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October 27, 2009

The discourse has grown conspiratorial. Concern. Apprehension. Suspicion. As recently as a year ago, it would have been anathema to associate such loaded words with Israel’s attitude towards its closest and most beneficent ally, the United States. Yet, the emergence of two new administrations, one led by Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, the other by Barack Obama in the United States, has changed the tone. Once the exclusive domain of the Israeli right, the language of mistrust has become integral to how both countries think about each other.

While Israel and the United States have certainly sparred over the years, the level of skepticism Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has displayed towards the current American administration and its diplomatic initiatives has caused a crisis in ties between the two countries. Diplomacy cast aside, Israel’s Prime Minister openly called Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, and David Axelrod, Obama’s chief advisor, “self-hating Jews.” Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon not only has urged Israelis to resist the Americans, but told reporters that anti-settlement groups like Peace Now were “viruses” to Israel (ynetnews.com 8.19.09).

Nor has the United States been the friendly ally of the past. While George W. Bush was willing to look the other way on settlements while he pursued his war against terror, Barack Obama entered office calling for a total freeze on settlement building. The wink-wink era is long-gone.

In short, the two governments could not be more ideologically distinct from one another. What is of interest is not their areas of disagreement—which are significant—but Israel’s willingness to express that disagreement. More, Israel’s defiant posturing against the United States. This, the Israeli side of the crisis, is the most misunderstood part of the story.

There are two ways to interpret the Israeli government’s hostility to the Obama administration. The most obvious is to see Israeli hostility as a protest against the United States for unfairly dictating policies toward a sovereign nation, Israel. What kind of ally is America if it orders the Jewish state to act against its own best interests? Why should Israel revise its positions to be more agreeable to the United States? Isn’t this forcing a democratically elected government to go against the principles upon which it was voted into office? Why must American interests prevail over Israeli ones?

There is another way to view the level of hostility Israel is expressing. Israel is heavily dependent on the United States for military aid, economic assistance and diplomatic protection. In fact, $5 billion of Israeli’s $50 billion budget, or 10% of that budget, comes directly from the United States each year. That is a huge amount of money, and makes Israel far more beholden to American influence than it would like to be. Indeed, the economic relationship is one that could trump the political relationship, and in any case, diplomatically, makes Israel appear as though it is only an American proxy. In a case of “the lady doth protest too much,” protesting its independence is one way that Israel covers whatever truths might inform such anxieties.

Despite the fact that both right and left equally indulge American involvement in domestic affairs when it suits their purposes, Israeli conservatives tend to complain the most about the United States when circumstances require. Part of this is due to the opportunity such criticism provides to remind Israelis that the right is the sole bearer of national values, of Jewish cultural pride and political power. Part of it has to do with the discomfort that the right carries over Israel’s intense reliance on a country with strong traditions of liberalism and multiculturalism, despite America’s historic support for Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians and US sponsorship of the settlement project.

There is always a fear that an increasingly multiethnic America will lean too far to the left, and that such a transformation, while logical to anyone familiar with the country’s changing demographics, will inevitably portend negative consequences for Israel. This is where the Israeli discomfort at having to rely for 10% of their budget upon a mixed-race president with an Arabic middle name, who makes a point of reaching out to Muslims, unfortunately comes in. Encouraged by rightist Jewish forces in the United States, Israeli conservatives become intransigent as a means of demonstrating their support for their Diaspora counterparts, even if this means risking larger crises for Israel, such as a split with the United States.

Recent historical precedent bears equal significance for Israeli anti-Americanism. One of the ironies of President Bush’s much criticized “hands off” approach toward the peace process was his government’s unprecedented subordination of Israeli to American strategic interests during the first phase of the War on Terror. Whatever was good for America in the Mideast was also good for Israel, and vice versa. That Israel found itself able to justify consistently lining up behind Bush, even when the results of his policy urgings were disastrous—such as during the second Lebanon war—is one of the sad consequences of the situation that evolved at this time.

In this light, the new protests against “the Americans” exhibit justifiable, if wrongly purposed, expressions of regret for Israel having relied so strongly on the United States in the past, and for the continued need to do so into the future. Considering how badly Washington has managed its own affairs in the Middle East since the Second World War, let alone between 9/11 and 2009, one can understand why the Israelis would be concerned. The Americans have consistently shown either a remarkable lack of local savoir-faire, or a frustratingly narrow and destructive regional policy, which has made as many problems for Israel as it has benefited the Jewish state. Israeli officials may never offer such complex accounts of the pluses and minuses of their country’s dependence on the United States. However, they are most certainly mindful of what they are.

Take, for example, the Obama administration’s attempts to end the crisis over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Irrespective of how many times the US government has recently reached out to Iran, offering incentives, engaging the country diplomatically (a process that actually began under Bush), even apologizing for the CIA’s 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh, these gestures appear, increasingly, too late. Iran’s leadership continues to defy the United States by refusing to stop its much-ballyhooed nuclear program and its development of ballistic missiles. In July 2009 Iran even announced that it had produced its very own stealth fighter, three years before Israel was scheduled to take delivery of the same class of fifth generation combat aircraft from the United States.

Much to Obama’s chagrin, US officials had to gradually admit that perhaps the Israelis had been partially right. That, despite their best intentions, the Iranians might just have been radicalized by Bush to the point of no return, and that a deepening of conflict with the Islamic Republic was inevitable. Stating that Israel had the right to take its own initiative concerning its security, Vice President Joseph Biden was the first to indicate that Obama was supposedly coming around to the Israeli position in a televised interview with George Stephanopolous. Asked repeatedly by the journalist to confirm he had stated as much, Biden answered affirmatively, communicating in no uncertain terms that the Americans had grudgingly changed their outlook on Iran.

Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially denied such an about face, explaining that the United States had decided to provide a defense guarantee to its regional allies in the face of Iran’s growing threat instead (a position that Israeli officials fiercely criticized) there was no denying that one of the key points of dispute between the United States and Israel was disappearing. Nevertheless, it did little to diminish the open enmity that had developed between the two allies, which continued to reassert itself in their ongoing disagreement over Israel’s unwillingness to a complete halt to settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

Yet, for the Israeli government to use such differences with this administration’s initiatives as an excuse to enact such complex political gestures–for domestic consumption, for foreign Jewish allies, as an outlet for cleverly repurposing public discomfort at Israel’s lack of independence from the United States–remains a non-starter. Not just because it does not seem to have had any positive effect on the Americans, even though many pundits contend that Israel has succeeded in containing Obama’s regional desires. Rather, because what the new US government has said to date about what it wants to do in the Middle East is the exact opposite of what the Americans have always done, that has led to so many disasters, including those that, like the second Lebanon war, have negatively impacted Israel.

Indeed, Netanyahu’s response to this change has been to treat it as though it were a threat instead of an opportunity. Instead of constructively addressing Israel’s subordination to the United States, he attempts to disingenuously work around it, promoting the necessity of military solutions to threats like Iran in order to push the Americans in a more compliant direction, at the same time openly seeking out new allies, like the Russians, as potential patron replacements. Egged on by conservative elements within the US Jewish community, Israel provokes crisis after crisis with the Obama administration, alienating not just the White House, but also American Jews who continue to support the president despite his taking a hard line with Israel.

As out of touch as Israel’s political echelon sound, anxious members of the country’s diplomatic staff in the United States nevertheless continue to telegraph clear notes of caution back home. For example, in an internal memo to the Foreign Ministry leaked to Israel’s Channel 10 in early August, Nadav Tamir, Israel’s Consul General in Boston explained, “The manner in which we are conducting relations with the American administration is causing strategic damage to Israel….. Nowadays, there is a sense in the United States that Obama is forced to deal with the obduracy of governments in Iran, North Korea, and Israel.” The government’s response: It threatens to terminate Consul Tamir for telling the truth about what a growing number of Americans feel about Israel.

The right’s ownership of the Israel portfolio had clearly backfired, resulting in Americans identifying Israel with the Axis of Evil. Such news is undoubtedly distressing to a government that prides itself on being the vanguard of the West’s war on Islamofascism. While Tamir is right to point out a common perception of obduracy by Americans, aside from the obvious associative downsides of membership (militarism, authoritarianism) is the identification with Israel’s arch-nemesis, Iran. Specifically,Israel’s insistence on the Iranian threat is perceived as an attempt to keep the United States locked into the regional military engagements of the Bush era, by developing new local problems to replace the old.

That Americans might regard Benjamin Netanyahu in the same breath as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is problematic enough. The fact that they would respond negatively to the Israeli government’s use of Iran in such a calculating manner, to fight American policy initiatives in the Middle East, is even worse. The larger problem is the narcissism of Israeli positioning, and the kinds of domestic considerations built into it, which assume that something that may work in Israel will also do so in the United States. The issue is that the alienation works both ways, pushing Israelis away from the United States at the same time that it drives Americans away from Israel.

Not only does such a strategy tie too many enormous foreign policy objects together incorrectly: by turning the Iranian nuclear threat, peace with the Palestinians, and the Obama’s administration’s Middle East policy into a single issue, Israeli conservatives have succeeded in transforming the American government into a synonymous negative to a disproportionate number of Israelis. Or, to be precise, to make indistinguishable Obama from Ahmadinejad from Meshal. They all become reduced, or so the excesses of the rhetoric suggest, into different instances of the exact same existential threat to Israel.

Two opinion polls commissioned by the Jerusalem Post in June, following Obama’s June 4, 2009 address in Cairo and Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy-setting speech at Bar Ilan University ten days later bear this alienation out. In reaction to Obama’s speech, his approval rating among Israelis fell thirteen percent afterwards, from 76 to 63 percent. In response to Netanyahu’s “acceptance” of the two-state solution to the Palestinian Israeli conflict, a miserly six percent of Jewish Israelis polled find the US President to be “pro-Israel.”

If there is something seriously troubling about the Israeli government’s disagreements with the Obama administration’s Mideast policy, this is it. It is not just a sign of bad character. It is that Israeli obduracy, as Consul Tamir called it, is also a sign of the complete collapse of US-Israeli intimacy. What makes the disintegration of this relationship so loud, so much a part of the debate about what to do about peace in the Middle East, is the nagging sense this imparts that there will never be any peace for Israel. That, no matter what Israel says, its political class will always find ways to isolate the country against even their own desires, above and beyond what the rest of the world has done to isolate Israel already.

It is equally troubling that, in its dealings with the Netanyahu government, the Americans have demonstrated an astonishing lack of awareness that Israel’s political failings are equally a reflection of US sponsorship. That is, that Israel’s bad character is a product of four decades of nurturing by a United States that enabled Israel’s worst qualities in order to help advance its selfish policy objectives in the Middle East. A force against Communist expansionism, an aircraft carrier of democracy, an iron wall, to quote Vladimir Jabotinsky, against Islam. Whatever it could do for the Americans, Israel availed itself, despite whatever demonstrations of ‘independence’ Israel indulged during this time.

The problem with the American point of view is that it remains oblivious to the dark side of its patronage. That, in tolerating forty years of settlement, whether it be in the Sinai, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, or Gaza, Israel allowed itself to cultivate its own worst ideological impulses, such that when America finally needed Israel to shift gears and make peace, its political establishment would be wholly unable to do so. Why no one has yet characterized this phenomenon as “blowback,” as a natural consequence of how the Americans always end up creating their own worst foreign policy problems, is astonishing. What we have today, in the bickering and name calling between two governments, is something very much more significant and much sadder: the refusal to name a tragedy.

This article is reprinted from Israelology, the Fall 2009 print edition of Zeek

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