Veteran Israeli activist and commentator Uri Avnery has posted a new column framing the current struggle over U.S. policy toward Iran as, among other things, a test of two theories: the view, long associated with Noam Chomsky, that Israel is simply a tool of U.S. imperialism, versus the analysis, notably championed by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, that Israel and the Israel lobby here at home are the main determinants of American policy in the Middle East.
Avnery, now 90 years old, is taking bets on which interpretation will prove right. At this stage of the game, though, one has to wonder who will bet on the Chomsky line. The current struggle over the negotiations with Iran is certainly a test of the power of Israel and the lobby over Washington (hardly anyone ever argued that that power had no limits), but can any reality-based observer seriously argue that Netanyahu and AIPAC, in their all-out diplomatic, media, and lobbying offensive against any kind of compromise with Iran, are simply tools of American imperial interests? As Phil Weiss put it when I e-mailed him to suggest posting Avnery’s piece, “the fact that a war that is so absurd has come so close is an indication of power.”
One minor quibble: Avnery says Fiji may be Israel’s “other unconditional friend in the world.” That dubious distinction actually belongs not to Fiji but to Nauru and the three “freely associated states” of the United States in the Pacific – the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.
With Avnery’s permission, here’s his piece on “The Battle of the Titans”:
This is not merely a fight between Israel and the US. Nor
is it only a fight between the White House and Congress. It
is also a battle between intellectual titans.
On the one side there are the two renowned professors,
Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. On the other, the
towering international intellectual Noam Chomsky.
It’s all about whether the dog wags the tail or the tail
wags the dog.
Six years ago the two professors shocked the US (and
Israel) when they published a book, “The Israel lobby and
US Foreign Policy”, in which they asserted that the foreign
policy of the United States of America, at least in the
Middle East, is practically controlled by the State of
To paraphrase their analysis, Washington DC is in effect an
Israeli colony. Both the Senate and the House of
Representatives are Israeli occupied territories, much like
Ramallah and Nablus.
This is diametrically opposed to the assertion of Noam
Chomsky that Israel is a US pawn, used by American
imperialism as an instrument to promote its interests.
(I commented at the time that both sides were right, and
that this is a unique dog-tail relationship. I even quoted
the old Jewish joke about the rabbi who tells a plaintiff
that he is right, and then says the same to the defendant.
“But they can’t both be right!” remonstrates his wife. “You
are right, too!” he answers.)
Intellectual theories can seldom be put to a laboratory
test. But this one can.
It is happening now. Between Israel and the US a crisis has
developed, and it has come into the open.
It’s about the putative Iranian nuclear bomb. President
Barack Obama is determined to avert a military showdown.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is determined to prevent
For Netanyahu, the Iranian nuclear effort has become a
defining issue, even an obsession. He talks about it
incessantly. He has declared that it is an “existential”
threat to Israel, that it poses the possibility of a second
Holocaust. Last year he made an exhibition of himself at
the UN General Assembly meeting with his childish drawing
of the bomb.
Cynics say that this is only a trick, a successful gimmick
to divert the world’s attention away from the Palestinian
issue. And indeed, for years now the Israeli policy of
occupation and settlements has has been advancing quietly,
away from the limelight.
But in politics, one gimmick can serve several purposes at
once. Netanyahu is serious about the Iranian bomb. The
proof: on this issue he is ready to do something that no
Israeli prime minister has ever dared to do before:
endanger Israeli-American relations.
This is a momentous decision. Israel is dependent on the US
in almost every respect. The US pays Israel a yearly
tribute of at least three billion dollars, and in fact much
more. It gives us state of the art military equipment. Its
veto protects us from UN Security Council censure, whatever
We have no other unconditional friend in the world, except,
perhaps, the Fiji Islands.
If there is one thing on which practically all Israelis
agree, it is this subject. A break with the US is
unthinkable. The US-Israeli relationship is, to use a
Hebrew expression much loved by Netanyahu , “the rock of
So what does he think he is doing?
Netanyahu was brought up in the US. There he attended high
school and university. There he started his career.
He does not need advisors on US affairs. He considers
himself the smartest expert of all.
He is no fool. Neither is he an adventurer. He bases
himself on solid assessments. He believes that he is able
to win this fight.
You could say that he is an adherent of the Walt-
His present moves are based on the assessment that in a
straight confrontation between Congress and the White
House, Congress will win. Obama, already blooded by other
issues, will be beaten, even destroyed.
True, Netanyahu was proved wrong the last time he tried
something like this. During the last presidential
elections, he openly supported Mitt Romney. The idea was
that the Republicans were bound to win. The Jewish casino
baron, Sheldon Adelson, poured money into their campaign,
while at the same time maintaining an Israeli mass-
circulation daily for the sole purpose of supporting
Romney “couldn’t lose” – but he did. This should have been
a lesson for Netanyahu, but he didn’t absorb it. He is now
playing the same game, but for vastly higher stakes.
We are now in the middle of the fight, and it is still too
early to predict the outcome.
The Jewish pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, supported by other
Jewish and Evangelical organizations, is marshalling its
forces on Capitol Hill. It’s an impressive show.
Senator after Senator, Congressman after Congressman comes
forward to support the Israeli government against their own
president. The same people who jumped up and down like
string puppets when Netanyahu made his last speech before
both houses of Congress, try to outdo each other in
assertions of their undying loyalty to Israel.
This is now done in the open, in an exhibition of
shamelessness. Several Senators and Congressmen declare
publicly that they have been briefed by the Israeli
intelligence services, and they trust them more than the
intelligence agencies of the USA. Not one of them said the
This would have been unthinkable if any other country was
involved, say Ireland or Italy, from which many Americans
are descended. The “Jewish State” stands unique, a kind of
Indeed, some Israeli commentators have joked that Netanyahu
believes in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the famous
– and infamous – tract fabricated by the secret police of
the Czar. It purported to expose a sinister conspiracy of
the Jews to rule the world. A hundred years later,
controlling the US comes near to that.
The senators and representatives are no fools (not all of
them, in any case). They have a clear purpose: to be re-
elected. They know on which side their bread is buttered.
AIPAC has demonstrated, in several test cases, that it can
unseat any senator or congressman who does not toe the
straight Israeli line. One sentence of implied criticism of
Israeli policies suffices to doom a candidate.
Politicians prefer open shame and ridicule to political
suicide. No kamikaze pilots in Congress.
This is not a new situation. It is at least several decades
old. What is new is that it is now out in the open, without
It is difficult to know, as of now, how much the White
House is cowed by this development.
Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry know that
American public opinion is dead set against any new war in
the Middle East. Compromise with Iran is in the air. This
is supported by almost all the world’s powers. Even the
French tantrums, which have no clear purpose but to throw
their supposed weight around, are not serious.
President Francois Hollande was received in Israel this
week like the harbinger of the Messiah. If one closed one’s
eyes, one could imagine that the happy old pre-de Gaulle
days were back again, when France armed Israel, supplied it
with its military atomic reactor and the two countries went
on escapades together (the ill-fated 1956 Suez adventure.)
But if Obama & Kerry hold fast and stay their course on
Iran, can Congress impose the opposite course? Could this
turn into the most serious constitutional crisis in US
As a sideshow, Kerry is going on with his effort to impose
on Netanyahu a peace he does not want. The Secretary of
State did succeed in pushing Netanyahu into “final status
negotiations” (nobody dared to utter the word peace, God
forbid), but nobody in Israel or Palestine believes that
anything will come out of this. Unless, of course, the
White House puts the whole might of the US behind the
effort – and that seems more than unlikely.
Kerry has allotted nine months to the endeavor, as if it
were a normal pregnancy. But the chances of a baby emerging
at the end of it are practically nil. During the first
three months, the sides have not progressed a single step.
So who will win? Obama or Netanyahu? Chomsky or
As commentators love to say: Time Will Tell.
In the meantime, place your bets.