Israel vs the United States: the wrong Goliath

The sudden collision between Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama’s administration is reverberating across the middle east. Thomas O'Dwyer gauges the impact in Israel and talks to a senior scholar of US-Israel relations.
Thomas O'Dwyer
26 March 2010

The Hebrew legend of the confrontation between a young Israelite (David) and a Philistine warrior (Goliath) is deeply woven into the national psyche of modern Israel. Indeed, it is often cited as a metaphor for the country's survival since 1948. In recent weeks the analogy would appear to have been turned on its head.

For if the target of the Biblical David was a dangerous enemy, little Israel - even before the astonishing row with the United States that erupted during the visit to Israel of US vice-president Joe Biden - has begun to aim slingshots at the foreheads of its powerful friends. There was a bizarre public humiliation of the ambassador from Turkey, Israel's only close friend in the Muslim world; the affair of the cloned passports used by a (presumably Mossad) assassination team in Dubai, which has so far led to Britain’s expulsion of an Israeli diplomat; and as if those were not enough, a petulant snub of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, on his first visit to Israel, by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

But all of this paled before the extraordinary sight of Israel in open confrontation with the biggest western Goliath of all - the United States. The immediate trigger of the dispute was the announcement on 9 March 2010 of Israeli plans to construct 1,600 housing-units in east Jerusalem, made with apparently reckless insensitivity at the very moment Joe Biden was in the country in an attempt to resurrect the stalled middle-east peace process.

To Palestinians, the phrase “peace process” has become almost derisory. Since end of the second (“al-Aqsa”) intifada in 2004 and the resumption of talks, they perceive the main achievement of the process as allowing Israel to build more than 100 settlements in the West Bank and to increase the Jewish settler population from 110,000 to nearly 300,000. That doesn't include the numbers in Arab east Jerusalem. Binyamin Netanyahu, during his speech on 22 March at the Aipac conference in Washington, was pointed in his claim over the entire city: “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It's our capital.”

In the past, Washington has been somewhat tolerant of the intransigent attitudes on the issue of settlements, philosophically engaging in a never-ending tussle with  Israel's governments and supporters in the United States over the emotional issue of the right of Jews to live in “the land of Israel.” Now, however, even Israel's Washington ambassador Michael Oren is reported to have described relations between the two allies as being at their lowest point in thirty-five years.

A friend in need

American professor Fred Lazin, a former chair of the department of politics and government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, is an expert on  American policy who has lived in Israel since 1975. He points out that whatever the outcome of the current frost in realtions, the United States is and will remain Israel's leading ally. Washington provides around $3 billion a year in aid to the Jewish state, about three-quarters of which goes to purchase US military equipment (see “Obama Budget Includes $3 Billion in Israel AidNear East Report, 23 February 2010).

“Without the US, the Israeli economy would have collapsed”, Lazin said in an interview I undertook on behalf of openDemocracy. “The entire Israeli air-force, all the armed forces depend on American weapons, American know-how and  American technology. It is supplemented by local innovation, but the US is absolutely vital for Israel. It is very dependent for economic aid, for military aid, for political support and without that Israel is lost. Without it, Israel has no one else.”

In the voluble Israeli Hebrew-language media, the blame for the slide in relations with President Barack Obama's administration lies squarely with “Bibi” Netanyahu's government. After the American columnist Thomas Friedman likened Bibi to a drunken driver, the veteran Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in Yediot Aharonot that the prime minister more resembled “one of those elderly drivers who take up two lanes for fear of making a mistake, while driving the motorists behind them crazy and prompting them to get into accidents.”

Some analysts are even harsher. A stinging editorial in Ha’aretz says: “The choice here is between continued construction in East Jerusalem during the negotiations and Israel's future as a secure, democratic and Jewish state...In the unnecessary fight with the United States, an essential ally for Israel, the Netanyahu government is showing itself to be the most extremist and dangerous in the country's history” (“A dangerous government”, 26 March 2010).

But who does the Israeli public charge with responsibility for the crisis? The opinion-poll trends suggest they are roughly split in blaming Netanyahu and the Americans; a Yediot Aharonot poll puts the figures at 35%-37%. More generally, it seems the public thinks Netanyahu started the fight, but feels Washington overreacted, and is now taking advantage of it; a survey by Maagar Mochot published on 25 March found (albeit on a small sample) that  62% of respondents supported the prime minister’s decision to continue construction in Jerusalem (see Daniel Levy, “So what do Israelis think of it all?”, Foreign Policy, 19 March 2010).

Lazin said that in Israel, the people, the media and many politicians have an unreal perception of Israel's role and place in the world, and that the country's real dependence on the United States is vastly greater than anyone admits (see Paul Rogers, “America and Israel: a historic choice”, 22 March 2010).

“In the current middle-east situation, the American interest remains mainly oil. Washington knows it can depend on Israel and its military force if it should ever need it - if it wanted to go into Iran or do anything else in the region. The US doesn't want to do anything to weaken Israel's economic or military might, all of which is in line with American interests.”

Lazin said that while he didn't want to make a direct comparison, the situation with the Netanyahu government reminded him of the late Yasser Arafat. “As the father of the Palestinian people's struggle, he just didn't have it in himself to  settle – as when he backed away from a deal in July 2000 with (then prime minister) Ehud Barak at Camp David. Bibi of course grew up as a staunch rightwinger who  still empathises with the political right on the land of Israel, the settlements and all that. On the other hand, he can be a pragmatist, he got Israel out of Hebron, where Shimon Peres [delayed]... Bibi’s come out for a two-state solution and even agreed a freeze on settlements. And yet, he's still ambivalent. But the reality is, he can't have it both ways.”

Lazin said this ambivalence was apparent even in Netanyahu's statement that Jerusalem is not a settlement. “Many people in Israel are convinced the only way we’re going to settle with the Palestinians and even with the Muslim world is by reaching a compromise on Jerusalem.”

He said one thing that has always made an impression on him in Israel was the lack of priority governments have given to the Palestinian problem. “With one or two exceptions, going back to David Ben Gurion and down to the present prime minister and defence minister, the leaders have never seen the Palestinian issue as an existential threat to Israel and therefore it has never had the top priority. Now they are much more concerned about Iran, of course, but along with Iran you can also put Syria and the other Arab states. Israel's real game has been to seek legitimitation from these states and the Palestinian issue has been secondary. It's strange, but it's important and that influences a lot of things.”

Lazin said Israelis should take note that something significant happened in the US on 21 March 2010 that changed America and changed its power-relations - the passing of the Obama healthcare bill, “one of the major pieces of legislation of the century.”

“When Obama asked Bibi to freeze the settlements, he dragged his feet for eight months and then agreed, leaving out Jerusalem. That was a smart thing to do when it seemed there was a weak president in Washington who couldn't enforce his will.”

Now, Lazin said, the standing of Obama has changed significantly and his power has been enhanced. “He's much more powerful and capable than people thought. So now, if you make him angry, you'd better be a little careful.” 

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