Jews play in this lobby.

Two hidden assumptions underpin Chomsky’s claim that a broader Israel lobby shifts the locus of lobbying to non-Jewish groups. First, he fails to account for the strong overlap – barring the Christian fundamentalists – between the American Jewish community and the other domestic pressure groups he enumerates. In the United States, this overlap has existed since the early decades of the twentieth century, and increased considerably in the post-War period. It is scarcely to be doubted that Jews hold – and deservedly so – a disproportionate share of the leadership positions in corporations, the labor movement, and those professions that shape public discourse. Starting in the 1980s, the ascendancy of Jewish neoconservatives – together with their think tanks – gave American Jews an equally influential voice in conservative circles. Certainly, the weight of Jewish neoconservative opinion during the early years of President Bush – both inside and outside his administration – has been second to that of none. The substantial Jewish presence in the leadership circles of the other pressure groups undermines Chomsky’s contention that the pro-Israeli group is “far broader” than the American Jewish community.

There is a second problem with Chomsky’s argument. Implicitly, he assumes that the different pro-Israeli groups have existed, acted and evolved independently of each other; alternatively, the impact of the lobbying efforts of these groups is merely additive. This ignores the galvanizing role that Jewish organizations have played in mobilizing Gentile opinion behind the Zionist project. The activism of the American Jews – as individuals and groups – has operated at several levels. Certainly, the leaders of the Zionist movement have directed a large part of their energies to lobbying at the highest levels of official decision-making. At the same time, they have created, and they orchestrate, a layered network of Zionist organizations who have worked very hard to create support for their aims in the broader American civil society.

American Jews have worked through several channels to influence civil society. As growing numbers of American Jews embraced Zionist goals during the 1940s, as their commitment to Zionism deepened, this forced the largest Jewish organizations to embrace Zionist goals. In addition, since their earliest days, the Zionists have created the organizations, allies, networks and ideas that would translate into media, congressional and presidential support for the Zionist project. In addition, since Jewish Americans made up a growing fraction of the activists and leaders in various branches of civil society – the labor, civil rights and feminist movements – it was natural that the major organs of civil society came to embrace Zionist aims. It makes little sense, then, to maintain that the pro-Israeli positions of mainstream American organizations had emerged independently of the activism of the American Jewish community.

Does our contention fail in the case of the Christian Evangelicals because of the absence of Jews in their ranks? In this case, the movement has received the strongest impetus from the in-gathering of Jews that has proceeded in Israel since the late nineteenth century. The dispensationalist stream within Protestant Christians in the United States – who believe that the in-gathering of Jews in Israel will precede the Second Coming – has been energized by every Zionist success on the ground. They have viewed these successes – the launching of Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, the creation of Israel, the capture of Jerusalem, ‘Judea’ and ‘Samaria’ in 1967 – as so many confirmations of their dispensationalist eschatology. The movement expanded with every Zionist victory. At the same time, it would be utterly naïve to rule out direct relations between the Zionists and the leaders of the evangelical movement. The Zionists have rarely shrunk from accepting support even when it has come from groups with unedifying beliefs.

Noam Chomsky raises a second objection against the ability of the Jewish lobby to influence policy on its own steam. “No pressure group,” he maintains, “will dominate access to public opinion or maintain consistent influence over policy-making unless its aims are close to those of elite elements with real power [emphases added].”5 One problem with this argument is easily stated. It pits the Jewish lobby as one “pressure group” – amongst many – arrayed against all the others that hold the real power. This equation of the Jewish lobby with a narrowly defined “pressure group” is misleading. We have argued – a position that is well supported by the evidence – that Jewish protagonists of Zionism have worked through many different channels to influence public opinion, the composition of political classes, and political decisions. They work through the organs that shape public opinion to determine what Americans know about Israel, how they think about Israel, and what they can say about it. This is no little Cuban lobby, Polish lobby or Korean lobby. Once we recognize the scale of financial resources the Jewish lobby commands, the array of political forces it can mobilize, and the tools it commands to direct public opinion on the Middle East, we would shrink from calling it a lobby.

Chomsky quickly proceeds to undermine his own argument about “elite elements with real power.” He explains that the “[elite] elements are notuniform in interests or (in the case of shared interests) in tactical judgments; and on some issues, such as this one [policy towards Israel], they have often been divided.”6 Yet, despite the differences in their interests, their tactics, and their divisions, Chomsky maintains that these “elite elements” have “real power.” Oddly, these “divided” elites – whoever they are – exercise the power of veto over the multi-faceted Jewish lobby with its deep pockets, hierarchical organizations, and influence over key organs of civil society, campaign contributions, popular votes, etc.

Chomsky’s argument shifts again – a second time in the same paragraph – away from “elite elements” to “America’s changing conceptions of its political-strategic interests” in the Middle East.6 This suggests a new theory of the chief determinant of US policy towards Israel. At the heart of these “political-strategic interests” is the oil wealth of the Middle East – and the twin threats to American control over this oil wealth from Arab nationalists and the Soviets. Presumably, Israel protects these “political-strategic interests” by holding the Arabs and the Soviets at bay. Chomsky conveniently forgets that the Arab nationalist threat to US interests in the Middle East was – in large part – the product of Israel’s insertion into the region, its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and its aggressive posture towards Arabs since its creation. It is unnecessary to account for the Soviet threat, since they entered the region on the back of Arab nationalist discontent. Indeed, had Israel never been created, it is more than likely that all the states in the Middle East – just like Turkey and Pakistan – would have remained firmly within the Western sphere of influence.

In another attempt to convince his readers that oil has driven US policy towards the Middle East, Chomsky claims that the United States was “committed to win and keep this prize [Saudi oil].” Presumably, the United States could not keep this “prize” without help from Israel.

This argument fails because it ignores history. Starting in 1933, American oil corporations – who later merged to form Aramco – gained exclusive rights to explore, produce and market Saudi oil. Saudi Arabia first acquired a 25 percent ownership stake in Aramco in 1973. Had there emerged an Arab nationalist threat to US control over Saudi oil in the 1950s – in the absence of Israel – the United States could have handled it by establishing one or more military bases in Saudi Arabia or, preferably, in one of the Emirates, since American military presence in Saudi Arabia might inflame Islamic sentiments. Far from helping entrench American control of Saudi oil, Israel, by radicalizing Arab nationalism, gave Saudi Arabia the excuse to first gain a 25 percent stake in Aramco and then nationalize it in 1988.

Chomsky claims that the United States was committed to winning and keeping the “stupendous” oil prize. This claim is not supported by the results that America’s Middle Eastern policy has produced on the ground over the years. If the United States was indeed committed to this goal, it would have pursued a Middle East policy that could be expected to maximize – with the lowest risks of failure – the access of US oil corporations to exploration, production and distribution rights over oil in this region. This is not the case.

In creating, aiding and arming Israel, the United States has followed a policy that could easily have been foreseen to produce, as it did produce, exactly the opposite effects. It gave a boost to Arab nationalism, radicalized it, and led within a few years to the Arab nationalist takeover of three of the four key states in the Arab world. In turn, this contributed to the nationalization of oil wealth even in those Arab countries that remained clients of the United States, not to speak of countries that were taken over by Arab nationalists , who excluded the US oil corporations from this industry altogether. In addition, America’s Middle Eastern policy converted the Middle East into a leading arena of wars. It also became a source of deep tensions between the US and the Soviets, since US partisanship of Israel forced the Arab nationalist regimes to ally themselves with the Soviet Union. In the October War of 1973, the United States provoked the Arab nations – because of its decision to re-supply the Israeli army during the war – to impose a costly oil embargo against the United States. In opposition to the pleadings of its oil corporations, the United States has also prevented them from doing business with three oil-producing nations in the Middle East – Iran, Iraq and Libya.7

If oil had been driving America’s Middle East policy, we should have seen the fingerprints of the oil lobby all over this policy. In recent decades, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, the oil lobby has directed its efforts “almost entirely on their commercial interests rather than on broader aspects of foreign policy.” They focus most of their lobbying efforts on getting the best deals on tax policies, government regulations, drilling rights, etc. Even the AIPAC bears witness to this. In the early 1980s, Morris J. Amitay, former executive director of AIPAC, noted, “We rarely see them [oil corporations] lobbying on foreign policy issues…In a sense, we have the field to ourselves.”8

Why does it matter whether it is oil or the Jewish lobby that determines US policy towards Israel and the Middle East?

The answer to this question has important consequences. It will determine who is in charge, and, therefore, who should be targeted by people who oppose Israel’s war mongering and its destruction of Palestinian society. If US policy is driven by America’s strategic interests – and Israel is a strategic US asset – opposing this policy will not be easy. If Israel keeps the oil flowing, keeps it cheap, and keeps down the Arabs and Islamists – all this for a few billion dollars a year – that is a bargain. In this case, opponents of this policy face an uphill task. Sure, they can document the immoral consequences of this policy – as Noam Chomsky and others do. Such moral arguments, however, will not cut much ice. What are the chances that Americans can be persuaded to sacrifice their “stupendous prize” because it kills a few tens of thousands of Arabs?

On the other hand, if the Jewish lobby drives US policy towards the Middle East, there is some room for optimism. Most importantly, the opponents of this policy have to dethrone the reigning paradigm, which claims that Israel is a strategic asset. In addition, it is necessary to focus attention on each element of the real costs – economic, political and moral – that Israel imposes on the United States. Winning these intellectual arguments will be half the battle won; this will persuade growing numbers of Americans to oppose a policy because it hurts them. Simultaneously, those who seek justice for the Palestinians must organize to oppose the power of the Israel lobby and take actions that force Israel to bear the moral, economic and political consequences of its destructive policies in the Middle East.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. His latest book is Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan, November 2009). He may be contacted at:

  1. “Virtually every professional in the foreign affairs bureaucracy, including the secretaries of state and war (later, defense) and the joint chiefs of staff, opposed the creation of Israel from the standpoint of US national interests (Rubenberg: 1986, 9-10).” []
  2. For criticisms of Chomsky, see James Petras, The Power of Israel in the United States (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2006): 168-81; and Jeff Blankfort, “Damage control: Noam Chomsky and the Israeli-Palestine conflict.” []
  3. This assessment comes from a 1945 report of the State Department (Chomsky: 1999, 17). []
  4. Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: 13. []
  5. Noam Chomsky, Fateful triangle: 17. []
  6. Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: 17. [] []
  7. Mearsheimer and Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006): 143. []
  8. Mearsheimer and Walt, The Israel Lobby: 145. []
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