Palestine 101: Israel is the watchdog of US imperialism

In the second of three articles by members of the Tempest Collective in the US on Palestinian solidarity and resistance against imperialism, brian bean analyses the role of the US in supporting Israel and the wider geopolitical implications of the war on Gaza.

Joe Biden meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In what is now a viral clip from an obscure 1986 congressional debate, Joe Biden proclaimed: “It’s about time we stop … apologizing for our support for Israel. There’s no apology to be made. None. It is the best $3 billion investment we make. Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.” He proudly repeated this again in 2022 when meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

Joe Biden loves Israel, and he expressed his love on 13 October, with more than 2000 Palestinians dead, the State Department released an internal memo directing diplomats to not use the words or issue press pieces using the terms “ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed,” “restoring calm,” and “de-escalation/ceasefire.”

But it is important that we ground our understanding of why what is happening apart from the personal failings or beliefs of Genocide Joe. While I think that Congress is generally a racist institution, it is not just simple racism that motivates the support for Israel and the abetting of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Rather the fact that support for Israel has been one of solemn bipartisan agreement since at least the 1960s. From Democrat John F. Kennedy to Republican Donald Trump, every US president has avowed the “special relationship” between the US and Israel. What motivates this is US imperialism and the fact that Israel is a central pole in the competition of the US ruling class with the ruling classes of other states.

Israel for most of its existence has been the military outpost for the US—Netanyahu in 2017 described Israel as the “mighty aircraft carrier.” Direct military funding to Israel makes up 59 percent of all the foreign military funding spent by the US. And 20 percent of Israel’s defence budget—Israel spends a greater percentage of its gross domestic product on defence than most countries in the world—is paid by the US. The US and Israel have a memorandum of understanding in which this amount was guaranteed for a decade.

While the military angle is the clearest expression of US support, imperialism is not exerted through the threat of war power alone, but by economic and political power. The US government’s use of its veto in the Security Council in the court of pointless pageantry of the United Nations, used more than thirty times in support of Israel, and its shielding of Israel against the International Criminal Court (The US and Israel, along with Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria are not state parties to the Rome Statue treaty that established the ICC) are examples of this. The US also expresses its dominance not in just backing Israel as the rabid watchdog of its interests, but in “holding the leash” as the dominant power and through its political and economic activity to integrate Israel into the global order.

Ensuring the stability and dominance of Israel in the region has meant the sacrifice of Palestinians to the gods of imperialism. This historical feature has deepened even further in the past few years. After the end of the Cold War, the US worked to draw the entire region into a single economic zone characterized by free trade and investment flows under the thumb of US economic power. The question of Palestine was a fly in the ointment of this project because the cause of Palestine is tremendously popular among the Arab masses. So implementing some kind of “peace process” was necessary to give cover for the despots of the Arab states. But the “peace process” was purely a white rag of surrender forced into the mouths of Palestinians. This peace process was only the first step of a decades-long move to integrate the markets and circuits of capital in the region between Israel and the Arab states.

One year after Oslo, en route to a Middle East and North African joint economic summit, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state proclaimed, “The Middle East is open for business.” While this has been the bipartisan strategy of successive presidents since Clinton brokered Oslo, it was Donald Trump who rapidly accelerated this process with the official normalization efforts that came out of the Bahrain Conference and his so-called Deal of the Century, or what some call the Abraham Accords. And Biden has picked up where Trump left off. In order to compete with China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to connect up Chinese economic and political spheres of influence, Biden is launching projects like his announcement of the new IMEC trade corridor connecting India with the European Union via the Middle East. That includes the construction of transport infrastructure culminating in Israel.

Securing stable control of the Middle East is key for the exertion of US capitalist power. This has fueled the normalization of diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and the states of the region. Israel is increasingly being integrated into the region through trade deals, security cooperation, transport, and beyond. The goal, to quote the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, is “to truly tap into the major potential of these markets.” This process of normalization with settler-colonial Israel strengthens the investment of the United States and regional powers in maintaining the Israeli state.

Normalization looks like everything from the symbolic—the Israeli flag has been hoisted over regional sporting events, yet the Palestinian soccer team is refused travel visits—to the $28 billion in trade between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Israel, to the existence of qualified industrial zones (QIZ) that pay off duty-free access to US markets in exchange for a percentage of inputs being sourced from Israel. These makeup huge sectors of the economies, with seventy percent of Jordanian exports coming from QIZ’s and one-third of Egypt’s total exports to the US, as well.

The normalization advances in the past couple of years—literally paid off with trade and arms deals—have meant that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco have all normalized relations and more will follow. Saudi Arabia’s normalization process with Israel, the golden goose for US imperialism, has started, though the current events in Palestine have temporarily put it on pause. What drives this is the competition between the capitalist class of the US and that of China. The economic rivalry between these two countries profoundly shapes the global geopolitical framework.

All this is because the Middle East region is of prime global importance. It is rich in capitalism’s favorite fuel—oil. And here the US interest is not just access to oil—it is a fossil fuel exporter—but because it wants to control a natural resource that is essential to China’s economic engine. The Middle East is geographically positioned at the axis of global shipping. Ships carry not only the essential fuel to the factories of the world, but are also the waypoint of the shipping of goods through the Suez Canal and via Dubai’s Jabra Ali port in what Laleh Khalili calls a “maritime silk road.” The massive oil monies reaped by the Gulf States have been a boon for a new finance sector and new flows of investment.

One example of this is the 2016 joint Saudi-Japanese venture to launch the world’s largest private equity fund with the creation of the $100 billion dollar SoftBank Vision PE firm, a sum larger than the total amount that US venture firms made over a two and a half year period. Israel being integrated politically and economically into regional trade and capital flows only deepens the connection already established by its military role. And this directly invests regional states and capital in the maintenance and support of the stability of Israel. The stability of Israel in turn means the continued erasure of Palestinians and the furtherance of the settler-colonial project, which has been expressed in the dramatic escalation in settler violence and ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and Israel’s stranglehold over Gaza.

Additionally, the role that the Oslo Accords have established the Palestinian Authority (PA) in managing the occupation in the West Bank actually integrates the burgeoning Palestinian capitalist class and PA bureaucracy into a regional economic relationship with their occupiers and oppressors in the Israeli state. The PA largely functions as an NGO siphon for aid money from the major Western capitalist countries and a police force (largely funded by the US) collaborating with Israel to repress Palestinian resistance and anger.

US imperialism has been so far successful in building up Israel and backing it with the full force of the world’s most powerful military, defanging the Palestinian resistance by establishing a client in the PA, and further isolating Palestinians by integrating settler-colonial Israel with its Arab neighbors. But 7 October was a massive blow to Israel’s mythological invulnerability. The “Iron Dome” was punctured, and the wall briefly fell. That represented a massive threat to this core pillar of US interests in the region, which is why Biden has leaped to Israel’s defense. It also explains why the Arab regimes surrounding Israel have given at best lip-service to the Palestinian cause, hoping to deflect mass sentiment in solidarity with Palestine held by the Arab working classes. While Bahrain has withdrawn ambassadors and Saudi Arabia has paused the normalization process, the response has been useless to Palestinians.

A whole month after the escalation of 7 October, the Saudi’s convened an emergency conference of the Arab League that was attended by the Iranian president. They passed some verbose rhetoric but nothing will come of it, and a conference is not what the Palestinians need right now. Egypt, Gaza’s other jailer, criminally allows their border to Gaza to be mostly closed, and the trickle of aid allowed in is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi carried out a wave of arrests of those who demonstrated in solidarity with Palestine weeks ago, and Jordanian police physically beat protesters attempting to get to the border.

What drives all of this is the regional economic and political connections facilitated by US imperialism. This is also why regional actors like Iran and Hezbollah have similarly carried out a small number of rocket attacks that, despite Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s boasts of “exhausting Israel’s defense systems,” are more akin to what Israeli journalist Zvi Ba’rel described as a “measured and precise … campaign of mutual responses.”

China has also taken a measured position of neutrality in its appeal to international law and a precise “violence on both sides line” with its own imperialist interests in mind. Israel’s largest trade partner after the US is China, and China is invested in the illegal settlements, has defended the Jewish-only nature of the Israeli state, and has its own security/surveillance state interconnections with Israel, such as the Chinese corporation Hikvision’s development of the facial recognition cameras that cover the West Bank, which were tested on China’s oppressed Muslim Uyghar minority.

While the endgame in Gaza is unclear, the US, as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has indicated, has a clear desire to facilitate some sort of transfer of whatever is left of Gaza to its loyal Palestinian Authority and to apply the model of Area B of the West Bank, where Israel maintains a strong security presence, to Gaza. Internal Ministry of Intelligence documents show, on the other hand, that Israel is entertaining the idea of moving the entirety of Gazan Palestinians to Egypt’s Sinai. I say this not to speculate about the likely outcome, but to underline that what will happen to Palestinians is not being determined by Palestinians but jointly by the US and Israel.

It is important to understand that the forces that drive this current bloodshed— and the conditions that led to it—are rooted in global imperialism. The staunch US support for the State of Israel is because it is in the interest of the US capitalist class to secure the US political and economic sphere of influence in the strategically important Middle East. Increasing competition with Chinese imperialism has already and will further sharpen that. This means that if we are going to build a movement in the US to support Palestine, we need to be clear that challenging US support for Israel means challenging a key plank of US capitalist interest, and thus building a movement for Palestine needs to challenge capitalism if we want it to win.

This means challenging both the Republicans and the Democrats—the two parties of capitalism. If the “lesser evil” of Biden means genocide, then maybe this is a political calculus we should abandon. More importantly, it means we need to seize this current moment to build the mass movement, build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), and cohere a left that is clear on the challenges ahead. The friends and allies of the Palestinian people are not with the capitalist states and their shadow play of international institutions and conferences, but with the people of the world who have filled the streets in their millions since Israel’s most recent bloody campaign commenced.

The hope lies in the streets with the people who chant “Free Palestine, from the river to the sea!”, who chant, “Long live the intifada!” The hope is there, in intifada and resistance. To quote from an old slogan in the movement, “We need revolution until victory.”


This article is based upon a talk given at the “75 years of colonialism, imperialism, and resistance” event and was first published on the Tempest website. This version has been edited for length.

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