Sleepless Afternoons

Review of The Passionate Attachment: America's Involvement with Israel, 1947 to the Present, by George W. Ball. 382 pp., W.W. Norton, 1992.

Avi Shlaim

London Review of Books, 25 February 1993.

    The title of this book is inspired by George Washington's 1796 farewell address.  Washington counselled the new nation to refrain from a 'passionate attachment' to or an 'inveterate hatred' of any other nation and to cultivate instead peace and harmony with all.  A passionate attachment to another nation, he warned, could create the illusion of a common interest where no common interest exists.  To speak of America's passionate attachment to Israel involved a slight exaggeration for, as Charles de Gaulle once remarked, there are no love affairs between states.  Even the love affair between American Jews and Israel is only skin deep: American Jews admire Israel for her body, while Israelis are attracted to American Jews for their money.

    Nevertheless, Washington's farewell address does serve to spotlight the two central themes of this wide-ranging and rather rambling book.  One theme is that America has been the loser in this relationship in political and moral terms as well as in financial ones.  The second and related theme is that America's over-indulgent attitude towards Israel has not been an unmixed blessing: 'If a passionate attachment harms the infatuated country, it can equally injure the nation that is the object of its unrequited affection' (p.313).

    Even some of Israel's most devoted friends in America would admit that she is not the most gracious or grateful of partners.  Henry Kissinger, a leading advocate of the strategic partnership with Israel, had this to say on Israeli negotiating tactics: 'In the combination of single-minded persistence and convoluted tactics, the Israelis preserve in the interlocutor only those last vestiges of sanity and coherence needed to sign the final document.'  No less revealing is Kissinger's comment on Yitzhak Rabin, the present prime minister who had served as ambassador to Washington in the early 1970s:

Yitzhak had many extraordinary qualities, but the gift of human relations was not one of them.  If he had been handed the entire 'United States Strategic Air Command' as a free gift he would have (a) affected the attitude that at last Israel was getting its due, and (b) found some technical shortcoming in the airplanes that made his accepting them a reluctant concession to us.

    A typical example of the way Israel exploits America is provided by the saga of the Lavi aircraft.  To secure American agreement to this hare-brained project in 1982, Israel assured America that the planes to be produced would be solely for Israeli use.  Yet early the following year the Israeli Aircraft Industries issued a marketing brochure entitled 'Lavi - the affordable fighter'.  The Pentagon opposed the Lavi from the beginning, as did the State Department.  One State Department official remarked that 'they were going to build this airplane.  All they needed was American technology and American money.'  The proposal reminded another State Department official of the tale of the tramp with a stone who offered to use the stone to cook soup for an old lady.  If the old lady would only find him a pot, water, some carrots, potatoes, onions, meat, and seasoning, he would benevolently share the soup with the old lady.  The Lavi project had to be abandoned because it was beyond Israel's capacity. By the time it was finally killed, America had provided more than 50 percent of the technology and 90 percent of the funding.

    Moshe Dayan summed up the Israeli view of the special relationship when he said that 'Our American friends give us money, arms and advice.  We take the money, we take the arms but we decline the advice.'  As well as pursuing single-mindedly their own national interests, Israelis, with characteristic chuzpah, tend to assume that they know better than American leaders what is in the American interest.  All too often in this highly unequal relationship, it has been the tail that wags the dog.

    For America the relationship with the Jewish state has always been a deeply sensitive, complex and controversial issue.  At the outset, American economic aid for Israel was justified on humanitarian and idealistic grounds.  As the only authentic democracy in the Middle East, it used to be argued, Israel deserved American encouragement and support.  After Israel's resounding military victory in the June 1967 war, however, support for Israel was increasingly justified on the grounds that it was in America's interest.  Israel came to be seen not simply as an economic mendicant, but as a military giant.  Israel, it was argued, was a strong, stable and reliable ally whose presence in the region served to check the influence of the Soviet Union and of the radical Arab regimes allied to Moscow.  In short, Israel was not just a democracy worthy of support but a strategic asset for the United States in the Middle East.

    The development of the strategic partnership with Israel was bound to affect America's entire policy towards the Middle East.  American policy-makers were divided into two broad schools of thought, the even-handed school and the Israel-first school.  The even-handed school, of which George Ball was a leading member, argued that America should not identify too closely or exclusively with Israel because this could jeopardize America's other vital interests in the Middle East such as the friendship of the moderate Arab countries and access to oil.  The rival school, which gained the upper hand in the Nixon administration, maintained that Israel was America's only reliable ally in the region and that it should therefore be given all the material support and political backing it needed to preserve the regional status quo which was favourable to American interests.  If this support antagonized the Arabs, it did not matter since they needed America more than America needed them.
    Another way of dividing American policy-makers is into regionalists and globalists.   The regionalists, of which George Ball is again a leading example, maintain that the problems of the Middle East are home-grown rather than the result of Soviet instigation and that American policy should be directed at solving or alleviating these problems.  Unqualified support for Israel, according to this school, is emphatically not the way to go about solving these problems, above all the Palestinian problem.  The globalists, on the other hand, like Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan and Alexander Haig, looked at the Middle East as just one arena in their global fight against the Soviet Union.  For them Israel was not part of the problem, but part of the solution.

    The State Department, where George Ball had served as under-secretary in the Johnson administration, is the natural stronghold of the regionalists.  The White House has tended to be the stronghold of the globalists, especially when inhabited by a Republican president.  American policy towards the Middle East consists of frequent swings of the pendulum between the pro-Arab State Department and the usually pro-Israeli White House.  AIPAC, the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, popularly known as the Jewish lobby, is also an actor in the policy-making process although it receives surprisingly little attention in this book.  AIPAC was established, in the words of its founder, I.L. Kenen, 'to lobby the Congress to tell the President to overrule the State Department.'

    During the Reagan presidency, AIPAC fully fulfilled its original mission.  Of all American presidents since 1945, Ronald Reagan has been the most globalist in outlook and the most pro-Israeli.  Reagan spent many sleepless afternoons in the White House worrying about the Soviet threat.  This worry powerfully reinforced his sentimental attachment to Israel.  As the authors point out, because the Cold War supplied the coordinates by which Reagan charted all aspects of foreign policy, he warmly embraced the doctrine that Israel was an important US strategic asset.

    In a sharp break with a bipartisan American policy going back to 1967, Reagan declared that the Israeli settlements on the West Bank were not illegal.  Unlike Jimmy Carter, he had no sympathy whatever with the Palestinian claim of the right to national self-determination.  On the PLO, Reagan also followed the Israeli line that it was a terrorist organization pure and simple and that negotiating with it was therefore totally out of the question.  He even adopted the Israeli position towards the Camp David accords, stating that he would 'continue to support the process as long as Israel sees utility in it.'

    This undiluted 'Israel first' policy encouraged Israel to persist in its diplomatic intransigence just when her Arab neighbours seemed prepared to make peace with her and, worse still, to embark on her ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  Reagan and his Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, were sufficiently ignorant and gullible to believe that Israel could create a new political order in Lebanon and that this would serve to undermine the Soviet position in the region.  During the war, America was drawn ever more deeply into the Lebanese quagmire and ended up as a co-belligerent with Israel in its war with the Arabs.  When Reagan, or rather the State Department regional experts, belatedly came up with the sensible and even-handed peace plan which bore his name, prime minister Menachem Begin peremptorily rejected it as a threat to Israel's very existence and declared it 'a lifeless stillborn.'  The old pattern of Israel taking American money and American arms but declining American advice re-asserted itself with a vengeance.  The authors are critical of Reagan for his handling of the crisis in Lebanon but not as critical as one would expect them to be, possibly because the senior author had devoted a whole book to this subject, appropriately entitled Error and Betrayal in Lebanon.

    George Bush did not share Reagan's sentimental attachment to American Jews or the Jewish state.  In private, Bush would point out that he had been vice-president for eight years in the most pro-Israeli administration in American history but got only five percent of the Jewish vote when he ran for president in 1988, so he owed nothing to American Jewry.  Nor was Bush, a former oil executive, particularly sympathetic to Israel.  But it took the ending of the Cold War and the Gulf War to bring about a decisive change in American policy towards Israel.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the orphaning of its Arab clients, Israel was no longer needed to safeguard American interests in the Middle East, if that is what it had been doing.  During the Gulf War the best service that Israel could render its senior partner was to sit tight, keep a low profile and do nothing.

    Characteristically, the Likud government headed by Yitzhak Shamir tried to extract from Washington the highest possible price for its passive co-operation in defeating Saddam Hussein.  But when the Bush administration tried to promote a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, it met with a singularly unco-operative attitude in Jerusalem.  Even when the Shamir government reluctantly agreed to participate in the American-sponsored peace process, it rejected the principle of trading land for peace and continued to build settlements in the occupied territories.

    The straw that broke the camel's back, however, was Shamir's request for a $10 billion loan guarantee to finance the absorption of Soviet Jews in Israel.  Shamir pushed AIPAC to wage a battle against the Bush administration on this issue.  Bush won this battle hands down, weakening AIPAC and discrediting Shamir in the process.  Indirectly, but consciously and skilfully, Bush also helped to bring about a Likud defeat and a Labour victory in the June 1992 general election.  What Bush in effect told the Israelis was that they could not have American money if they chose to disregard American advice.  The battle over the loan guarantee thus marked something of a turning-point in the history of the relations between America and Israel.
    Throughout this far from dispassionate study, the authors emphasise the cost of 'the passionate attachment.'  They calculate that between 1948 and 1991, America subsidized Israel to the tune of $53 billion.  This exceeds the aggregate assistance that the United States gave Western Europe under the Marshall Plan.  Rarely in the annals of human history have to few owed so much to so many.  Nor can the cost be measured in financial terms alone.  The political and moral cost of the passionate attachment has been considerable. Israel's disdain for international norms involves America in a pattern of hypocrisy and makes a mockery of its claim to moral leadership.  Two examples are used to illustrate this point.  First, America poses as the champion of human rights, yet silently watches while the Israeli army systematically violates the human rights of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.  Second, America declares its opposition to the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, then turns a blind eye to Israel's activities in all these areas.  True, the Bush administration did put forward a plan for halting the production of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, but the Israelis took the view that a bomb in the hand is worth ten in the Bush. From both the financial and the moral aspects, the fundamental question posed by the authors is: 'Are we getting anything faintly resembling a reasonable return from the costs we are incurring?'  The evidence presented in this book points to an emphatically negative answer.

    Throughout this book, the Balls, father and son, remain on solid ground in their critique of Israel and their critique of uncritical American support for Israel.  Where they are on much shakier ground is in depicting Israel as almost exclusively responsible for all the errors and betrayals committed by the two countries since 1947.  But if America is not her brother's keeper, nor is Israel.  America's sins should therefore not be visited upon Israel.  America must bear the full responsibility for her own actions and for the unfortunate consequences of these actions in perpetuating and exacerbating the problems of the Middle East.  As between the two allies, the authors are decidedly not even-handed.  They portray Israel as the chief culprit and an evil influence, while America emerges as a noble and altruistic Great Power committed to the highest moral standards in world affairs.  This view of America, in my humble opinion, is best summed up in the authors' name.