Biden and Netanyahu Biden and Netanyahu. Photo: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem / CC BY 2.0

In the latest article in our series Nakba75: the roots of Israeli apartheid, Shabbir Lakha looks at what we mean by describing Israel as US Imperialism’s ‘watchdog’ state in the Middle East

The series so far has explained the origins of Zionism and the foundations of the state of Israel rooted in settler colonialism and imperial conquest. In an era of rapid capitalist development, the Middle East emerged as a treasure trove of natural resources for the imperial powers, especially oil, and as a key strategic region in their inter-imperial rivalries.

Strategic interests

The need to control oil supplies and key transport routes between western Europe and the Far East led to agreement between Britain and France to carve up the Middle East in the aftermath of the First World War.

The creation of a Jewish colony in Palestine was seen, in part, as a way of solving the ‘problem’ of Jewish refugees seeking sanctuary in Britain, but also of securing and colonising the country at a time of growing anti-colonial opposition to the British empire. Israel was, from its inception, set up as an outpost of Western imperialism. Britain’s military governor of Jerusalem summarised this when he said Israel was to be a ‘loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism’.

After the Second World War, the Middle East became a region fought over by the two main post-war Imperial powers: the USA and the USSR. Both wanted access to Middle Eastern resources, and, in the context of the Cold War, both backed various regimes to bolster their strategic influence in the area.

The US set up its first military base in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in 1945. The US’s first intervention in the Middle East was the CIA-backed coup against democratically-elected Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953. Mossadegh’s government had nationalised Iranian oil, taking it over from British and US oil interests. The installation of the US-friendly Shah brought with it the transfer of 40% of Iranian oil assets to the US.

As liberation movements against the old imperialist powers of France and Britain spread, the US was keen to gain influence in the region. While the USSR used the language of anti-imperialism to try to win support from the leaderships of newly independent countries in the Middle East and Africa, the US flirted with various nationalist movements and supported a range of anti-communist organisations and governments.

A proxy for the US

It was in this context that the role of Israel as a country loyal to the US became more important. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz explained this in clear terms:

‘The West is none too happy about its relations with states in the Middle East. The feudal regimes there have to make such concessions to the nationalist movements … that they become more and more reluctant to supply Britain and the United States with their natural resources and military bases …. Therefore, strengthening Israel helps the Western powers maintain equilibrium and stability in the Middle East. Israel is to become the watchdog.

‘There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive policy towards the Arab states when this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the US and Britain. But if for any reason the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied upon to punish one or several neighbouring states whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of permissible.’

(Haaretz, 30 September 1951)

In 1956, when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, the new relationship between Israel and the US became clearer.  When Nasser nationalised the canal, Britain and France, working with Israel, plotted to seize control of it and get rid of Nasser. But the US intervened and forced the three powers into a humiliating withdrawal. This marked the marginalisation of the old imperial powers’ influence in the region and emphasised the dominance of the US as the main Western imperial power.

Over the next ten years, the US continued to play a balancing act between supporting nationalist governments in the Middle East in the fight against ‘communism’ and building the military power of Israel to reign them in when necessary. Military aid to Israel began in 1959. In that year, the bill ran to $400,000 a year, by 1966 this was up to $90 million and today it’s nearly $4 billion per year. Describing Israel as a ‘strategic asset’, Ronald Reagan commented, ‘if there were no Israel with [its military] force, we’d have to supply … our own, so this isn’t just altruism on our part’. Israel proved its worth in 1967, when it defeated the Arab armies in the Six Day War.

At the time, Egypt and Syria had formed a United Arab Republic, there had been nationalist revolts against the regimes in Lebanon and Jordan, and Iraq’s pro-western government had been overthrown. US strategy turned to open hostility towards the nationalists in the region. Israel’s victory in the war weakened the Arab nationalist project sweeping across the region as well as the pull towards the Soviet Union. It thus saved the US from having to intervene directly. And it emphasised the importance of a strong, well-armed Israel for US interests.

Israel’s wars

Since 1967, Israel has intervened militarily in neighbouring Arab countries numerous times and also acted as a conduit for the US to sell weapons to countries and forces the US couldn’t openly be seen to support, including apartheid South Africa, Guatemala and Nicaragua. So Israel is characterised as a watchdog state because, though it acts in its own self-interest (as the sub-imperial power in the region), its self-interest is inherently bound up with the interests of the US.

A more recent example of how Israel acts as a ‘watchdog’ for US imperialism can be glimpsed from the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In 2006 the US was bogged down in the war in Iraq and was still in Afghanistan. US strategists increasingly talked of the problem of the ‘Shia Crescent’ – meaning the growing threat to the US from Iran, through Shia communities in Iraq and on to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US didn’t have the capacity (especially given the extent of anti-war opposition to their policies at home and overseas) to deal directly with the growing power of Hezbollah. Israel had its own reasons to wage war against Hezbollah, which was increasingly assertive in its confrontation with Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, and was providing support to the newly-elected Hamas administration in Gaza.

And so, Israel launched their attack on Lebanon and Hezbollah, in both their interests, and in the strategic interests of the US. The problem in 2006, however, was that Israel lost. Hezbollah’s victory was a boost for the Iraqi resistance to the US occupation, and a boost for Hamas and the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation. And this raised questions about Israel’s ‘usefulness’ to the US: what is the point of being a watchdog if you can’t deliver?

Since the defeat, Israel has attempted to demonstrate its military prowess and ability to assert its power through its repeated attacks on Gaza and its regular airstrikes on Syria and Lebanon. All these were part of an attempt to reinforce their local sub-imperial credentials and emphasise their continuing relevance to the US as a watchdog state for imperialism in the Middle East.

The Nakba75: the Roots of Israeli Apartheid series:
  1. Downward spiral: Settlers and state violence
  2. Palestine and the carve-up of the Middle East
  3. The origins of Zionism and the Balfour Declaration
  4. Palestinian resistance to Mandate rule
  5. What is settler colonialism?
  6. Al-Nakba: The ethnic cleansing of Palestine
  7. Israel: Watchdog for US imperialism
  8. Palestine: the key to freedom in the Middle East rests with the Arab working class
  9. Palestine and international solidarity

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Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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