Loosening the Tie to Israel

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

After bombing over a thousand targets in Gaza, where genuine strategic targets are few and far between, even Israeli leaders decided that the backlash from killing Palestinian children was too much to bear.  Nevertheless, the mainstream media is giving credit to President Joe Biden for arranging a cease fire between Israel and Gaza that was determined by conditions on the ground and not humanitarian concerns.  After four major conflicts in the past 12 years between Israelis and Palestinians as well as shorter cross-border confrontations, we know how easy it is for Israel to kill innocent civilians in Gaza and uproot olive trees on the West Bank.  We  also know that the United States is unwilling to use its considerable leverage to get a different outcome in the Middle East.

Instead, we are hearing the same tired suggestions for ways to stop the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.  Last week, an editorial in the New York Times titled “New Ideas” pointed to the importance of “addressing the rights of Palestinians,” which is exactly what Israel has foresworn for seven decades.  This is the best that the Times could come up with from an editorial board that proclaimed its views were “informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values.”

In an oped in the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria placed his bet on the misguided notion that Israel is a “liberal democracy,” and that its founding fathers embodied “justice and morality.”  Zakaria argues that the “only hope” is that these “forces will gain strength and one day lead the country to give the Palestinians a state of their own.”  Meanwhile, Israel is moving toward a right-wing coalition government that will ensure greater tension and violence in Jerusalem.

The Post’s senior diplomatic columnist, David Ignatius, credited President Biden with “brokering” the cease-fire and “preventing” an Israeli ground invasion.  In actual fact, the Israelis simply ran out of targets, were facing international opprobrium, and never intended a ground invasion in view of the cost and failure associated with a previous ground invasion in Gaza.

The mainstream media, particularly the Post and the Times, have consistently underplayed the scale of Israeli brutality toward the Palestinians and the decrepit condition of Gaza itself, which has been subjected to a military siege for more than a decade.  The media have indulged a false equivalency between the occupied and the occupiers by failing to highlight the brutality of the Israelis.  The Israeli parliament passed a “nation-state law” in 2018 stating that the “right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,” which defines the “apartheid” nature of Israel and virtually ensures greater Israeli Arab resistance.  The unprecedented communal violence of this confrontation should be a wake-up call for Israel.

Certainly there is dire need for new ideas by the Biden administration, but it must start with the recognition that only the United States has leverage over Israel.  It’s time to use our leverage by displaying a willingness to loosen ties to Israel.  Israel is an economic and military superpower with foreign exchange reserves of more than $180 billion.  The United States stopped economic aid several years ago, and now it must recognize that Israel no longer needs military aid. The ten-year $40 billion arrangement that President Barack Obama initiated in his last months in office was a farce, particularly in the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outrageous efforts to kill the Iran nuclear accord.

There are additional ways to limit ties to Israel that would shock the body politic there.  We need to stop shielding Israel from the international opprobrium that its actions have inspired, and stop indulging the notion that there is some kind of “peace process” in the Middle East.  The United States has regularly misused its veto power in the United Nations to save the Israelis from diplomatic embarrassment.  When the Israelis realize that their only genuine friend in the world, the United States, is prepared to shift gears in the name of regional stability, then perhaps Israel will come to its senses and realize that their “right of return” is equally applicable to the Palestinians.

And if the Israelis don’t move in the right direction, then the United States could leverage their diplomatic signaling to improve its standing in the region and perhaps contribute to regional stability at the same time.   For example, the Biden administration would have much greater regional success if it used its diplomatic influence to return to the Iran nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which could have a significant domino effect in the region.  Biden should tell Netanyahu that there will be consequences for continued opposition to the U.S. return to the accord.

The revival of the JCPOA could lead to reduced violence in Yemen, a humanitarian crisis that ranks with Israel’s creation of the “outdoor prison” in the Gaza. Saudi Arabia and Iran are holding private talks in Baghdad, sponsored by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has agreed to hold talks with the United Arab Emirates to ease the military knot in Yemen.  The Biden administration should suspend weapons sales to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which has misused these weapons in Yemen.  Similarly, this is not the time to be preparing the sale of sophisticated weaponry to Israel that could be used against Gaza.

There are other negotiations that are taking place among states that have been adversaries.  Egypt and the UAE are talking to Turkey about reducing their confrontation in Libya.  The UAE has at least temporarily stopped its military support for the Libyan rebels who were fighting the Turkish-backed government.  A Turkish delegation was recently in Cairo to discuss reduced Egyptian support for the rebels as well.  Biden needs to name an ambassador to Israel, return a consulate to East Jerusalem, and appoint a senior emissary who can initiate discussions with all sides in the conflict, including Hamas.  In sending a low-level deputy assistant secretary of state to the region, the Biden administration signaled early in the confrontation that it was not prepared to get involved.

The United States and Israel have too often been in lock step regarding military power and the use of force.  The United States and Israel share the idea of pursuing military dominance, a global pursuit for the United States and a regional one for Israel.  Their collaborative efforts over the years have brought serious embarrassment to various U.S. administrations.  Iran-Contra, which could have led to the impeachment of President Ronald Reagan, began with a series of discussions that Israeli officials had with members of the National Security Council, including national security adviser Robert McFarlane.  The U.S. unconscionable use of torture and abuse in the war on terror was influenced by Israeli handling of its Arab prisoners.  Ten years ago, the United States and Israel collaborated on the introduction of a computer virus in Iran’s centrifuge program, which was the first example of cyberwar in the international arena. It’s long past time to turn the page on U.S.-Israeli relations.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.