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March 6, 2009

Obama and Israel's Military: Still Arm-in-Arm


by Stephen Zunes

In the wake of Israel's massive assault on heavily populated civilian areas of the Gaza Strip earlier this year, Amnesty International called for the United States to suspend military aid to Israel on human rights grounds. Amnesty has also called for the United Nations to impose a mandatory arms embargo on both Hamas and the Israeli government. Unfortunately, it appears that President Barack Obama won't be heeding Amnesty's call.

During the fighting in January, Amnesty documented Israeli forces engaging in "direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects in Gaza, and attacks which were disproportionate or indiscriminate." The leader of Amnesty International's fact-finding mission to the Gaza Strip and southern Israel noted how "Israeli forces used white phosphorus and other weapons supplied by the USA to carry out serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes." Amnesty also reported finding fragments of U.S.-made munitions "littering school playgrounds, in hospitals and in people's homes."

Malcolm Smart, who serves as Amnesty International's director for the Middle East, observed in a press release that "to a large extent, Israel's military offensive in Gaza was carried out with weapons, munitions and military equipment supplied by the USA and paid for with U.S. taxpayers' money." The release also noted how before the conflict, which raged for three weeks from late December into January, the United States had "been aware of the pattern of repeated misuse of [its] weapons."

Amnesty has similarly condemned Hamas rocket attacks into civilian-populated areas of southern Israel as war crimes. And while acknowledging that aid to Hamas was substantially smaller, far less sophisticated, and far less lethal – and appeared to have been procured through clandestine sources – Amnesty called on Iran and other countries to take concrete steps to insure that weapons and weapon components not get into the hands of Palestinian militias.

During the fighting in early January, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization initially called for a suspension of U.S. military aid until there was no longer a substantial risk of additional human rights violations. The Bush administration summarily rejected this proposal. Amnesty subsequently appealed to the Obama administration. "As the major supplier of weapons to Israel, the USA has a particular obligation to stop any supply that contributes to gross violations of the laws of war and of human rights," said Malcolm Smart. "The Obama administration should immediately suspend U.S. military aid to Israel."

Obama's refusal to accept Amnesty's call for the suspension of military assistance was a blow to human rights activists. The most Obama might do to express his displeasure toward controversial Israeli policies like the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories would be to reject a planned increase in military aid for the next fiscal year and slightly reduce economic aid and/or loan guarantees. However, in a notable departure from previous administrations, Obama made no mention of any military aid to Israel in his outline of the FY 2010 budget, announced last week. This notable absence may indicate that pressure from human rights activists and others concerned about massive U.S. military aid to Israel is now strong enough that the White House feels a need to downplay the assistance rather than emphasize it.

Obama Tilts Right

Currently, Obama is on record supporting sending up to $30 billion in unconditional military aid to Israel over the next 10 years. Such a total would represent a 25% increase in the already large-scale arms shipments to Israeli forces under the Bush administration.

Obama has thus far failed to realize that the problem in the Middle East is that there are too many deadly weapons in the region, not too few. Instead of simply wanting Israel to have an adequate deterrent against potential military threats, Obama insists the United States should guarantee that Israel maintain a qualitative military advantage. Thanks to this overwhelming advantage over its neighbors, Israeli forces were able to launch devastating wars against Israel's Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors in recent years.

If Israel were in a strategically vulnerable situation, Obama's hard-line position might be understandable. But Israel already has vastly superior conventional military capabilities relative to any combination of armed forces in the region, not to mention a nuclear deterrent.

However, Obama has failed to even acknowledge Israel's nuclear arsenal of at least 200-300 weapons, which has been documented for decades. When Hearst reporter Helen Thomas asked at his first press conference if he could name any Middle Eastern countries that possess nuclear weapons, he didn't even try to answer the question. Presumably, Obama knows Israel has these weapons and is located in the Middle East. However, acknowledging Israel's arsenal could complicate his planned arms transfers since it would place Israel in violation of the 1976 Symington Amendment, which restricts U.S. military support for governments which develop nuclear weapons.

Another major obstacle to Amnesty's calls for suspending military assistance is Congress. Republican leaders like Representatives John Boehner (OH) and Eric Cantor (VA) have long rejected calls by human rights groups to link U.S. military aid to adherence to internationally recognized human rights standards. But so have such Democratic leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who are outspoken supporters of unconditional military aid to Israel. Even progressive Democratic Representative Barney Frank (MA), at a press conference on February 24 pushing his proposal to reduce military spending by 25%, dismissed a question regarding conditioning Israel's military aid package to human rights concerns.

Indeed, in an apparent effort to support their militaristic agenda and to discredit reputable human rights groups that documented systematic Israeli attacks against non-military targets, these congressional leaders and an overwhelming bipartisan majority of their colleagues have gone on record praising "Israel's longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss and…efforts to prevent civilian casualties." Although Obama remained silent while Israel was engaged in war crimes against the civilian population of Gaza, Pelosi and other congressional leaders rushed to Israel's defense in the face of international condemnation.

Obama's Defense of Israeli Attacks on Civilians

Following the 2006 conflict between Israeli armed forces and the Hezbollah militia, in which both sides committed war crimes by engaging in attacks against populated civilian areas, then-Senator Obama defended Israel's actions and criticized Hezbollah, even though Israel was actually responsible for far more civilian deaths. In an apparent attempt to justify Israeli bombing of civilian population centers, Obama claimed Hezbollah had used "innocent people as shields."

This charge directly challenged a series of reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These reports found that while Hezbollah did have some military equipment close to some civilian areas, the Lebanese Islamist militia had not forced civilians to remain in or around military targets in order to deter Israel from attacking those targets. I sent Obama spokesperson Ben LaBolt a copy of an exhaustive 249-page Human Rights Watch report that didn't find a single case – out of 600 civilian deaths investigated – of Hezbollah using human shields. I asked him if Obama had any empirical evidence that countered these findings.

In response, LaBolt provided me with a copy of a short report from a right-wing Israeli think tank with close ties to the Israeli government headed by the former head of the Israeli intelligence service. The report appeared to use exclusively Israeli government sources, in contrast to the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, which were based upon forensic evidence as well as multiple verified eyewitness accounts by both Lebanese living in the areas under attack as well as experienced monitors (unaffiliated with any government or political organization) on the ground. Despite several follow-up emails asking for more credible sources, LaBolt never got back to me.

Not Good for Israel

The militaristic stance by Congress and the Obama administration is hardly doing Israel a favor. Indeed, U.S. military assistance to Israel has nothing to do with Israel's legitimate security needs. Rather than commencing during the country's first 20 years of existence, when Israel was most vulnerable strategically, major U.S. military and economic aid didn’t even begin until after the 1967 War, when Israel proved itself to be far stronger than any combination of Arab armies and after Israeli occupation forces became the rulers of a large Palestinian population.

If all U.S. aid to Israel were immediately halted, Israel wouldn't be under a significantly greater military threat than it is today for many years. Israel has both a major domestic arms industry and an existing military force far more capable and powerful than any conceivable combination of opposing forces.

Under Obama, U.S. military aid to Israel will likely continue be higher than it was back in the 1970s, when Egypt's massive and well-equipped armed forces threatened war, Syria's military rapidly expanded with advanced Soviet weaponry, armed factions of the PLO launched terrorist attacks into Israel, Jordan still claimed the West Bank and stationed large numbers of troops along its border and demarcation line with Israel, and Iraq embarked on a vast program of militarization. Why does the Obama administration believe that Israel needs more military aid today than it did back then? Since that time, Israel has maintained a longstanding peace treaty with Egypt and a large demilitarized and internationally monitored buffer zone. Syria's armed forces were weakened by the collapse of their former Soviet patron and its government has been calling for a resumption of peace talks. The PLO is cooperating closely with Israeli security. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel with full normalized relations. And two major wars and a decade of strict international sanctions have devastated Iraq's armed forces, which is in any case now under close U.S. supervision.

Obama has pledged continued military aid to Israel a full decade into the future not in terms of how that country's strategic situation may evolve, but in terms of a fixed-dollar amount. If his real interest were to provide adequate support for Israeli defense, he wouldn't promise $30 billion in additional military aid. He would simply pledge to maintain adequate military assistance to maintain Israel's security needs, which would presumably decline if the peace process moves forward. However, Israel's actual defense needs don't appear to be the issue.

According to late Israeli major general and Knesset member Matti Peled, – who once served as the IDF's chief procurement officer, such fixed amounts are arrived at "out of thin air." In addition, every major arms transfer to Israel creates a new demand by Arab states – most of which can pay hard currency through petrodollars – for additional U.S. weapons to challenge Israel. Indeed, Israel announced its acceptance of a proposed Middle Eastern arms freeze in 1991, but the U.S. government, eager to defend the profits of U.S. arms merchants, effectively blocked it. Prior to the breakdown in the peace process in 2001, 78 senators wrote President Bill Clinton insisting that the United States send additional military aid to Israel on the grounds of massive arms procurement by Arab states, neglecting to note that 80% of those arms transfers were of U.S. origin. Were they really concerned about Israeli security, they would have voted to block these arms transfers to the Gulf monarchies and other Arab dictatorships.

The resulting arms race has been a bonanza for U.S. arms manufacturers. The right-wing "pro-Israel" political action committees certainly wield substantial clout with their contributions to congressional candidates supportive of large-scale military and economic aid to Israel. But the Aerospace Industry Association and other influential military interests that promote massive arms transfers to the Middle East and elsewhere are even more influential, contributing several times what the "pro-Israel" PACs contribute.

The huge amount of U.S. aid to the Israeli government hasn't been as beneficial to Israel as many would suspect. U.S. military aid to Israel is, in fact, simply a credit line to American arms manufacturers, and actually ends up costing Israel two to three times that amount in operator training, staffing, maintenance, and other related costs. The overall impact is to increase Israeli military dependency on the United States – and amass record profits for U.S. arms merchants.

The U.S. Arms Export Control Act requires a cutoff of military aid to recipient countries if they're found to be using American weapons for purposes other than internal security or legitimate self-defense and/or their use could "increase the possibility of an outbreak or escalation of conflict." This might explain Obama's refusal to acknowledge Israel's disproportionate use of force and high number of civilian casualties.

Betraying His Constituency

The $30 billion in taxpayer funds to support Israeli militarism isn't a huge amount of money compared with what has already been wasted in the Iraq War, bailouts for big banks, and various Pentagon boondoggles. Still, this money could more profitably go toward needs at home, such as health care, education, housing, and public transportation.

It's therefore profoundly disappointing that there has been so little public opposition to Obama's dismissal of Amnesty International's calls to suspend aid to Israel. Some activists I contacted appear to have fallen into a fatalistic view that the "Zionist lobby" is too powerful to challenge and that Obama is nothing but a helpless pawn of powerful Jewish interests. Not only does this simplistic perspective border on anti-Semitism, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any right-wing militaristic lobby will appear all-powerful if there isn't a concerted effort from the left to challenge it.

Obama's supporters must demand that he live up to his promise to change the mindset in Washington that has contributed to such death and destruction in the Middle East. The new administration must heed calls by Amnesty International and other human rights groups to condition military aid to Israel and all other countries that don't adhere to basic principles of international humanitarian law.


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  • Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus and is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003). Posted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.

     

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