Commentary Magazine

George Ball's Latest Diatribe

In its confrontations with Israel of the last few years, the Bush administration attempted on more than one occasion to discredit not just the government of Israel but that country’s entire reliability as an ally and, therefore, its worthiness to receive American support. Although it was a sharp departure from the rhetoric of previous administrations, the Bush/Baker depiction of Israel has not been without its advocates in American politics. Among them, the indefatigable George W. Ball may be the best known. A former Under Secretary of State (in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations), Ball has conducted a crusade of many years’ duration against U.S. ties with Israel, and now with his son Douglas he has published a book, The Passionate Attachment,1 arguing his case at great length.

The title of the book is taken from George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 (actually written by Alexander Hamilton, and that was 185 years before Peggy Noonan), to wit:

. . . a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification . . . and it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their country without odium, sometimes even with popularity. [Emphasis added.]

That final point (not explicitly cited by the authors) is what has long riled George Ball the most: American Jews (ambitious? corrupted? deluded?) have suffered no odium, or insufficient odium, for having persistently advocated financial, military, and diplomatic support for their “favorite nation” of Israel. And that nation, according to the Balls, is especially unworthy, having attacked (Arabs), oppressed and persecuted (Palestinians), perpetrated nefarious plots and schemes (worldwide), and manipulated, exploited, and betrayed (the United States).

Israel, say the Balls, attacked the Arabs in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1982, and at various other times in between and since. Remarkably, they do not even concede 1948, Israel’s War of Independence, as a defensive war, citing—as evidence for its putatively offensive character—a statement to that effect by a British diplomat, Harold Beeley, to the State Department’s Loy Henderson. This, against sightings by all and sundry of Arab military forces advancing across the international border, the fall of outlying Jewish settlements to the attacks of Egyptian and Arab Legion forces, etc. The Arabs, to judge by their own enthusiastic declarations of the time, certainly thought they were invading. Was it a case of mass delusion on both sides (and by third-party observers, too), only now exposed by this book? Nor do the Balls pause to note, if only incidentally, what else is recorded, and very amply, of Beeley and Henderson in official archives, notably their own passionate attachment to the “Arabist” persuasion, and their passionate opposition to Zionism.

But even Beeley and Henderson are paragons of objectivity next to other sources cited incessantly by the Balls, notably the late Simcha Flapan, described here merely as “an Israeli publisher and author.” That he was, but he was also a uniquely ambitious revisionist whose writings explain all the travails of the Middle East as the result of sinister Zionist machinations, with the curious result of reducing all Arab leaders to the role of passive victims, innocent but also quite inert. Flapan’s Israel—which is also the Israel depicted by the Balls—is the ultimate superpower, never truly threatened, not even in 1948, but only pretending to be; never acting out of anxiety, but only in cold calculation.

According to the Balls, Israel employed Nazi methods against the Palestinians long before the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila (perpetrated by Christian Arabs, but these, of course, were mere pawns). In fact, they compare the behavior of Israeli soldiers in 1948 with the behavior of German troops in Poland. As for Israel’s response to the intifada, not much need be said: tear gas, poison gas—it is all gas, after all. And even when they are not behaving like Nazis, the Israelis are running guns, smuggling narcotics, or acting as ancillaries to mass-murder plots all over the world; to hear the Balls tell it, every Israeli selling guns in Panama or training dubious Colombian farmers is loyally acting under instructions from the Israeli government, and not—perish the thought—out to make money for himself.



Worst of all, however, is Israel’s treatment of the United States. According to the Balls, Israel has robbed the U.S. Treasury of many billions of dollars; it has systematically undermined U.S. foreign policy as far afield as Guatemala and, of course, throughout the Muslim world; it has stolen technology galore; and it has even attacked U.S. forces directly.

On this last point the Balls recall the air attack on the U.S. Navy’s Liberty in the heat of the June 1967 war—“blatant murder,” they declare. They are evidently unimpressed by the misidentification or “friendly-fire” episodes of the 1991 Gulf war, in which the offending U.S. forces had sensors far, far superior to the eyeball Mark I’s of the Israeli crews who attacked the Liberty. The Balls obviously do not know that even a large U.S. flag is hardly a sufficient identification in the heat of battle, from thousands of yards away, in high-tempo operations. (In 1956, 1967, and most lethally 1982, the Israeli Air Force repeatedly bombed clearly marked Israeli troops, as all air forces sufficiently dynamic will do.)

But it is in the footnotes that the Balls really let themselves go, citing approvingly a claim that in 1982 Israeli intelligence knew that the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut would be attacked on October 23 by a suicide truck-bomber but deliberately failed to warn Washington, cynically choosing to let 241 Marines die to provoke anti-Arab feelings. When the same Shiite group also attacked an Israeli headquarters some days later, killing 60, did the Israelis also know it in advance? No doubt the Balls would explain that Israel deliberately failed to warn its own troops just to avoid probing questions about its prior knowledge of the attack on the Marines.

Not that the Balls make much of this episode—it is only a footnote, after all. But that is one example among many of their characteristic technique: repeating charges by others which most people properly regard as wild accusations, but each time preceded or followed by judicious comments in their own voice that give an air of reasonableness to the proceedings.

Much less subtle is their gross overloading of the case for the prosecution. Thus, in a two-page bookkeeping of all the costs of the Israel relationship to the U.S., the Balls include $30.04 million that we are about to spend to build a long-planned Voice of America/ Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty transmitter in Israel’s Arava valley. Now that we can transmit to Russia from Moscow if we want to, the Arava transmitter is the sort of thing that gives bureaucratic idiocy a bad name. Wasteful the project certainly is, but it is also unwanted by Israel and very unpopular (it would wreck the tranquility of the country’s prime wildlife patch), and the Rabin government must constantly explain to its public that it feels duty-bound to stick to a promise made to the White House—at the height of the Reagan cold war. In other words, the Balls present an Israeli concession to the U.S. as its exact opposite.

Nor do the Balls like to admit that Israel has had more than its share of uses over the years, from providing an anchorage to the Sixth Fleet (shown perversely as a cost in the Balls’ ledger—e.g., “crew liberty=$27.0 million”—as if it were safer to whore and drink in, say, Beirut), to the little matter of defeating Soviet weapons and strategic doctrine in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982, thus cutting down Soviet prestige in the one sector of human endeavor in which the Soviet Union could aspire to any prestige at all. In fact, deploying the techniques of the Balls in reverse, one could construct a decently plausible argument that attributes 100 percent of America’s cold-war victory to Israel (1982 defeat of Soviet-built air defenses by Israeli Air Force leads to loud Soviet military demands for scientific-technical reforms; Gorbachev tries to modernize the USSR to meet military needs; and so forth through perestroika to Yeltsin).



Are the Balls perchance anti-Semitic? One must assume that they are not. But they do not hesitate to rely on the say-so of people quite proud of their own hostility to Jews. And they are charter members of that strange society of people who, while preemptively indignant at prospective accusations of anti-Semitism, dedicate themselves year after year to criticizing just one among the very many supporting relationships of the United States, despite the fact that the amounts we have given to Israel, substantial though they be, are peanuts compared to what we have spent to enrich and protect our trading rivals in Europe and Asia, some of whom are even now returning the favor by employing all manner of customs-house conspiracies to keep out U.S. exports.

The Balls may not be anti-Semitic, but they relentlessly depict one small country as the sum of human iniquity, in a world that has contemporaneously contained the likes of Stalin and Mao, the Khmer Rouge, Fidel Castro, and Saddam Hussein—not to speak of ordinary, garden-variety, U.S.-supported regimes such as Mubarak’s Egypt, which deals with its own recurring intifada by swiftly machine-gunning hundreds of rioters at a clip. (In this sense, Israel, with its pathetic rubber bullets, is hopelessly out of phase with the Arab Middle East.)

The Balls may not be anti-Semitic, but they constantly criticize American Jewry for its lobbying efforts in behalf of Israel as if U.S. citizens were not concurrently lobbying to obtain favors for Armenia, Greece, Poland, and—at hefty fees—Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and a hundred other causes or money-grubbing interests both foreign and domestic. The Balls do not seem to have cottoned to the fact that every member of Congress is lobbied all the time—and mostly by paid lobbyists, out to secure favors for purely economic interests, for their own purely mercenary reasons. Compared to them, the Jews who spend their own money to seek help disinterestedly for Israel are an innocent lot, even if rudely insistent on occasion.

The Balls may not be anti-Semitic, but they depict the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main pro-Israel lobby, as more ruthless than the KGB in its best days, better organized than Japan’s MITI, and richer than the Sultan of Brunei, he of the golden-domed, air-conditioned, 136-Rolls-Royce garage. True, AIPAC has been pretty effective at times, and just like the Sierra Club has a few scalps of unfriendly ex-Congressmen on its belt; but that is all. Next to the Godzilla that is the American Trial Lawyers Association, which year after year successfully prevents even the most urgently needed tort reforms (reforms that could save us a million lawsuits and ten Israels’ worth of money per year), AIPAC is just a non-pit, non-bull, terrier.

A case could be made, one supposes, for outlawing all lobbying, on the grounds that its results ultimately come at the expense of the average bass-fishing, deer-hunting, nutria-trapping American who lives along the banks of the Alabama River with neither a cause nor a special interest to his name. But I was out in a boat last spring with just such a man, and this is what he told me: “We’ve got to stop this helping of foreign countries; it’s time we helped our own people. I served in the army in Europe and Korea, but it’s time we brought the boys home. From everywhere but Israel.” I did not inform him that there is no U.S. garrison in Israel; instead, I asked why he made the exception. He responded that the reason was right there in the Bible: “God blesses those who bless Israel and protects those who protect Israel.” He pulled out a pamphlet printed by his chapel to that effect.

Here is one reason why George W. Ball is so enormously frustrated by his fellow citizens’ lack of “odium” (in George Washington’s phrase) for American Jews, despite their “passionate attachment” to their “favorite nation”: simply put, many American non-Jews do not regard that “passionate attachment” as sinister or strange, but merely as a normal expression of solidarity, and certainly understandable given the history of the Jews from Amalek to George W. Ball. Indeed, many non-Jewish Americans, including my bass-fishing, deer-hunting, nutria-trapping friend, happen to share that “passionate attachment.”



All in all, this book recalls an old joke. When a Viennese Jew was asked why he read the city’s anti-Semitic paper instead of the pro-Jewish Neue Freie Presse, he answered that in the latter the Jews were always being harried by Cossacks, persecuted by Romanians, fleeing as refugees, while in the former the Jews were sure of themselves, all-powerful, globally victorious. “So why should I be depressed, when I can feel like a giant?”

If Israel were half so powerful as the Balls assert, it would never have needed any help from American Jews; and if American Jewish lobbying were half so effective as the Balls claim, Israel would not have had to hazard its forces in high-risk ventures time and again. It could, for instance, simply have lobbied the U.S. government to stop the Arab armies in their tracks in 1948, or to attack Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

On the subject of Osirak, finally, the Balls do concede that, although the raid was in contravention of the Arms Export Control Act,

many may now look back on [it] as a wise and prophetic action. Had the IDF not destroyed that reactor in 1981, Saddam Hussein might well have been able to use nuclear weapons in the Gulf war.

Despite the “might well” conditionality, by the Balls’ own account Israel, with just one of its exploits, thus amply earned its lifetime keep. Out of a $300-million perannum defense budget, how much would we have been willing to pay to prevent, say, just four crude and small Hiroshima-sized fission bombs from being used against our Desert Storm troops?

Of course there is no certainty that fission bombs would have been produced by an intact Osirak, or, if produced, that they would have been used—Saddam Hussein did not even try to use his merely tactical chemical weapons. (He, too, can be deterred.) But then again my friend who lives on the banks of the Alabama River would not agree that Israel’s cause needs a dollars-and-cents justification, or a strategic justification, or a Saddam Hussein/nuclear-weapons justification. And neither do the millions of other Americans who believe that U.S. action overseas is supposed to promote humanitarian purposes, and the cause of democracy.


1 The Passionate Attachment: America's Involvement with Israel, 1947 to the Present. Norton, 382 pp., $24.95.

About the Author

Edward N. Luttwak is senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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