Why do Americans care so much about the Middle East and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians? In recent years, it can be argued that perhaps the national addiction to the notion that there is a unique and important American mission to solve the century-long struggle is waning. Yet though the missionary fervor of those who believe that Israel must be saved from itself or that creating another independent Palestinian Arab state (in addition to the one in all-but-name run by terrorists in Gaza) is not currently at a fever pitch, the debate about whether a Jewish state is or isn’t a good or even righteous idea still remains a central theme of American foreign policy.
What if most of the assumptions about this are wrong? It may be that decades of policy debates and Washington’s initiatives were produced in no small measure by misperceptions of the geopolitical stakes, and the motives and the actions of those involved in the conflict. But what if the animating spirit behind the obsessive interest in Israel and the Palestinians is actually rooted in an idea that is as much a function of prejudice as it is policy?
That’s the question by scholar and Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead in his new book, The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People. A definitive work of history rather than just another polemic on the subject, it takes a deep dive into the connection between the United States and the Zionist idea.
At the core of Mead’s work is a search for the answer to the question about why it is that so many are convinced that not only is American support for Israel a mistake, but that it’s somehow a result of manipulation that puts the Jewish state’s interests above those of the United States.
To explain this widespread belief, which has supporters on both the left and the right, he compares it to a 19th-century scientific dispute in which many leading astronomers became convinced that a planet they called Vulcan (not to be confused with the fictional planet that is part of the “Star Trek” canon) existed in orbit between Mercury and the sun. They were wrong; what they were observing was due to the impact of the sun’s gravitational pull on Mercury, about which they were ignorant. Nevertheless, they were so convinced that they were right that they declared their conclusion to be “settled science.” That certainty caused them to misinterpret the data and blinded them to the fact that the universe was more complex than they understood it to be.
In Mead’s view, a similar conviction that it is “obvious” that helping Israel is not in America’s interest, and therefore, the willingness on the part of various administrations to do so must then logically be due to the nefarious work of an “Israel lobby.” Those who believe in this conspiracy theory actually believe that what they are saying is based on facts rather than prejudice. Indeed, they view the criticism of their false claims as proof that they are right. Like the wild goose chase for the mythical Planet Vulcan, the belief that the Jews or the Israel lobby have gained control of American foreign policy is self-reinforcing.
Mead’s contribution here is not just a magisterial overview of the history of the last century of America’s involvement in the Middle East. Rather, it is to point out that in order to properly understand the relationship with Israel and the endless attempts to “solve” the conflict perhaps what we need is a “less Jewcentric view of Zionist history and of America’s engagement with the Zionist project.”
By that, he means that the creation of the modern State of Israel was heavily influenced by other nations pursuing their own interests—whether it concerned Britain, the United States or the Soviet Union—at inflection points of history rather than following some Zionist script. Going further, he also explains that American policy towards Israel has rarely if ever been primarily about what American Jews wanted.
That ought to be painfully obvious, not least because, as Mead points out, the United States has not been consistently supportive of Israel. Indeed, it was not until after its astonishing victory in the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel was first perceived as a potentially important strategic ally for the West in the Cold War did the United States start to really help the Jewish state.
Even after the alliance became a reality, different schools of thought emerged to try to explain why America cared about Israel and usually provided the wrong answers to the question. So-called realists believed that Israel was an impediment to better relations with the Arab world and blamed it for American problems that had nothing to do with sympathy for Zionism. The American left, which had been supportive of Israel in its early years, eventually turned on it because it, too, came to view it in an ideological context that was equally detached from the reality of Israel. Meanwhile, Jacksonians liked Israel for the same reasons that others detested it: their tough response to terrorism and assertion of national rights. For those seeking simple explanations to complex questions, Israel and the notion of hidden Jewish power manipulating America to do things against its interests is an easy answer, yet always a wrong one.
Israel has a powerful and perhaps far more loyal non-Jewish constituency among evangelical Christians. It’s also true that the two most pro-Israel presidents with respect to policy—Richard Nixon, who provided crucial help to save it during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and Donald Trump, who recognized Jerusalem and aligned himself very closely with the Jewish nation—were also the two presidents most despised by the majority of American Jewish voters.
Above all, successive American administrations took up the search for Middle East peace on the false premise that achieving it would solve a host of other problems. Belief in the peace process became, especially among the foreign-policy establishment of veteran diplomats, academics and journalists who are considered “experts” in the field,” a holy grail that took both Democrat and Republican presidents down a rabbit hole from which none emerged unscathed or successful.
Mead points out that the peace process was not only not a holy grail but actually a “MacGuffin,” the term filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock coined to describe a plot device that seems to motivate and drive the main character’s actions, but which is actually of very little intrinsic value. That ought to have been conclusively proven by Trump’s Abraham Accords in which Arab states essentially abandoned the Palestinian cause in favor of normalization with a Jewish state that is a valuable strategic ally and trading partner. Even after that, belief in the importance of the grail that’s really a MacGuffin persists.
Mead provides a valuable history of successive American administration approaches to the Middle East from the failures of the two Bushes, Clinton and Obama, and then Trump’s surprising partial success. It’s important to understand that America has always pursued policies that were the function of its leader’s beliefs—whether avowed realists like the first Bush, convinced that democracy could be spread like the second Bush, true believers in the peace process like Clinton and Obama or a Jacksonian like Trump—about what they thought was in America’s best interests, not Israel’s.
Yet despite the changing script in which America’s political parties have flipped their positions on Israel and the shifting geostrategic realities of the Middle East have been made apparent, credence in the existence of a “hidden Jewish hand” manipulating America continues to exist on both political extremes. That this is so is a testament to the fact that anti-Semitism remains a far more powerful force than most of those who think about America and the Middle East are prepared to admit.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.