America's coming confrontation with Israel has been foreshadowed for quite some time by several under-the-radar signals, but the media has been too invested in the "special relationship" narrative to notice, at least until the Obama administration took the reins. In spite of the Bush team's reputation for being the most pro-Israel White House ever, in the last year or so of the second term they had been moving steadily away from being Israel's yes-man – for example, by tightening visa restrictions on the entry of Israelis into the US – and this trend culminated in the White House vetoing an Israeli strike on Iran. With the victory of the Israeli far-right in the recent Israeli elections, and the likelihood that the ultra-nationalist whack-job Avigdor Lieberman will serve in the new government as foreign minister, US-Israeli relations are headed for a crisis that will test the power of the Israeli lobby as it has never been tested before, and also provide an interesting lesson in the how and why of our foreign policy.
The recently reported Israeli air strike on Sudan, ostensibly conducted to intercept arms bound for the Palestinian territories, was carried out in January – just as pressure on the Bush administration to attack Iran was reaching a well-orchestrated crescendo. Analysts interpret the raid as a signal to Iran that the Jewish state is ready, willing and able to lash out at its enemies, with or without US approval, and yet one cannot help thinking that it was just as much a signal to the Americans that Israel will no longer be constrained by the requirements of the "special relationship."
To illustrate the growing tensions between Wasington and Tel Aviv, one has only to look at what happened at a recent meeting between our secretary of state and incoming Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as reported by Foreign Policy's Laura Rozen:
"Sources tell Foreign Policy that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Netanyahu at the King David Hotel earlier this month, such was the concern that a certain former Mossad analyst who now serves as Netanyahu's security advisor may pose a counterintelligence problem that, after conferring with an aide, Clinton suggested to Netanyahu that they reduce the number of people in the room."
Ah, but wily old Bibi out-foxed Hillary by asking Israeli ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor to leave the room, instead of Uzi Arad, his top national security advisor. Formerly a Mossad officer in the research division and foreign liaison, Arad is an academic who currently chairs the Herzilya conference, an annual event that brings together the Jewish state's key national security and political leaders for the Israeli equivalent of Davos. Yet no doubt a great many Israeli officials are or have been connected to their nation's intelligence apparatus – why pick on this one? How to explain Clinton's aversion to Mr. Arad?
It seems that ever since he was identified as having met with convicted Israeli spy Larry Franklin – a meeting that was monitored by the FBI's counterintelligence unit, and noted in Frankln's indictment – Arad has had great trouble obtaining a US visa. In August of 2004, Franklin – the Pentagon's top Iran analyst, and a habitué of the neocons' ad hoc lie factory, the "Office of Special Plans" – was arrested and indicted for conspiracy to transmit sensitive classified information to Israeli embassy officials. The indictment documents that he did so with the assistance of two employees of AIPAC, the Israel lobby's Washington powerhouse, including Steve Rosen, the group's chief lobbying official and architect of its unprecedented success.
They recruited Franklin, and then handed him over directly to Naor Gilon, then the Israeli embassy's chief political officer. Gilon and Franklin met regularly from February through May and throughout the summer, often at the Pentagon Officers Athletic Club. This was the venue of a meeting between Gilon, Franklin, and Arad, where, sitting at a table in the Pentagon cafeteria, Franklin briefed his handlers on the status of Iran's nuclear program – and doubtless much else.
Rozen avers that "Clinton's suggestion was made, sources say, in the hopes that Netanyahu would get the message and excuse Arad from the meeting." To be sure, he got the message all right – and so did she. The Israelis are perfectly well aware that Arad is radioactive right now, with the trial of Rosen (and his accomplice, Keith Weissman) looming – which is precisely why the Israelis pushed him forward.
The Israelis are telling us that the threat they face from Iran is "existential." This means that an attack on Iran is a non-negotiable item, as far as Tel Aviv is concerned: it's just a matter of when, and by whom. The Israelis and their amen corner in this country have been embarked on a longstanding campaign to gin up a US-Iranian confrontation, just as they did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, but this time the Lobby is being much more overt about taking a leading and very visible role in the agitation.
There is, however, a covert aspect of this campaign, and it's significant that the agency of both efforts has been AIPAC, which is in effect an unregistered agent of a foreign government. Any other organization that had been raided twice by the FBI in connection with an espionage investigation would have been shut down long ago. In the case of AIPAC, however, a great exception has been made, the sort of special treatment, as Grant Smith notes in his fascinating study, that has been granted the organization throughout its various incarnations. But that's what the special relationship is all about.
The US-Israeli symbiosis that defined our Middle Eastern policy, and set the framework, in no small part, for our relations with the rest of the world, is coming under a severe strain. In any relationship that goes sour, there's always a lot of recriminations: "It isn't like it used to be!" "Yes, but you've changed—oh, how you've changed!"
It's Israel, not the US,. that has changed, and not for the better. The rise of an Israeli neo-fascist organization with real electoral clout – enough to get their leader the foreign ministry – is a sign of a very deep sickness, an ominous portent that cannot and must not be overlooked. After all, Israel is a nuclear power, and Senor Lieberman did once express a desire to blow up the Aswan dam. If the extreme right-ward trend in Israeli politics continues, it isn't hard to imagine such a loon one day becoming Prime Minister – and I leave the rest to your imagination.
This is not the Israel of Exodus, the musical theme of which inspired my youthful passion for the lushly Romantic, the storyline as well as the music. It is, increasingly, the Israel of our worst nightmares. This is already costing the Lobby public support. Cracks in the reflexively pro-Israel consensus are already beginning to appear, and the prospect of a real policy realignment has the Israel lobby working overtime to turn the tide. This struggle will be an object lesson in how and why a nation's foreign policy is determined: whether it is formulated with an eye to objective circumstances, and the national interest, or simply designed to the specifications of lobbyists, foreign and domestic.
Objectively, the Israel-centric policy we pursue in the Middle East works against our interests, which, since 9/11, are to split the Muslim world in the fight against Al Qaeda. Up until now, however, our policy has been based entirely on the dubious axiom that Israeli and American interests are identical, a principle that unites the entire Muslim world against us. Since 9/11, and really since the end of the cold war, American and Israeli interests have begun to diverge, and, today, they are reaching the breaking point. Whether the subjective factor – the power of the Lobby – can triumph over the objective circumstances promises to be an interesting test, and a fateful one for all concerned.