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Time for U.S. to Rein in Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House March 23, 2010
Mark Knoller
Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME.com where he analyzes the Middle East and other international conflicts. He also runs his own website, Rootless Cosmopolitan.His piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Uncomfortable at the spectacle of the Obama administration in an open confrontation with the Israeli government, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman -- who represents the interests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party on Capitol Hill as faithfully as he does those of the health insurance industry -- called for a halt. "Let's cut the family fighting, the family feud," he said. "It's unnecessary; it's destructive of our shared national interest. It's time to lower voices, to get over the family feud between the U.S. and Israel. It just doesn't serve anybody's interests but our enemies."

The idea that the U.S. and Israel are "family" with identical national interests is a convenient fiction that Lieberman and his fellow Israel partisans have worked relentlessly to promote -- and enforce -- in Washington over the past two decades. If the bonds are indeed familial, however, last week's showdown between Washington and the Netanyahu government may be counted as one of those feuds in which truths are uttered in the heat of the moment that call into question the fundamental terms of the relationship.  Such truths are never easily swept under the rug once the dispute is settled.  The immediate rupture, that is, precludes a simple return to the status quo ante; instead, a renegotiation of the terms of the relationship somehow ends up on the agenda. 

Sure, the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government are now working feverishly to find a formula that will allow them to move on from a contretemps that began when the Israelis ambushed Vice President Joe Biden, announcing plans to build 1,600 new housing units for settlers in occupied East Jerusalem.  He was, of course, in Israel to promote the Obama administration's failing efforts to rehabilitate negotiations toward a two-state peace agreement, a goal regularly spurned by Israel's continued construction on land occupied in 1967.

Once again, as when Obama demanded a complete settlement freeze from the Netanyahu government in 2009, the Israelis will fend off any demand that they completely reverse their latest construction plans.  Instead, they will shamelessly offer to continue their settlement activity on a "don't-ask-don't-tell" basis, professing rhetorical support for a two-state solution to placate the Americans, even as they systematically erode its prospects on the ground.

There is, as former Secretary of State James Baker has noted, no shortage of chutzpah in this Israeli government. "United States taxpayers are giving Israel roughly $3 billion each year, which amounts to something like $1,000 for every Israeli citizen, at a time when our own economy is in bad shape and a lot of Americans would appreciate that kind of helping hand from their own government," Baker said in a recent interview. "Given that fact, it is not unreasonable to ask the Israeli leadership to respect U.S. policy on settlements."

The General Joins the Fray

Sooner or later, the present imbroglio is likely to be fudged over, but make no mistake, it opened Washington up to a renewed discussion of the conventional wisdom of unconditional support for Israel.  It also brought into the public arena the way U.S. administrations over the past two decades have enabled that country's ever-expanding occupation regime and whether such a policy is compatible with U.S. national interests in the Middle East.

Back in 2006, the realist foreign policy thinkers John Mearshimer and Stephen Walt provoked a firestorm of ridicule and ad hominem abuse for suggesting in their book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, that the goals pursued by the two sides were, in fact, far from identical and often at odds -- and that partisans motivated by Israel's interests lobbied aggressively to skew U.S. foreign policy in their favor.  Israel partisans also heaped derision on the suggestion by the Iraq Study Group commissioned by President George W. Bush that the U.S. would not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East without first settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Response to the reiteration, last week, of the idea that Israel's behavior might be jeopardizing U.S. interests has been strikingly muted by comparison. That's because it came from General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command (Centcom), which oversees America's two wars of the moment.  He is the most celebrated U.S. military officer of his generation, and a favorite of those most ferocious of Israel partisans, the neocons.

Petraeus told Senators on Wednesday: "The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in [Centcom's] AOR [Area of Responsibility]." He added, "The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas." He also stressed that "progress toward resolving the political disputes in the Levant, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict, is a major concern for Centcom."

Normally, any linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a wave of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is pooh-poohed by neocons and other Israel partisans.  Typically, they will derisively suggest that those who argue for the linkage made by Petraeus are naive in their belief that al-Qaeda would give up its jihad if only Israel and the Palestinians made peace. That, by the way, is a straw-man argument of the first order: The U.S. has done plenty on its own to antagonize the Muslim world, and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not in itself resolve that antagonism. The point is simply that a fair solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for repairing relations between the U.S. and the citizenry of many Muslim countries.

Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, who has made a profession of trying to negate the difference between anti-Semitism and criticism of (or hostility to) Israel, gamely ventured that "Gen. Petraeus has simply erred in linking the challenges faced by the U.S. and coalition forces in the region to a solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and blaming extremist activities on the absence of peace and the perceived U.S. favoritism for Israel." His conclusion:  "This linkage is dangerous and counterproductive."  

You can, in fact, hear the pain in Foxman's admission that "it is that much more of a concern to hear this coming from such a great American patriot and hero." That Petraeus chose to make his concerns public at the height of a public showdown between Israel and the U.S., and to do so on Capitol Hill, where legislators seemed uncertain how to respond, signaled the seriousness of the uniformed military in pressing the issue.


Longtime Washington military and intelligence affairs analyst Mark Perry caught the special significance of this at Foreign Policy's website: "There are important and powerful lobbies in America: the NRA, the American Medical Association, the lawyers -- and the Israeli lobby. But no lobby is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military." He noted as well that, in a January Centcom briefing of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, Petraeus had evidently suggested the Palestinian territories -- over which Israel continues to exercise sovereign military control -- be included under Centcom's area of responsibility, a prospect that would make Israel's leadership apoplectic.

It's not that, as far as we know, Petraeus harbors any particular animus, or affection, for the Jewish state.  It's that, in his institutional role as the commander of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops stationed across what Washington strategists like to call the "arc of instability," he is concerned about aggravating hostility towards the United States.