Resentment of Israel’s regional military dominance is near universal throughout the Arab countries, representing perhaps the only political issue uniting vast majorities of public opinion there. Thus, being seen as patron of Israel’s military jeopardizes US geostrategic prerogatives. Is the cost of damage control worth the leverage over Israel that the United States exerts, or is it the Israelis and their US supporters “playing Iago to America’s Othello,” mustering undue influence over domestic politics and undermining US strategic objectives?
In sheer terms of total dollars received, the Israeli state is the single largest beneficiary of US foreign assistance, both cumulatively since 1945 and annually from 1976 to 2004, surpassed in recent years only by Iraq and Afghanistan. What accounts for the unparalleled magnitude of such apparent largesse? Perhaps the most controversial attempt at answering this question, one which may be said to have set the tenor for much of subsequent discourse, is a 2006 article in the London Review of Books, “The Israel Lobby”, by preeminent international relations theorists John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard. Their thesis is straightforward:
One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides [Israel]…. [How] are we to explain it? The explanation is the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby. We use ‘the Lobby’ as shorthand for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.
Disappointingly (and counter-intuitively, considering the paper’s title), this is as close as the authors come to a working definition of “the Lobby.” Moreover, “shared strategic interests [and] compelling moral imperatives” are only two possibilities of many, but the possibility apparently does not occur to Walt and Mearsheimer that no comprehensive, consensus definition of the national interest exists (nor of morality, for that matter); and that the US government does not actually function as a unified whole, but is instead staffed throughout and propelled from outside by representatives (both formal and informal) of myriad interest groups and thought-trends, who are not bound by any compelling commitment to the nation as a whole. If this is the case, it can hardly be true of pro-Israel interests alone, nor would it be likely in such a state of affairs that any one interest group would turn out to be objectively more moral or more invested in the common good of the entire citizenry than any other.
In any case, of the several interrelated phenomena the authors seek to account for (including the motivation behind congressional legislation, the causes of US voting at the UN, the relatively intimate relationships between Israeli and US business interests, the range of acceptable public discourse in the US and the overall tenor of media coverage of the middle east) one of these—“the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides [Israel]”—is eminently quantifiable.
Based largely on those numbers, “The Israel Lobby” posit a laundry list of claims against Israel and its American supporters over their involvement in US domestic affairs. All have been assailed from various quarters, but the present paper seeks only to outline an alternative to the thesis quoted above. Namely, that long-term geostrategic considerations and stateside business interests motivate US mid-east policies much more than pro-Israel interest groups and operatives, that these impinge upon Israeli sovereignty, curtail Israeli economic independence and actually expose Israel and its citizens to greater risk than that state and its stateside supporters may be said to have ever exposed Americans to.
If we limit our definition of “the Israel Lobby” to tax-exempt Zionist organizations dedicated to lobbying public officials, then dollar-for-dollar (in terms of lobbying expenditures) their influence in the capitol is dwarfed by that of the domestic defense industry, constituent entities of which maintain prosaic, material—not altruistic, ideological or even necessarily strategic—interests in US policy, including the conditions of Israeli clienthood.
Still, overall influence on the political process can be a more difficult thing to quantify—indeed, in the immediate aftermath of its publication, “The Israel Lobby” came in for some criticism for neglecting to do so. However, a simple comparison may furnish prima facie evidence for part of the foregoing counter-thesis to “The Israel Lobby”: defense industry spending to lobby Congress, which totaled over $1.6 billion from 1998 to 2013, while pro-Israel money accounts for less than $38 million in lobbying expenses for the same period (in contrast, human rights sector lobbying totaled $45 million for 2007 alone). And of the lobbying sectors ranked by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) in terms of total yearly contributions, defense aerospace appears among the top twenty for eleven of the past sixteen years, while the pro-Israel sector doesn’t make the list once during that period. Furthermore, CRP’s list of 140 “Top All Time Donors, 1989-2012” (which ranks individual organizations, as opposed to sectors), does not contain the name of a single Israeli company or pro-Israel organization but does include seven aerospace defense conglomerates as well as the Machinist and Aerospace Workers’ Union. Perhaps this accounts for aspects of the US-Israel relationship?
Indeed, the US stipulates that nearly 75% of expropriations for Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to Israel be spent in the US, rendering these allocations not only a multi-billion dollar annual subsidy of US-based defense contractors, but a back-channel for Pentagon reselling, because most Israeli procurement from the US takes place indirectly, through the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Program, rather than via Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) from defense contractors.
However, Walt and Mearsheimer point out that Israel enjoys exclusive privileges under the terms of its aid arrangement with the US: unlike aid to most other US clients, FMF is transferred in a lump sum (rather than installments), enabling the Israelis to earn interest on it; billions in periodic US loan guarantees enable Israel to borrow on America’s good credit; and Israel is allowed to put roughly 25% of FMF toward subsidizing and making purchases from its domestic defense contractors.
“The Israel Lobby” omits crucial background regarding these arrangements. For instance, in much the same way that US aid finances Israeli procurement within the US, US guaranteed loans are used largely to pay off Israel’s existing external debt—the bulk of which is owned by US investors. But while the US takes care to mitigate risk to private US entities, the Israeli government owns US Treasury securities worth billions more than current US loan guarantees—$17.2 billion versus $12.8 billion. Meanwhile, these guarantees are a proven form of US leverage over Israel. As for the comparatively high proportion of FMF Israel is permitted to spend domestically, in light of the country’s high level of human development relative to other state importers of US arms, as well as its peculiar and extensive defense needs, it can be argued that subsidizing Israel’s domestic defense industry only shores up the country’s long-term viability as an arms market—in other words, the 25% of FMF Israel spends domestically renders a long-term benefit to private sector US partners of Israel. Moreover, due to the extent of procurement the Israelis do in the US per the terms of the aid agreement, the fact that Israeli manufacturers need US patents to sell their products, and Israel’s scarcity of overall economic scale and manufacturing power, subsidizing Israel’s domestic defense industry guarantees that Israel will be able to keep relatively few industrial secrets from the US, and that Israeli defense aerospace companies will have to partner significantly with (and channel innovation and human capital toward) US counterparts, benefits that would otherwise accrue to other advanced industrial partners of Israel, such as Germany and France. Clearly, Israeli companies would be the junior party in any such corporate partnership with US manufacturers.
These considerations bring a larger picture into view: that the overall thrust of US Israel policy—the close consultation, the outsized annual aid package, the loan guarantees, the “qualitative edge”—is to circumscribe Israeli competition in the global aerospace defense market by co-opting Israeli innovation to Pentagon-contracted projects with US private sector senior partners, tethering an Israel shorn of aerospace independence to a perpetual cycle of counter-demand in competition with neighboring regimes for defense products financed by bloated stateside public subsidization. The fate of Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) Lavi fighter jet is illustrative in this connection.
A product of nearly a decade of development, the fourth-generation fighter was slated to become the pillar of the Israel Air Force (IAF). However, because IAI—obligated, unlike its US counterparts, to stay within budget—kept development costs low by utilizing existing components, the US “controlled much of the technology earmarked for the Lavi, including besides the engine the advanced composite materials for the airframe and wings.” Completion would necessitate contracting for parts with US manufacturers including MarathonNorco, Hughes, Lear Siegler, Astronautics and McDonnel Douglas, and perhaps for this reason forty percent of the project was financed with American FMF. 
But IAI’s project showed too much promise and, in 1987, after two years of US pressure, the Israeli cabinet finally cancelled it, costing 6,000 Israeli engineers their jobs and resulting in significant brain-drain for the country, as
many Lavi engineers at [IAI] said they would have to leave Israel to find work. “The decision closed down aeronautic development in Israel for the next 25 years,” said one engineer, Rafi Meir. “For people like us, the alternative employment they will offer us here is not on our level.”
As inducement to scuttle the Lavi, the Reagan administration offered to intercede with General Dynamics in order to secure IAI a role in developing future generations of F-16 and “promised to increase the amount of American military aid Israel can….spend at home.” Given that throughout the 1980s the IAF was seeing action its American counterpart did not undergo anything comparable to between 1975 and 1991, Israeli participation in developing the F-16 presented unique advantages for General Dynamics. But was it worth it for Israel to scrap the Lavi?
Reflecting recently on the long-term fallout from the Lavi affair, aeronautic engineer and former defense minister Moshe Arens (at the time the most vociferous opponent of cancellation in the Israeli cabinet) made an intriguing comparison:
When IAI…. was developing the Lavi, a small company in Brazil entered the aerospace business. In 1974, Embraer got its start by assembling light Piper aircraft. Over time, it grew exponentially to become a rival to Boeing and Lockheed with its line of medium-size jet passenger aircraft and its modern military transport aircraft. While IAI has almost abandoned the manned aircraft business, which used to be its core specialty, Embraer has succeeded in penetrating an important segment of this market. Numbers tell the story of these two companies. While IAI’s revenues in 2012 were $3.3 billion, with a profit of $69 million, Embraer’s revenues that year were $6 billion, with a profit of $340 million. IAI’s failure to fulfill its great potential is a loss to the Israeli economy and its industry…. The question IAI management should now be pondering is: can it catch up with Embraer?
The difference is clear: IAI was essentially developing advanced weaponry, while Embraer developed ancillary military equipment like transport aircraft.
But inducing Israeli reliance on US aerospace sector preeminence—and its deleterious effects on Israeli R&D—is only one side of this story. Shifting of Israeli procurement priorities in line with US corporate objectives also characterizes the two countries’ relationship, to the extent that Israel is effectively a captive market. The country’s most recent major arms procurement package strongly hints at such a state of affairs.
Ahead of a week-long official visit to Israel by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this past April, word began leaking to the press from unnamed US officials about an arms deal unprecedented in size, sensitivity and technological advancement, intended to supply the Saudis and the UAE to counter Iran while bolstering the IDF’s qualitative edge. Aside from the near-uniformly positive media coverage, the only peculiarity was that Israel had not solicited such a deal. Buried at the bottom of a Reuters report on “one of the most complex and carefully orchestrated arms sale packages in American history” (in the words of an anonymous US defense official, whose claim Reuters parroted uncritically) was the following detail:
Defense officials said the Congress had not been formally notified of the arms sale as part of the approval process. That will come once the different countries finalize their purchase decisions and submit formal letters of request.
Ten days later, a somewhat more enlightening caveat came to light:
“The secretary probably meant to say that when the government of Israel is ready, it is welcome to submit letters of request for the mentioned systems,” a US defense source said.
Among these indispensable appurtenances of national security was the plane/chopper hybrid V-22 Osprey, a $16.4 billion, 29-year “R&D nightmare” responsible for the accidental deaths of thirty US service-members, along with the KC-135 Stratotanker, an outdated model that has also been involved in preventable US service-member deaths,   and which “Israel declined at least twice in the past decade….due to the prohibitive cost of reconditioning slow and aging tankers.” Nevertheless, headlines emphasized that Israel will be receiving the Osprey ahead of even the US Marines, perhaps because the Pentagon determined that the Osprey has already killed enough of them.
The package did include anti-radiation missiles and top-shelf radars, however. In a press conference with his Israeli counterpart, Hagel said
the United States will make available to Israel a set of advanced new….capabilities….which [it] has not released to any other nation.”
Lest we find ourselves unable to dispel the sense here that the United States Secretary of Defense sounds disconcertingly like an infomercial huckster, it’s worth keeping in mind that his trip to Israel was part of a multi-country regional tour touting similar bargains—he’s more like a travelling salesman.
Indeed, Israeli defense officials “questioned the extraordinary publicity generated by typically closed-door deliberations”, and an Israeli defense industry executive wondered,
Are these capabilities destined only for us? And are they willing to deliver under terms and conditions that meet our immediate security needs? If the answer, as I suspect, is no, then you need to ask if our American friends generated the headlines and hype to rationalize their sales of very troubling advanced technology to our neighbors.
But the neighbors are needy, if not always in a financial sense: post-WWII, the Israeli state is the only government between Morocco and Pakistan that hasn’t either been rent by popular uprisings, civil war, coups d’etat, or faced with other grave internal threats—including massive kleptocracy—to its long-term viability. Israel’s being a fellow democracy is less important than its fundamental competence, cohesion and reliability. In contrast, by virtue of the corruption and ineptitude of the Saudi regime, the very pumps and pipes that keep America running are some of the most precariously positioned infrastructure in the world. Quite simply, partners like Israel are difficult to come by in the mideast. Mearsheimer and Walt have failed to ask fundamental questions.
They argue that Israel was a liability for the US during Desert Storm because “resources (e.g. Patriot missile batteries) [had to be diverted] to prevent Tel Aviv doing anything that might harm the alliance against Saddam Hussein”, which included key Arab countries. But the coalition against Saddam held, in part, because Israel agreed in historically unprecedented fashion to weather SCUD missile attacks on its cities without response, attacks provoked by the US rescue of Kuwait (essentially a petrol-wholesaler protectorate) in a display of immediate post-Iron Curtain triumphalism of no comparable benefit to Israel. Like all of Iraq’s neighbors, Israel benefited from a weakened Iraqi regime, but in this case Israeli life and vital infrastructure were subordinated to long-term US objectives. In terms of the danger one country’s imposition precipitates upon the other, Walt and Mearsheimer have their analysis exactly backwards.
They argue that “US efforts to limit nuclear proliferation appear…. hypocritical given its willingness to accept Israel’s nuclear arsenal,” as if any state has the option of not accepting another’s nukes once they exist, and as if Israel was open about its possession of them. But if non-proliferation is a US policy aim, then America is getting a two-for-the-price-of-one bargain by partnering with Israel, as preemptive IAF strikes on nascent nuclear reactors in both Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007) attest.
Similar success against Iran, however, appears unlikely without US involvement. Mearsheimer and Walt maintain that “Israel and its American supporters want the US to deal with any and all threats to Israel’s security [by doing] most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding and paying,” but in the case of Iranian nukes and which country would pay most dearly to prevent them, this analysis has the respective roles reversed once again. After all, “an Iranian nuclear breakout would pose first-order challenges to the stability of the entire global economic order via its impact on energy prices.” Surely this isn’t a concern that was foisted on the US by Israel. And Israel can scarcely be implicated in the bulk of America’s sordid post-WWII record of involvement in Iran, which isn’t incidental to the ayatollahs’ pursuit of the bomb. But in the event either of a US or Israeli first strike, presumptive US strategic objectives—prevention of Iranian energy independence, reducing the ayatollahs’ geostrategic reach and their influence on the world energy market, or outright elimination of a traditional US adversary—will have been met at the risk of Israeli military and civilian life and critical infrastructure (all of which lie in range of Iranian ballistic missiles) while most Americans feel the pain at Wal-Mart and Chevron. Contra Mearsheimer and Walt, sheer dollar amounts do not always correlate with true cost.
 “Poll of Arab World finds fear of US, Israel”, Tim Fitzsimons, GlobalPost, March 10, 2012
 “U.S. general: Israel-Palestinian conflict foments anti-U.S. sentiment”, Haaretz, March 17, 2010
 “A Prosecutorial Brief Against Israel and Its Supporters”, William Grimes, New York Times, September 6, 2007
 “Israel: Background and U.S. Relations”, Jim Zanotti, Congressional Research Service Report to Congress, November 1, 2013, p. 25
 See Glenn Greenwald in Salon, “The mainstreaming of Walt and Mearsheimer”, September 18, 2011
 “The Israel Lobby”, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, London Review of Books, March 23, 2006
 For this reason, the term appears in quotation marks throughout this paper
 Stephen Zunes elaborates on this angle of the debate in “The Israel Lobby: How Powerful is it Really?”, Mother Jones, May 17, 2006
 See, for example, “Jerusalem Syndrome”, Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs, November 2007
 According to data available on the website of the Center for Responsive Politics (opensecrets.org)
 Mearsheimer and Walt
 “U.S. Military Assistance and Arms Transfers to Israel: U.S. Aid, Companies Fuel Israeli Military”, Frida Berrigan and William Hartung, World Policy Institute, July 20, 2006
 “What are Israel’s Loan Guarantees?”, Ed Finn, Slate, August 6, 2003
 Israel Ministry of Finance, September 30, 2012, http://ozar.mof.gov.il/debt/ext/char.asp
 “US extends loan guarantees to Israel for four more years”, Stuart Winer, The Times of Israel,October 25, 2012
 “Israel Has Dumped 46 Percent of Its U.S. Treasury Bills; Russia 95 Percent”, Terrence P. Jeffrey, cnsnews.com, September 19, 2011
 US Department of State, Office of the Historian, Milestones: 1989-1992, “The Madrid Conference”. Online.
 Martin Van Creveld, The Sword and the Olive, p. 274
 “Cost overruns have military facing ‘train wreck,’ McCain says”, cnn.com, February 24, 2009; see also “GE’s $3 Billion Pentagon Boondoggle”, Adam Weinstein, MotherJones, April 25, 2011
 “Israel Aircraft Industries Lavi” Ruud Deurenberg, Jewish Virtual Library
 Van Creveld, p. 274
 “Israelis Decide Not to Construct Lavi Jet Fighter”, Thomas Friedman, New York Times, August 31, 1987
 “Some of [IAI’s] best Israeli engineers are now working for aerospace companies around the world.” Moshe Arens, “A tale of two aerospace companies”, Haaretz, October 1, 2013
 “U.S. near $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE”, David Alexander, reuters.com, April 19, 2013
 “Israelis Slam US-Hyped Arms Package”, Barbara Opall-Rome, Defense News, April 29, 2013
 “Saving the Pentagon’s Killer Chopper-Plane”, Ron Berler, Wired, July 2005
 “History of fatal Fairchild KC-135 mishaps”, Rob Kauder, kxly.com, May 3, 2013
 “Air Force names airmen killed in Kyrgyzstan KC-135 crash”, Stars and Stripes, May 6, 2013
 “Israel Bumps Marines, Will Receive 6 Ospreys in 2 Years”, Richard Sisk, DoD Buzz (online), November 1, 2013
 “Bodies of 19 Marines Recovered From Osprey Wreckage”, Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, American Forces Press Service, April 13, 2000
 “The Fall of the House of Saud”, Robert Baer, The Atlantic, May 2003
 “Iranian Nukes and Global Oil”, Matthew Kroenig and Robert McNally, The American Interest, March 2013
 “Kerry says now the ‘best chance … in a decade’ for Iran nuclear deal”, Greg Botelho, cnn.com, November 20, 2013; see also “White House: Israeli demands on Iran nuke program will lead to war”, The Times of Israel, November 22, 2013