Paul Pillar

Buses, Twisted Arms and Israel

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy has an interesting op ed which is a response to accusations that Barack Obama has thrown Israel under that proverbial bus under which one's political opponents are continually throwing people and things. The main respect in which the accusations are nonsense, of course, is that during President Obama's tenure the United States has continued to lavish voluminous unconditional aid and protective UN vetoes on Israel and has backed off from even the most tentative effort to exert leverage on it. Halevy's point is that to the extent there has been any American arm-twisting of Israeli leaders, it has mostly occurred during Republican presidencies.

Halevy mentions the clearest specific attempt to use aid as leverage: when the George H.W. Bush administration withheld some loan guarantees to Israel on the eve of the 1991 Madrid conference. He notes how Dwight Eisenhower leaned on Israel and its British and French collaborators to withdraw from Suez in 1956. He recalls how neocons in the George W. Bush administration pressed Israel to allow a free and open Palestinian election in 2006—although the administration lost interest in this bit of democratization of the Middle East when Hamas won the election.

The episode Halevy recounts that is least well known occurred just before the same administration began its war in Iraq in 2003. As Halevy tells it, in order to retain Tony Blair's support for the war in the face of resistance from members of his own Labour Party who demanded in return some Israeli concessions toward the Palestinians, Bush had to declare that the multilateral diplomatic plan known as the “roadmap,” which included an implied end to Israel's sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, represented U.S. policy. The Israeli government of Ariel Sharon strongly opposed the roadmap, but the Bush administration, anxious not to lose the participation of Britain in the war, made clear to the Israelis that it wanted no opposition or complaint from them. Sharon reluctantly went along and got his cabinet to do so too—although one member of it, Benjamin Netanyahu, abstained when the issue came to a vote.

The principal lesson to draw from Halevy's extracts from Middle Eastern history is not just his own point about whether Republicans or Democrats have been more willing to exert leverage on Israel. It is the more basic point that such leverage indeed can be exerted and has been exerted in the past—and has worked.

And yet most of what is said and written in the United States today on anything having to do with Israel pretends there is no such option. Examples abound, having to do with occupation of Palestinian territory, animosity toward Iran, and other topics. In another op ed on Wednesday, on Iran, in which a couple of neocons lay out a schedule over the next few months for diplomacy to be made to fail and for the U.S. war against Iran that they evidently are hankering for to be launched, the authors refer in passing to “those who take the Israeli threat of a pre-emptive strike seriously and believe it would be a mistake.” But even though it would indeed be a big mistake, and even though whatever crisis we supposedly have about Iran's nuclear program is being driven by the threat of Israel starting a new Middle Eastern war, the authors say absolutely nothing, despite all the unused means of U.S. leverage, about addressing that problem.

Neocons in 2003 considered British support for their Iraq War project so important that they were willing to twist Israeli arms to get an Israeli concession, and they succeeded. Isn't avoiding another badly mistaken war worth twisting arms again? Netanyahu didn't yield on that previous occasion, but on the issue of war with Iran he probably is even more of an outlier among Israelis than he was regarding the roadmap. It also certainly is worth exerting some of that unused leverage to salvage whatever chance remains for a stable and long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Obama can indeed be criticized for his approach so far toward Israel, but it is by no means the criticism to which Halevy is responding. The failure is not in pressing Israel but instead in not pressing it sufficiently for its own good. If we must use that clichéd bus metaphor, the problem is not in throwing Israel under a bus but instead in not rescuing Israel from a path it is taking on its own and that will cause it to get hit by the bus.