About ten days ago I had a particularly interesting discussion about Israel and its relationship to US policy in the Middle East and to the events swirling there now, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. My interlocutor is one of the most astute commentators, particularly on US policy, in the alternative media, but he made it clear that, to his mind, Israel does not play a role of any notable relevance to what the United States is doing in the region.
I would say that he has a bit of a blind spot about Israela not uncommon phenomenon among progressive thinkers. But perhaps the current turmoil in the region will ultimately open his eyes and those of others who minimise Israels centrality to US policy.
Recent events unfolding in Egypt and surrounding Wikileaks-released State Department cables and al-Jazeera-released Palestinian papers dealing with Palestinian-Israeli talks are demonstrating graphically, as no other series of events probably ever has, that the United States does what it does in the Middle East in great measure because of Israelto protect and safeguard Israel from Arab neighbours who object to its treatment of its Palestinian subjects, from Muslims with similar grievances, from criticism of Israels military exploits against neighbouring states, from the ire of other states still threatened by Israel, from governments in the region that challenge Israels nuclear monopoly or attempt to develop their own arsenals to defend against Israel.
It is instructive to remember that Egypt is important to the United States almost entirely because it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and helps guarantee Israels security, guarding its western border, helping its military assaults on other Arab countries, closing the tunnels into Gaza through which Hamas smuggles some weapons and the Gazan population obtains food and other essentials, undermining Hamass rule in Gaza.
The United States also regards Egypt as an important cog in the machine of its war on terror and its war on Islamic radicalism, a collaboration also closely linked to Israels security interests.
Egypt is obviously important in the region in its own right. Its size and strategic location guarantee that it will always have considerable influence in Middle East politics, and it has long been the heart of Arab culture, even without US help.
The last three weeks of the Egyptian peoples struggle for democracy have further enhanced its importance, capturing the imagination of people around the world (with the exception of many, perhaps the majority, in Israel and among the curmudgeonly right in the United States, including Israels US supporters).
But the fundamental reality is that the US would not have the close military, political, and economic relationship it has had with Egypt for the last thirty-plus years were it not for the fact that Egypt is friendly with Israel and the fact that, in the words of Middle East expert Rashid Khalidi, Egypt has always acquiesced in Israels regional hegemony. The $1.5 billion annually in military aid, and the $28 billion in economic and development assistance across the last 35 years would not have been given had not Mubaraks predecessor Anwar Sadat virtually begged for and then finally signed a peace treaty with Israel that removed Egypt, the largest Arab military force, as a threat to Israel, abandoning the Palestinians and the other Arab parties to their own devices. With Egypt out of the picture and indeed often assisting, Israel has been free to launch military assaults on several of its neighbours, including Lebanon twice and Gaza and the West Bank repeatedly, and free to expand settlements, absorb Palestinian territory, and severely oppress Palestinians without fear of retaliation or even significant disagreement from any Arab army.
Israeli commentator Aluf Benn has pointed out furthermore that, with Mubarak in office, Israel could always feel safe about its western flank if it were to attack Iran, but now Israel will not dare attack when it can no longer rely on Egypts tacit agreement to its actions. Whoever replaces Mubarak would, by this reasoning, be too concerned about popular rage if he were to collaborate with Israel. Without Mubarak, there is no Israeli attack on Iran.
For Israel and therefore for the United States, the US investment of billions in Egypt over the years has been well worth the cost. The loss of the stability that Egypt providedmeaning Israels loss of certainty that it remained the secure regional dominant powerhas been a huge game-changer for Israeli and US strategic calculations.
It is safe to say that neither Lebanon nor Jordan would be at all as important to the United States if it were not considered necessary to keep each of these bordering countries in a stable, quiescent state for Israels security.
The same situation does not apply in Saudi Arabia, where the US has vital oil interests quite apart from Israels concerns. But at the same time, it is the case that the US has managed to tame any Saudi impulse to speak out on behalf of the Palestinians, or any other Arabs under Israeli siege, and align the Saudis at least implicitly on the Israeli side of most issues, whether this is the 2006 attack on Lebanon or the 2008-2009 assault on Gaza or the supposed threat from Iran.
The day when the Saudis were angry enough with United States over its support for Israel to impose an oil embargo, as occurred in 1973, is long over.
The recent Wikileaks releases of State Department cables and particularly al-Jazeeras release of a raft of Palestinian documents dealing with negotiations over the last decade also demonstrate with striking clarity how hard the United States works, and has always worked, to help Israel in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiating process. US support for Israel has never been a secret, becoming less and less so in recent years, but the leaked documents provide the most dramatic picture yet of the United States total disdain for all Palestinian negotiating demands and its complete helplessness in the face of Israeli refusal to make concessions. It is striking to note from these papers that the US role as Israels lawyera description coined by Aaron David Miller after his involvement in negotiations during the Clinton erais the same whether the administration is Bill Clintons or George W. Bushs or Barack Obamas. Israels interests and demands always prevail.
Beyond the Arab world, US policy on Iran is dictated more or less totally by Israel. Israel, and the desire to ensure its regional hegemony, also played a substantial role in leading the United States into war in Iraq, although this view is a harder sell and a much more controversial position among progressives and conservatives alike than is anything else about US-Israel-Arab relationships.
My progressive interlocutor, for instancewho has strongly opposed the US adventure in Iraq, equally strongly opposes any possibility of an attack on Iran, and was undoubtedly uncomfortable with US vacillation about pressing for Mubaraks departuredisagreed totally with my suggestion that Israel and its neocon supporters were a factor in getting the United States into the Iraq war.
It has been clear to most analysts for years, even decades, that the United States favours Israel, but this reality has never been revealed so explicitly until recent events laid the relationship bare, and laid bare the fact that Israel is at the centre of virtually every move the United States makes in the region. There has long been a taboo on talking about these realities, a taboo that has tied the tongues of people like my interlocutor. People do not mention Israel because they might be called anti-Semitic, they might be attacked as singling out Israel for criticism; the media fail to discuss Israel and what it does around the Middle East and, most directly, to the Palestinians who live under its rule because this might provoke angry letters to the editor and cancelled subscriptions by Israel supporters. Congressmen will not endanger campaign funds by talking honestly about Israel. And so Israel is taken off everyones radar screen. Progressives may mention Israel in passing, as my friend told me, but they do no more. Ultimately, because no one talks about it, everyone stops even thinking about Israel as the prime mover behind so many US policies and actions in the Middle East.
It is time we began noticing. Everyone in the Middle East already notices, as the Egyptian revolution has just made clear. And probably everyone throughout the world also notices. We should begin listening to the worlds people, not to their leaders, who tell us what they think we want to hear.
Kathleen Christison is a former CIA political analyst and the author of several books on the Palestinian situation, including Palestine in Pieces, co-authored with her late husband Bill Christison.