US v Israel: never fear, it’s business as usual

Alexander Cockburn: Fear of the Israel lobby means Obama and Clinton’s hands are tied

Column LAST UPDATED AT 07:41 ON Fri 19 Mar 2010
Alexander Cockburn

Is there really a crisis in US-Israeli relations? Yes and No. Yes, because the world's premier power doesn't care to have its vice president publicly humiliated by a midget of a nation whose entire population is smaller than that of Los Angeles county. No, because the elected politicians nominally running the government of the world's premier power live in mortal fear of the Israel lobby in the United States. This time, as always, No will carry the day.
 
Consider Joe Biden's reaction the day after Interior Minister Eli Yishai, probably with Netanyahu's  foreknowledge, announced the scheduled building of 1,600 apartments – Jews only – in East Jerusalem, right at the moment Biden was trying to breathe life into the "peace process". As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz points out, those projected 1,600 units are part of 50,000 planned for the eastern part of the city.
 
So here's the vice president of the United States of America,
standing with all the injured dignity of a man who has just had a bucket of sewage dumped over his head and who amid his discomfiture, did actually use the word "condemn" and "Israel" in the same paragraph. The next day Biden heads for Tel Aviv university and confides to the audience that he is a Zionist and that, "Throughout my career, Israel has not only remained close to my heart but it has been the centre of my work as a United States Senator and now as Vice President of the United States."

Get that: "The centre of my work." This mission statement was not quoted in the US press.
 
Then Biden repeated the nonsense he spouted when he arrived in Jerusalem: that "there is no space - this is what they [the world] must know, every time progress is made, it's made when the rest of the world knows there is absolutely no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to security, none. No space. That's the only time when progress has been made."
 
Of course, if any "progress" can be identified across the past 40 years – a debatable assumption – it's only because an American president has nerved himself to briefly lay down the agenda with threats and menaces, all duly retracted when the Lobby regroups and commences its counter-attack.
 
Finally Biden sidled up to the "crisis". He said: "I appreciate… the response your Prime Minister today announced this morning that he is putting in place a process to prevent the recurrence of that sort of events [sic] and who clarified that the beginning of actual construction on this particular project would likely take several years … That's significant, because it gives negotiations the time to resolve this, as well as other outstanding issues. Because when it was announced, I was on the West Bank. Everyone there thought it had meant immediately the resumption of the construction of 1,600 new units."
 
Yes, that's exactly what it meant, the resumption of the construction of the 1,600 units, the first of 50,000 in all. Netanyahu has said these are non-negotiable, whatever Washington might say, let alone the pitiful Palestinian Authority.
 
Amid the anguished cries of the Arab princes and emirs - Israel's brazen conduct towards Biden makes it that much harder for them to sell the Palestinians down the river - Obama's chief political aide, David Axelrod, undoubtedly with clearance from his boss, told NBC News that not only was the Israeli behaviour an "insult" to the United States but "destructive" of the Middle East peace process. Hillary Clinton let it be known she'd read the riot act to Netanhayu down the phone for 43 minutes.
 
Her spokesman claimed she'd described the planned units in East Jerusalem as sending a "deeply negative signal about Israel's approach to the bilateral relationship and counter to the spirit of the vice president's trip" and that "this action had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process and in America's interests." Meanwhile, special envoy George Mitchell cancelled his trip to the region.
 
So, yes, we can call it a crisis, but not one that will be prolonged. Obama is not the first president to have lost patience with Israel for messing up Uncle Sam's larger plans. Mrs Clinton is not the first Secretary of State to shout angrily down the phone to Tel Aviv.
 
In 1975 President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger publicly blamed Israel for the breakdown of negotiations with Egypt over withdrawing from the Sinai. Ford said he was going to tell the American people that US-Israeli relations should be recast. Prodded by AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), 76 US senators signed a letter to Ford telling him to lay off Israel. He did.
 
Jeffrey Blankfort, a historian of the Lobby, reels off other crises, all satisfactorily resolved in Israel's favour. In March, 1980, President Carter was forced to apologise after US UN representative Donald McHenry voted for a resolution that condemned Israel's settlement policies in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem and which called on Israel to dismantle them.
 
In June of the same year, after Carter requested a halt to Jewish settlements and his Secretary of State, Edmund Muskie, called the Jewish settlements an obstacle to peace, Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced plans to construct 10 new ones.

In August, 1982, the day after Reagan requested that Ariel Sharon end the bombing of Beirut, Sharon responded by ordering bombing runs over the city at precisely 2:42 and 3:38 in the afternoon, the times coinciding with the two UN resolutions requiring Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
 
In March, 1991, Secretary of State James Baker complained to Congress that "Every time I have gone to Israel in connection with the peace process... I have been met with an announcement of new settlement activity... It substantially weakens our hand in trying to bring about a peace process, and creates quite a predicament."

In 1990, Baker had become so disgusted with Israel's intransigence on the settlements that he publicly gave out the phone number of the White House switchboard and told the Israelis, "When you're serious about peace, call us."

On September 12, 1991, President George Bush Sr got sufficiently infuriated by AIPAC's success in getting enough votes in both houses of Congress to override his veto of Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees, that he declared to the television cameras: "I'm up against some powerful forces. They've got something like 1,000 lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question. We've got one lonely little guy here doing it."

A national poll taken immediately afterward gave the president an 85 per cent approval rating. The Lobby blinked but not for long. Not only did the loan guarantees ultimately go through, but Jewish voters turned strongly against Bush in the 1992 elections, a fact which Bush Jr never forgot.
 
As Blankfort also recalls, in January 2009, Israel's then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly boasted that he had "shamed" Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by getting President Bush to prevent her from voting at the last moment for a Gaza ceasefire resolution that she herself had worked on for several days with Arab and European diplomats at the United Nations.

Olmert bragged to an Israeli audience that he pulled Bush off a stage during a speech to take his call when he learned about the pending vote and demanded that the president intervene.

In sum, as Stephen Green wrote in Taking Sides: America's Secret Relations with Militant Israel a quarter of a century ago, "Since 1953, Israel, and friends of Israel in America, have determined the broad outlines of US policy in the region. It has been left to American presidents to implement that policy, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and to deal with tactical issues."

There are powerful forces in America that wish that this was not so, starting with the US military. Before Biden's trip, no less a prominent and widely admired commander as  General David Petraeus wrote a memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with its sentiments reduplicated in testimony last Tuesday before a US Senate Armed Services Committee.
 
Petraeus described the Israeli-Arab conflict as the first "cross cutting challenge to security and stability" in the CENTCOM area of responsibility [AOR]. "The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbours present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR."
 
Petraeus then told the Senate committee: "The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favouritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world." Not long before, Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, warned the Israelis publicly that an attack on Iran would be a "big, big, big problem for all of us".
 
In Israel the widely-read Yediot Ahronoth reported that privately Biden had echoed Petraeus's sentiments, telling Netanyahu that Israel's conduct was  "starting to get dangerous for us". Biden reportedly said: "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace."
 
Would not the charge that Israel is putting in harm's way the lives of Americans battling terror on the front lines be devastating if toughly presented by a capable politician to the American people? Yes it would. Polls would probably give the politician making such a charge ratings as high or higher than Bush got in 1991.
 
So will Gen Petraeus, assuming he embarks on a political run in 2012 or 2016, make such a move? First of all, one can make the assumption that after his memo and testimony it won't be long before we're reading some investigative story about  the "questionable claims" associated with Gen Petraeus's numerous medals, maybe even disclosures of Flashmanesque prudence on the field of battle. Secondly, any Republican candidate has to court the Republican ultra-Christians, passionate in support of Israel, by reason of doctrinal scheduling of the ultimate Rapture. Thirdly, why scare all Jewish campaign money back into the Democratic Party.
 
As Blankfort remarks, shortly before the first time he met with President Obama, 76 US senators, led by Christopher Dodd and Evan Bayh, plus 330 members of the House, sent AIPAC-crafted letters to the president calling on him not to put pressure on the Israeli prime minister when they met. The House, do not forget, cheered on Israel's onslaught in Gaza and by 334 to 36 condemned the Goldstone Report.

The Democrat Party is heavily reliant on major Jewish political funders - up to 60 per cent of the top tier of contributors, according to Blankfort. Soon AIPAC has its convention (at which Tony Blair will be a minor attraction). Here will come all major politicians to fawn and pay tribute.

On June 3, 2008, right after he had finally prevailed in the race for the nomination against Hilary Clinton, Obama addressed the AIPAC crowd, some 7,000 strong: "We will also use all elements of American power to pressure Iran," he assured his audience. "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything in my power. Everything and I mean everything."  He swore he wouldn't talk to the elected representatives of the Palestinians, Hamas. To thunderous applause he declared, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

As Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli writer and peace activist, responded: "Along comes Obama and retrieves from the junkyard the outworn slogan 'Undivided Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel for all Eternity'. Since Camp David, all Israeli governments have understood that this mantra constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to any peace process... The fear of AIPAC is so terrible, that even this candidate, who promises change in all matters, does not dare.

"In this matter he accepts the worst old-style Washington routine. He is prepared to sacrifice the most basic American interests. After all, the US has a vital interest in achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace that will allow it to find ways to the hearts of the Arab masses from Iraq to Morocco. Obama has harmed his image in the Muslim world and mortgaged his future - if and when he is elected president…

"Once elected, he will be obliged to say, as far as peace between the two peoples of this country is concerned: 'No, I can't!'

So yes, the crisis will soon be over, and no, there is no new era in US-Israel relations in the offing. ·