The US-Israeli divide: it’s a chasm
I had to laugh when I read the Associated Press piece on Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak’s message to a series of visiting US officials:
“Israeli officials say they won’t warn the U.S. if they decide to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, according to one U.S. intelligence official familiar with the discussions. The pronouncement, delivered in a series of private, top-level conversations, sets a tense tone ahead of meetings in the coming days at the White House and Capitol Hill.”
The traffic between Washington and Tel Aviv has been crowded lately: top US officials, including the chairman of the joint chiefs, are traipsing to Israel, “all trying to close the trust gap between Israel and the U.S. over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” as the AP piece puts it.
While diplomats speak a language made up almost entirely of euphemisms, the reality is that the “trust gap” is a veritable chasm. For the Israelis to tell us – their chief benefactors and defenders – they have no intention of warning us before undertaking an action which will put US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the entire region in mortal danger, is beyond outrageous. It is an overtly hostile act. In effect, what they are threatening amounts to the Middle Eastern Pearl Harbor. The irony is that the means to launch such an attack were given to them by us.
In the second paragraph, the AP puts a polite face on the Israeli threat:
“Israeli officials said that if they eventually decide a strike is necessary, they would keep the Americans in the dark to decrease the likelihood that the U.S. would be held responsible for failing to stop Israel’s potential attack.”
One wonders if the Israelis managed to say this with a straight face. After all, how would anyone, including the Iranians, know what Washington knew and when they knew it? The Israelis know perfectly well the US will be blamed no matter what. Indeed, this is precisely what they are counting on to carry the day in favor of those arguing for a US strike: for if the US is going to be blamed in any event, then we might as well be the ones to take out Iran’s nuclear sites, a task the Israelis don’t have the capacity to accomplish cleanly and neatly. If Israel is seen as the main aggressor, then getting overt support for regime change from Iran’s Sunni neighbors is out of the question: indeed, an Israeli attack on Tehran will threaten those neighbors with serious destabilization and give impetus to Islamists already in the ascendant in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. In order to avoid these outcomes, US policymakers could be persuaded into attacking Iran in order to preempt an Israeli strike.
In short, the Israelis are pursing a policy that can only be described as blackmail sui generis. Usually, the blackmailer operates in the shadows, sneaking about delivering threatening missives to his victims, all the while taking great pains to cover his tracks. Not the Israelis: they’re doing it right out in the open.
If America were a normal country, this would provoke outrage in our lawmakers and in the media: they would want to know why a supposed “ally” would knowingly put American soldiers at risk – and openly boast about keeping us in the dark.
When it comes to Washington’s relationship with Israel, however, the US is very far from normality. The “special relationship” is one of the hallowed canons of American politics, the one issue that brings together San Francisco Democrats and Red State Republicans. The Israel lobby is a unique phenomenon, wielding extraordinary clout not only in the corridors of power but also in the newsrooms of the “mainstream” media, where a pro-Israel spin on anything relating to the Jewish state is de rigueur. As Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer exhaustively document in their book on the subject, the Israel lobby was instrumental in dragging us into war with Iraq – and long ago began the drumbeat for war with Iran.
Tensions with the Israelis have been on the rise ever since the midpoint of George W. Bush’s second term, when the Washington headquarters of AIPAC, the powerhouse organization at the Lobby’s core, was raided by the FBI on no less than two occasions. At the same time, two AIPAC officials, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, were indicted on charges of espionage in the infamous Larry Franklin case. Franklin, the Pentagon’s top Iran analyst and an off-the-rails neocon, was convicted of handing over top secret information to Rosen and Weissman, who promptly handed it over to Israeli embassy officials. The case dragged on for years, with the government insisting some portions of the trial had to be kept off the public record due to the highly sensitive nature of the evidence. The defense pursued a legal strategy of “greymail” all the way to the end: the case was eventually dropped, and yet the underlying issues undermining the “special relationship” continued to worsen as it became clear Bush wasn’t going to follow up his Iraq misadventure with “shock and awe” over Tehran.
This worsening of relations accelerated with the election of Barack Obama, who initially promised what seemed likely to be a more even-handed approach to the Middle East region, particularly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Cairo speech, and the subsequent pressure on Israel to cease building “settlements” on disputed West Bank real estate had the Israel lobby up in arms. In a tacit alliance with the Obama-is-a-secret-Muslim loons and the Republican politicians who cater to that crowd, the Israel-Firsters raised a hue and cry: Obama is “selling out Israel!”
The way these people howled one would have thought the President was committing treason against the United States. What’s important to understand, however, is that the Israel lobby doesn’t distinguish between American and Israeli interests. While this may seem like an extreme position, it fairly represents a distillation of the Washington consensus: the phrase “no daylight” is often heard when government officials in both Washington and Tel Aviv discuss Israel’s relationship with Uncle Sam.
Yet this official fiction is being stretched to the breaking point as the US and Israel square off over Iran – and the truth is that it was never a very convincing fiction to begin with. Every nation has interests unique to itself, which are perceived through the eyes of its own political leaders. An alliance, even a long-term strategic relationship, has limits. In denying this, the pro-Israel crowd is denying the very nature of nation-states, and indulging in a dangerous fantasy that can only end in disaster for the US.
A normal country would answer Israeli efforts to blackmail us into attacking Iran with a message short and sweet. I would send Zbigniew Brzezinski over there to tell them what he told the Daily Beast in an interview:
“How aggressive can Obama be in insisting to the Israelis that a military strike might be in America’s worst interest?
ZB: We are not exactly impotent little babies. They have to fly over our airspace in Iraq. Are we just going to sit there and watch?
What if they fly over anyway?
ZB: Well, we have to be serious about denying them that right. That means a denial where you aren’t just saying it. If they fly over, you go up and confront them. They have the choice of turning back or not. No one wishes for this but it could be a Liberty in reverse.”
That this scenario is not within the realm of the politically possible is our national shame. Our politicians preen and pose as great “patriots,” and yet the more “patriotic” they claim to be the more they seem to favor appeasing the Israelis at America’s expense.
The Israelis have been shielded by their nuclear monopoly since the early 1960s, when they stole the technology from us to make their own bomb: now that the Iranians are intent on pursuing the same policy of “nuclear ambiguity” the Israelis employed for many years, they are claiming Tehran poses an intolerable “existential threat.”
This is nonsense, as anyone who remembers a little incident known as the cold war will readily concede. For half a century we faced a Soviet Union armed with thousands of nuclear weapons aimed straight at our cities: on the other side of the Iron Curtain they confronted a similarly sobering array. The prospect of mutual assured destruction kept the threat of a nuclear conflagration at bay until the inner rot of the Soviet regime led to its downfall. That the mullahs of Tehran will not last half as long is a pretty good bet – unless war with the West fuses Persian nationalism with religiosity to give their sclerotic worldview new life.
The “trust gap” between the US and Israel is getting wider and more chasm-like by the minute. As we approach the climax to this international drama, it will be interesting to see who in the US winds up on which side of the growing divide.