A Nuanced History of the Forces Shaping U.S.-Israel Relations

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Because of the high stakes involved, Mead returns to the topic again and again throughout the book, comprehensively demolishing the libel through a sophisticated set of arguments that disprove the Vulcanists’ “Jewcentric” view of American and world affairs. He shows, among other things, the many ways (some obvious, some not) that U.S. support for Israel over the last 40 years has actually benefited America; that many pro-Israel politicians, like Donald Trump, have been loathed by the vast majority of American Jews; that Jewish-owned newspapers like this one have not always been slavishly supportive of Israeli policies; and that U.S. policy has not, in fact, always been pro-Israel: The United States didn’t start significantly arming the Jewish state until the Kennedy administration, and not until 1987 did an American president (Ronald Reagan) declare Israel a “major non-NATO ally.” Indeed, when Washington did finally start backing Jerusalem, it was because the latter had become a regional superpower without U.S. help — and America needed Israel, not the other way around.

Meanwhile, even as Mead concedes that a pro-Israel lobby does exist inside the United States, he shows that it’s only one of many interest groups, and that, thanks to the structure of U.S. democracy, such lobbies succeed only when they have broad public backing. In other words, powerful lobbies depend on public opinion for their power; they don’t create that opinion. And the American public happens to be very pro-Israel — for a long list of organic reasons that have nothing to do with AIPAC, George Soros or the Sulzbergers. Ordinary Americans don’t think there’s anything strange about their country’s support for Israel; such skepticism is reserved for some coastal elites and peripheral intellectuals.

Mead’s best argument against the Israel Lobby myth, though, lies in his thorough explication of the complex and sometimes surprising geopolitical, social and electoral forces that actually determine U.S. policy toward Israel. The book is at its best when showing, for example, that President Harry Truman’s grudging and limited support for Israel’s creation had little to do with Jewish pressure and everything to do with Truman’s desperate determination to keep his Democratic coalition together as he sought to shift U.S. foreign policy away from Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime pro-Soviet approach and toward confrontation with Moscow (which was still quite popular in many left-wing precincts of America). Truman, moreover, wasn’t even Israel’s primary supporter during this period: Joseph Stalin deserves far more credit for ensuring Israel came into existence and for arming it once it did.

“The Arc of a Covenant” has another merit worth mentioning here: Despite its polemical power, Mead manages to keep the book’s tone high-minded and generous; when discussing his, or Israel’s, adversaries, he always strives to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Well, almost always. No book is perfect, and “The Arc of a Covenant” is no exception. For some reason, Mead’s generosity of spirit fails him when he gets to the Obama administration, which he scornfully describes as naïve and inept — criticisms he largely spares both George W. Bush and (most mysteriously) Donald Trump, despite both presidents’ equal or greater failures. Another quibble: The book would benefit from clearer sourcing, especially when making controversial claims — such as that Trump’s Israel policy was all part of a premeditated, deliberately crafted and highly perceptive master plan. (Skim the summaries of Jared Kushner’s new book and you’ll quickly appreciate the implausibility of this claim.)

Finally, at the book’s end I found myself wishing, if not for policy recommendations, then at least for predictions about where Mead thinks the U.S.-Israel relationship is headed. He’s so good at laying out the real but often-overlooked forces that shape this alliance, while puncturing the mythological ones, that I’d love to get his take on its future prospects — especially at this moment, when global politics and U.S. foreign policy are being scrambled in so many baffling ways.

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