Regimes like Iran need Israel to give the people they rule–many of whom are destitute due to systematic economic and political discrimination–an external object for their anger. Not only is the U.S. far too large to serve this fetishistic function, the reach of its consumer culture, particularly in the form of movies and popular music, makes it hard to regard America as fully external. In a sense, the U.S. is too near even when it’s thousands of miles away. By contrast, Israel is a place that people throughout the Middle East can imagine reaching in a geographical sense – the testing of missiles is always reported together with their cruising range – but it’s not part of their domestic experience. This has made it a fine scapegoat for the entirety of its six-decade existence.
What has changed since 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the political psychology of the region has been shaken by the physical proximity of American forces. Just as Israel has had to come to terms with the fact that the United States is now practically a virtual geographic neighbor, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and, above all, Iran have had to deal with the repercussions of a military imperialism as invasive as the cultural sort that preceded it. The American presence in the region has never been so thoroughly embodied. For this reason, the old stand-by of hostility towards Israel is being summoned, often hysterically, as a way to shore up the cracks in these countries’ political identities.