America’s enforcer in the Middle East

Posted: November 16, 2019 in Nibbling on The Empire
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Stephen Gowans is an independent Canadian political analyst. His writings, which appear on his What’s Left blog have been reproduced widely in online and print media in many languages and had been cited in academic journals and other scholarly works. He’s the author of Washington’s Long War on Syria (2017), and Patriots, Traders and Empires: The story of Korea’s struggle for freedom (2018). Both are published by Baraka Books in Montreal. His latest book is Israel, a beachhead in the Middle East: From European colony to US power projection platform, also published by Baraka. I spoke with Stephen about his latest book on November 6th. The transcript is lightly edited for clarity. You can listen to the interview here (and/or read along below).

 

Paul Graham: Stephen, the title of your latest book pretty much says it all. “Israel serves Western imperialism” would be a, a shorter title perhaps. Can we begin at the beginning? Where did the idea of Israel as a modern Jewish state originate?

Stephen Gowans: It originates in the thought of Theodore Herzl or not only him, but he has probably the most consequential figure. He was a 19th century secular Austrian Jew who was searching for a solution to the problem of antisemitism. And his solution was for Jews to get out of Europe and establish a Jewish majority state elsewhere. I think it’s important to note that his solution contrasts with an alternative solution of building a world of universal equality where all would be equal and free from prejudice and discrimination, as well as free from oppression and exploitation. This latter view was the view proposed by socialists and more robustly, by communists. And it’s a very different view from, the view espoused by Herzl and the solution that he proposed.

Paul Graham: In reading your book, I was amazed to learn that Napoleon Bonaparte was an early proponent of some kind of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Who were some of the other early Zionists?

Stephen Gowans: Well, Zionism was not originally an idea of Jews as one might think today, but of Christians, and they took their Zionist views from their reading of the Old Testament. Indeed, Western statesmen who were the most ardent supporters of political Zionism were usually men who read their Bible regularly. So they believed and evangelical Christians believe today that Palestine was promised to the Jews by their gods, that is, the god of the Christians and the Jews and the Muslims, and that the return of the Jews to Palestine fulfills a biblical prophecy. So you know, evangelical Christians today, and previous decades, believed that anti Zionism or any political position at odds with wholehearted support for Israel is against biblical prophecy. So consequently, they are ardent supporters of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Paul Graham: In your book, you describe a somewhat complicated, almost symbiotic relationship between Zionism and antisemitism. Could you elaborate on this?

Stephen Gowans: Political Zionism was a proposed response to antisemitism in Europe or how to escape it. And without antisemitism, there would be no political Zionism, at least not of the sort Herzl and his followers developed in which led them to the creation of Israel. And that connects with what we were just talking about with the Christian Zionism, which really has nothing to do with antisemitism. The political Zionism, the Jewish movement of Herzl and his followers is intimately connected with antisemitism. So without antisemitism, the justification for political Zionism and for a Jewish state dissolves. I mean, antisemitism is the alpha and omega of political Zionism and for the argument for a Jewish state.

Now political Zionism, you know, when inspired as a solution to antisemitism is predicated on this very pessimistic and conservative view that antisemitism is an ineradicable, permanent and incorrigible part of human nature. So it may diminish, it may become latent, but there’s always a danger it will break out afresh. Political Zionism, the movement, inspired by Herzl, rejects the view that antisemitism is a socially constructed ideology – you know, something that people learn that can be overcome and eliminated. So that’s the symbiotic relationship between Zionism, political Zionism and antisemitism.

Paul Graham: If I read correctly, Herzl and others made this work for them. It was almost a bargaining chip: “you can solve the Jewish question by helping us get to Palestine,” I guess would be a crude way of putting it.

Stephen Gowans: Yeah and Herzl recognized that you couldn’t simply say, “I’d like to create a Jewish state in Palestine” and it would be created. He would need the sponsorship of some great power, a European power, that would provide the funding and the political support and the military support or whatever support was required to bring this concept to fruition. But he recognized that he would have to provide some benefits or offer benefits, promise benefits to some kind of European power, whatever power was going to sponsor his project. And one of the benefits he offered was this, for conservatives and Herzl was very much a conservative: the conservative view in Europe was that all of the agitation against the established order, revolutionary movements, the French revolution, for example, these all came from the Jews. The Jews were in the forefront or the vanguard of all of these movements. The Jews were the vanguard of the socialist movement, for example. And so one of the benefits that Herzl offered the established order in Europe and the ruling classes of Europe was that Europe would be swept clean of this class of agitators and they would leave Europe. The established order would become more secure and these Jewish proletarians who are demanding more equality would go off to a Palestine and they would settle as farmers. So this is the process of converting angry proletarians into satisfied farmers or land owners, which was a process of settler colonialism, which benefited European ruling classes, not only in Palestine as it turned out, but wherever the settler colonial project was carried out, including in Canada.

Paul Graham: So, in a perverse kind of way, this was almost a mirror image of the antisemitic tropes about the Jewish conspiracies to control the world — that the Russian revolution, for example, was a manifestation of that.

Stephen Gowans: Yes. And you know, the conservative tradition, as I mentioned, blamed the Jews for all revolutions. And, the French revolution was blamed by conservatives on the Jews. And one of the reasons that they blamed the French revolution on the Jews or attributed it to the Jews was because the Jews benefited from the French revolution. The French revolution manumitted or liberated, emancipated, the Jews and France. The Russian revolution emancipated the Jews in Russia.

And the czarist tyranny was a vile institution. I mean, we forget just how antisemitic the czarist monarchy was. That’s because it’s been kind of eclipsed or overshadowed by the Nazis. But prior to the Nazis, the czarist monarchy was vehemently antisemitic in the ugliest way and the Russian Revolution overcame that antisemitism.

So, a bunch of conservatives used the old cui bono approach — who benefited from the revolution? Who benefited from the French revolution? Who benefited from the Russian revolution? It was the Jews, therefore the Jews must be behind it. But also, if you look at the socialist movements in Europe, Jews were vastly over-represented relative to their numbers in the population and those movements. The Nazis later started pointing to the Bolsheviks and saying, look at all of the Bolsheviks who are Jews, the prominent Bolsheviks that are Jews. I mean, Trotsky, Kamenev and Radek. And they would go through a long list and Hitler would go through a long list of Jews in Germany who were socialists and how Jews are dominating or seem to be dominating the socialist and communist movement. So this conservative tradition, it was always pointing to Jews as the major source of agitation against the established order and the principal promoters of what Churchill later called the “impossible idea of equality.” They didn’t like this impossible idea of equality.

And I mentioned at the outset of the interview that Herzl’s idea or solution to antisemitism was very different from the socialist or communist idea. And it’s interesting that we have one group of Jews, secular Jews, the Zionists are promoting one solution, and then we have movements in which Jews are highly represented, the socialist and communist movements, having a very different solution to the problem of antisemitism. But just to close on the answer to this question, even Herzl said, you know, the Jews are blamed for everything, including socialism.

Paul Graham: And for Churchill, I guess the so-called “good Jews” would be the Zionists and the “bad Jews” would be the socialists.

Stephen Gowans: Yes. And he wrote, he wrote an article about this, which was kind of like what happened after 911, when, if you were Muslim, you had to either denounce the terrorism of 911 to indicate that you’re a good Muslim and the bad Muslims are the Muslims who are opposed to Western domination of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Well, Churchill did the same after the Bolshevik revolution. H demanded that Jews either align with what he called the good Jewish tradition and the good, true Jewish tradition where the Jews who would go off to Palestine or they’re the bad Jews, and he singled out the bad Jews. They were the Bolsheviks- the Trotskys and the Kamenevs and the Radeks. And he had the whole long list of them. These are all bad Jews. Bad Jews are those who are challenging the established order and proposing a new order of what he called impossible equality. You know, this world of universal equality which would be free from exploitation and oppression.

Paul Graham: You noted in your book that Israel’s role in the world has been “to advance the interests of the political right, or to put it another way, to frustrate the advance of the political left.” Before 1948, this helped early Zionists sell the project called Zionism. But what about after 1948? How has political Zionism been a counter-revolutionary or a reactionary player in the world?

Stephen Gowans: Herzl, who inspired the creation of Israel, was part of this conservative tradition that emphasizes social, political, and economic inequalities in hierarchies and argues that these hierarchies are natural and desirable. So it could be hierarchies of nation, you know, Europeans over Arabs, hierarchies within a country of, you know, the aristocracy. Herzl is very much a supporter of the aristocracy and didn’t believe that the rabble could govern itself.

So he had all of these conservative views and in 1948, Israel is established, and Israel is always looking for a sponsor, an imperial sponsor. And it needs an imperial sponsor because it’s a state of a few million Jews. It’s not very large. Well, it is a state of a few million Jews and some Arabs, and depending on how you want to do the accounting and how you want to define the state of Israel, it could be a state of slightly more Arabs than Jews. Or, if you define the borders in a very narrow way, it’d be more Jews than Arabs. But the point is, it’s a very small state, but it’s surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs whose land European Jewish settlers had stolen and threatened. So Israel has had to rely on the support of great powers, great power seeking to establish a hierarchy and this conservative traditional hierarchy in which they’re at the top and other powers, other countries, other people are below them.

And so, Israel has always acted as hired muscle of whatever imperialist power will support its project and have its back. Initially Britain, France and today very much the United States. So, as it happens, I mean if you trace the history of Israel and its relationship with the United States from 1967 is really when the so called special relationship was established between the United States and Israel. Israel has often acted as the hired muscle of the United States doing the United States dirty work throughout the world, intervening against movements of national liberation, usually intervening against third world movements that are trying to liberate themselves from the yoke of US or some kind of European imperialism. They did that too on the behalf of Britain and France as well prior to establishing this special relationship with the United States in 1967.

Paul Graham: So, some examples of that would be support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, I would imagine. Some of the relationships that it fostered with right-wing Latin American governments over the years. Their involvement with right-wing Islamists, ISIL for example.

Stephen Gowans: Yes. They encouraged, for example, the development of Hamas, which arises out of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a counterweight against the secular PLO. So they’ve been prepared to enter into these kinds of alliances of convenience in order to play this game of conquer and divide. Let’s keep our opponents fighting each other. During the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, they certainly encouraged Hamas, which at that time was encouraging young activists to go to Afghanistan and fight against the Soviets rather than remaining at home and fighting against Zionism

Paul Graham: As a young man, and I’m thinking of my own experiences in the 1960s, I had this view of Israel as a country that was populated by plucky socialists, kibbutzniks, almost an oasis if you will, of enlightenment in a sea of Arab backwardness. You can tell I was reading Leon Uris a lot in those days. Can you talk a little bit about Labour Zionism, the kibbutz movement and things like that? What happened with the socialist part of Zionism that existed for awhile?

Stephen Gowans: Labour Zionism originated out of a leftist Marxist tradition, and the kibbutz represented this form of communal living, that is communal living for some people which excluded other people, on someone else’s land. But you know, there is this fundamental contradiction between the kibbutz movement and Marxism and that is that no matter how far left labour, Zionism and the kibbutz movement presented themselves, they remained settler colonial projects, which is to say, their projects and domination and oppression were fundamentally antithetical to the movement from which they claim to have originated.

I know someone who, inspired by Leon Uris, went to Israel to live on a kibbutz. And I thought this was significant because this was someone of European origin who could go from Canada  and live in a kibbutz which is established on the land of Arabs and, which excluded Arabs. So, it was this nice communal project for people of a certain ethnicity or religion which excluded the natives. So, this is all based on dispossession of the natives and a process where the natives are treated as foreigners without rights while the immigrants are treated as natives. Where someone of European origin from Canada can go live in a kibbutz in Israel and, and native of that land cannot participate in the kibbutz community. So, one of the reasons Labour Zionism is no longer a force is because of the contradictions. It might claim that it was Marxist, it might use Marxists phraseology but it couldn’t resolve the contradiction of being a project of oppression and exploitation.

Paul Graham: A hundred years ago, the commonly held belief was that a shadowy cabal of Jewish bankers were trying to rule the world. And as we’ve discussed earlier, were believed responsible for the Russian revolution and other kinds of upheavals. These days, on the left and also on the right, quite a number of people have this belief that Israel controls American foreign policy. You’ve argued that Israel is not in the driver’s seat when it comes to US foreign policy. Why do you say that?

Stephen Gowans: I think the belief that Israel controls US foreign policy in the Middle East originates in the thinking of liberals. And there might be some people consider themselves as left and not liberal, but actually have kind of a liberal view. And the liberal view is that the state mediates the competition among contending groups within a country and then seeks to construct the policy that represents the interests of the country as a whole. And then liberals then look at US policy in the Middle East and they say, this makes no sense. I mean, our foreign policy harms US interests. They say Americans would be better off if Washington didn’t provoke the enmity of the Arab and Muslim world through its robust support of Israel. So how then do we explain this nonsensical policy, which is harming Americans in the majority? I mean, that’s the liberal question. And so the answer they come up with is, well, our policy must’ve been hijacked, must have been hijacked by someone who benefits.

Again, we go back to this, you know, cui bono thinking — well who benefits. Whoever benefits must be behind it. Well, Israel benefits, therefore Israel must have hijacked US policy and subverted it.

I think where this view errs is in assuming that US policy is neutral with respect to contending classes within U S society and it seeks to represent the interests of Americans in the majority. A more sophisticated view is one that holds that US policy formulation is dominated by wealthy interests, by corporate America and its representatives. And that US policy consequently serves elite interests, elite economic interests, not mass interests. And you know, it’s not difficult to make the case that policy formulation reflects the interests of corporate America. We simply have to look at who it is that has roles in the administration or in the upper levels of the bureaucracy.

Or you have to look at the amount of money that corporate America is able to bring to bear in lobbying the US Congress, the legislative branch, and also the administrative branch. Some people talk about the law, the AIPAC, I mean the Israeli lobbying and they point to how much money the Israeli lobby has. The amount of money the Israeli lobby has is actually quite small compared to the amount of money that corporate America as a whole can bring to bear in lobbying the US government.

So, what are the interests of the US corporate elite in the middle East? The interests are to have open access to all profit-making opportunities that the Arab and Muslim world provides. That is, to dominate their economies. And these are important economies because, they are teeming with oil and gas resources or if they don’t have oil and gas resources themselves, they act as land routes over which oil and gas is transported to market.

But there are forces in the Middle East that are opposed to foreign control and hegemony. One figure in the State Department called these the forces of local independence and national assertiveness. And he called them this at a time when the Soviet Union existed. And there was always this argument being made that the Middle East had to be protected against the predations of the Soviet union and the Soviet union had aspirations to take over the Middle East and therefore it was incumbent upon Washington to protect the Middle East. But this State Department official writing in Foreign Affairs, which is kind of like the informal journal of the State Department said, no, that’s not the case. The Soviet Union isn’t a threat. What’s a threat are what he called “forces of local independence and national assertiveness” — in other words, the people of the region.

So these forces of local independence in national assertiveness, not only are they opposed to US hegemony and to the United States plundering their resources, they are opposed to the United States installing and supporting governments, which really represent the interests of the United States rather than local interest. But these same forces of local independence and national assertiveness are also opposed to Israel and they’re opposed to Israel because it’s a settler colonial state that has encroached on Arab territory and threatens to encroach on more.

So Israel and corporate America had a common foe in Arab and these Islamic nationalist movements, the local forces of independence and national assertiveness that oppose both the Zionist and the US corporate presence. So, the corporate elite represented by the US government and the Zionists in Israel, have a common foe and they have overlapping interests in opposing that foe.

Moshe Dayan, who was a principal figure in Israel at one point said that the role of Israel, or actually the way he put it, the role of the Jewish people, was to be a rock against which the waves of Arab nationalism are broken. And that is the role that Israel has played and continues to play, all to the benefits of corporate America, which have reaped a cornucopia of profits from the domination of the Middle East’s oil and gas resources.

Paul Graham: Given the importance of Israel to the Western corporate interests that we’ve been talking about, what do you think the prospects are for Palestinian liberation?

Stephen Gowans: I guess another way to ask that question is who is the Palestinians’ main enemy? Is it Israel or is it the United States? And people like Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, argue that the main enemy of the Palestinian and the Lebanese, the people he says principally suffered at the hands of the Israelis, is the United States because Israel is essentially a tool of the United States or as Netanyahu, the current prime minister, once said, Israel is the West’s outpost in the Middle East. Israel is an instrument of the United States in the West. So, if the Palestinians and the Lebanese have been harmed by the Israeli presence, it’s largely because Israel is backed by strong Western powers.

Paul Graham: And so, given all of that, can we realistically expect justice for Palestinians in the absence of significant political changes in North America and Europe?

Stephen Gowans: I don’t think we can. I mean, if there’s a problem, you look for the roots of the problem to solve the problem and the root of the problem is the United States and the alliance that it has with Israel and its use of Israel as an instrument of its foreign policy. Without addressing that, I don’t think you can fundamentally address the problems that the Palestinians face.

Paul Graham: Do you have any final thoughts, anything that we haven’t touched on that that you’d like to mention?

Stephen Gowans: Just two things, quickly. Israel has a largely unrecognized role as an asset in the US war in Syria, just to be topical. Apart from providing material assistance to Al Qaeda groups who were operating in Southern Syria, it has also been providing medical aid to wounded Al Qaeda fighters, but on top of that, it has conducted thousands and thousands of airstrikes against targets that the US cannot strike legally. And it cannot strike them legally because it does not have authority under US law to use force in Syria except against ISIS. So it can’t strike Iranian targets, can’t strike Hezbollah targets, can’t strike Syrian targets. To do that, it relies on Israel, which strikes all three.

And I find this important, that is the way in which the United States has used Israel for decades as an instrument or as a country that will do the dirty work for the United States when its hands are tied by US law. Washington also relied on Israel to take out the Osirak reactor in Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war. And the secret reactor the Syrians had been developing in the desert. Had Iraq’s Arab nationalist government developed nuclear weapons, had the Syrians developed nuclear weapons, the United States would never have invaded either country. So, these are significant contributions that Israel has made to the advance of US foreign policy.

And then the last thing I just note is that the Kurds, again, being topical, the Kurds represented by the YPG in Syria kind of recapitulate the approach of political Zionism. By this I mean that the Kurds are an oppressed nation in the same way that Jews in Europe were bedeviled by antisemitism. And one of the ways that Kurds have sought to escape their oppression is by striking a deal with the United States for Washington to sponsor the creation of a Kurdish mini-state, occupying essentially one third of Syria, in exchange for the YPG acting as the tip of the US spear. They said the tip of the US spear and the fight against ISIS, but the area that the YPG occupied extended beyond the traditional Kurdish territory and into traditional Arab territory. So in effect, the YPG was establishing a Kurd state on Arab territory with imperial backing in exchange for services rendered. So you have, essentially, what Herzl tried to do — to get the backing of an imperialist sponsor to establish a state on someone else’s land. Some have even said that the YPG effectively sought to create a second Israel in the Middle East. So that kind of approach that Herzl had pioneered, we see today, in Syria being pursued by the YPG

Paul Graham: Even more interestingly, the YPG is politically to the left and progressive and feminist, even, in its political positions.

Stephen Gowans: Yes, absolutely. Which is another parallel too, since the, the original Zionists as you mentioned, were kind of Labour Zionists who had used a lot of Marxist phraseology and talked about how they were going to establish these harmonious relationships with the Arabs and, and yes, it’s very much similar.

Stephen Gowans’ books are available at Baraka Books and better bookstores everywhere.

Comments
  1. Peter Leuenberger says:

    “And that connects with what we were just talking about with the Christian Zionism, which really has nothing to do with antisemitism. The political Zionism, the Jewish movement of Herzl and his followers is intimately connected with anti Zionism. So without antisemitism, the justification for political Zionism and for a Jewish state dissolves.” For this makes sense only, if “anti zionism” is replaced by “antisemitism”. I guess it’s an error.

  2. Bronwen Summers says:

    Thanks for this, I am part of a group called the Palestinian Solidarity network Aotearoa. Someone sent my husband, who chairs this organisation, Stephen Gowan’s latest book and he has just started reading it. This interview certainly helped me understand more about the role of the U.S. in the middle East. I saw a great presentation on youtube of Noam Chomsky at a university and someone calling him out on Palestine and Hamas being a terrorist organisation. His reply was ‘I will tell you who is the biggest terrorist organisation in the world right now and that is the United States’! I think with invasions/bombings in 50+ countries by the US since WWII never was a truer word spoken. They are responsible for the deaths of 20 million people since the second world war.

    Someone should be going into batt for the Kurds surely Kurdistan should be handed over to them to live as they wish.

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