The US-Israel special relationship is acknowledged universally as the unswayable force of politics in the Middle East. The theme is confessed ritually by every US president and Israeli prime minister, who have all claimed, more or less, that “the bond between Israel and the United States is rooted in more than our shared national interests; it’s rooted in the shared values and shared stories of our people.”
Commitment to this article of faith is a litmus test for anyone hoping to exercise power in American politics. Minor deviations can and do have major political consequences, a fact acknowledged last year by the conservative American commentator Tom Friedman, who disclosed that the first President Bush paid a massive political price for standing up to Israel back in 1990; Bush asserted US foreign policy towards Israeli settlements by conditioning $10 billion worth of loan guarantees on a total cessation of settlement construction. He was not re-elected for a second term.
Since than, presidential candidates have been determined never to be outdone in the pro-Israel stakes. Over the years this near sacred doctrine has cultivated a fawning political culture characterised by “an arms race between Democrats and Republicans over who can be more pro-Israel than the other”. With the Israeli elections dues next month, followed shortly thereafter by the US primaries, this feature of American politics will be a key factor.
We’ve already been given a glimpse of the increasingly sycophantic political marriage between Washington and Tel Aviv with the latest debacle of the invitation extended to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by House Speaker John Boehner to address the US Congress weeks before Israel’s elections. It will be Netanyahu’s third opportunity to sermonise in Congress; he received 29 standing ovations on the previous occasion, which is more than any US president let alone foreign leader has ever been given. To put this into a historical context, Winston Churchill only addressed Congress three times and Netanyahu, described by his fawning supporters as the Churchill of our time, will now equal that record.
The visit, cooked up without the knowledge of President Obama, is seen as “a breach of normal diplomatic protocol”. Obama’s refusal to meet with Netanyahu is due to the imminent Israeli election campaign and “is not a rebuff” by the president, insists the White House. Snubbing an Israeli prime minister would be politically toxic for Obama if not for the fact that he is in his second term in office.
Some, like J Street, have voiced concerns that Israel is becoming a political football in a struggle between Republicans and Democrats. “Traditionally, support for Israel has been bipartisan but it would appear that some in both countries want to make it a partisan issue,” the Jewish community website declared. The fear is that Israel is increasingly enlisted for an internal American debate to add weight to the Republican position on foreign policy; in this case Iran’s nuclear programme is the focus, along with US sanctions against Tehran. Netanyahu’s contribution, it is hoped, will leave Obama, and thus the Democrats, bruised politically.
The incident is fascinating on many levels, not least the fact that the head of the world’s superpower, the president of the United States of America, can be challenged in such a juvenile manner as though it was all quite usual to do so. The closest to this that we could see in Britain would be for the Speaker of the House of Commons to extend an invitation to, for example, the king of Saudi Arabia to address parliament just before the General Election about British policy on Iran, without the prior knowledge or consent of Prime Minster David Cameron.
Such a brazenly treacherous step would no doubt have been punished ceremoniously if it wasn’t for the fact that Obama is now politically isolated because of his strained relationship with Netanyahu. That Netanyahu joined gleefully in this naked power play for the Republican Party, moreover, signals a growing Republican-Israeli symbiosis. This is very odd, given that the vast majority of the American Jewish community are liberals and 78 per cent voted for Obama.
Increasingly we are seeing the melding of narrow rejectionist forces on both sides and it is not, as one would suspect, an appeal for the US Jewish vote; only 2 per cent of American voters are Jews whose political loyalty on the whole lies with the Democratic Party. It is, however, a graphic example of the axis developing between powerful pro-Israel political donors and the more politically-muscular conservative Republicans and evangelical Christians, who are generally more pro-Israel than the American Jewish community itself.
The rise of a small but influential power bloc in a powerful democracy is worrying. By itself it would not be significant if it wasn’t for the colossal sums of money being pumped into the election race by its members, reflecting the growth of “pro-Israelism” in American politics. We have already seen an exponential growth in the amount of money spent in US elections; an analysis of the figures suggests that this is down to the influence of this narrow alliance.
Of the $13 billion spent on the 2012 US presidential election, around $6.6 billion went into lobbying, double what it was in 2000. This increase, which looks set to continue, followed the lifting of the campaign spending cap by the US Supreme Court. The striking down of a key pillar of the federal campaign finance law has allowed donors to give money to as many political candidates, parties and committees as they wish; the decision means that private individuals are able to give millions of dollars to buy political favours.
The opening of the campaign cash floodgates in the US has all but drowned the opportunity for the voice of the vast majority of the electorate to be heard; they can’t even dream about spending such large sums of money to exert political influence. It all looks ominous for US democracy; just 0.26 per cent of the population accounted for 68 per cent of all political donations in 2012. This trend is believed by some, including a study carried out last year by Princeton and Northwestern Universities, to have transformed the US government into an oligarchy.
The greatest contributions are invariably from conservative members of the pro-Israel elites, people like Sheldon Adelson, the biggest donor, whose colossal $92 million went to the Republican Party for the 2012 election. The billionaire casino tycoon, in contrast to the vast majority of Liberal Jews in America, believes that the Palestinians are a made up nation which exists solely to destroy Israel.
Adelson, who has also called for dropping nuclear bombs on Iran, is a very close friend of Netanyahu and, according to the Washington Post, is slowly buying up Israeli media. In an effort to exert political muscle he also launched his own free newspaper in Israel, which is seen widely as reflecting the position of Israeli rejectionists favoured by the Israeli prime minister.
Despite the fact that Israel, unlike the US, has more stringent campaign funding rules, with limitations on election expenditure and conditions regarding eligibility, conservative Americans have found imaginative ways to influence Israeli politics. It is clearly not a lack of desire or financial ability that has been the obstacle for a growing conservative element in the US Jewish community to buy influence in Israeli politics as it does in the US.
Despite the strict rules, an axis of conservative US oligarchs and rejectionist Israeli politicians has gained foothold. More than 90 per cent of the recent campaign contributions for Netanyahu were sent from three American families, including the Falics. Among other things, the head of this family chairs the Friends of the Israel Defence Forces, a New York-based organisation that raises funds for the Israeli army. Simon Falic’s wife, Jana, is co-president of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation, Israel’s largest non-governmental service provider. The three Falic brothers and 12 of their family members have made 682 political donations to politicians including right-wing Republicans like Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Eric Cantor and Charles Schumer.
We are gradually seeing the increase in private donations corrupting politics with the added dimension of a globalisation of campaign funds. This factor has increased in importance with conservative Americans bankrolling political parties and personalities that are divisive in the US and Israel. Most democracies have a clear principle that foreign governments, political parties, corporations and individuals should not influence elections directly or indirectly. Yet, the globalisation of corporate structures as well as transnational interests make it virtually impossible to prevent foreign nationals from having such pernicious influence.
The unsettling aspect of such unprecedented “pro Israelism” within US politics is not, as J Street would have us believe, simply having Israel used as a political football between Republicans and Democrats. It is, in fact, an accelerated drive to cement Israel’s status as the sacred cow in American politics just as the National Health Service (NHS) is in Britain. Unlike the NHS, which is a national concern for all British citizens and has little if any impact on anyone beyond the UK, the “pro-Israelism” agenda affects US foreign policy and is being pushed by a growing minority whose views on Israel and Palestine are at odds with most American Jews, let alone Palestinians.
The fact that pro-Israel activists hold the purse strings to electoral success has turned foreign policy regarding Israel into a doctrinal issue. This has made support for Israel the barometer for measuring the suitability of political hopefuls across the US.
Already there are signs that more and more Democrats are anxious about the consequences of Obama’s snub of Netanyahu – for that is what it is viewed as, regardless of White House denials – with one commenting that all Democrats have to be for Israel. “He –Obama- can’t split his own constituency by bringing up this madness, which touches so directly on the national interest and the Israel lobby.”
As the sole remaining superpower, the exercise of American political and military might should be of concern to us all. A turn towards oligarchy and the fusion of tiny power blocs with extreme, partisan views on the question of Palestine, is bad news for the rest of us. Obama is reviled as anti-Israel (although his record shows otherwise) and Democrats are feeling greater pressure to prove their pro-Israel credentials to the extent that whoever is chosen as their candidate for the 2016 presidential election will, almost certainly, have to outdo the Republicans in their pro-Israel fervour.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.