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When does a ‘special relationship’ become a blank check to Israel?


The escalating violence in the Middle East has focused new attention on the U.S. role in the region and particularly the United States’ alliance with Israel. The guarantor of Israel’s security, the United States gives $3 billion a year in aid to Israel, more than to any other nation. Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. aid since World War II, receiving about $91 billion.

For years, the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel enabled Israel to build up its arms and to become the strongest military power in the Middle East.

That special relationship, however, is also at the root of new questions and criticism from foreign governments as well as religious groups and political voices within the United States.

In a letter sent April 1 to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, members of English-Speaking Christian Communities in the Holy Land said that while they “unequivocally condemn and reject terrorism and violence as a means of advancing the political cause of the Palestinians and fully recognize the right of Israeli people to live in peace and security in their own state,” the experience they bring of living in Israel and the occupied territories also makes them “understand why, in their desperation, some young Palestinians see no other options available to them and nothing for them to live for.”

The group faulted the lack of political will in the United States to implement its own defined policies in the Mideast. “Now is the time for the U.S. government to operate within the rubric of the United Nations and to finalize a settlement to this conflict in accordance with Resolutions 242, 338 and 1397. This is a period in history that requires clear policy definition, firm political will and consistency in action by the U.S. government.”

Close alliance

In a similar letter to President Bush, released April 4, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men also expressed their dismay that the United States was doing little to pressure both sides to end the violence.

The close alliance between Israel and the United States goes back decades. In the early 1960s, President Kennedy authorized the first sale of major strategic arms to Israel, but it was under President Nixon that military sales and subsidies to Israel ballooned from several hundred million dollars annually to $2.2 billion a year. During the Cold War, Israel was perceived as an important strategic partner in the United States’ face-off against the Soviet Union.

President Clinton continued a strong pro-Israel policy even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The argument was made that only a militarily strong Israel would feel secure enough to withdraw from territory to make peace. In a speech given in 1993 Martin Indyk, a senior official on the National Security Council who subsequently became U.S. Ambassador to Israel, outlined America’s dual-containment policy in which Iran and Iraq were to be kept weak in order to protect Israel’s eastern front. Indyk said the U.S. approach to peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will involve “working with Israel, not against it.” No similar reassurances were given to the Palestinians.

Previous U.S. presidents had also believed the influence gained by providing Israel with U.S. aid and arms could prod Israel into making peace with its Arab neighbors and with the Palestinians. How well-founded that belief was has been questioned. According to Israeli historian Avi Shlaim in his book The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, Israeli general and politician Moshe Dayan once quipped that “Our American friends offer us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, and we decline the advice.” The Bush administration’s recent request that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat be allowed to attend the Arab League summit in Beirut and Israel’s subsequent refusal underlines just how little influence America has bought for all the money it has spent.

Now, with the peace process in tatters, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat held captive by the Israelis and confined to his quarters, and Israeli tanks rampaging through the West Bank, the U.S.-Israeli relationship begs for closer scrutiny. Certainly it demands clarification. By giving the go-ahead to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to do whatever he likes in the occupied territories while voting in the United Nations to condemn Israeli actions, the Bush administration seems to be pursuing a policy that is not only one-sided in its approach to the Mideast conflict but, in the words of former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, it is “incoherent.”

The increasing gravity of the conflict and the feebleness of the Bush administration’s response to it are sparking increasing criticism both at home and abroad.

“We have to have something better to say than just support the Tenet Plan and the Mitchell Plan,” said William Quandt, a professor of government at the University of Virginia who served on the National Security Council during the Nixon and Carter administrations and was involved in the negotiations that led to the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. “If [the Tenet and the Mitchell plans] would have worked, they would have worked already. The Palestinians won’t stop until Arafat can say to his militants this is what we get for stopping, and if you don’t stop I’m going to stop you. Right now all we’re saying to him is stop the violence. Cease-fire talks in and of themselves won’t work. This will only quiet down if there’s an agreement on some kind of political process.”

Bush’s so far ineffectual response to the crisis stands in contrast both to Clinton’s indefatigable attention to the peace process in the last year of his presidency and to Bush’s father’s muscular approach to the Israelis. Following the Gulf War, the elder Bush strong-armed a reluctant Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir into attending the Madrid peace conference despite the latter’s commitment to a Greater Israel that would include the occupied territories. Bush was adamant that Israel could have U.S. aid or settlements in the West Bank but not both. His successor, Bill Clinton, was more compliant, allowing settlements to mushroom during the years Israel and the Palestinians were negotiating the interim agreements of the Oslo peace accords.

Political price

Many see the current president’s reluctance to become involved in the Mideast as stemming from the perception that his father paid a political cost for his get-tough approach to the Israelis. The United States is home to the largest community of Jewry in the world, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israeli lobby, is one of the strongest, most influential and effective lobbies in the nation. Andrew Killgore, a former ambassador to Qatar and career diplomat, now with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, said the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has an operating budget of $10 million to $15 million and employs about 150 lobbyists to assess political candidates for their support for Israel. “Politicians are terrified of AIPAC,” said Andrew Killgore.

“Politicians at all levels acknowledge there is no political gain from opposing Israeli forces in this country. In fact, it’s political suicide,” said Robert Ashmore, a philosophy professor and associate director of the Center for Ethics Studies at Marquette University and a past chairman of the board of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. Just how much strategic considerations dictate the level of aid given Israel and how much is determined by the influence of American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other pro-Israeli forces is difficult to determine. Stephen Zunes, associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, argues that Israel has served as a convenient conduit for arms transfers the U.S. Congress has disallowed the government.

Quandt is more skeptical of the strategic value of Israel. “Nobody else in the world provides any aid to Israel. If it were such a strategic interest, wouldn’t other countries be contributing aid?” Quandt asked.

Quandt said the United States should be more assertive about declaring its own interests in the area and more discriminating in the aid given to Israel. Quandt criticized economic aid to Israel in particular as gratuitous and “political gravy,” given the highly developed Israeli economy. “I’m not anti-Israeli. I just believed a blank check is never a good policy,” said Quandt.

Initially, it was supposed that the attacks of Sept. 11 would prompt a reassessment of U.S. foreign policy and a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, the war on terrorism has brought the United States closer to Israel, which has successfully presented its campaign against Palestinian suicide bombers as analogous to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, despite the illegality of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

“We’ve been reluctant to apply pressure on the Israelis. It’s the perception that Sharon has been with us on the war on terror. Sharon has effectively made the case that bombs blowing up in downtown cafés is the same kind of thing Americans face,” said one U.S. diplomat. “That ignores the political realities, of course.”

Abuses multiplied

Indeed, the equation of the Palestinian cause with terrorism and the Israeli government with innocent victims is not as simple as some like to portray it. In addition to its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in violation of U.N. resolutions, Israel has been consistently criticized for human rights abuses over the years, including the systematic use of torture up until 1999 when the Israeli Supreme Court ruled against it. These abuses have multiplied since the second intifada, with Sharon’s policy of force against the Palestinians proving not only brutal but ineffective and indeed counterproductive.

“It has radicalized the population to the point that Palestinians who never before thought of suicide bombing as a justifiable instrument for resisting oppression are coming to the opposite view today,” said Ashmore of the Sharon approach.

There is terrorism from above and there is terrorism from below, said Ashmore. All the attention in the media today is focused on insurgency terrorism, but there have been far more victims of state terrorism in history than there have been insurgency terrorism. The latter often develops in response to state terrorism, Ashmore said.

“Terrorism is the act of governing or opposing governing by the use of fear and extreme force. Nobody can deny that many governments, not only today but throughout history, have used terrorism in order to control populations and subdue dissidents. Many of the people that George Bush has identified as our allies in the war on terrorism are themselves terrorist states,” said Ashmore, who includes Russia, China, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Israel on that list.

“We today have given the Israeli government a green light to engage in all the repressive acts it has been committing against the Palestinians, and that includes illegal land confiscation, imprisonment without trial, destruction of homes and orchards and political assassination. Every time Israel builds a settlement or adds to a settlement it is violating international law. The 4th Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying military power from transporting any of its civilian population into the territory of the occupied people. Israel does that with U.S. financing. The United States has been the umbilical cord for Israel for years, not only financially but with the use of our veto power in the case of the U.N. Security Council. In the case of Israel, we have been a supporter of state terrorism.”

“If Americans fully knew the tactics Israel has been using since the beginning of the state of Israel, Israel tomorrow wouldn’t get another dime,” Ashmore said.

The Palestinian Authority has committed its own abuses, including torture. In a recent week, 11 Arabs who were suspected Israeli collaborators were murdered in three separate incidents.

With violence spiraling out of control, many on all sides are calling for greater U.S. and international involvement. The Palestinians have been pressing for third-party monitors and an international protection force for years, but the Israelis have resisted. They don’t want monitors to arbitrate disputes for fear of losing, said Michael Tarazi, a legal and communications adviser to the Palestinian Authority.

International mediation needed

Now, many Israelis are saying international mediation is desperately needed.

“We need somebody from the outside to impose a process” said Gilad Sher, an Israeli lawyer who was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s chief negotiator during the peace negotiations with the Palestinians. “We cannot communicate anymore without the help of a third-party facilitator.”

Sher distinguished between a process and a solution. “We will negotiate our deal ourselves. But we need some help,” Sher said, adding that the parameters of a future settlement between the Israeli government and the Palestinians were hammered out in negotiations between the two at Camp David and later at Taba, Egypt.

Israeli historian Avi Shlaim goes further and calls for an externally imposed solution. Bill Clinton was the ultimate Zionist. If even Clinton couldn’t sweet-talk the Israelis into a peace deal, Shlaim argues, nobody can, though the two sides did come tantalizingly close in their last talks at Taba, Egypt.

In a lecture given at Yale University in November, Shlaim, a professor of international relations at Oxford University, said that an imposed peace may be coercive but it needn’t and shouldn’t be brutal.

“Arguably, America would be doing Sharon a favor by walking him into a peace deal against which, given his ideological provenance, he is bound to protest loudly in public,” said Shlaim.

In their letter to Powell, the English-speaking Christian communities in the Holy Land called for a policy of “tough love that links funding assistance with policy decisions that express its concern for all the peoples of this land.”

Such a course of action would require a considerable exertion of political will and political capital on the part of the American president. So far, there is no sign that George Bush wishes to exercise either.

Mideast: A recent chronology

Feb 6, 2001: Right-wing Likud candidate Ariel Sharon comes to power in Israeli’s prime ministerial election.

Oct. 17, 2000: A summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh arrives at a plan to end weeks of Palestinian-Israeli violence. The plan soon unravels.

July 25, 2000: A peace summit at Camp David ends without agreement, with negotiators unable to reconcile competing claims to Jerusalem.

Oct. 23, 1998: Wye River Memorandum signed outlining further Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank after U.S. pressure to end 18 months of stagnation

Sept. 13, 1993: Oslo Agreement signed by Arafat and Israeli in which Israel recognizes the PLO and offers limited autonomy in return for peace and end to Palestinian claims on Israeli territory.

October 1991: Madrid Peace Conference opens

December 1987: The first Palestinian intifada against Israeli rule begins in West Bank and Gaza.

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002