The US love fest with Israel appears to have run into a spot of trouble. In a reversal of its previous policy, the US is insisting that Israel suspend new settlement construction in East Jerusalem to pave the way for ‘peace’ talks with the Palestinian Authority. For a change, the US is countering Israel’s ‘No’ with tough talk not heard in a while.
On March 9, when the US Vice President was greeted in Tel Aviv with news of new settlements in East Jerusalem, he was furious. Privately, he told Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel’s settlement activity “undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace.”
This is not a message right-wing talk artists could shout down. Joe Biden was echoing the message delivered by General Petraeus, commander of US troops in the Middle East, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Armed Services Committee. Hillary Clinton too reiterated this message in her speech to AIPAC.
What has occasioned this open rift between two spouses in a heavenly marriage? There have been tiffs before between them, but never before has a US administration told Israel that its policy endangers American troops or American interests in the Middle East? This talk is serious. It belies decades of rhetoric that has boosted Israel as America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Middle East.
It appears that its past is beginning to catch up with Israel. Adversaries it had long suppressed, forces it had harnessed for its expansionist policy, blowbacks from decisions made in hubris have now converged to limit Israel’s options. Is the Zionist logic that had brought endless successes in the past now working in the opposite direction? Is Israel running out of its fabled resourcefulness?
Israel’s stunning victory in June 1967 had produced two destabilizing results. Having solved its native problem in 1948, Israel had created it anew in 1967 by its decision to retain the West Bank and Gaza. The June War also swelled the ranks of extremist Jews who began to colonize East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza. Unable to drive out the Palestinians, this new round of colonization would turn Israel into an apartheid state.
In the 2000s, international civil society started taking notice. Movements were launched to divest from, boycott and sanction Israel. Activists began to use Western legal systems to prosecute Israelis for war crimes. Israeli leaders visiting Western campuses are now heckled routinely. Slowly, Western publics are turning away from Israel.
In 1982, in a bid to extend Israel’s northern border, Israel invaded and occupied southern Lebanon. The Lebanese Shi’ites responded by creating Hizbullah, a multi-layered grass-roots resistance, the most formidable adversary Israel had ever faced. In 2000, they forced Israel to withdraw unilaterally, and in July 2006 repulsed a fresh Israeli invasion, giving Israel a bloody nose.
No more was Tehran a distant threat for Tel Aviv: it was now positioned right next to Israel’s northern border. Although Hizbullah spoke to the grit and discipline of Lebanese Shi’ites, it could not have grown without Iranian support.
At about the same time, as part of its strategy to defeat the Second Intifada, Israel built the apartheid Wall cutting through the West Bank, and it pulled the Jewish settlements out of Gaza while sealing it from outside contacts. By stopping the suicide-bombers, the Wall gave Israel time to complete the creation of Gaza-like enclaves in the West Bank. In consequence, ‘peace’ talks with Palestinians lost their urgency and were shelved. This made the pro-US Arab regimes a bit nervous: they needed the charade of ‘peace’ talks to shore up what little legitimacy they had with their home audience.
The Egyptian-Israeli siege of Gaza brought Iranian influence to Israel’s southern border. The siege has stopped Hamas from become another Hizbullah, but their home made rockets reminded Israel that its native problem had not gone away – that it would continue to haunt them.
In the 1990s, the Zionist logic had spawned al-Qaida, a group that would use terror to lure the US to wage war against the Middle East. After the Cold War, the Zionists too – led by the Neocons – pursued the same goal. Using the absurd thesis of the ‘clash of civilizations,’ they began to promote a Western war against the Islamicate. They urged the US to take out Iran, Syria and Iraq.
This was a departure from Israel’s long-standing war strategy. Israel took US money and weapons, but fought its own wars. This had several advantages. It built Israel’s military strength and prestige; it kept the US military out of Israel’s path to hegemony over the Middle East. Also, American support for Israel might wear thin if they saw their troops dying in Israel’s wars. If Israel was ready to abandon this strategy in the 1990s, that is because it could not take on Iran, Iraq and Syria on its own.
And so the die was cast. When al-Qaida struck on 9-11, Israel saw opportunity. The Zionists began to press full steam for the US to invade Iraq – and succeeded. Few Israelis worried that the chickens would come home to roost. In April 2008, Netanyahu said, “We are benefiting from…the attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, and the American struggle in Iraq.”
Now, some ten years later, the chickens are coming home to roost. The Iraq War has achieved little for Israel. It removed a defanged Saddam Hussein, but extended Iran’s influence into Iraq and it has brought Iranian proxies to its northern and southern borders. Iran now uses Palestine to undermine pro-US Arab regimes.
More ominously, the US military has now spoken. It has warned that Israeli policy raises tensions in the Middle East and endangers US troops on the ground. It will not be easy for Israel and its backers to shout down US generals with charges of anti-Semitism. That is why so many Zionist commentators look alarmed. One Israeli commentator warns that “Obama and Netanyahu are at point of no return.” Others are saying worse.
It appears unlikely that this ‘flap’ between the US and Israel will blow over soon. If it does not, attacks by Jewish groups – inside and outside Israel – against Obama will become more frequent and nastier. The loyalty of some Americans, both inside and outside the Congress, will be tested. It is hard to predict where this will go.
However, this much should be clear. Even if US-Israeli differences over the Middle East are finessed for now, that will not be the end of it. The pressures that have persuaded the US to insist on a ‘solution’ to the Palestinian problem will persist. The realities that have produced the present ‘flap’ are not going away.
M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at email@example.com.