Zionist origins of the global War on Terror: Implications for Palestine solidarity

Zionist origins of the global War on Terror: Implications for Palestine solidarity

Abstract: A relentless war against the Palestinians has been portrayed as Israeli self defence, even as a search for peace. Meanwhile any resistance has been portrayed as the obstacle to peace, even as terrorism. Through this storyline, the so-called ‘international community’ has legitimised the Zionist occupation of Palestine through its imitation of these policies in the global ‘war on terror’.

‘I am for peace, but peace is against me.’
– Palestinian rap group DAM, ‘Who’s a terrorist?’

As expressed ironically by rappers, the so-called ‘peace process’ has caused much confusion and suffering. A relentless war against the Palestinians has been portrayed as Israeli self defence, even as a search for peace. Meanwhile any resistance has been portrayed as the obstacle to peace, even as terrorism. Through this storyline, the so-called ‘international community’ has legitimised the Zionist occupation of Palestine.

The Zionist project has long gained systematic support from Western governments. Consider the $5bn per year from the USA, its regular vetoes of UN resolutions criticising Israel, military supplies (even nuclear weapons components) provided by the UK, and quasi-membership of the EU through access to research funds. More recently, the UK government has denounced Palestinian ‘terrorism’ as a cause of the conflict. The EU has imposed collective punishment upon Palestinians for electing the wrong government, led by a ‘terrorist’ organisation, according to the EU blacklist of banned organisations. Western governments accept the Zionist storyline that Palestinian ‘terrorism’, especially its Islamic version, obstructs the prospects for peace.

Drawing on those examples, here are some difficult questions:

What is the affinity between the Zionist project and the global War on Terror?

As Israel has intensified its brutality and dispossession of the Palestinians over the past decade, why has this injustice been readily accepted (even supported) by Western governments?

Why do the governments’ policies diverge from the interests of their people in global justice?

These questions have had quite different answers, each with different implications for strategies to support Palestinian rights. This article will draw upon divergent views which arose at a recent conference, ‘Against Zionism: Jewish Perspectives’.

National interests?

According to some accounts, the Israel lobby has skewed US government policy to diverge from ‘US interests’ on the false assumption that Israel is ‘a strategic asset’. This view was popularised in the recent article by (Mearsheimer and Walt, 2006), which usefully broke a political silence in the USA. However, the article narrowly focused debate on the lobby’s undue influence, while reinforcing deeper assumptions about a unitary ‘US interest’. Indeed, support for Israel was questioned as aberrant – even though the US government has consistently supported oppressive regimes for at least the past century. Certainly the lobby has been effective in silencing politicians critical of Israel, or simply those who regard US financial aid as excessive, thus suppressing political debate. But this role does not fully explain US government policy.

Some accounts have more explicitly distinguished between US interests and Israeli government policy. Back in 1971 a State Department official commented that US foreign policy has responded more to the pro-Israel views of the American Jewish community than to American oil interests. This comment was recently quoted as evidence of divergent interests (Blankfort, 2006). This begs the crucial question of how overall Western support for Israel may involve convergent interests.

Explanations emphasising the Zionist lobby have some variants which are even more problematic. Some cite ‘Jewish power’, i.e. the financial resources of Jews. This account updates anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which have effectively blamed Jews for disrupting or perverting a unitary national interest. Indeed, the conspiracy theory binds oppressed peoples with their oppressors through a nationalist ideology. The ‘pro-Palestinian’ variant of anti-Semitism generates disunity among those who would support Palestinian rights, while obscuring the basis of US foreign policy.

The Zionist lobby certainly has a great capacity to silence dissent, but not to determine US government policy. As an alternative explanation for affinity between the Israeli and Western governments, the lobby has always depended upon persuading imperialist rulers about where their own interests lie. As a key basis for them to support Israel, it has helped to pre-empt democracy in the Arab world and to deter efforts at claiming local oil resources for the people’s benefit (Rance, 2006a).

A turning point was the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Long before such a lobby could wield financial power, Britain’s rulers were persuaded that the Zionist project would be a strategic asset. According to the British military governor of Palestine, a Zionist state would provide ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of hostile Arabs’. This phrase drew an analogy to the racist Orange State, which had united Protestant capitalists and workers in oppressing the Catholic population.

The persuaders for the Zionist project include Christian fundamentalists, who regard Israel as a bulwark against Islam as an evil religion, even as a catalyst for the apocalypse. This affinity provides a bizarre twist to an old story: that Zionism has always gained support from anti-Semites who prefer that Jews live elsewhere, as well as from imperialist powers seeking a loyal local policeman (Rance, 2006b). In the last decade, Israeli government strategy has provided a prototype for the global War on Terror, as the rest of this article will argue.

Projecting terrorist threats

Israel has remained dependent upon Western imperialism for material and political support. Perversely, it has earned this support by suppressing nationalist and anti-imperialist forces throughout the Middle East. Zionism has always meant occupation, colonisation and war – directed against the indigenous Arab population and neighbouring states. Early on, Zionism demonised any resistance as ‘Arab terrorism’, thus projecting its own barbarism onto its victims, in ways analogous to European colonialism.

In parallel, a Zionist anti-Semitism sought to substitute its own colonialist culture for previous Jewish identities. It sought to eliminate the indigenous Palestinian Jews as a cultural category, so that ‘Arab Jew’ was turned into a contradiction in terms. Likewise Zionism adopted Western anti-Semitic stereotypes of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, whose socialist loyalties were antagonistic to Zionism (Levidow, 1990). They were all pressed to become ‘new Jews’ according to the Zionist version of European colonialism, or else become enemies of the state.

As a racist colonialist project, Zionism guaranteed Arab hostility. Zionism has always attributed the persecution of the Jews to an innate anti-Semitism of non-Jews. This was later projected onto the Palestinian population to explain its hostility to being colonised.

Moreover, Israeli political and military leaders engineered terrorist attacks across the Jordanian border, in the name of avenging and preventing violence against Israelis. As the main political aim, these attacks sought to undermine Israeli and US negotiations with Arab neighbours. Led by Ariel Sharon, this strategy turned Israeli revenge into a sacred moral principle. Having sought peace, President Moshe Sharett was outmanoeuvred. In 1955 he wrote:

In the thirties we restrained the emotions of revenge and we educated the public to consider revenge as an absolutely negative impulse. Now, on the contrary, we justify the system of reprisal out of pragmatic considerations .. . . we have eliminated the mental and moral brakes on this instinct and made it possible. . . to uphold revenge as a moral value. This notion is held by large parts of the public in general, the masses of youth in particular, but it has crystallized and reached the value of a sacred principle in [Sharon’s] battalion which becomes the revenge instrument of the State (Rokach, 1980, Chapter 6).

Thus pre-emptive war dates back at least to 1950s Israel; later it would gain greater significance.

Eventually the Zionist project faced legitimacy problems from the rise of the PLO as a secular national liberation movement. With the mass uprising of the intifada starting in 1987, Palestinian civil society threatened the ‘security’ of the racist Zionist state. To contain the revolt, Israel used physical repression, collective punishment, economic theft, etc – as well as new political strategies which had a wider resonance in the Middle East.

With backing from the USA and UK, other governments in the region were promoting political Islam – i.e. groups which politicise religion, while Islamicising politics – as a weapon against secular nationalist movements. Israel developed its own version of this strategy. Palestinian organisations could not legally receive funds from abroad without permission; the government gave permission to only one such organisation, Hamas, which attacked projects of the PLO and intimidated women activists in particular.

As a parallel strategy, Israel aimed to create an alternative Palestinian leadership which could be incorporated into the occupation, by analogy to the strategies of indirect rule under 19th century British colonialism. Eventually the Palestine National Authority (PNA) was created along these lines under the Oslo Accord, engineered by Israeli Labour politicians and the Clinton Administration. The PNA was designed to delegitimise resistance as ‘terrorism’, while normalising and policing the occupation. Under imperialist pressure, and enticed by an illusory legitimacy, the PLO ‘recognised Israel’ – an inherently expansionist state which has never defined its borders.

After the mid-1990s, the incorporation strategy was breaking down. More and more Palestinians rightly saw the PNA as policing the occupation for Israel. Its collaborationist role discredited secular Palestinian politics in the eyes of many. Meanwhile Hamas was providing basic welfare services, in lieu of the PNA fulfilling its basic responsibilities to the people. Partly by default, Hamas remained a more credible basis for resistance to the occupation and gained more popular support, even if its Islamist agenda created divisions among Palestinians. For all these reasons, the Labour-Clintonite approach was becoming a weaker strategy to suppress Palestinian revolt.

Likud prototype of the New American Century

Since the mid-1990s the Zionist project has extended its colonisation through more settlements, roads and fragmentation of the West Bank. It has systematically attacked Palestinian civil society as a ‘terrorist infrastructure’, in the name of protecting Israeli ‘security’ and ‘democracy’. With the rise of Hamas, the Zionist storyline could blame ‘Islamic terrorism’, as if the systemic violence of the occupation arose from religious extremism. In all these ways, the Likud government strategy offered a prototype of the neoconservative global agenda, which involved Likud politicians early on.

The neoconservative agenda was responding to several real problems for imperialist rule. Domestic market-liberalisation agendas were losing public support and jeopardising the legitimacy of Western governments, so they needed an extra means to frighten their people into submission. ‘Anti-globalisation’ activists, demanding global justice, were making solidarity links with movements opposing the Western theft of resources throughout the global South. After the demise of the ‘Communist threat’, imperialism needed a new global enemy which could justify yet more militarism and discipline of home populations. As the neoconservative remedy for all those problems, the Project for a New American Century sought ‘an American peace’ through a permanent, ‘preventive’ war against existential threats.

For Israel in particular, the neoconservative agenda set out to rebuild Zionism through ‘economic reform’ (market liberalisation), counter-terror measures (yet more terrorism) and attacks on its hitherto ‘partner for peace’. After a Study Group on ‘A New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000’ was led by Richard Perle, the Group reported as follows:

To secure the nation’s streets and borders in the immediate future, Israel can: 
Work closely with Turkey and Jordan to contain, destabilize, and roll-back some of its most dangerous threats. This implies clean break from the slogan, ‘comprehensive peace’ to a traditional concept of strategy based on balance of power. 
Change the nature of its relations with the Palestinians, including upholding the right of hot pursuit for self defense into all Palestinian areas and nurturing alternatives to Arafat’s exclusive grip on Palestinian society (Perle et al, 1996).

On that basis, the Likud project sought to wage and justify permanent war against the Palestinian people. Rather than retain the PNA as a partner for policing the Palestinians, the Likud sought to weaken it and then blame Arafat for failing to stop ‘terrorism’. Having effectively encouraged the Rabin assassination, Likud then used it to abandon any pretence of a ‘peace process’. Likewise, in colluding with Sharon’s invasion of the Temple Mount, the government guaranteed violent protest. In destroying Palestinian civil society, Israel has portrayed its actions as self-defence at the frontline of a global struggle for civilisation (Warschawski, 2006). According to the new Zionist storyline, Islamic terrorism posed the same existential threat to Israel and the entire Western world, whose survival depends on support for Israel’s actions.

11 September opportunity

In retrospect, this Likud strategy was a social laboratory for what would become the global War on Terror though a Likudisation of US politics (Souief, 2004). As a neoconservative diagnosis of major global threats,

America’s global leadership, and its role as the guarantor of the current great-power peace, relies upon… the general stability of the international system of nation-states relative to terrorists, organized crime, and other ‘non-state actors’ (PNAC, 2000).

The neocon emphasis on ‘non-state actors’ resonated with earlier warnings about a ‘clash of civilisations’. Samuel Huntington (1993, 1996) had warned that post-Cold War conflict would occur most frequently and violently along cultural lines, by contrast to the Left-Right ideological conflicts of the Cold War. This scenario had been widely criticised, even in the journal which originally floated the idea. Yet a few years later it was appropriated by the neocons with a more specific focus on Judeo-Christian civilisation versus Islamic fundamentalist-terrorism.

The 11th Sept 2001 attacks provided an opportunity for the neocon agenda, along with greater convergence between the Israeli and Western governments. Former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu happened to be in New York during the 11th Sept 2001 attack, so journalists asked him what this meant for Israel. He replied: ‘It is very good. It will strengthen the bonds between the two peoples. Israelis have suffered from terrorism for years, and now so does the US population.’ In a similar vein, said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: ‘Together we can defeat the forces of evil.’ Thus he equated the ‘counter-terror’ campaign of Israel and its Western allies.

The equation has become more than rhetorical. Soon the Western ‘war on terror’ was justifying its global plunder, illegal wars and systematic brutality along similar lines: as a self-defence against an abstract evil ‘terror’ amidst a ‘clash of civilisations’. This ‘war’ has drawn upon colonialist counter-insurgency strategies, which conflated all types of anti-colonial resistance as ‘terrorism’ (CAMPACC, 2005). As UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has said, Middle East peace would be easier to achieve if it were not for terrorism; this diagnosis blames those who resist the Zionist occupation. Western governments have adopted Israeli demands: that Palestinians ‘renounce terror’ as a condition for any support or even subsistence.

Alongside those parallels with colonial strategies, the ‘war on terror’ has a new ‘blowback’ effect, highlighted by the 11 September attack itself. Western societies now find themselves being attacked by Islamic terrorist networks related to those which their own governments had sponsored for their foreign intrigues and/or protected as ‘intelligence assets’ (Ahmed, 2006). Like Israel’s permanent war against the Palestinians, the global ‘war on terror’ intensifies the threats from which it claims to protect us. Its self-perpetuating logic conveniently justifies permanent war.

Moreover, Western governments have appropriated elements of Zionist strategy for their own activities. They have learned from Israel for their occupation of Iraq, e.g. by intensifying ethnic divisions and inflicting collective punishment upon communities which resist. Not coincidentally, as training for the invasion of Iraq, US soldiers watched films of the Israeli Defence Force operations treating entire populations as ‘terror suspects’.

Also by analogy, Western governments have persecuted migrant and Muslim populations at home by turning them into an internal colony. This ‘counter-terror’ campaign aims to deter, disorganise or even criminalise dissent from foreign policy (CAMPACC, 2005). The UK government has maintained close links with organisations of political Islam, while demanding that community representatives help to counter a vaguely defined ‘extremism’. Prime Minister Tony Blair has asked the ‘moderate majority’ of Muslims to adopt his storyline: ‘If we want to defeat the extremism, we have got to defeat its ideas and we have got to address the completely false sense of grievance against the West’ (quoted in Grice and Russell, 2006). These manoeuvres have several aims: shifting blame away from the government, Islamicising Asian politics, marginalising progressive Muslim forces, and justifying political surveillance of entire populations as ‘terror suspects’.

Implications for Palestine solidarity

In all the above ways, the Zionist project has an affinity with strategies for global counter-insurgency, even within Western countries. Elements of the neoconservative project have become mainstream politics in Israel, the USA and much of Europe. This analysis matters for strategies to oppose the Zionist occupation and imperial plunder more widely.

Implications can be put in negative and positive terms – for what should and should not be done.

It would be misguided to do the following:

  • Making appeals to Muslim religious affinity, or identifying Jewish traditions/culture as the problem. This would reinforce the Zionist storyline of a religious conflict, intensify political divisions among those who oppose the occupation, and divert attention from its colonial basis.
  • Identifying the Zionist lobby as the main problem. This would exaggerate its influence and divert attention from the imperialist-class interests which must be fought.
  • Appealing to the humanity of Western governments. This would be futile and obscure the reasons why they depend upon Israel as a local policeman.

As an alternative strategy, we should:

  • Oppose ‘the Jewish state’ because it is a racist colonialist project – not because it is supposedly Jewish, especially given that Zionism attacks progressive Jewish traditions.
  • Build unity around a demand for a democratic secular state which guarantees equal rights for all its citizens.
  • Develop direct solidarity between civil society organisations here and in Palestine.
  • Ally with all those who resist imperial plunder, and all those targeted by the ‘war on terror’, both here and abroad.

Although this ‘war on terror’ persecutes Muslims in particular, it targets anyone who resists – Palestinians, Kurds, Tamils, Colombians, etc. – regardless of their religious background. A secular basis can more effectively achieve the unity needed to oppose our common enemy. To stop the constant threat of Zionist aggression, opponents will need to raise the cost to its perpetrators and imperialist allies – both there and here.


For helpful comments for improving this article, I would like to thank Ahdaf Soueif and fellow supporters of Jews Against Zionism (Tony Greenstein, Roland Rance, Deborah Maccoby).


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Blankfort, J. (2006) ‘The influence of Israel and its American lobby over US Middle East policy explained’, talk at conference on ‘Against Zionism: Jewish Perspectives’, 2nd July, https://www.ihrc.org.uk/060702/

CAMPACC (2005) ‘Embedded Experts in the War on Terror’, www.campacc.org.uk/Library/Embed_brochure_0705.pdf

Grice, A. and Russell, B. (2006) ‘Blair lays down the law to Muslims on extremists in their midst’, The Independent, 5 July

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Perle, R. et al. (1996) A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, http://www.iasps.org/strat1.htm

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Rance, R. (2006a) ‘Opposition to Zionism: the core strategy of a solidarity movement’, talk at> conference on ‘Against Zionism: Jewish Perspectives’, 2nd July, https://www.ihrc.org.uk/060702/

Rance, R. (2006b) ‘Challenging Zionism’, Palestine Internationalist, June, www.palint.org

Rokach, L. (1980) Israel‘s Sacred Terrorism: A study based on Moshe Sharett’s Personal Diary, and other documents. Foreword by Noam Chomsky. Belmont, MA: AAUG Press Association of Arab-American University Graduates, http://www.codoh.com/zionweb/zisacredterror/ziintro.html, http://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/essays/rokach.html

Soueif, A. (2004) ‘Contagious exchanges’, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, pp.125-36, London: Bloomsbury.

Warschawski, M. (2006) ‘Israel in the context of the “clash of civilisations”’, talk at> conference on ‘Against Zionism: Jewish Perspectives’, 2nd July, https://www.ihrc.org.uk/060702/

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