I’ve wondered why Israel was ever considered a ‘strategic ally’ of the US in the Arab world? And I especially don’t get it now.
Some people peg it to the Cold War. If the Soviets supported Nassar, the US needed to counter-balance with Israel. Others say we share democratic systems with Israel, calling it an oasis of democracy in an authoritarian part of the world. Unfortunately, the US has seldom made democracy a top priority for its allies, and after OPEC was founded America assiduously courted all the Arab authoritarian oil-producers with promises of security garauntees and arms sales. In return, led by Saudi Arabia, OPEC kept the price of oil within a set range by manipulating supply. That’s strategic! Even before OPEC, the US displayed a rather cynical view of democracy in the region, having supported a British-inspired 1953 coup d’etat against the democratically elected government of newly independent Iran and replaced it with the brutal rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi. We’ve been paying ever since.
Israel as a state grew out of the carnage of WW2. One factor in the US and Western embrace of Israel was certainly that the Jewish people had a right to a state with defensible borders. And the European Jews who emigrated to Israel during and after Nazi rule were certainly more familiar culturally than the Islamic-Muslim states nearby. American Jews have been going back and forth to Israel in droves since it was established. So there is a social cultural bond that spans continents.
Maybe I don’t understand the term ‘strategic ally.’ Certainly none of the above reasons explains why so many American politicians in both parties have developed a myopic ‘Israel right or wrong’ policy that directly conflicts with twenty years of official US policy concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli settlement expansion.
Israel is an ally but so is Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and several other smaller Persian Gulf states. Calling Israel a ‘strategic ally’ gives it an importance that is harder and harder to justify.
George H. W. Bush was the last in a line of GOP presidents to seek a balanced policy in the Middle East, at least to the extent of convincing the PLO to sign the Oslo Accords believing that Israel would negotiate if it had US security protocols backing it. George Bush 41 famously held up loan guarantees to Israel until it signed the Oslo Peace Accords. Unfortunately, the Oslo process turned into a joke over the last two decades, with no American President holding either side accountable for throwing new obstacles up to the peace process on a yearly basis.
Meanwhile, AIPAC and other politically oriented American Jewish groups shifted into overdrive to build their numbers and influence in American politics. And under Bush 43, they merged their interests in an informal marriage of convenience with Christian fundamentalists who support Israel based on Biblical prophesy in Revelations that predicts the conversion of Jews to accept Jesus Christ or their damnation in hell.
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that while evangelicals had a role, the changed post-Sept. 11 world should not be underestimated as a factor. Republican presidents such as Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush operated in a Cold War arena in which cultivating allies among Israel’s rivals and enemies may have made sense — but that is no longer the case, he said.
“There were elements in the realist camp who may have seen Israel not as a strategic ally,” Brooks said of the presidency of the first George Bush. “Given how things have developed — the global war on terror, the rise of militant Islam — that doesn’t make any sense anymore.”
Brooks is one who makes no sense. 9/11 changed US strategic interests, and Israel has thumbed its nose at some of those changes for twelve years. America’s interest in 2001 was to isolate and destroy the terrorists while assuring Arab and Muslim countries that America was not at war with them. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have been the one act which, after the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, might win back some good will among Arabs towards America. By the time President Bush got serious about peace six years after 9/11, it was too late. Although the Bush Administration, like Clinton, threw a Hail Mary pass for Middle East peace during the last months of its second term, it was too late.
In taking office, Netanyahu courted the far right in Israel and solidified the ‘refusnik’ branch of the Israeli body politic. Although General Petraeus, six former NSC heads and most recently Defense Secretary Panetta have warned that continuation of the Israel/Palestine conflict runs counter to US interests in the area, both Presidents Bush 43 and Obama continued with uncritical support of the Netanyahu government.
Israel under Netanyahu is openly dismissive of US security interests and proves it by making no attempt to restart peace negotiations. The US Congress, afraid of offending donors, has caved to Netanyahu’s hawkish narrative to the extent of supporting Israeli policies directly at odds with US foreign policy and undermining the President of the United States.
Israel’s increasingly hard-line refusnik policy towards peace, its unrepentant settlement expansion deep into the West Bank and Netanyahu’s desire to wipe the negotiation history of over 20 years clean and start over – all have hurt the US standing not just in the Arab world but globally. Large parts of the Arab world think peace negotiations are a sham and ridicule the tail-wagging-dog relationship between Israel and Washington.
Over the past year, Israel’s ‘strategic alliance’ with the US has taken an even more ominous direction. While the formerly autocratic post-independence Arab autocrats are being replaced by more open, democrat governments, Israel doubles down, saying it’s impossible to have peace with so much upheaval. More pointedly, Israel has destroyed its own relationship with Turkey, a NATO member and real ‘strategic’ ally of the US and Egypt, with whom its co-existed peacefully for over 30 years.
A strategic ally doesn’t ignore all requests by the US to ease up on settlements. A strategic ally doesn’t manufacture a fight with the President on US soil to court members of the opposite party. A strategic ally tries to work with its partner in influencing the direction of diplomacy in a region. It doesn’t kiss a NATO ally of its ‘strategic partner’ goodby and good riddance over a hubristic refusal to apologize for killing nine of its citizens. It doesn’t keep throwing the region out of balance by its own blunders even as the region navigates upheavals of its own.
Israel is no strategic ally to the US. Maybe President Obama should study Bush 41′s playbook and get serious.