Is the 'special relationship' becoming too expensive?

The ‘Arab Spring’ has raised the cost to US elites of conspicuous support for Israel, and if the Palestinian bid for statehood is successful, Israel will suffer “a painful and dramatic process of Southafricanization” and become an international pariah. By Jamie Stern-Weiner.

The wave of popular uprisings across the Middle East created many new spaces for popular political participation. Even where those new spaces are now coming under counterrevolutionary attack, as in Egypt, many Arab governments have had to modify their policies to better reflect the views of an increasingly assertive public.

From the beginning it was clear that this shift would come at the expense of “the US-Israeli-Saudi system” in the region. The militant assertion of popular will in Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Tunisia, and elsewhere has made it much more difficult for Arab regimes to collaborate with Israel and the US, the latter not least because of its role in supporting the former. Israel’s two most important allies in the region have both been forced to take steps against it in an attempt to accommodate public opinion. In Egypt, the not-so-new regime is still very much in bed with both the US and Israel, and continues to value both American aid and security cooperation with its neighbour. But the revolution did make a difference, and the government is having to take public opinion into account to a much greater extent than before.

The Turkish Prime Minister, meanwhile, has ridden the wave of protest to become the most popular leader in the region by, inter alia, expelling Israel’s ambassador, suspending military ties, threatening to refer the Gaza closure to the International Court of Justice, and promising to escort future aid ships to Gaza with Turkish warships. The substance-to-bluster ratio in these measures remains to be seen, and a good argument can be made that Erdogan’s moves in fact represent a successful cooptation of Arab protest, reflecting anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment but channelling it in ways that don’t threaten the regional order. Certainly his agreement, concluded just days before his diplomatic moves against Israel, to host an American missile defence system suggests that he has no intention of distancing Turkey from the US

Even so, the gravity of the split should not be underestimated. At the very least, it reflects the fact that Arab public opinion can no longer be dismissed as irrelevant. This is a big problem for US and Israeli policy, which has been based on the premise that regional public opinion can be safely contained by force, and hence ignored. With that premise undermined, the US and Israel are scrambling to adapt to the new climate. “The region has come unglued,” the International Crisis Group’s Robert Malley reports, “[and] all the tools the United States has marshalled in the past are no longer as effective.”

One upshot of all this is that the ‘Arab Spring’ has raised the cost to US elites of conspicuous support for Israel. This is reflected in the growing disquiet in the American political class about the ‘special relationship’ with Israel. Last year Gen. Petraeus caused a stir by declaring before the US Senate that the “enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbours” undermine “our ability to advance our interests”. The conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favouritism for Israel,” he testified. This “weakens the legitimacy” of Arab dictatorships, and “limits the strength and depth of US partnerships” with them. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agreed that “lack of progress in the peace process has provided political ammunition to our adversaries in the Middle East and in the region.” As Vice-President Joe Biden privately warned the Israeli Prime Minister, “this is starting to get dangerous for us”. Now that the ability of Arab regimes to contain popular discontent has been undermined, such concerns will only multiply.

In the media, commentators who have historically been strong supporters of or indifferent to Israeli policies have begun to sharply criticise them. The wave of desertion began, slowly, during Israel’s assault on Lebanon in 2006. After Operation Cast Lead and last year’s attack on the Gaza flotilla, the trickle of rats deserting the ship became a flood (see Norman Finkelstein, This Time We Went Too Far). Now we’ve got to the point where even the likes of Thomas Friedman and Martin Indyk are criticising the Israeli government for “[plunging] Israel into deeper global isolation and [dragging]... America along with it.” Walt & Mearsheimer’s argument that the “pro”-Israel lobby is forcing the US government to pursue policies that are harmful to the national interest, which was suppressed and then hysterically smeared and condemned when it was first advanced, is now a commonplace. This development is not an altogether positive one – the effect of the Walt & Mearsheimer analysis is to whitewash concentrations of private power that exert far more influence over US policy than the Israel lobby, which no doubt has something to do with its, albeit belated, popularity – but it is nonetheless a striking indication of how far the terrain of mainstream discourse has shifted in the last few years.

American Zionism is collapsing – look out for Finkelstein, forthcoming – and American public opinion is increasingly aligning itself with the international consensus in favour of a two-state settlement to the conflict. A BBC poll this week found that a plurality of Americans, by 45%-36%, support UN recognition of a Palestinian state. This despite the fact that support for UN recognition has received virtually zero articulation in the public sphere.

We should not get carried away with this. Much of the instability generated by Israeli militarism is useful for American elites – it drives up oil prices, fuels a market for arms, sustains the leadership of the military in Israel, and keeps Arab regimes dependent upon the US. Indeed, while there have always been sectors of the American elite opposed to the ‘special relationship’, there is no indication that US will turn against Israel as a strong, pro-American client in a strategically crucial region. But on the secondary issue of the occupation, the American interests at stake are much less obvious, and elite opposition is far broader. A recent report by the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is instructive in this regard. It argues that the US-Israel alliance is facing unprecedented challenges, as Americans and Israelis “increasingly see each other’s policy choices as undermining their interests”. On the political level, Israeli Jews are becoming ever more “nationalistic, religiously conservative, and hawkish”, while American Jews remain staunchly liberal and are growing “[increasingly] alienated from Israel”. This is true, in fact, for American liberals more generally. On the strategic level, “some US national security figures” argue that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “undermines US interests by fuelling radicalism and anti-Americanism”. As “dramatic political change” unfolds across the Middle East, “increasingly vocal” and “increasingly centrist” groups in the US argue that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would be an important contribution to restoring regional stability under American hegemony. As Israel grows increasingly isolated, and pressure on the US to be “more responsive to Arab public opinion” mounts, the cost of supporting Israeli expansionism will continue to rise. The report’s conclusions are striking: Israel must adapt itself to US interests in the Middle East by seriously pursuing an agreement with the Palestinians, and the US should begin “gradually phasing out aid” to Israel.

If American officials are indeed reconsidering support for Israel’s occupation, there are signs that their Israeli counterparts may be doing likewise. Powerful constituencies within Israel have long pressured for, if not peace, then at least an “absence of war”. The Oslo “peace process” was an attempt to reduce the costs of occupation for these elites, but with a succession of expensive military and political disasters, a region aflame with hostility and an increasingly ambivalent American ally, it has become clear that empty negotiations cannot postpone conflict indefinitely. In May, in a closed meeting of Israeli economic elites, one business leader warned: “We are quickly turning into South Africa. The economic blow of sanctions will be felt by every family in Israel.” He was referring the Palestinian Authority’s bid for UN recognition of a Palestinian state. Former Israeli ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman added that, if the UN bid is successful, Israel will suffer “a painful and dramatic process of Southafricanization” and become an international pariah. Participants at the meeting urged the Israeli government to begin serious negotiations with the Palestinian leadership to avoid this scenario.

Again, it is important not to overstate the case. In many ways the Obama administration has been more supportive of Israel than its predecessors. The trends identified above – increasing public opposition to Israel’s occupation, growing disquiet among US elites about the costs of support for Israeli expansionism, and a possible reciprocal reassessment by Israeli elites about the wisdom of continued occupation and its corollary, extreme dependence upon the US – might coalesce to change US/Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. American elites might conclude that support for the occupation is no longer worth it, and move to bring it to an end. Or they might not. There is little point in speculating. As discussed above, courageous activism over many years by Palestinians, Egyptians, and people across the region has succeeded in raising the costs to American and Israeli elites of Israeli expansionism, perhaps to the point where the policies in question are being reconsidered. Those of us in the US, Europe and elsewhere are also in a position to increase the costs of occupation, and at far less risk to ourselves. What the above analysis suggests is that we have a real opportunity to change our governments’ policies on this issue. We ought not to waste it.



Originally published on New Left Project under a Creative Commons BY-NC license.

Image top: Marion Doss.