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
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
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
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
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.