Absolving empire in Palestine

What are the real reasons behind the US media and state institutions’ apparent pro-Israel bias?

A member of the audience looks on wearing a United States-Israel themed custom suit during the AIPAC convention at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, US, March 2, 2020. [Tom Brenner/Reuters]

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi caused a stir during a May 20 interview with CNN about Israel’s 11-day military offensive on Gaza by claiming that the Israelis are getting favourable coverage because of their “deep pockets” and “control” over the media. The CNN anchor conducting the interview, Bianna Golodryga, immediately dubbed Qureshi’s remarks “anti-Semitic” – a characterisation later repeated by the majority of US media outlets. Several American politicians, such as US House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, also condemned the remarks. The charge was of course vehemently denied by the Pakistani government, which insisted criticisms of Israel were being conflated with anti-Semitism.

The substance of the anti-Semitism allegations aside, the Pakistani FM’s carelessly phrased comments and widespread domestic support for them reveal a pervasive misperception about the nature of the US-Israel relationship – one in which power appears to flow from Israel to the US.

This perception about the US-Israel ties misapprehends the material and ideological basis of the relationship in a way that overstates the influence of Israel and its lobby while obscuring – or worse, absolving – the interests and domestic ideologies at the heart of US imperialism. In doing so, this idea also inhibits a more accurate understanding of the constellation of forces behind the occupation of Palestine and prevents a credible assessment of possibilities for resistance.

What explains the pro-Israel bias in the US?

Systemic pro-Israel bias in the US media is a fact. Detailed studies have looked into the lopsided coverage that presents Israeli claims as fact, frames Palestinians as the aggressors and fails to criticise blatant Israeli war crimes. There is a long history of pro-Palestine voices, from Jeremy Corbyn to Ilhan Omar, being labelled anti-Semites by mainstream Western media. The most recent egregious example of the power of such smears was the firing of Associated Press reporter Emily Wilder – herself Jewish – for her pro-Palestine activism.

The Israeli lobby in the US is often identified as the cause of this bias. The lobby’s influence has been well documented, most notably in Stephen M Walt and John J Mearsheimer’s 2006 book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. It’s no secret that AIPAC and other Israel-linked organisations have spent millions lobbying US politicians to protect Israeli interests and regulate debate on Israel within the US.

However, the Pakistan FM’s remarks – particularly the use of the words “deep pockets” and “control” – seemed to suggest that it is exclusively the money of the Israeli lobby that generates pro-Israel bias in US institutions and media.

As lifelong critics of Israel like Noam Chomsky and Palestinian-American scholar Joseph Massad have pointed out, the pro-Israel slant in the US has concrete historical reasons that cannot just be reduced to the coffers of the Israeli state (itself a US aid recipient) or its lobby.

Massad has argued that the power of the Israeli lobby is linked to how its interests tie in with overall US strategy in the Middle East. As he puts it, “the lobby is powerful because its major claims are about advancing US interests” and ‘“resonant with imperial ideology”. Massad notes that while the perception that the lobby has immense power suits both Israeli politicians who like to boast of their influence in Washington as well as US diplomats who wish to avoid blame for their policies in the Middle East, its influence in Capitol Hill, “testifies to the importance of Israel in US strategy and not to some fantastical power that the lobby commands independent of and extraneous to the US ‘national interest’”.

America’s strategic interests in Israel have of course evolved over time. While the Pentagon viewed Israel as a potential anti-Soviet bulwark since its establishment, this did not translate into a concrete strategic partnership for years. US President Eisenhower even famously threatened to withhold aid to Israel to force it to withdraw from the Sinai, which it had occupied following the 1956 Suez Crisis.

It was not until 1967 that Israel truly demonstrated its usefulness to the US – that year it routed Gamal Nasser’s Egypt and other Arab states in a victory that led to the defeat of the Arab Nationalist tide that threatened US interests in the region. This resulted in an exponential increase in US aid to Israel, with the state becoming the principal extension of US power in the Middle East.

From that point onwards, Israel served as an efficient executor of imperial policy, serving as a conduit for channelling arms to unpopular regimes, propping up oil-rich Gulf monarchies, undermining other intransigent Arab Nationalists, housing US weaponry or emerging as a major partner and market for the US military-industrial complex. As Massad puts it, “none of the other American military bases on which many more billions are spent can claim such a stellar record” in support of empire.

The US establishment’s consensus on Israel’s usefulness was best exemplified in Biden’s 1986 remarks to the Senate that aid to Israel was “the best $3bn dollar investment we make. Were there not an Israel, the US would have to invent an Israel to protect our interests in the region.”

US support for Israel was thus historically shaped by its perceived usefulness to the imperatives of empire. And US mainstream media continues to – much like its deference to the government on every other strategic issue – reflect and reproduce this bipartisan establishment consensus.

The ‘other’ Zionism

However, geo-strategy alone does not explain the entirety of the bias – there is also a significant ideological dimension to support for Israel that relates to the widespread influence of Christian Zionism within the United States.

Christian Zionism, whose role in US policy Chomsky has spoken of at length, predates Jewish Zionism by centuries, with its origins in the 16th century Puritan millennialism in England that followed the Protestant Reformation. The movement is premised on the belief that the return of Jews to the Holy Lands is a fulfilment of a Biblical prophecy that will bring about the return of Jesus and the End Times.

Christian Zionism was widespread among British Empire elites and played a major role in the Balfour declaration about the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. From the 19th century, it also became increasingly popular in the US, with adherents including presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman and dozens of Congressmen. The movement gained wider support among US Protestants with the rise in persecution of Jews in Europe in the World Wars and the establishment of organisations like the Christian Council of Palestine.

Through its massive network of churches, popular preachers like Hal Lindsay, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and major organisations like Christians United for Israel, Christian Zionism became a major force dictating support for Israel among Americans, particularly following the religious revivalism of the 1980s. Today, Christian Zionism funds the expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestine, serves as a fevered advocate for Israeli interests in Washington and galvanises its supporters to ensure US backing for Israel whenever armed conflict occurs.

The movement carries enormous influence. A quarter of American adults identify as evangelical Christians (amounting to tens of millions of voters), 80 percent of whom believe Israel represents a Biblical prophecy. Crucially, Christian Zionists tend to be far more supportive of Israeli policies than Jewish Americans – according to surveys, while 65 percent of Jewish Americans oppose settlement expansion in the West Bank, the overwhelming majority of evangelical supporters fully support them.

The Israeli lobby doesn’t need to spend much money to convince politicians and media networks to pander to this constituency, whose ranks include powerful politicians, from Reagan to Bush and Pence, as well as media networks like Fox that are run, staffed and watched by Christian evangelicals. The movement is also well-organised electorally – according to researcher Steven Gardiner, “It’s the Christian Zionists that get themselves into hundreds of churches to mobilise voters, not AIPAC.” The same voters helped elect Trump, enabling the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018.

It’s worth noting that, despite its vast influence, the theological premises of Christian Zionism are rejected by most other Christian denominations from ecumenical Protestants to the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Further, despite its alliance with Israel, the movement is rife with deeply anti-Semitic beliefs, with many of its preachers believing that the ultimate fate of Jews after the Second Coming will be either conversion or death and hellfire.

There are of course further dimensions to the pro-Israel bias, including guilt related to the Holocaust, perceptions of shared cultural values, the affinities in national imaginaries of settler-colonial states, and more recently, pervasive Islamophobia in both societies that provided the fear-mongering glue for US-Israeli cooperation in the era of the War on Terror (during which Israel’s excesses served to legitimise US invasions and vice versa).

Ultimately, however, these factors simply reinforce the strategic, socio-historical and ideological bases of support for Israel within the US. US media gives Israel favourable coverage not because the latter pays it to, but because Israel’s interests have long dovetailed with those of US imperialism and because of the pervasive socio-political influence of Christian Zionism in the US. The Israeli lobby, while objectively powerful, reinforces and maintains this hegemonic edifice, but does not fully determine or “control” it.

Why re-evaluate the reasons behind US pro-Israel bias?

Recognising this is important for several reasons.

Firstly, notions of Israeli “pockets” determining media coverage or US policy are inadequate explanations that rely on dog whistles about all-powerful Jews that further religious hatred and distract from the actual demands of the Palestinian liberation movement. There are enough crimes of the Israeli state to point towards – from settler colonialism to war crimes – for critics to not have to dabble in half-formed conspiracy theories.

Secondly, this view helps exonerate US imperialism for its role in Palestine’s occupation. This is especially convenient for states like Pakistan, which can rhetorically attack the state they have no diplomatic relations with while not having to ask any questions of their patrons in Washington. There are few better examples of this hypocrisy than the fact that a day after his remarks about Israel, the Pakistani FM had a cordial meeting with US senator and notable Christian Zionist Lindsey Graham, in which Palestine was not even mentioned.

US imperialism sustains the occupation of Palestine in pursuit of its reckless strategic designs and its disturbing application of apocalyptic religious prophecy to state policy – facts that need to be confronted. Identifying empire as the locus of Israeli occupation is critical also because it locates an important site of resistance. The US and its domestic politics – including public perceptions about religion, race and empire – are crucial battlegrounds for Palestinian liberation.

Thirdly, blaming the bias on Israeli money prevents both a real understanding of the social basis of US support for Israel or a credible examination of opportunities for resistance. If one believes that a small settler-colonial state of six million people can single-handedly “control” the media and policy of the most powerful empire in human history, what hope could there be for the people living under its jackboot?

A genuine examination of the roots of pro-Israel bias in the US allows us to identify emerging possibilities for change. After Trump’s defeat, Christian evangelicals face the prospect of declining political power as successively fewer Americans identify as Christian. While they continue to wield power, changing demographics and declining religiosity will make it harder for Christian Zionists to exercise the kind of influence they did in the Bush and Trump years.

Moreover, new youth-led progressive movements for racial, economic, gender and climate justice have risen in the US, some of which have been associated with an increase in public sympathy for Palestinians.

These shifts are reflected in the growing Democratic party rift over Israel, as progressives like Bernie Sanders, AOC and Rashida Tlaib call for changes in US policy towards Israel-Palestine, attempt to block military aid to Israel and even begin referring to Israel as an “apartheid state” – developments once considered unthinkable in US politics. As the Palestinian liberation movement begins making connections with new progressive movements and they, in turn, start seeing Palestinian freedom as integral to their struggles for justice, a substantive policy shift in the US might finally become a possibility.

As with the South African anti-apartheid movement, it is crucial today to build a common cause between Palestine and other movements for justice. This means mainstreaming the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, and battling systemic mainstream and social media censorship and demonisation of pro-Palestinian voices. But it also means framing and organising opposition to Israel in the anti-racist, anti-apartheid and anti-imperialist terms chosen by the Palestinian liberation movement itself – by accurately identifying and resisting the empire and ideology at the heart of the occupation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.