Benjamin Netanyahu, America's Friend without Benefits
Whatever happens in Tuesday's elections in Israel, Americans will have learned two valuable lessons. For starters, when it mattered most on U.S. policy towards Iran, Republicans supported a foreign leader over the President of the United States. Just as important, when that leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, declares, "Israel has no better friend than the U.S and the U.S. has no better friend than Israel," he's telling a half-truth. As the record shows, even as Bibi escalates his demands for diplomatic cover and military assistance from the United States, his government blocks American objectives at every turn. He is America's friend without benefits.
Consider, for example, the immediate aftermath of Netanyahu's unprecedented March 3 speech to Congress. Less than 24 hours after using the global stage the GOP provided him to sabotage the international negotiations to limit the Iranian nuclear program, Bibi made a new request of Washington: hundreds of millions of dollars in American funding for new missile defense systems to counter Iran:
A Republican congressional source told CNN that the Israelis are asking lawmakers to approve more than $300 million in additional U.S. funding for missile defense systems, above the $155 million the Pentagon is already requesting from Congress.
For the first time, the source said, Israel is asking the U.S. for procurement funding for the Arrow 3 missile, designed to counter longer-range Iranian ballistic missiles, and the David's Sling missile defense system, for shorter-range Iranian weapons.
That ask comes even as the Pentagon faces tighter budgets at home and, as U.S. National Security Adviser recently put it, "Last year, we provided Israel with the largest package of security assistance ever."
But that's not the only favor the nuclear-armed Israel made even as its government pushes the U.S. towards military action to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. In January, Netanyahu asked Congress to block $400 million in U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority if President Mahmoud Abbas sought recognition by the International Criminal Court (ICC). As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, Israel's refusal to turn over $125 million in tax revenue collected on the PA's behalf isn't just causing real suffering the occupied territories:
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned last month that pressuring the authority financially might oblige it to disband, which under international law would oblige Israel to govern the West Bank by itself. The State Department also opposed the authority's decision to join the ICC, saying it was "counterproductive and [did] nothing to further the aspirations of the Palestinian people."
But Kerry didn't just help Israel block potential war crimes investigations by the ICC. Two weeks ago, Kerry and the Obama administration ran interference for Israel before the UN's Human Rights Council. As the National Post detailed:
"No one in this room can deny that there is an unbalanced focus on one democratic country," he said, decrying the fact that no country other than Israel has a permanent agenda item on the council's schedule. "It must be said the (council's) obsession with Israel actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization"...
"We will oppose any effort by any group or participant in the U.N. system to arbitrarily and regularly delegitimize or isolate Israel," he said. "When it comes to human rights no country on earth should be free from scrutiny but neither should any country be subject to unfair or unfounded bias."
And what has the United States gotten in exchange as Israel's last, best friend on earth? The back of Benjamin Netanyahu's hand.
Consider the peace process and the establishment of a Palestinian state. This hasn't just been the official policy of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. Polls show American support for the two-state solution, including by nearly a two-to-one margin among American Jews. As President George W. Bush explained on January 10, 2008 following meetings with Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert:
"The point of departure for permanent status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent."
But Netanyahu, who blew up John Kerry's peace process last year, made it clear this week that Palestinian statehood won't happen on Bibi's watch:
"I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel," he said in a video interview published on NRG, an Israeli news site that leans to the right. "There is a real threat here that a left-wing government will join the international community and follow its orders."
In reversing the position he announced during his 2009 Bar Ilan address, Netanyahu returned to the posture he held previously. Bibi, after all, opposed the 1993 Oslo Accords, which he said were "against my principles and my conscience" and were based upon "an enormous lie." He also fought against the Ehud Barak's proposals to Yassir Arafat during the Clinton administration and refused to support the 2008 offer his predecessor Ehud Olmert made to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the Annapolis peace process led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Even Netanyahu's much-hyped 2009 Bar-Ilan speech represented little movement forward towards a two-state solution he has long opposed. As his late father, the legendary Zionist Benzion Netanyahu put it:
"He doesn't support [a Palestinian state]. He supports the sorts of conditions they [the Palestinians] will never accept."
And to be sure, one of the those conditions is the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank that put into question the viability of Palestinian state with contiguous borders. It wasn't just the Obama administration which has press the Israeli government to halt settlement growth. Even with its secret 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon which gave a wink and a nod to the "natural growth" of existing settlements, the Bush administration publicly admonished Israel repeatedly.
As far back as 2002, President Bush insisted "Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop." Speaking in Jordan on March 31, 2008 during a swing through the region, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated Bush's firm opposition to new settlement activity in the West Bank, even as the Israeli government announced plans to build hundreds of new homes in the occupied West Bank:
Asked, however, about Israel continuing to approve construction of new housing in contested territory, Rice criticized the close U.S. ally.
"Settlement activity should stop - expansion should stop," Rice said.
But as the New York Times just documented, settlement expansion hasn't stopped. And under Bibi Netanyahu, the provocations towards Washington have dramatically increased.
That message from the Likud leader was delivered loud and clear with the first visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden. On the very day of Biden's arrival in Israel in March 2010, Bibi announced another major expansion of settlements in the West Bank, a policy opposed by the last three American administrations. Politico described the stark warning Vice President Biden delivered to the Israelis after their public humiliation of him:
People who heard what Biden said were stunned. "This is starting to get dangerous for us," Biden castigated his interlocutors. "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."
The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel's actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.
America's best friend may think a perpetual occupation of the West Bank may be vital to its national security interests, but Biden wasn't alone in making the case that U.S. interests require a different policy. As Foreign Policy detailed at the time, then-CENTCOM commander and conservative idol General David Petraeus made stressed that very point to the U.S. Joint Chiefs. Chairman Michael Mullen was apparently shocked by what he heard:
The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM's mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, [and] that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region.
But the slights, insults and very real dangers emanating from America's ersatz best friend Benjamin Netanyahu don't end there. Throughout 2011 and 2012, Israeli leaders suggested Netanyahu would not warn the United States in advance of any strikes the Jewish state might launch against Iranian nuclear facilities. Given the near-certain retaliation against American interests in the region Israel's unilateral action would trigger, the U.S could be caught by surprise and with its defenses down. And doing his dirty work in Washington is "Bibi's Brain," Ron Dermer, who before renouncing his U.S. citizenship was a Republican strategist working with GOP word master Frank Luntz. It was Dermer, the former GOP operative, who clandestinely partnered with House Speaker John Boehner to arrange Netanyahu's March 3 address to Congress and in so doing, put the American tradition of bipartisan support of Israel at risk.
If Netanyahu survives Tuesday's vote, he will jeopardize much more than that in the future. He and his right-wing allies may believe that Judea and Samaria are inalienable parts of Eretz Israel. They make believe a perpetual, but "manageable" conflict with the Palestinians is in Israeli national interest. And Team Netanyahu may also believe that preventive war against a potential nuclear Iran is preferable to giving peace a chance. But these Israeli positions are neither supported by the American people and nor their government.
Regardless of the outcome in Israel, we can all stop pretending Israeli and American national interests are identical. We can also put to finally and forever put to bed the idea that the U.S. has no better friend than Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel.