The role played by Israel as the catalyst for war in the Middle East was dramatically underscored the other day, when David Sanger of the New York Times reported Israel had requested access to “bunker-buster” bombs developed by the US, and also clearance for flying over Iraqi airspace to get at Iran. Both requests were denied.
Tensions within the “special relationship” have been escalating ever since. The first public eruption occurred over the UN Gaza resolution, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the world how he had yanked the President of the United States “off the podium” and demanded the US abstain from the Security Council vote. The United States isn’t exactly calling Olmert a liar, but, then again, in the course of denying it, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack went out of his way to issue a stinging rebuke. Olmert’s comments, he averred, “are wholly inaccurate as to describing the situation, just 100-percent, totally, completely not true.” He tartly advised the Israeli government to correct the record.
Is the US-Israel “special relationship” fraying around the edges? After all, this is hardly the sort of talk one hears between the two: Mr. and Mrs. Perfect Couple are usually careful to conduct their occasional spats behind closed doors. That this repartee is being exchanged on the international stage is extraordinary behavior indeed. It suggests a fundamental shift in US policy, in part dictated by objective circumstances, and propelled, as well, by increased Israeli assertiveness, which has widened the fault-lines that have always existed between Washington and Tel Aviv.
Over at the Center for American Progress blog, Matt Yglesias disapproves of Olmert’s boorishness: “It seems both telling and unseemly that Olmert is going around bragging about this.” Unseemliness has never stopped the Israelis from pressing their demands, but Yglesias is right: it is telling. It tells us who is used to giving orders, and who is accustomed to obedience.
Yet those power relations, in force throughout the first and much of the second Bush term, started undergoing a radical shift in the latter days of the Bush era. After the neoconservatives had left the administration, in disgrace, the divergence of US and Israeli interests began to come out in the open: most of these were little noted, such as the end of the visa arrangements between the US and Israel that had given Israelis practically unlimited rights to travel and stay in the US. Another and not so subtle signal: the arrest of two top officials of AIPAC, Israel’s powerful lobbying organization, The duo were accused of stealing classified information, via Larry Franklin, a veteran of Douglas Feith’s shadowy “Office of Special Plans,” and a neoconservative of the Ledeen school. Franklin pled guilty to charges of espionage, and was given a 12 year sentence, a hefty fine and a chance to work off some or all of that time by testifying at the trial of the two ringleaders, Steve Rosen (formerly AIPAC’s chief lobbyist) and Keith Weissman (their Iran expert), whose arrest was prefigured by two FBI raids on AIPAC’s Washington headquarters.
On the public stage, all has been hunky-dory for the US and Israel, and yet when it comes to the murky world of spycraft, the US has lately been on the warpath. Look, for example, at the case of Ben Ami Kadish. Here’s a guy close to eighty and barely able to get to meetings of the Jewish War Veterans anymore, being hauled into court and accused of being part of the same Israeli spy ring that recruited Jonathan Pollard. Pollard, by the way, is a hero in Israel, and I believe there is some sort of monument dedicated to him, or perhaps it’s only a street named after him: in any case, the campaign to release him from jail continues: this is a demand that every Israeli government always makes, so far to no avail.
You’ll notice, however, that Bush did pardon posthumously another revered Israeli hero, one Charles Winters, an American citizen, who was convicted in 1948 of violating the Neutrality Act by shipping weapons from the US to Palestine, where the Irgun and Haganah forces were battling both the British and the Arabs.
That, however, is hardly enough to appease Tel Aviv. Iran is the issue that has divided the US and Israel, and the gulf is only going to widen: that’s because the objective interests of the US and Israel are increasingly in conflict. That was the post-cold war trend, one that was ultimately exacerbated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Initially, of course, the idea was that “We are all Israelis now,” as Marty Peretz exulted. This coziness did not and could not have lasted, because the US relationship with the Muslim world, and specifically with the Arab countries of the Middle East, from that moment on took center stage. In effect, the Israelis were upstaged: we vowed to defeat and destroy al-Qaeda, but couldn’t do it without significant Arab support. In taking the battle to bin Laden, we elevated the importance of our Arab and Muslim allies, to Israel’s detriment.
While on the surface the US appears to be in lockstep with Israel, their divergent paths are increasingly apparent. The breakdown between the Bush White House and the Israelis has been magnified by the uncertainty augured by the incoming administration, where the outcome of a power struggle between Likudniks and realists is uncertain.
The Gaza offensive has caught the US off-guard, and brought simmering US-Israeli tensions to a boil. What Gaza signals is a new turn for the Israelis, a clean break, if you will, with their status as an American puppet in the Middle East. They are clearly going off on their own, intent on waging a war of unmitigated aggression against all their neighbors. Their expansionist tendencies have lately taken on pretty grandiose dimensions, as Seymour Hersh reported in his exposé of their activities in Kurdistan. That this little adventure was leaked to Hersh by sources in and around the US intelligence community and government circles was doubtless another contributing factor to the growing US-Israeli split.
Events are rapidly reaching a dramatic climax, and Gaza is just the start. Even as Israel makes the case that it represents the West, and deserves our support, it becomes less Western, and more like a typical Middle Eastern despotism garbed in the somewhat soiled raiment of “democracy.” The banning of the Arab parties, and the rise of Avigdor Lieberman, a racist and a theocrat, as a leading Israeli politician, augur ill for the future of Israel as a liberal democracy. As the Israelis hurl themselves into a furious campaign to push outward and establish the old dream of a “Greater Israel,” the claim that they are the region’s only democracy becomes an ever more hollow boast.