Commentary Magazine


The $36 Billion Bargain, by A.F.K. Organski

America & Israel

The $36 Billion Bargain: Strategy and Politics in U.S. Assistance to Israel.
by A.F.K. Organski.
Columbia University Press. 315 pp. $30.00.

Why does the U.S. government provide such generous support to Israel? Conventional wisdom points to American Jews, their votes, their political donations, and their well-organized lobbying efforts. Whole books (notably Paul Findley’s They Dare to Speak Out and Edward Tivnan’s The Lobby) have been written to make this point.

A.F.K. Organski, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, comes to a different conclusion. Looking at the record of American aid to Israel, he observes a striking fact: U.S. aid was very low before 1970 and very high afterward. And noting that American Jews exerted about the same efforts on Israel’s behalf before 1970 as after that date, he asks himself why the dramatically different aid levels? Logic holds that a constant factor cannot explain a variable event; obviously, then, Organski concludes, American Jews cannot be the decisive factor here. To clinch this argument, he points out that it was Richard Nixon, a politician singularly not beholden to Jews (according to Henry Kissinger, he “delighted in telling associates and visitors that the ‘Jewish lobby’ had no effect on him”) who raised the levels of aid.

Organski posits a contrary argument for the turn in 1970. For him, the critical change had to do with American attitudes toward Israel’s utility. From Harry Truman through Lyndon Johnson, he demonstrates, American administrations saw Israel as a weak country that could provide no help in the Great Game versus the Soviet Union; if anything, the Jewish state was perceived as a liability. But the 1967 Arab-Israeli war persuaded Nixon that Israeli military power was a significant benefit to the United States. This new view was then confirmed in the aftermath of the 1973 war.

As we know from his previous books, most notably The Stages of Political Development, Organski has a powerful and disciplined intelligence. In The $36 Billion Bargain, he relentlessly analyzes a large, amorphous body of data, and so goes far beyond the anecdotal montages that have served other authors as evidence. The result is a tour de force which actually settles a highly contentious issue. This rare accomplishment deserves to be rewarded by calling off the old and sterile debate over the Israel lobby.

About that debate, the book is full of insights. Organski shows how it is in almost everyone’s interest to advance the myth of the Jewish lobby. Jewish leaders clearly benefit from being perceived as having a decisive impact. Israeli leaders like to believe that they have influential friends. American policy-makers exploit the Jewish lobby to explain away decisions that Arab leaders oppose. American opponents of aid love the lobby, for it strengthens their argument that close relations with Israel result from domestic considerations rather than from a sober assessment of foreign-policy interests. Even Arab leaders cling to the myth, which makes unpalatable decisions reached in Washington much easier for them to swallow.

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But most of The $36 Billion Bargain is devoted to proving that the U.S.-Israel connection owes more to strategic considerations than to the activism of American Jews. The evidence includes a review of American public opinion about Israel, a comparative look at American foreign aid, and an assessment of the influence of the U.S. over Israel. A finely tabulated account of Senate votes reveals that ideology has much more to do with the way Senators vote than the size of their Jewish constituencies or the contributions they get from Jewish or pro-Jewish sources. And there is another, more perverse, impetus: aid to Israel provides the Congress with one of those few instances of foreign policy (the Afghan rebels were another) when it can take the initiative away from the executive branch: “It can demand that aid be increased, scolding bureaucrats and political appointees for dragging their feet, and, in so doing, claim the political credit for supporting Israel, while savoring the pleasure of driving the bureaucracy to distraction.”

But why should a Congress usually so skeptical about foreign aid be so enthusiastic in the case of Israel? Organski does not quite explain the anomaly. He quotes a Senator to the effect that the Jews are “hardworking,” but that hardly suffices.

The main reason for so much aid to Israel, as Tom Bethell points out in the July 1990 issue of the American Spectator, is that financial transfers have turned into the premier symbol of the U.S.-Israel partnership, and have thereby become an end in themselves. To argue against funds for Israel is seen as tantamount to being anti-Israel.

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Looking to the future, Organski sees a weakening of U.S.-Israel ties if any of three conditions obtain: the Soviet threat declines; the threat of radicalism in the Middle East declines; or an Arab ally so modernizes that it becomes a tempting alternative to Israel as our main ally. Organski discounts the third possibility, and he is right, for other than Turkey there is no Muslim country in the Middle East on the track of true modernization, and the Turks stay as far away from Middle East imbroglios as they can.

What of the first two conditions? From the perspective of 1991, the threat to U.S. interests from Moscow is declining at about the same speed as that of the radical Arabs, personified by Saddam Hussein, is growing. This combination of trends accounts for the perplexing sight of an American Secretary of State pleading with Soviet leaders to send troops to the Persian Gulf. In other words, changes in the region cancel out changes in the world. While Israel is less useful vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, it is more so vis-à-vis the Arabs and Middle East oil, and its overall value to the United States remains fairly constant. If Organski is right about the key to U.S.-Israel relations lying in a hardheaded analysis of American interests, then changes ahead in that relationship should not be as major as many today expect.

On the other hand, the President and his aides need not always be hardheaded. It is entirely possible that they will make a mistake, either out of poor analysis or out of emotional pique. This seems to be exactly what the Bush administration is doing at present in its obsessive effort to maintain the fragile coalition against Saddam Hussein. Thus, if public opinion and shared values count for as little as Organski suggests, U.S.-Israel relations may be very much more volatile in the months ahead. Indeed, there is even a small chance that a working alliance nurtured over twenty years will be suddenly and lastingly damaged.

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