Cracks in the imperial partnership?

February 13, 2014

Jason Farbman looks at the issues creating fissures in the U.S.-Israel alliance.

FOR DECADES, the U.S. and Israel have enjoyed a "special relationship," with the U.S. underwriting Israel's colonial settler project in Palestine to the tune of billions of dollars a year. But in recent years and especially in recent months, the "special relationship" has looked more like a bad romance, with debates normally confined to back-channel dialogues breaking out into the open.

For instance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly campaigned for Mitt Romney in the 2012 U.S. presidential elections. "Netanyahu is angry that the U.S. has not taken a more decisive hand in shoring up Israeli interests in Egypt and Syria," observed Jonathan Cook, "and near-apoplectic at what he sees as a cave-in on Iran."

But "cave-in" is a curious term to describe the U.S.'s end of a recent agreement made with Iran, which will see Iran dismantle much of its nuclear program over the next six months. In exchange, the UN Security Council agreed to release, over the course of the agreement, $7 billion tied up by economic sanctions. On balance, the deal brought Iran into the fold on terms clearly favorable to the U.S.

U.S. and Israeli flags raised in Jerusalem during a visit by President Obama
U.S. and Israeli flags raised in Jerusalem during a visit by President Obama

Netanyahu's criticism of the deal--which implies appeasement without directly using the term--should be understood as recognition of an emerging reality about geopolitics in the Middle East, namely that after decades in which the U.S. and Israel had practically identical interests, regional events are now exerting centrifugal forces on these traditional allies and revealing diverging interests on a number of diplomatic and strategic issues.

For example, one of the unintended consequences of the George W. Bush administration's disastrous war on Iraq was the strengthening of Iran's regional role. Operation Iraqi Freedom devastated the economy and society of Iran's historic rival. What's more, Iraq is now headed by Iran's political allies rather than its adversaries. This has compelled the U.S. to rely on Iran in various ways as a source of stability in Iraq, as U.S. foreign policymakers attempt to keep the aftermath of their failed war effort from further destabilizing the region.

On the other hand, Israel continues to view Iran as a regional rival that must be crushed. Netanyahu's "near-apoplectic" state at the deal with Iran is most obviously about preserving Israel's status as the only nuclear power in the Middle East.

Israel stands to lose a great deal if another nation--particularly Iran--were to arise as a counterweight. "For two decades, AIPAC and its allies have successfully pushed a harder and harder American line against Iran's nuclear program," according to Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper. Appearing on Meet The Press this past October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated claims that he would not be satisfied until all of Iran's nuclear capacities were crushed.

But with the U.S. casting about for a way to keep the Arab Spring from overthrowing any more Arab dictators that it counts among its allies and to contain the fallout from its Iraq war, the U.S. opted for a deal with Iran.

THE AGREEMENT provoked all sorts of attacks from Zionist commentators. Some have insisted that Iran will use the agreement as a cover to secretly continue enriching weapons-grade uranium, even though the deal mandates daily inspections of all Iranian nuclear facilities and laboratories, arguably the most demanding and intrusive regime of inspections imposed anywhere in the world.

Others in Israel worry about what the Iran deal signals in the longer term. As Israeli news analyst Giora Shamis told the Los Angeles Times, "Iran's influence is on the march, and Israel's strategic position is shrinking. I ask myself now, 'Who is calling the shots in the Middle East?'"

The unspoken implication of this assessment is that the U.S. is no longer able to call the shots in the Middle East, at least not like it once could.

The deal with Iran came after years of bluster--from both American and Israeli hawks--about possible U.S. air strikes against Iran. Yet as hard as Israeli politicians, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the rest of the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. pushed, the American military machine was simply not in a position to launch another war.

Unable to defeat the Iraqi resistance in sanctions-weakened Iraq, the idea of putting troops on the ground in Iran was a pipedream.

But dropping bombs hasn't been a viable option either. The Obama administration's case that air strikes were necessary to prevent Iran's development of nuclear weapons was rejected by U.S. and British populations. Such arguments were seen as a crude rehash of the "weapons of mass destruction" pretext fed to the world by the team of George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

This rejection was no doubt due in part to the U.S. and British antiwar movements of the past 13 years. While neither movement was able to amass enough leverage to force an end to the war, the movement did preserve in the public consciousness how each shifting justification for war was built on lies.

Regarding Washington's confidence to drop bombs, it's important to remember that even in Syria, the Obama administration's proposal to "surgically" drop humanitarian bombs was rebuffed. This was amid massive suffering and near-universal agreement that chemical weapons were being deployed against the civilian population. Again, public opinion in the U.S. ran broadly against military intervention.

The proposal to bomb Syria also met strong resistance from the Republican Party. That resistance may have come from a knee-jerk reaction to anything Obama proposes, but it's worth noting that the Obama administration faces obstacles both from the U.S. public, as well as from a political establishment that is far more divided on its approach to affairs in the Middle East than it was during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

All this has left Obama with significant challenges to restoring the U.S. to its position of global hegemony. Budget deficits, austerity measures and a war-weary public have compelled Washington to tread lightly now. It's not merely a reflection of the differences in the personal styles of Obama and Bush; it's part of a conscious and necessary tactical shift. As such, the Obama administration has abandoned hard power and regime change--at least for the moment.

Instead, Obama's foreign policy team justifies its imperial efforts by invoking the idea of "humanitarian intervention." In place of "shock and awe," air strikes and boots on the ground, the Obama administration prefers economic sanctions, drone strikes and the deployment of Special Forces teams. And instead of the cowboy imperialism of the Bush administration, Obama has opted for multilateralism whenever possible--while reserving the option of unilateralism if necessary.

The deal with Iran is part of striking a new regional balance of power in the Middle East as part of the Obama administration's ambition of "pivoting" U.S. power to Asia in preparation for a conflict with risings powers there such as China. For Obama to pursue this strategy, the limitations imposed on him by challenges in the Middle East necessitated a deal with Iran.

THE PRICE of this deal with Iran has been the wrath of Israeli hard-liners--most visibly, Netanyahu--and the anger has yet to subside.

Netanyahu immediately slammed the Iran deal as "an historic mistake." Obama called Netanyahu to smooth things over, but the Israeli prime minister blasted the U.S. president, according to news reports. One member of the Knesset told Israeli television that Netanyahu "made it clear to the most powerful man on earth that if he intends to stay the most powerful man on earth, it's important to make a change in American policy because the practical result of his current policy is [doomed to failure]."

Israel is so intent on undermining any partnership with Iran that Netanyahu ordered Israeli intelligence officials to renew spying operations inside Iran in order to find any evidence that the deal's terms are being broken.

U.S. conservatives and the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. have followed Netanyahu's lead. It didn't take long for AIPAC and other hardline pro-Israel forces within the U.S. to come out swinging. Within weeks of the deal with Iran, 26 members of the U.S. Senate introduced the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, which re-imposes severe sanctions if Iran is deemed to have broken its obligations under the six-month deal.

Notably, the bill calls for sanctions for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with nuclear power, such as Iran's "continuing support for terrorism," its "ongoing abuses of human rights" and its "actions in support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria." This attempt at instituting unending sanctions is clearly an effort to put a permanent wedge in relations with Iran.

The bill even mandates U.S. support for Israel in the event of an Israeli military strike on Iran. The bill states:

If the government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program, the United States government should stand with Israel and provide...military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people and existence.

At a minimum, were an Israeli military assault to happen--in the face of public admonitions from the Obama administration--it would make clear that Washington has lost its grip on the watchdog's leash.

CLEARLY, IT is not in U.S. interests--at this moment, at least--to see an Israeli attack on Iran. Israel getting its way would short-circuit the Obama administration's plans for Iran as an emerging partner in a re-stabilized Middle East.

Belying their reputation as pushovers, Obama administration officials and their allies have come out forcefully in defense of their strategy and against the Senate's bill. A spokesperson for the National Security Council put it starkly:

This bill is in direct contradiction to the Administration's work...this proposed legislation would divide the international community, drive the Iranians to take a harder line, and possibly end negotiations... If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so.

This sentiment was echoed from the floor of the Senate, where Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein denounced the bill. Feinstein took apart AIPAC, argument by argument. She warned the bill would jeopardize the stability the U.S. is trying to generate, arguing, "It says to the U.K., China, Russia, France and Germany that our country cannot be trusted to stand behind our diplomatic commitments." Feinstein decried the bill as a "march to war." While she took pains to reassert her commitment to Israel's self-defense, she also confidently stated, "We cannot let Israel determine when and where the U.S. goes to war."

The pushback against AIPAC from the White House, Feinstein and others has opened the door to criticism from other quarters. Feinstein's Senate speech came "amidst a surprising spate of newspaper editorials against the bill, particularly given the dearth of actual news coverage about it," as foreign policy critic Jim Lobe noted.

The disagreement has exposed a crucial but often misunderstood dynamic of the U.S.-Israel partnership. Critics of U.S. policy toward Israel on both the left and the right describe Israel and its lobby as capable of shaping U.S. policy to fit Israel's needs, and often, this seems to describe an obvious truth. But when their interests in fact diverge (or come into direct conflict), the U.S. foreign policy establishment is both willing and able to spar with Israel.

Israel's backers are now concerned that they have alienated otherwise reliable support among U.S. politicians. "Ten senators, all of them chairs of important Senate committees, have come out publicly against it," reported Ha'aretz. "This is surely not something that they would do if the pro-Israel lobby was as powerful and fearsome, as many believe it to be." The article goes on to describe splits in the Zionist camp with respect to an Israeli attack on Iran, with "soft Zionists" like J Street and others opposing the bill. As the Ha'aretz article concludes, "The pro-Israel lobby is not a monolith."

THE CONTRAST between the present moment and the lockstep agreement between the U.S. and Israel that the world had been accustomed to is evident from looking at a brief history of the "special relationship," which has reaped enormous rewards for both countries over the decades. It is important to understand this relationship as one in which strategic aims coincided--and not as a shared interest in, for instance, democracy, peace or the interests of the Jewish people.

Not long after the Second World War, the United States realized that competing on the global stage--particularly becoming a world superpower--would require domination of the Middle East. A 1945 State Department memo on the Middle East described Saudi Arabia alone as a "a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history."

Israel was not an immediate part of U.S. plans to increase its influence in the region. For the first 10 years of Israel's existence, the U.S. didn't send a dime. But the rise and expansion of radical Arab nationalism threw up new challenges. Uprisings across the region unsettled the imperial plans of several nations, in particular the U.S. To make matters worse, Arab countries were leaning away from the United States and into the arms of the Soviet Union.

Any direct military intervention by the U.S. into the region would have only exacerbated these tensions. The U.S. could not risk harm to its ability to play a significant role in directing the flow of the region's enormous oil reserves--and the power that flowed from control of this wealth.

From this precarious position, the U.S. came to view Israel as a valuable ally. Gilbert Achcar described Israel's value to the U.S. in his book Eastern Cauldron. "Israel played a military role as watchdog of imperialist interests in the region," wrote Achcar. But Israel simultaneously served as a useful foil. "On the other hand, Washington derived political benefits in Arab countries' eyes by showing that it had a grip on the watchdog's leash."

The deepening alliance between the two was reflected in swelling U.S. economic support. Hovering at half a million dollars for the first two years of assistance in 1959 and 1960, aid spiked to around $13 million for the next three years as the two grew closer. In the year before Israel launched its 1967 attack on Egypt, Syria and Jordan, U.S. support skyrocketed to $90 million.

Israel has reaped enormous benefits from this arrangement as well. Today, it is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the postwar era--$118 billion in total. Obama has worked to maintain this relationship, requesting $3.25 billion be sent to Israel in 2014 alone. It's impossible to imagine Israel consistently behaving as if it was the largest military power in the world without the direct support of the largest military power in the world.

While nearly all support has been military, it's worth observing the latitude such assistance provides Israel in terms of its own budget. Freed from having to finance its disproportionately large and highly sophisticated military, Israel is able to provide its population with generous social welfare benefits, including the option of a life of state-subsidized religious study. At the same time, of course, the U.S. government has carried out massive budget cuts, slashing spending on social welfare and public services.

But as far as the U.S. establishment is concerned, this is money well spent. So long as the United States continues to perceive Israel as helpful to its project of domination in the Middle East, the money will continue flowing.

FOR THE first time in decades, cracks between the U.S. and Israel are appearing on several fronts. There isn't agreement between the U.S. and Israel about how to move forward in pursuit of their mutual interests, nor is there consensus among Israeli leaders about how to respond to this new situation.

These cracks have appeared--or become more apparent--thanks to sustained struggles from below. Had there been no resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the U.S. might still be in control of the lion's share of Iraq's oil. Without an antiwar movement, Obama might have been able to get away with recycling Bush-era justifications to drop bombs on Syria or Iran. If the world had never seen the Arab Spring uprisings, replacing one dictator with a friendlier dictator would have been a possible move.

The tireless struggle of countless anonymous people across the planet has forced the most powerful military in the history of the world to repeatedly change course. Obama, the most powerful man on the planet, has been embarrassed as he gropes towards a new U.S. imperial strategy. And the United States has had to resort to solutions that bring it into direct conflict with long-time allies.

As in the 1960s, the U.S. today finds itself looking at a Middle East roiling with uprisings, slipping out of U.S. control, with key would-be allies leaning into the arms of Russia. But this time, Washington's interests won't be resolved by throwing cash and support behind Israel. In fact, Israel may become a liability rather than the solution.

If one thing is to be learned from the history of U.S. intervention in the Middle East, it is how fickle the Washington can be with its support. Hosni Mubarak learned the hard way that 30 years of U.S. support can evaporate if you no longer serve a useful purpose in pursuit of U.S. interests.

As fierce Zionist and Slim-Fast mogul Daniel Abraham predicted, "Israel will discover that America's patience with friends who demand its help while simultaneously ignore its interests is shorter than before."

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