Thursday, August 16, 2012

Israel Part Two: Dangerous Liaisons - By Guest Writer Zack Swan

Part Two: Dangerous Liaisons

A Palestinian child stands outside of her family's demolished house. The house was destroyed by Israeli bulldozers. Photo by Adam Moft.

Despite the arguments lobbied by supporters of the United States’ relationship with Israel, many critics today believe that Israel’s strategic value dried up over twenty years ago with the fall of the U.S.S.R. Cold War rationale placing Israel at the pinnacle of U.S. security interests in the Middle East was the straightforward case for Israel’s strategic value until the collapse of the Soviet Union; by serving as America’s proxy in the Middle East, Israel was able to help contain Soviet expansion in the vital region as well as occasionally help the United States handle other regional conflicts. Following the end of the Cold War, however, critics charge that Israel has failed to live up to its image as a protector of U.S. interests abroad and in fact has become a major liability to American security.

One such critic, Chas Freeman the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, claims that the relationship has become a one-way street and he believes that Israel gets whatever it wants in terms of top-of-the-line weapons systems and foreign aid handouts, and American taxpayers pick up the tab[1]. The U.S. even doles out cash to Israel to develop weapons America neither wants nor needs: $3 billion in aid was given to Israel by the U.S. to develop weapons like the Lavi aircraft, the Merkava tank, and the arrow missile, all of which the U.S. never planned on purchasing[2]. Freeman notes that today Israel’s per capita income is $37,000, on par with Great Britain, yet Israel continues to receive more American foreign aid than any nation. Additionally, he points out that the U.S. has on a number of occasions worked to shield Israel from the international political and legal consequences of its policies and actions in the Occupied Territories, against its neighbors, or, most recently, on the high seas. This has come in the form of 40 vetoes at the UN on behalf of Israeli interest as well as sponsoring a number of Israeli programs that were criticized by the international community at large; according to Freeman, the political costs of these actions have been tremendous.

As a consequence of America’s unilateral support of Israeli policies, critics allege that the alliance is endangering U.S. security. While supporters of the relationship argue that the Israel is the U.S. best ally and partner in the fight against terrorism and that the partnership has not motivated anti-American terrorist attacks, there are several critics who believe the exact opposite. Khaled Shaikh Muhammad, who is credited with masterminding the 9/11 attacks, claimed the purpose of the attacks was to focus the attention of “the American people . . . on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people”. Prior to 9/11, the mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 Ramzi Yousef said that he felt guilty about causing U.S deaths but that   “he truly believed his action had been rational and logical and in pursuit of a change in U.S. policy toward Israel”[3].

The 9/11 Commission itself came to the conclusion that Bin Laden and other key Al Qaeda members were motivated both by Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians and by U.S. support for Israel. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt also argue that the “partners against terror” rationale for the American-Israeli alliance is based on a popular misconception that the U.S. and Israel are fighting the same war against terror. This conception derives from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of terrorism. Terrorism is not an organization or a movement or even an “enemy” that one can declare war on; terrorism is a tactic of indiscriminately attacking enemy targets-especially civilians-in order to sow fear, undermine morale, and provoke counterproductive reactions from one’s adversary[4].

With that in mind, while all acts of terrorism are morally wrong, not all terrorist groups are alike and therefore not all present a clear threat to the United States. In contrast to Al-Qaeda, organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad do not attack the United States and are primarily only a threat to Israel. With regards to Hezbollah, Moshe Maoz, a historian at Hebrew University, says, “It is mostly a threat against Israel. They did attack U.S. targets when there were American troops in Lebanon, but they killed to oust forces from Lebanon. I doubt very much whether Hezbollah will go out of its way to attack America”[5]. There is also a common misunderstanding that Al-Qaeda and the Palestinian Liberation Organization share similar beliefs and ideologies, but this is far from the truth. Palestinian terrorists do not share Al-Qaeda’s desire to launch a global Islamic restoration or to restore the caliphate; in fact the PLO is in actuality largely secular and based on nationalist, not religious, principles. Additionally, the PLO’s terrorist acts do not share the random pattern of Al-Qaeda’s actions, but instead are usually in response to or directed at Israeli policies and intiatives. Thus, what the two organizations have in common is not any specific ideology but only the tactic of terrorism, which, as previously pointed out, is a tactic employed by militant groups worldwide regardless of their beliefs and aims.

Many of the arguments for the alliance against terrorism has been centered around the belief that terrorist organizations target the U.S. and Israel together because of shared beliefs in. Mearsheimer and Walt point out that supporters of the relationship deny any connection between U.S. support of Israel and the terrorism attacks on the U.S. and its citizens, and especially the September 11th attacks. Supporter of the alliance Robert Satloff claims that Bin Laden’s identification with Palestine is “a recent-and almost surely opportunistic-phenomenon”. There is, however, ample evidence that indicates the close relationship with Israel has harmed the U.S.’s image and reputation within the Arab and Muslim world in general. A 2004 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board concluded that Muslims do not hate American democracy and freedom, but rather they resent the privileged status Israel enjoys in the region, bolstered by U.S. support. 

This finding was further strengthened by the 9/11 Commission, which concluded “it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American policy in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world”[6]. Few critics can deny that anti-Semitism exists within Arab nations; however, as Walt and Mearsheimer point out, the United States pays a substantial price for supporting Israel so consistently that has more to do with Israeli policies than its religious identity. They believe this position fuels hostility towards the United States in the Middle East, motivates anti-American extremists, aids in the recruitment of militants, gives authoritarian governments in the region an all-too-convenient scapegoat for their own failings, and makes it harder for Washington to convince potential supporters to confront extremists in their own countries[7].

An anti-Israel mural in Tehran.

The rationale of the “partnership against terrorism” is used to justify the U.S. and Israel confronting rogue states that support terrorism and aim to acquire WMD. It seems logical to believe that authoritarian states like Syria, Iran, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would be threats to both Israel and the United States. However, when held up to closer scrutiny, many believe that although the United States may not agree with these states’ conduct, they do not pose a vital threat to U.S. interests abroad. The sole exception to this observation is the threat posed to Israel. Thus, much of the U.S.’s concerns about Saddam’s and Iran’s pursuit of WMD derives largely from their threat to Israel. President Bush admitted this outright in March 2006, saying, “The threat from Iran is, of course, their stated objective to destroy our strong ally Israel”[8].

Many critics argue the pursuit of WMD by several Middle Eastern states such as Iraq and Iran is a reaction to Israel’s own WMD arsenal, which the country repeatedly denies possessing but which the world community seems to the fully aware of. In that respect, Israel appears to be perpetuating the proliferation of nuclear arms by insisting it will retaliate militarily against any other state that dares acquire nuclear capability in the region. American support of these policies further damages the United States’ reputation in the Middle East. Such a forthright example of hypocrisy does little to lessen Middle Eastern opinions that Israel is allowed to get away with whatever it wants, while the U.S. threatens any who behave in the same fashion with sanctions and even invasion.

From a realist perspective, America’s main strategic interests in the Middle East is oil, and protecting access to this commodity mainly depends on preventing any single country from controlling the entire region[9]. The close alignment with Israel does not assist in achieving this goal, and many critics believe it has actually interfered with achieving this end. Oil-producing nations such as Iran face severe sanctions that often grow worse after an escalation in rhetoric on both sides. Such obstacles to free trade are not in keeping with the United States’ economic as well as political interests.

Despite arguments made by supporters of the alliance that the U.S. and Israel have always been in agreement on their objectives and that Israel has always supported the U.S., critics of the relationship say there have been several examples of Israel working against the U.S. and acting as a “dubious ally”. In the “Lavon affair” in 1954, Israeli agents attempted to bomb several U.S. government offices in Cairo to create a rift between America and Egypt. During the period from 1979-80 Israel sold weapons to Iran during the American Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, placing financial gains ahead of U.S. aims. On numerous occasions that Israel has been caught conducting espionage against the United States, leading the General Accounting Office to declare that Israel “conducts the most aggressive espionage operations against the United States of any ally”[10]. Israel has also broken U.S. law and threatened American interests by transferring American technology to third party countries, such as potential U.S. adversary China. All of these actions were in Israel’s national interest, but worked against the strategic aims of the U.S.

While Israel and the United States were not staunch allies for the first 20 years of Israel’s existence, it is clear that the Cold War created a set of circumstances that convinced President Kennedy and his successors that a number of strategic advantages could be gained from more closely aligning the U.S. with Israel. This relationship strengthened and grew throughout the Cold War, and by the 1980s Israel had become the United States’ closest ally, receiving the largest amount of American foreign aid and unwavering diplomatic support. Today, supporters of this relationship believe that Israel is still a strategic asset that assists the United States to confront rogue states as well as in the fight against terrorism. Critics of the relationship argue that the cost of being allied with Israel outweigh the benefits leading to increased anti-American terrorism, damaged U.S. relationships with other nations, and the hindrance of American ability to conduct peace negotiations in the Middle East.

The aim of this study was to give readers an objective portrayal of both sides of the argument in the hopes of continuing a public dialogue on the issue. As I have stated previously, despite the fundamental differences in their positions, critics and supporters alike can and should agree that what is always in the U.S. strategic interest is the continual re-examination of American policies, allies, and motivations. Without self-reflection, America stands to make the same grave mistakes other superpowers have in the past: over-confidence, arrogance, and, eventually, self destruction.

[1] A Debate on the Vale of the US-Israel Relationship, Robert Satloff and Chas Freeman.
[2] Mearsheimer, John. Walt, Stephen. The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy
[3] Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CUA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin Press, 2004) 250-251, 273
[4] Mearsheimer, John. Walt, Stephen. The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, 62
[5] Maoz quoted in Susan Taylor Martin, “Experts Disagree on Dangers of Syria” St. Petersburg Times, November 3, 2002
[6] Report of the defense science board task force on strategic communication  (Washington, DC: Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, September 2004)
[7] Mearsheimer, John. Walt, Stephen. The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, 70
[8] Mearsheimer, John. Walt, Stephen. The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, 71
[9] Mearsheimer, John. Walt, Stephen. The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, 71
[10] Mearsheimer, John. Walt, Stephen. The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, 75-76

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