Israel Tests the Bounds of Its US Clout

Israeli resistance to deals on Palestinian peace and Iran’s nuclear program has strained U.S.-Israeli relations and will test if Congress is more loyal to Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Obama. But the tension underscores a deeper division between the two countries, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

A piece by Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, bearing the title “The Crisis in U.S.-Israeli Relations is Officially Here,” has performed a useful service in at least two respects. One is that Goldberg’s piece highlights how friction in the U.S.-Israeli relationship is primarily an epiphenomenon of an Israeli policy trajectory that is detrimental to Israel itself, no matter what U.S. officials may or may not say about the policies, publicly or privately, and not only detrimental to others.

In commenting, for example, on the latest insertion of right-wing Jewish settlers into Arab areas of East Jerusalem, which many Palestinians unsurprisingly see as another step in de-Palestinianizing East Jerusalem so much that it could not become capital of a Palestinian state, Goldberg writes, “It is the Netanyahu government that appears to be disconnected from reality. Jerusalem is on the verge of exploding into a third Palestinian uprising.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own "red line" on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own “red line” on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

He’s right about the potential for a new intifada, one that could emerge spontaneously from bottled-up frustration and anger and would not need to be ordered or directed by anyone.

Another service by Goldberg is to portray the relationship far more realistically than one would conclude from the boilerplate that both governments routinely serve up about supposedly unshakeable ties between close, bosom-buddy allies. The fact is that the interests that this Israeli government pursues (not to be confused with fundamental, long-term interests of Israel and Israelis generally) are in sharp and substantial conflict with U.S. interests. No amount of pablum from official spokespersons can hide that fact.

For both these reasons, Goldberg’s article deserves a wide readership.

The most recent expressions that reflect the true nature of the relationship are not just a matter of unnamed U.S. officials mouthing off. Goldberg notes in the third sentence of his piece that the comments he is reporting are “representative of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli [emphasis added] officials now talk about each other behind closed doors.”

So the barbed tongues extend in both directions, but with two differences. One is that in this relationship the United States is the giver (of many billions in aid, and much political cover in international organizations) and Israel is the taker; harsh comments are far harder to justify when they are directed by an ungrateful beneficiary to its patron rather than the other way around.

The other difference is that Israeli leaders insult the United States not just through anonymous comments to journalists but also publicly and openly; the current Israeli defense minister is one of the more recent and blatant practitioners of this.

One can legitimately question some of the particular accusations by the U.S. officials that Goldberg reports, not to mention the scatological and indecorous terminology employed. But to concentrate on this is to overlook the larger and far more important contours of the relationship. The most fundamental truth about the relationship is that, notwithstanding routine references to Israel as an “ally,” it is not an ally of the United States beyond being the recipient of all that U.S. material and political largesse.

An ally is someone who offers something comparably significant and useful in return, particularly on security matters. That this is not true of Israel’s relationship with the United States is underscored by the priority that the United States has placed, during some of its own past conflicts in the Middle East such as Operation Desert Storm, on Israel not getting involved because such involvement would be a liability, not an asset.

The core policy around which much of this Israeli government’s other behavior revolves, and which defines Israel in the eyes of much of the rest of the world, is the unending occupation of conquered territory under a practice of Israel never defining its own borders and thus never permitting political rights to Palestinians under either a two-state or a one-state formula. This policy is directly contrary to U.S. interests in multiple respects, not least in that the United States through its close association with Israel shares in the resulting widespread antagonism and opprobrium.

One of the biggest and most recent U.S. foreign policy endeavors is the negotiation of an agreement to restrict and monitor Iran’s nuclear program to ensure it stays peaceful. Completion of an agreement would be a major accomplishment in the interest of nonproliferation and regional stability. The Israeli “ally” has been doing everything it can to sabotage the negotiations and prevent an agreement.

It is a fallacy to think that making nice to the Israeli government will get it to back off from its opposition. It is a fallacy because that government has shown it does not want any agreement with Iran no matter what the terms, and because it is dishonest in expressing its opposition.

There certainly is genuine concern in Israel about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon, but that is clearly not what is behind the Israeli government’s opposition because the sort of agreement that is shaping up would make it markedly less likely, in terms of both Iranian motivations and capabilities, for Iran ever to make a nuclear weapon than would be the case with no agreement. That’s the very purpose of the agreement.

The Israeli government instead seeks to keep Iran permanently in diplomatic exile, precluding any cooperation between Iran and the United States on other issues (which would dilute Israel’s claim to being the only worthwhile U.S. partner in the Middle East) and retaining the specter of Iran and a nuclear threat from it as the “real problem” in the Middle East supposedly more worthy of international attention than the occupation and unresolved plight of the Palestinians.

These objectives, as well as the setback for the cause of nonproliferation that collapse of an agreement with Iran would entail, also are directly contrary to U.S. interests.

The best way to handle the implacable opposition to an Iranian deal from Netanyahu, who, according to Goldberg’s reporting, has “written off” the Obama administration, is to write off Netanyahu and any hope that he could be brought around on the subject. Needed instead is to expose, to Israelis, as well as to members of Congress and other Americans, the fundamental dishonesty of Netanyahu’s opposition.

Maybe a useful step in doing that would be to bring back Netanyahu’s cartoon bomb that he displayed at the United Nations General Assembly and point out how the preliminary agreement reached with Iran last year (and which the Israeli prime minister consistently denounced) has already drained the bomb and moved the Iranian program back from the lines that the Israeli prime minister drew with his red marker.

Calling Netanyahu to account certainly is not a sufficient condition to achieve political change in Israel, with its ever steeper rightward tilt, but it is probably a necessary condition. The state of the relationship with the United States is highly salient and highly important to many Israelis, but it will not be a driver of political change as long as it remains masked by all that boilerplate about how great the “alliance” is.

There are a couple of problems with the title of Goldberg’s piece (which is probably the doing of an editor, not Goldberg). One is that there isn’t “officially” a crisis. The fact that official statements continue to talk about a supposedly rosy relationship is part of what is, as explained above, wrong.

The other problem is that in this context the word crisis is a misnomer. The term usually indicates a potential for a big turn for the worse, especially the outbreak of a war between whatever two parties are experiencing a crisis. That’s not what’s involved here.

The only reason the term crisis comes up regarding U.S.-Israeli relations is the fictional, deliberately inflated view of the relationship as something qualitatively different that ought to defy any of the usual rules that apply to any patron and client or to any bilateral relationship. Sweep aside the politically-driven fiction about two countries that supposedly have everything in common and nothing in conflict and instead deal with reality, and the concept of crisis does not arise at all.

What you have instead is a bilateral relationship that is like many others the United States has, with some parallel interests and objectives along with other objectives that diverge, sometimes sharply, and with honest recognition of the latter being a normal part of business. Being honest and realistic is good for U.S. interests, and in this case it would be good for the long-term interests of Israel as well.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

10 comments for “Israel Tests the Bounds of Its US Clout

  1. Abe
    November 4, 2014 at 16:22

    The Chickenshit-In-Chief resides in Washington.

    The Chickenshits in Tel Aviv have known that since 1967.

  2. Abe
    November 4, 2014 at 15:38

    It became, straight out, just a terror assault. The mosques, the schools, the hospitals, the ambulances, the civilians. You’d have to be blinder than King Lear not to see what was going on. It was just a pure terrorist attack.

    By the end of it, the head of the International Community of the Red Cross, he said, and I’m quoting him, “I have never seen such massive destruction ever before.” And the normally comatose puppet of the United States, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, he said, “Such massive deaths and destruction have shocked and shamed the world.”

    Now, in the last thirty seconds, we have to ask ourselves, who or what allowed that to happen? And there can be no question whatsoever. None.

    The Enabler in Chief of that massacre in Gaza, the Enabler in Chief of that death and destruction, was president Barack Obama.

    That is not rhetorical. That is not a cheap shot. That’s a fact. I don’t say it as a person on the political left. I don’t say it as a member of the Tea Party. I say it as someone who is simply observing the facts.

    Each day Mr. Obama went out, or one of his spokespersons went out, and when he was asked, or his spokesperson was asked about what was happening in Gaza, each day he repeated that same refrain, quote: “Israel has the right to defend itself.”

    Now, already by the tenth day, the human rights organizations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, they were copiously and carefully documenting that Israel was targeting civilians in civilian sites. There was no dispute, no doubt about what was happening. Each time he [Obama] came out and said “Israel has the right to defend itself”, each day that he did that, he was giving Israel the green light to continue the terrorist attack on Gaza.

    Now, if you have any doubt, any doubt whatsoever about who was the Enabler of that massacre, all of that doubt is dispelled by how it ended. How did it end?

    Israel targeted one UN school shelter, a second UN school shelter, a third UN school shelter, then a fourth, and then a fifth. By the time it came to the fifth, the international community was erupting in a rage, and the pressure became so intense that even that brain-dead, comatose Ban Ki-moon, he finally said that Israel was committing “a criminal act”. Ban Ki-moon. Can you imagine? Ban ki Moon. For those of you who don’t know who he is, he’s the secretary general of the United States … United Nations. Very hard to tell. In any case, what happened?

    After even Ban Ki-moon condemned it as a criminal attack, Obama was completely isolated on the entire world stage. He was completely alone. So, finally, the state department started issuing statements calling what happened “disgraceful”, “awful”, “terrible”. That was August third. The US finally, on August third, denounced what happened.

    What happened the same day? What happened the exact same day? Netanyahu announced “The ground invasion is over. It’s finished.”

    Who was responsible for what happened? Look at the sequence of events. It was made, paid for, the green light was given, HERE.

    Norman Finkelstein
    Democracy & Human Rights in Egypt & The Bloodshed In Gaza
    16 August 2014 at The Carter Center in Atlanta, GA

  3. rosemerry
    November 1, 2014 at 15:48

    Israel does not even pretend to be an “ally”, as it refuses even to have definite borders (they are constantly expanding to engulf Palestine and more). The supply of money, arms, support to Israel against all evidence of its illegal acts , and against US laws which stipulate no weapons to countries using them for repression of the population, show the pathetic pretence of the USA to be a world leader.

  4. October 31, 2014 at 12:02

    Thank you for this timely piece. I disagree with you, however, on Jeffrey Goldberg’s motives. He is a known Zionist and his antics with The Guardian (UK) daily in the past cast a suspicious light on his intentions this time. No need for any conspiracy theory to get at his “motives.” I just think he’s a “jackass,” pardon the expression, and fully in lockstep with the Zionist camp. Maybe his piece was meant to set off an alarm bell or is a call to action to his fellow Zionists. Either way, the race colony everyone calls Israel is on its last diplomatic legs. What an turn of events those last three years have been!

  5. Zachary Smith
    October 31, 2014 at 10:32

    “When there are pressures on Israel to concede its security, the easiest thing to do is to concede,” he said. “You get a round of applause, ceremonies on grassy knolls, and then come the missiles and the tunnels.”

    The “chickenshit” guy makes his reply. This can easily be viewed as a not-too-subtly coded thread: shut up about pressuring Israel, or you’ll get a JFK-type “grassy knoll” ceremony.

  6. Zachary Smith
    October 30, 2014 at 23:10

    This is an excellent essay, and there is little with which to disagree. It’s an opinion issue, but I don’t believe this statement reflects how Israel sees the current situation.

    Being honest and realistic is good for U.S. interests, and in this case it would be good for the long-term interests of Israel as well.

    IMO Israel sees its long term interests in a different way. Their current game plan appears to be working to perfection, so why on earth would they consider changing?

    Still an opinion, but I suspect they aspire to become a genuine World Power, eclipsing France, Germany, and perhaps even Russia. If all the cards fall right, it could very well happen. The time is coming when they’ll conclude that continued US support isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit. In the meantime, milk the goyim for all they’re worth. If BHO tries to crimp the style of the shitty little nation, it won’t surprise me if the Republicans shut down the US government until he folds.

    October 30, 2014 at 19:27

    As long as Israel is killing Arabs on all its borders, actively destabilizing Syria and as long as the USA is killing inocent people in Yemen, Pakistan, Afganistan, Iraq, Oman, Syria, Ukraine, etc. etc. who cares what Israel is testing?. Both are bullies and partners in crime (just see the last NO votes to lifting the Cuban embargo in the UN) that need to be thaught to respect other countries.

  8. jo6pac
    October 30, 2014 at 15:57

    I vote with great confidence that the so-called elected congress sells out the Amerikan public again.

  9. Abe
    October 30, 2014 at 15:38

    “We see this again and again, including this year, in the rise in support for the State of Israel among the American public; support that has reached an all-time high.”
    – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “defending the State of Israel” from the podium at the Knesset, on Oct. 29, 2014

    The only category of Americans (47.6 percent) who believed U.S. aid for Israel is “about right” is the segment earning $150,000 or more (although even 42.9 percent in that category thought aid was too high). The next lower income category, $100,000‐149,000 is the most vehemently opposed to aid, with 79.5 percent believing it is too high (42.9 percent responding “much too much” and 36.6 percent “too much.”)

    Google Survey: Majority of US Citizens Think US Gives Too Much to Israel

  10. Abe
    October 30, 2014 at 13:33

    Unofficially stated in Goldberg’s screed, the “Crisis” that is “Officially Here” is the U.S. federal elections of 2014.

    All 435 voting seats in the United States House of Representatives and all seats in Senate Class II will be up for election. Additionally, special elections will be held to fill vacancies in the other two Senate Classes.

    Bibi don’t get no respect, Obama is Israel’s enemy, so vote for any and all Republican chickenhawks.

    Let’s not forget that Goldberg is a notorious shill for war on Israel’s perceived enemies.

    In “The Great Terror”, Goldberg article for the New Yorker in 2002 during the run-up to the Iraq war, he argued that a close relationship existed between Hussein and Al Qaeda. Goldberg concludes his article with a discussion of the Iraqi nuclear program, saying that “There is some debate among arms-control experts about exactly when Saddam will have nuclear capabilities. But there is no disagreement that Iraq, if unchecked, will have them soon… There is little doubt what Saddam might do with an atomic bomb or with his stocks of biological and chemical weapons.” In a late 2002 debate in Slate, Goldberg described Hussein as “uniquely evil” and advocated an invasion on a moral basis.

    Glenn Greenwald called Goldberg, “One of the leading media cheerleaders for the attack on Iraq, he compiled a record of humiliating falsehood-dissemination in the run-up to the war that rivaled Judy Miller’s both in terms of recklessness and destructive impact.”

    On September 11, Goldberg wrote for the Atlantic that “Not Fighting ISIS Could Be Worse Than Fighting It.”

    It’s the same idiot logic. Not fighting Iran could be worse than fighting it. Hear that, Congressmen and Senators?

    So if you don’t get elected, blame Israel’s enemies.

    And if you do get elected, by all means, vigorously blame Israel’s enemies.

    Goldberg’s exercise in scatology smells like Turd Blossom.

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