Journal Essay

The Special Relationship with Israel: Is It Worth the Costs?

Scott McConnell


Winter 2010, Volume XVII, Number 4

In December 1962, President Kennedy hosted Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir at his family home in Palm Beach. Mrs. Meir opened their conversation by speaking of Jewish history and the threat of another Holocaust. The president responded with an effort at reassurance. “The United States,” he said, “has a special relationship with Israel really comparable to what it has with Britain over a wide range of issues.”1 Perhaps Kennedy was engaging in diplomatic flattery; he would go on to stress that America’s ties to the Arab world were of critical importance as well. Still, his words marked a landmark of sorts. The Eisenhower administration would not have used “special relationship” to describe its generally chilly ties with Israel. And Kennedy would inaugurate the sale of advanced weapons to Israel, an important early step in the development of a strategic relationship between the two countries.

The British comparison had then, and retains, a powerful and favorable resonance with Americans. Britain was our closest ally in America’s last “good” war. Recently, former Israeli ambassador Dore Gold would resurrect Kennedy’s statement in an effort to dismiss John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s essay, “The Israel Lobby.” Look, Gold was saying, this is what one of the most beloved American presidents thought about Israel. The implication is that the relationship is intimate, based on powerful bonds of shared values and interests.

But if one delves deeper into the special relationship, a more complex portrait emerges. The Anglo-American tie was based on the readiness of much of America’s ruling establishment reflexively to take Britain’s side, and more: to see the world through Britain’s eyes. If this sensibility was laudable in a world with an aggressive Nazi Germany, it had been seeded by Britain long before, in the decades preceding World War I. Americans were the audience for Kipling’s call to “take up the white man’s burden.” Rhodes Scholarships prepared Americans for leadership. Before America was Britain’s ally, it was Britain’s pupil. Or, as Christopher Hitchens would describe it in Blood, Class and Empire: “[T]his relationship is really at bottom a transmission belt by which British conservative ideas have infected America.”2

Two generations later, the special relationship with Israel has almost completely supplanted the British tie. But like the earlier special relationship, the new one is at bottom a transmission belt, conveying Israeli ideas on how the United States should conduct itself in a contested and volatile part of the world. To a great extent, a receptive American political class now views the Middle East and their country’s role in it through Israel’s eyes.

An early step in the relationship’s evolution was the development of an American taste for Israeli political intelligence. As the Franco-Palestinian scholar Camille Mansour puts it in Beyond Alliance: Israel and U.S. Foreign Policy (a book published nearly 20 years ago, when the relationship was less mature than today),

The Israelis are seen as the experts, the ‘Orientalists’ of the Middle East in the sense defined by Edward Said: they are at once knowledgeable about the terrain and imbued with Western civilization. They are the ones who can claim to understand Arab mentalities, their political processes, their ‘irrationality.’3

When the Cold War ended, traffic on the transmission belt grew apace. Radical Israeli strategies for dominating the Middle East, which might once have been scoffed at, were repackaged by newly empowered American neoconservatives and eventually found a receptive audience in a White House reeling from the shock of 9/11. As Israel’s list of potential enemies grew to include wider and wider swaths of the Muslim world, Islamophobia made inroads into the United States, nudged along by pro-Israeli funders and intellectuals.

A new level of the special relationship was signaled only days after 9/11, when Congress invited former (now current) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak. The Israeli leader presented guidelines for what should be America’s strategy in the “war on terror.” No statesman from any other country was similarly honored, and it is unimaginable that another could have been. In terms of political symbolism, the Netanyahu address signaled that the special relationship had reached a plateau that John F. Kennedy (and Golda Meir) could not have imagined.

How did the relationship reach this height? America’s tie with Israel has grown through three relatively distinct stages. During the first, roughly from Israel’s founding to 1967, many Americans were fond of Israel, admired its achievements, wished it well. But Israel wasn’t really considered an ally, and whatever strategic ties existed were of little consequence. The second stage ran between the Six-Day War in 1967 and the end of the Cold War, when American military and financial aid to Israel accelerated sharply, and the country came to be considered by Washington, in the context of a battle for regional influence with the Soviet Union, as a valuable regional ally. The third stage began to germinate in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and came into full bloom after 9/11. Built upon the foundation of the relatively beneficial strategic relationship of the second stage, it was often justified by similar rhetoric. But it is actually a more profound and consequential relationship than existed between 1967 and 1990.


Washington’s early discussions about the strategic value of Israel took place before the state was founded, in the years after World War II. Foreign-policy professionals could see no benefit from it. They were focused on the beginnings of the Cold War, on finding their bearings in a postwar world that was both fluid and menacing. Then, as now, they saw America’s major strategic interest in the Middle East as unfettered access to oil from the Gulf, which was essential to the rebuilding of Europe and to the supply of American armed forces globally. No foreign-policy professional believed a Jewish state in Palestine would do anything but complicate that goal. They regretted that President Truman seemed to be making his Palestine decisions with an eye to domestic politics. Secretary of State George Marshall, Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett, Policy Planning Staff head George F. Kennan, the regional specialists from the department’s Near East Division and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal all feared the creation of Israel would prejudice and harm American interests throughout the Muslim world. They worried that Israel would require American military forces to protect it — troops America couldn’t spare. Even worse was the prospect of a UN or international peacekeeping force, giving the Soviet Union an entry point into the region. Some worried that Israel itself might lean towards the Soviet bloc.

The “wise men” of Truman’s cabinet, most of whom were WASPs, the American elite at that time, were correct in many of their predictions, though off the mark in others. The CIA predicted correctly that Israelis would not be satisfied with the 55 percent of Palestine allotted to them by the 1947 UN partition resolution and would seek to expand its borders. The agency foresaw that Islamic reaction against Zionism would eventually become a major force in Mideast politics. It also predicted that, in the short run, the Israeli forces, better armed and trained, would hold their own against the Arab armies. But in the long run, their consensus was that the Jewish state couldn’t hold out against 40 million Arabs. Secretary of State Marshall was so angered by his perception that President Truman was going to disregard the professional foreign-policy consensus and grant diplomatic recognition to Israel on the grounds of political expediency that he told the president he wouldn’t vote for him in the next election.4

The Washington establishment underestimated Israel’s fighting capacity, however. By the time Kennedy met Golda Meir in Palm Beach, Israel had already won two significant wars against Arab armies and had demonstrated in several skirmishes that it was comfortable throwing its military weight around. Nonetheless, Israel has never gotten over the sense that American policy makers did not see it as a potential ally, but rather as an encumbrance forced upon them by domestic politics. In 1954, in an episode that came to be known as the Lavon affair, Israeli intelligence officers plotted to blow up American and British facilities in Egypt, with the idea that Egyptians would be blamed. The purpose was to short-circuit a possible American opening towards Egypt’s Nasser. The plan went awry, but its existence is a testament to Israel’s perception that its utility as an ally of the West was far from self-evident. In his memoir, Moshe Dayan relates a conversation he had with Henry Kissinger in 1973. “Though I happened to remark that the United States was the only country that was ready to stand by us, my silent reflection was that the United States would really rather support the Arabs.”5

Dayan was mostly wrong about this. By the late 1960s, Israel’s military prowess had changed Washington’s thinking. Presidents Johnson and Nixon were bedeviled by the endemic weakness of South Vietnam, which seemed incapable of making effective use of American arms. One strategic consequence of the Vietnam quagmire was the Nixon Doctrine, which posited that U.S. allies would ensure regional stability by using American arms to fight their own battles. Israel, by then the victor in three wars, fit the bill perfectly.

Those who tout Israel as a strategic asset invariably point to the two decades between 1970 and 1990. After tracking the rapid rise of American military and financial aid to the Jewish state after 1970, the political scientist A.F.K. Organski concluded, “When the United States did not see Israel as supporting U.S. interests in stemming the expansion of Soviet influence, it did not help Israel.” Relations warmed with Kennedy and Johnson, and “when U.S. leaders, beginning with Nixon and Kissinger, decided that Israel could be an asset in the U.S. struggle with radical Arabs they perceived as Soviet clients, they helped Israel.”6

How did Israel benefit the United States? Its advocates point to the PLO-Jordanian faceoff in 1970, during which Israeli threats thwarted a possible Syrian intervention and perhaps saved the throne of Jordan’s King Hussein. They cite the success of American arms deliveries during the October 1973 war, which helped persuade Egypt to abandon its Soviet orientation for an American one and make a separate peace with Israel. They note the decisive victory of Israel’s American-supplied air force over Syria’s Soviet Migs in 1982, which demonstrated to the world the superiority not only of Israeli pilots, but of American technology. They point to the captured Soviet weaponry Israel turned over to the United States for examination. They note Israel’s permission for the U.S. Navy to port in Haifa, Israel’s technological advances in drone warfare, and myriad other matters. Proponents of the alliance make the broader argument that Israel has kept the peace in the region. As Martin Kramer, a former Israeli academic who is now a leading advocate for Israel in the United States, puts it, Israel “underpins the Pax Americana” in the Eastern Mediterranean. When the United States kept Israel at arms length (from 1948 to 1973), there were four wars; with the onset of the special relationship and with universal acknowledgement of Israeli regional military superiority, the wars have been small and easily contained. If only, Kramer concludes, the United States could be so fortunate as to have another Israel to protect its interests in the Gulf, its strategic position would be rosy indeed.7

If these arguments are not airtight, they shouldn’t be dismissed. As Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer — hardly staunch advocates of the special relationship — acknowledge, a strong case can be made that Israel was, on balance, a useful ally for the United States to have during the Cold War. It is not an open and shut case. How and why, one might ask, were the so-called “radical Arabs” whom Israel helped to contain and defeat radicalized to begin with? Would Arab states have sought Soviet support absent their conflict with Israel? Speaking before a private group in 1975, Henry Kissinger said that it is “difficult to claim that a strong Israel serves American interests because it prevents the spread of communism. It does not. It provides for the security of Israel.”8

The idea that Israel was a good ally was never decisively refuted by actual events. Camille Mansour, whose Beyond Alliance is an extremely nuanced exploration of the American-Israeli relationship, writes (in 1992) that the mere fact that the alliance endured for 45 years is evidence enough that it did no “indisputable damage to American interests.”

The argument that Israel is a good friend to the United States was straightforward and simple to make. It was reinforced by a cultural affinity and buttressed by the messages of the Israel lobby. As a result, politicians tended to proclaim Israel’s strategic value even if they were skeptical about it. Mansour cites the example of Jimmy Carter’s welcome of Menachem Begin to Washington in 1979. Carter stated that whatever the United States did for Israel was more than balanced by what Israel did for the United States. Carter didn’t believe that, and key officials in his administration didn’t either. They did think that Israel had the potential to be a far better ally, indeed a genuine strategic asset, if it pursued a compromise peace with the Palestinians and other Arabs. But that was a complex case to make, and nuanced arguments generally fare worse in the political arena than simple ones. In the end, virtually every president treated Israel as an ally deserving unconditional aid, whether he and his aides believed it or not. If the primary American strategic interest in the Middle East was oil, alliance with Israel, save for the brief embargo after 1973, seemed to cause no insurmountable problem. When Lyndon Johnson proposed shipping advanced fighter planes to Israel in the winter of 1968, an assistant secretary of state, Lucius Battle, demurred. The President replied: “You have to give me more reason not to do it.” Mansour concludes that detractors of the alliance could never “prove positively that other choices would have been preferable from the point of view of American interests.”9


However, during the third and most intense period of the special relationship, the costs to the United States began to mount. The third stage was inaugurated by the Soviet Union’s collapse and withdrawal from active engagement in the region. Without Moscow to counter, America could act unilaterally in the region without fear of a larger confrontation. The collapse of Soviet power left both Israel and the United States relatively much stronger. More ambitious ideas of how to shape the region made their way from Israel to Washington. This proved to be a very mixed blessing.

These new costs were hardly visible in the 1990s. A hint of what was to come arrived with a shock, in the form of the 9/11 terror attacks. Part of the bill for the Iraq war can be attributed to Israel, as can the cost still to be determined of a possible confrontation with Iran. Finally, there is the cost to America’s domestic tranquility, both the loss of freedom that is a consequence of becoming a terror target and the rise of bigotry associated with Islamophobia. Perhaps ironically, as the costs rose, American politicians became more fervent than ever in expressing their devotion to Israel and the special relationship.

The initial post-Cold War test of Israel as a strategic asset came in 1991, during the first Iraq war. As a regional ally, Israel proved worse than useless. Washington had to beg Tel Aviv not to attack Iraq, because Israeli involvement would have torpedoed the coalition President George H. W. Bush was building against Saddam Hussein. The United States diverted Patriot missile batteries to Israel to keep it on the sidelines, leaving its own forces more vulnerable. Some of Israel’s closest friends acknowledged as much. Bernard Lewis, the prominent Middle East historian and Israel supporter, wrote, “Whatever value Israel might have had as a strategic asset, that value obviously ended when the Cold War came to a close.”10

By the mid-nineties, however, Israel and its American boosters were seeking new rationales for the special relationship. Even in the first optimistic years of the Oslo peace process, Israeli Labor party politicians had begun to talk up “the clash of civilizations” and the threat Iran posed to the “equilibrium” between Islam and the West. The Clinton administration initiated a policy of “Dual Containment,” seeking to isolate Iran as well as Saddam’s Iraq, which was “influenced and stimulated” by Israeli thinking.11

When Benjamin Netanyahu was chosen as Israel’s prime minister in 1996, a handful of prominent American neoconservatives prepared for him a policy document entitled, “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” The authors, several of whom would obtain influential posts in the George W. Bush administration, recommended an aggressive stance towards Syria, confrontation with Arafat, an effort to “wean” the Lebanese Shia away from Hezbollah, and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. In his recent book Israel and the Clash of Civilizations, Jonathan Cook traces these recommendations to themes worked up by several right-wing Israeli strategists in the 1980s. The Israelis were proposing that Jerusalem cement its status as the Mideast’s dominant power by fomenting sectarian and ethnic strife in the surrounding states. As Oded Yinon, an Israeli journalist and former senior Foreign Ministry official, put it in a 1982 essay,

The total disintegration of Lebanon into five regional localized governments is the precedent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Arab peninsula, in a similar fashion. The dissolution of Egypt and later Iraq into districts of ethnic and religious minorities following the example of Lebanon is the main long-range objective of Israel on the Eastern Front. . . [I]n the long run the strength of Iraq is the biggest danger to Israel. . . Iraq can be divided on regional and sectarian lines just like Syria in the Ottoman era. There will be three states in the three major cities.12

Cook contends that strategists such as Yinon did not simply sell their vision to the neoconservatives and seek its implementation. The neocons interpreted these strategies as not only good for Israel, but good for America. Israel’s regional dominance and America’s control of oil could be assured through the same means, the fomenting of chaos in the Middle East and the break-up of its large states. Shortly after A Clean Break was published, its authors wrote another paper, predicting that, after Saddam Hussein was deposed, Iraq “would be ripped apart by the politics of warlords, thieves, clans, sects and key families.”13 Of the three authors who made this prediction, David Wurmser would four years later become Vice President Cheney’s top Middle East adviser, Douglas Feith would be Paul Wolfowitz’s chief deputy at the Pentagon, and Richard Perle would chair the president’s intelligence advisory board. Cook contends that these men understood full well that Saddam’s ouster would cause Iraq to collapse, and that chaos was not an accidental or unanticipated result of the invasion, but the intended one.

Jonathan Cook’s argument is obviously not conclusive. However, as an examination of a public record, where ideas emerging from both Israeli and neoconservative discourse reflect and build on one another over time, it is extremely suggestive. It helps to explain the seemingly inexplicable: the American decision to allow Iraq to fall into chaos after the invasion.


Counting in a more comprehensive manner, the price the United States pays for the special relationship with Israel has become one of across-the-board friction with much of the Muslim world, friction that would be greatly attenuated without the special relationship and might not exist at all. Whereas in the Soviet Union, the United States had one strategic enemy in a relatively stable contest for global dominance, it now faces opponents on many fronts. None possesses more than a fraction of America’s military strength, and none possesses nuclear weapons. But collectively, the conflict with Islam, now considered a given by Israel and Israel’s friends in America, exacts a substantial price in American blood, treasure and overall well-being.

First, there is the price of terrorism. American backing of Israel has been a major, if not the sole, factor in making the United States a target of Muslim terrorists. This is invariably what such terrorists say, whether in custody or at liberty, and no one has explained plausibly why they would misrepresent their motivations. Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, mailed a letter to several New York newspapers demanding that the United States cut off aid to Israel. After his arrest, he told agents that he felt guilt over American civilian deaths but his desire to stop the killing of Arabs by Israeli troops was stronger. Osama bin Laden began inserting references to Palestine into his public statements in 1994. The 9/11 Commission Report notes that Bin Laden tried to move up the date of the attack to tie it more directly to Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (site of the al-Aqsa mosque) accompanied by hundreds of heavily armed riot police. The commission also noted that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the principal architect of the 9/11 attack, was motivated primarily by U.S. support of Israel. He claimed the purpose of the attacks was to focus the “American people on the atrocities America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people.” Of course, the percentage of Muslims who have been moved to carry out terrorist attacks is miniscule. But America’s prestige in the Middle East is abysmally low, and Arabs and Muslims consistently hold America’s position on Palestine responsible. According to the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami, a long-time student of public opinion in the Muslim world, “No other issue resonates with the public in the Arab world, and many other parts of the Muslim world, more deeply than Palestine. No other issue shapes the regional perception of America more fundamentally than the issue of Palestine.”14

Prominent commentators like Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, acknowledge such sentiments while dismissing their importance. In a recent debate with Chas W. Freeman, Jr., at the Nixon Center, Satloff scoffed at Arab “harangues,” which, he said, don’t match up to “Arab actions.” The oil flows freely. Arab governments will support U.S. policies in the region anyway. Satloff’s comments are a window into the dominant sensibility of contemporary Washington. They are voiced without fear of ridicule, the instant response that would have greeted a claim that the political feelings of Czechs or Poles or Chinese or anyone else living under politically unfree conditions could be discounted as inconsequential.15

In its third stage, the Israel alliance has drawn the United States into the Middle East in a particularly violent way. Over the last decade, cities in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza have been ripped apart by U.S. weaponry. While America’s freely elected leaders bear the ultimate responsibility for the decision to invade Iraq, it should not be forgotten that Israeli officials were pressing for the invasion every step of the way, giving speeches before Congress, writing op-eds, appearing on television.

Let us note some of these urgings, which are but a fraction of those documented in Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s The Israel Lobby. Netanyahu warned Washington Post editors of Saddam’s supposed nuclear-weapons program in April 2002, and Sharon’s spokesman Raanan Gissen touted the Saddam nuclear threat a week later. The following month, Shimon Peres said on CNN that Saddam was as “dangerous as Bin Laden” and told Americans they “cannot sit and wait.” Later that spring, Ehud Barak warned Washington Post readers to remove Saddam “first of all,” and in August, Sharon told the Knesset that Saddam was “the greatest danger facing Israel.” When Vice President Cheney kicked off the go-to-war campaign in August of that year, many newspapers reported that Israel was urging America not to delay. Peres repeated the “don’t delay” message on CNN later that month.

Meanwhile, American networks reported that “Israeli intelligence” was warning that Saddam was “speeding up” his WMD programs. In the run-up to the war, Prime Minister Sharon stated, “Strategic coordination between Israel and the U.S. has reached unprecedented dimensions.” In September, Barak told New York Times readers that the United States needed to hurry up with the war, adding, “I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of Israelis in supporting a pre-emptive strike against Saddam’s regime.” In the winter of 2003, the press was full of reports of Israeli concern that diplomacy might delay the attacks. While mass antiwar protests broke out across Europe, there were none in Israel, where 77.5 percent of Israeli Jews said they wanted the United States to invade Iraq. The Israeli columnist Gideon Levy concluded, “Israel is the only country in the West whose leaders support the war unreservedly and where no alternative opinion is voiced.”16

The Israeli support for the war would not, in itself, be decisive in pushing the president to order the attack, but deference to Israeli sensibilities is what is unique about the special relationship. When Israelis talk, Americans listen. When Israelis want to circulate their views, they have an access to the opinion pages of elite newspapers and slots on network news shows that leaders of no other foreign country can dream of. Several of America’s European and Arab allies objected cogently and clearly to the idea of attacking Iraq. If Israeli leaders had voiced similar sentiments, it is inconceivable the invasion would have taken place.

Of course, there turned out to be no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and the invasion of Iraq is now widely considered the most costly foreign-policy blunder in America’s history. In its wake, Israelis and American friends of that country have worked overtime to rewrite history and absolve Israel of any responsibility for the disaster. Making an argument that would have hundreds of imitators in media platforms throughout the United States, the editor of The Jerusalem Post wrote about “the false notion that Israel encouraged the U.S. to fight the Iraq war.” Martin Kramer now claims that, time and again, Israel disagreed with the United States, always believing that Iran was the greater threat. It is now repeated incessantly that the connection of Israel to the Iraq war is a “canard” with no factual basis. But, even if it were likely that Israel preferred the United States to attack Iran, Israeli leaders lobbied energetically for a war against Iraq. The weak Saddam regime was low-hanging fruit, after all.

Today Iran is Israel’s preferred target, and Americans are witnessing an energetic campaign on the part of Israeli officials and Israel’s American backers to instigate an attack on that country. This marks an interesting turnabout. A top selling point of the special relationship has long been that Israel did not need U.S. troops to fight on its behalf. Provided with America’s best weapons, Israel could take care of its own defense needs. Now that doctrine, implicitly abandoned with the Israeli campaign for an American war on Iraq, has been tossed out the window. While Israel rattles sabers at Iran, everyone understands that it doesn’t have the capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear program by itself. Hence it is calling on its only real ally, the United States, to do the job.

Polls indicate that Americans remain reluctant to fight Iran over any cause other than an Iranian attack on U.S. forces. Even fears of Iranian development of a nuclear weapon haven’t produced the desired war fervor. Nuclear deterrence, after all, worked with Mao’s China, once considered the archetype of an “irrational oriental” regime. Hence the campaign against Iran includes not only depiction of the Teheran government as noxious and repressive (which is indisputable) but an irrational “apocalyptic cult” or “martyr state” ready to pursue its foreign-policy goals with “messianic fervor.” Several of these articles contain seemingly scholarly references to a Shiite longing for the return of the “Hidden Imam,” an element of Muslim theology that allegedly renders its adherents impervious to reasonable cost-benefit calculation. The point is that if Iran managed to develop one or two nuclear weapons, they wouldn’t use them to deter an attack on themselves, but would immediately strike Israel. Their messianic ideology makes Iranian leaders ready to sacrifice one half of their population, Israeli “experts” are said to believe.

Andrew Grotto has examined some of the scholarship that underlies these claims as an analyst at the Center for American Progress. His findings are instructive. The articles claiming a religious basis for the Iranian desire for apocalyptic martyrdom frequently cite one another in a kind of circular footnoting that gives the impression of serious scholarship. One oft-cited source for the wilder claims about Iran as a “martyr state” is an essay by Shimon Shapira and Daniel Diker published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Grotto found that the two authors either misinterpreted or misrepresented the conclusions of the scholars they cite on Shiite theology and its role within the internal politics of Iran’s government in order to create a more menacing or “irrational” picture of Iran than their sources actually depicted. Another frequent source for the wilder claims about Iran is a work by an MEK member (an anti-Iranian-regime group labeled terrorist by the U.S. State Department) and an unnamed “Israeli Ministry of Defense analyst.”17

There is more sophisticated Israeli scholarship about Iran, though perhaps less than one would expect from Israel’s robust university system. Columbia University Professor Richard Bulliet visited Israel for three weeks last spring, helping to evaluate the country’s Middle East Studies programs: “To my recollection,” Bulliet told a Columbia audience in October, “there were five professors who were specialists on Iran.” Bulliet named one, Ben Gurion University’s Haggai Ram, author of Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession. He added that none of the five believed Iran was an imminent threat: “Not a single one of them was a hawk on Iran.”18

Nevertheless, that is not the view Americans are receiving. Instead, such prestigious publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post and The New Republic are helping to disseminate a tendentious misrepresentation of Shiite theology shared by neither Israeli nor Western experts. The misrepresentations then bounce around the American media echo chamber, acquiring the status of received wisdom. Iran’s so-called “martyr complex” makes a preemptive attack seem almost prudent. Precisely as in the run-up to the Iraq War, an element of right-wing Israeli discourse has managed to carve for itself a privileged spot in the American political dialogue.

What began as a struggle between Zionist settlers and Palestinian Arabs became in 1948 a conflict between Israel and the neighboring Arab states. It has now been transformed into a battle between Israel and the larger Muslim world. The surrounding Arab states now pose no serious military challenge to Israel. Iraq has been shattered and may not recover for a generation. Iran, long an ally of Israel, is now a foe. So, apparently, is Turkey. Turkish leaders, long allied with Israel and the United States, have expressed public solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza. Almost instantly, Israel’s friends in the Congress have turned against Ankara, though they are not yet suggesting war. One important consequence of a “special relationship” with Israel is that Israel will work to ensure that its enemies become enemies of the United States. To the extent it succeeds, the United States will have fewer friends and more enemies.

Finally, we must consider another cost, one not easily measured in terms of blood and treasure. It is hard to miss that anti-Muslim bigotry is becoming embedded in American political culture, and Israel and its supporters are playing a substantial role in generating it. Some rise in anti-Muslim sentiment may have been inevitable after 9/11, as U.S. troops became engaged in fighting two insurgencies in Muslim countries. But bigotry has not had a mainstream sanction in the United States since the civil-rights movement. There was relatively little domestic anti-Asian racism during the Vietnam War, and attacks against Muslims in the United States after 9/11 were few and invariably the work of marginal figures. That is no longer the case.

The controversy over the Park 51 Islamic cultural center, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” signals that anti-Muslim bigotry has been mainstreamed. The American political environment now contains several well-funded institutions devoted to painting everything having to do with Islam in the worst possible light. As Matt Duss put it recently in Forward, “Groups like The Israel Project, the Middle East Media Research Institution, and Middle East Forum seem to exist for no other reason than to spotlight the very worst aspects of Muslim societies.” It is no longer surprising to see racist language in elite journals such as Martin Peretz’s The New Republic, or from Harvard’s Martin Kramer. It comes from conservatives like the prominent Republican Newt Gingrich, and from liberals like Alan Dershowitz. Much of it is purely Zionist in motivation: as Israel has come to be seen as less likeable to Americans, one response has been to blacken the reputation of the Palestinians and Arabs who challenge it. As Duss puts it, “Smearing Islam is seen as a legitimate expression of Zionism.”19

It remains American conventional wisdom that Israel is a major ally and a strategic asset. This is quite different from seeing a moral justification for the creation of Israel or admiring the country’s considerable economic, scholarly, technological and artistic accomplishments, a view which I share. But unlike that idea, the notion that the United States benefits from Israel seems extraordinarily far-fetched. What is in the special relationship for Americans? It is obvious what is in it for Israel. First, large amounts of foreign aid, though Israel is by any standard a rich country. Second, privileged access to the arsenals of the most advanced armed forces in the world. Third, the support of American diplomacy, to spare Israel from the brunt of international condemnation or sanctions for its actions. In return, the United States receives, principally, the enmity of Israel’s seemingly ever-expanding circle of foes, a small percentage of whom resort to terrorism. And, as an added bargain, it gets a powerful domestic lobby that now pursues as its main activity the incitement of wars between the United States and Israel’s enemies.

Some of the minor, but far from trivial, milestones of the relationship — the Lavon Affair, the sinking of the USS Liberty, the Jonathan Pollard case — make it evident that Israeli leaders do not regard the United States as an ally at all. The affection implicit in the special relationship flows in one direction only. The Washington Post reported recently on a poll of CIA officers. They ranked Israel dead last among allies for intelligence cooperation with the United States. The same story noted that American counterintelligence officials, pointing to aggressive Israeli spy operations on U.S soil, ranked only Russia and China as more serious intelligence threats.


So why does the United States stay in the relationship? Surely domestic politics accounts for a good deal of the explanation. But there is another, strategic, reason that is seldom mentioned publicly. It was expounded clearly by Ariel Roth, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and an Israeli army veteran. In an essay in International Studies Perspectives, Roth argued that the key U.S. interest in the Middle East is stability and unfettered access to the region’s oil. This is indisputable; it is the point James Forrestal made to President Truman more than 60 years ago. And what is the greatest threat to stability? Well, says Roth, it is Israel itself. Because of its unique history and the heavy weight of the Holocaust in the consciousness of Israeli leaders, Israel is uniquely terrified of being “alone” in the international arena. As a result, any suspicion on the part of its leaders that the United States is backing away from it might incite Israel to behave more aggressively than it already does. Those who decry the special relationship “are blinded to how Israel’s sense of vulnerability causes. . . behaviors that have the potential to undermine American interests.” Israel needs constant “reassurance” that it “does not stand alone.” Supporting Israel through “constant affirmation” and generous arms shipments is the best way to pursue American interests “without the fear of a panicked and unrestrained Israel bringing a cataclysm to the Middle East.”20

This claim is at once alarming and compelling. Roth is asserting that the principal ally of the United States in the twenty-first century — its main source of strategic advice, the nation whose leaders have an unequaled access to American political leadership — is not a rational actor. The United States is in the position of a wife whose spouse is acting erratically. A “panicked and unrestrained Israel,” armed with an estimated 200 nuclear weapons, could do an extraordinary amount of damage. The only conclusion one can draw is that the special relationship would now be very difficult to exit, even if Israel had no clout whatsoever within the American political system, even if the United States desired emphatically to pursue a more independent course.

I submit that this argument has long been internalized by those U.S. officials who recognize that the special relationship brings the United States far more trouble than benefits. It is the principal reason no major American figure has ever advocated simply walking away from Israel. Even those who argue that America should make its aid conditional on a more forthcoming Israeli attitude towards peace with the Arabs invariably recommend that the necessary Israeli territorial withdrawals be rewarded by iron-clad American defense guarantees and other sweeteners. Most intelligent people understand there is something uniquely evil about the Holocaust and the circumstances under which Israel came into existence, even as they are uneasy with the current special relationship. For those who recommend a U.S. security guarantee following a peace settlement, the overture made by the Arab League — offering full recognition and normalized relations with an Israel that relinquished its 1967 conquests and allowed a viable Palestinian state — is a development of enormous promise. Regrettably Israel has ignored this opening.

Can the costs of America’s special relationship with Israel be quantified? Is it, as A.F.K. Organski put it in his 1990 book, the “$36 billion dollar bargain?” That figure, derived from military and financial assistance to Israel form 1951 to 1983, led Organski to conclude, not surprisingly, that Israel’s net value as a Cold War ally is blindingly obvious. Or is the figure closer to $3 trillion, as economist Thomas Stauffer estimated after factoring in the rise in the price of oil, the financial assistance to neighboring states, the cost of the agreements to guarantee Israel’s oil supplies and myriad other factors?21 I believe the answer is nearer to Stauffer’s figures, but it is plainly a judgment call. The essence of the relationship is not its dollar cost, but the fact that the United States has come to perceive its interests in the Middle East through Israel’s eyes. This is what renders it special. One can debate how important Israel was in encouraging the United States to invade Iraq, but there is no doubt that, if Israel had opposed the invasion, no American politician would have supported it. The same can be said about the possibility of an attack on Iran.

This is also the case with the outbreak of Islamophobia in the United States. The editor of a major liberal magazine — a high-profile intellectual — has written that he doesn’t feel First Amendment protections should apply to Muslims. Would Martin Peretz have arrived at this independently of his feelings for Israel? It would be hard to find a knowledgeable person who believes so. Peretz is hardly alone. Thus, one can likely chalk up a portion of America’s retreat from its own liberal principles to Israel.

In the coming years, as the prospect of a two-state solution disappears, it is likely that Israel will continue its inexorable march toward becoming a state between the Jordan River and the sea, with one set of laws for Jews, who will have the rights of citizens, and another for Arabs, who will be denied full citizenship. What will it cost America’s broader relationship with the Muslim world to maintain a special bond with a state based on this kind of ethnic discrimination? That also would be difficult to quantify. And yet this scenario may be impossible to escape. The threat of Israel’s turning itself into a nuclear-armed desperado striking at will at the oil states in the Gulf cannot, alas, be entirely dismissed. That may be, as Ariel Roth argues, a compelling reason to maintain the special relationship pretty much unchanged.

If this is what the future holds, it would make the “wise men” who advised Roosevelt and Truman in the post-war era — the top officials in the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA who opposed American support for the Zionist project — seem not overly pessimistic so much as woefully limited in their imaginations.


1 Camille Mansour, Beyond Alliance: Israel and U.S. Foreign Policy (Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 82.

2 Christopher Hitchens, Blood, Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship (Nation Books, 2004), p. 5.

3 Mansour, op. cit., p. 8.

4 Peter Grose, Israel in the Mind of America (Alfred A Knopf, 1983), pp. 232-276 passim. CIA estimates in Thomas Lippman, “The CIA and the Partition of Palestine,” Middle East Journal, Winter 2007, Vol. 61.

5 John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), p. 54; for the Lavon affair, see Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall (W.W. Norton, 2001), pp. 111-12.

6 A.F. K. Organski, The 36 Billion Dollar Bargain: Strategy and Politics in U.S. Assistance to Israel (Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 27.

7 Martin Kramer, “The American Interest,” Azure, Fall 2006.

8 Mearsheimer and Walt, op. cit., p. 57.

9 Mansour, op. cit., pp. 221-223.

10 Mearsheimer and Walt, op. cit., p. 58.

11 Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance, The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007).

12 Jonathan Cook, Israel and the Clash of Civilizations, (Pluto Press, 2008), pp. 109-10.

13 Ibid, p. 133.

14 Mearsheimer and Walt, op. cit., pp. 65-69; Khalid Mohammad quote from Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., “Israel: Asset or Liability?” Nixon Center debate, July 20, 2010, at

15 Robert Satloff, “Israel: Asset or Liability?” Nixon Center debate, July 20, 2010, op. cit.

16 Mearsheimer and Walt, op. cit. pp. 233-238.

17 Andrew Grotto, “Is Iran a Martyr State?” Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall/Winter 2009.

18 Ali Gharib, “What Does Israel Know about Iran Anyway?”,

19 Matt Duss, “Some Zionists Groups Stoke Fear of Islam for Political Profit,” Forward, October 1, 2010,

20 Ariel Roth, “Reassurance: A Strategic Basis of U.S. Support for Israel,” International Studies Perspectives, Vol. 10, No. 4, November 2009.

21 Thomas R. Stauffer, “The Cost of Conflict in the Middle East, 1956-2002: What the U.S. Has Spent,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring 2003.