Dual Loyalty

Victor Mallet

  • The Samson Option: Israel, America and the Bomb by Seymour Hersh
    Faber, 256 pp, £15.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 571 16619 9
  • Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the US-Israeli Covert Relationship by Andrew Cockburn and Leslie Cockburn
    Bodley Head, 423 pp, £17.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 370 31405 0

It has long been accepted in the Arab world and in Iran that US foreign policy towards the Middle Last is a conspiracy devised by the American Jewish lobby. It has long been accepted in Europe that the Arabs and Iranians, although prone to exaggeration, had a legitimate grievance about Washington’s automatic bias in favour of Israel since the departure of Eisenhower. The recent Middle East peace conference in Madrid may therefore come to be seen as a watershed. With the Cold War over and the Gulf War won, President George Bush and James Baker, his Secretary of State, have adopted an attitude which the Israelis find so alarmingly even-handed that they have begun to suspect another sort of conspiracy, this time concocted by pro-Arab Texas oilmen. Bush says in private that there is not much point kowtowing to the Jewish lobby when most of its members vote Democrat, and he won as great a political victory in forcing Congress to delay $10 billion in US loan guarantees for Israel (to smooth the way to the peace conference) as in convening the conference itself.

The Samson Option and Dangerous Liaison both examine the dilemmas produced by the US-Israeli relationship at a time when it is undergoing a profound transformation. Walworth Barbour, then US Ambassador to Israel, is quoted in Seymour Hersh’s book as saying alter the 1967 war that ‘Arab oil is not as important as Israel is to us. Therefore I’m going to side with Israel in all of my reporting.’ Such a statement would sound out of place in late 1991, after the despatch of half a million American troops to defend Saudi Arabia’s oilfields and recapture those of Kuwait in the war against Iraq. Even in the depths of the Cold War, in 1968, Henry Kissinger came out with an intriguing three-point dictum which suggested that Israel could not rely on unconditional US assistance: ‘The main aim of any American President is to prevent World War Three. Second, no American President would risk World War Three because of territories occupied by Israel. Three, the Russians know this.’

Israel itself was nevertheless an obvious strategic asset in the confrontation with Moscow. But the continuing disintegration of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of useful Soviet support for Syria now make Israel – still in a state of war with most of its neighbours – look more and more like a source of tension and strategic liability. The West’s preferential treatment of Israel has partly been based on the understanding that Israel is a country with ‘Western’ values, a belief already undermined by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, its harsh response to the Intifada and its enthusiastic adoption of ‘Middle eastern’ practices such as hostage-taking. Europeans have also looked sympathetically at Israel because they felt guilty about the Nazi genocide and their own inadequate response: but to Israel’s dismay a whole generation of Europeans has now grown up with only the sketchiest knowledge of the death camps. Israel’s time as a special case to which normal standards of morality, international law and strategic cynicism do not apply is rapidly coming to an end.

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