Book review: “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations”

Much debate on conflict in the Middle East is beset by contradictions and unanswered questions. These include: If the war in Iraq was motivated by oil, then why was it opposed by so many within the oil industry itself? Was the US incited by the omnipotent Zionist lobby to a war that is opposed to America’s vital interests (and is the lobby omnipotent?)? Or is Israel merely a tool of the US establishment, seen as a vital defender of Western interests in the recalcitrant Orient?

In his second book, Nazareth-based English author Jonathan Cook seeks to cut these Gordian knots, and in the process proposes an uncompromisingly grim diagnosis of what is happening in the world’s most unstable region, and why it is happening.

Borrowing analysis by Greg Palast, Cook accepts that the oil industry wished to see Saddam toppled, but maintains that it envisaged “a US-backed coup by a Ba’athist army general; the new strongman would be transformed into a democratic leader by elections held within three months.” There would ensue “the creation of an Iraqi state-owned company that would restrict production, staying within quotas and shoring up Saudi Arabia’s control of OPEC … The neocons, on the other hand, wanted the Iraqi oil industry privatized so that the global market could be flooded with cheap oil and the Saudi-dominated cartel smashed.”

Given that Saudi Arabia is “Israel’s only Middle Eastern rival for influence in Washington,” the Jewish state had long desired to see the destruction of OPEC, which would also deprive the Saudis of their “muscle to finance Islamic extremists and Palestinian resistance movements.” Furthermore, as far back as 1982 the Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s legendary military correspondent Ze’ev Schiff (recently deceased) had written that Israel’s “best” interests would be served by “the dissolution of Iraq into a Shi’ite state, a Sunni state and the separation of the Kurdish part,” a prescription that the US is attempting to fill a quarter of a century later. Israel was also wary of “strongmen” who might act as a focus to awaken the dozing giant of Arab nationalism, although Quislings are always welcome.

Clearly Israeli and US neoconservative perceived interests are being met by the current Iraq war better than by its predecessor, when George H.W. Bush, advised by the wily oilman James Baker, declined to advance on Baghdad and oust Saddam Hussein, whose survival was still regarded as essential for “stability” in the region.

Six months before the 2003 reinvasion of Iraq, the egregious neocon Michael Ledeen wrote: “We do not want stability in Iran, Iraq, Syria Lebanon and even Saudi Arabia; we want things to change. The real issue is not whether, but how to destabilize.” Clearly, a cynical travesty of Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” has become the motto for a breed of militaristic ideologues whose element is chaos.

If Israel is “the region’s policeman,” then, it is “one spreading discord rather than order …” The Israeli army, in reality that country’s “permanent government,” is braced for permanent warfare, using Gaza and the West Bank as laboratories from which to export ideas, techniques and technologies. “The US Department of Homeland Security was one of Israel’s most reliable markets, buying high-tech fences, unmanned drones, biometric IDs, video and audio surveillance gear, air passenger profiling and prisoner interrogation systems.” Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine may be read as a complementary account to Cook’s, albeit on a broader canvas.

As against “Chomsky’s view that the positions of AIPAC and the Israeli lobby mainly reflected US interests in the Middle East,” Cook cites Chomsky’s own view in the early 1980s that Israel sought the “Ottomanization” of the region, “that is, a return to something like the system of the Ottoman empire, with a powerful center (Turkey then, Israel with US-backing now) and much of the region fragmented into ethnic-religious communities …” (Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle). What this would entail is laid out in the words of Hizballah’s astute leader Hassan Nasrallah. In Lebanon, “There will be a Sunni state, an Alawi state, a Christian state, and a Druze state,” although a Shiite state may well be prevented. Israel, Nasrallah adds, will be surrounded by “small tranquil states. I can assure you that the Saudi kingdom will also be divided, and the issue will reach to North African states … Israel will be the most important and the strongest state in a region that has been partitioned into ethnic and confessional states that are in agreement with each other. This is the new Middle East.” Meanwhile, the US and its accomplices will have obligingly split Iraq into three quiescent statelets, as we have seen.

But Cook doesn’t uncritically adhere to the position of US academics Stephen Walt/John Mearsheimer that, as he paraphrases it, “much of the foreign policy making process in the US had been effectively hijacked by agents of a foreign power, and that it was Israel really pulling the strings in Washington through its neocon allies and groups like AIPAC …” He asks “If such commitment to Israeli interests was simply an effect of the pro-Israel lobby …, why had the previous Bush Sr and Clinton presidencies not pursued similar policies in the Middle East to Bush Jr?” and cites a number of instances where the US has disregarded Israeli wishes, including “disputes over Israeli arms sales to China …, the current Bush administration’s quiet non-response to Israeli requests for financial compensation for its Gaza ‘withdrawal’ and its message to the Olmert government that it should not ask for funding for its ‘convergence plan’ …”

I’m not so sure about Cook’s other examples. “Reagan’s sale of AWACS planes to Saudia Arabia” could surely be attributed to the different conditions of an earlier historical conjuncture. While Reagan in many ways anticipated the worldview of the neocons (some of whom cut their fangs in his administration), it’s hard to read Cook without becoming convinced that neoconservatism was the dominant ideology in Israel decades before it came home to roost in the US. As for “the first Bush administration’s threat to withhold loan guarantees,” often cited in similar contexts, surely the Zionist lobby’s subsequent vengeful role in stymieing Bush Sr’s re-election suggests an interpretation of this gesture’s consequences more flattering to the power of the lobby’s long arm.

On the other hand, there have been occasions when the Israeli tail has seemed to be wagging the US dog, most notably the murky case of the USS Liberty, victim of a deliberate lethal attack during the 1967 War, for which crime no subsequent US government has held Israel accountable. In 1978, President Carter was humiliated when the Israelis invaded and occupied south Lebanon against his wishes. Cook seems a little uneasy about these incidents, and his hypothetical explanations of the US behemoth’s seemingly helpless tolerance are hedged around with many a “possibly” and a “doubtless” (the latter usually a reliable indicator of doubt). Yet it is impossible, after reading this short but densely-packed and unswervingly logical book, to disagree with Cook’s knot-cutting conclusion that “the dog and tail wag each other.”

I have described Cook’s diagnosis as “uncompromisingly grim,” and it must be said that Israel and the Clash of Civilisations left this reader with a depressing sense of impotence. Cook attempts to cheer us up in his final paragraph, concluding that “The most likely outcome [of US-Israeli efforts to remake the Middle East] … was the forging of new political, religious and social alliances across the Middle East whose effects it was almost impossible to predict or imagine.” Perhaps, however, there is more hope to be gleaned from the preface: “It is not entirely accidental that in dragging the US into a direct occupation of Iraq that mirrors Israel’s own much longer occupation of the Palestinian territories, Israel has ensured that the legitimacy of both stands or falls together.” Perhaps we are not too far from the day when the illegitimacy of the Iraq adventure will become so patent to Americans themselves that their blind support for the Zionist project will at last evaporate.

Raymond Deane is a composer, and a founding member of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

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