Paul Pillar

Dropping Pretenses in Israeli-U.S. Relations

Two recent reports provide perspective about the nature of the U.S.-Israeli relationship—not in the sense of revealing anything that should be new to anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to the subject, but rather in making naked some facets of it that are commonly clothed in euphemism and denial. In one, The Economist cites “normally reliable diplomatic sources” in reporting that before the UN vote last month that criticized Israel's continued construction of settlements in occupied territory—and on which the Obama administration cast its first Security Council veto—President Obama encouraged British Prime Minister David Cameron and others to take a tough line toward Israel on the issue. Obama reportedly expressed frustration over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's behavior regarding the settlements but said he had “too many domestic fires to extinguish” to risk an altercation with Israel. In the other, a committee of the Israeli Knesset has launched a critical inquiry into the American pro-peace, pro-Israel advocacy group J Street. The Likud chairman of the committee said he intends to call for a vote to declare J Street to be pro-Palestinian and not pro-Israeli.

Obama's comments to Cameron make explicit that the U.S. veto and earlier caving to Netanyahu regarding the settlements were a simple matter of political intimidation. The U.S. rationalizations of the vote in the Security Council were so lame that one hardly could have concluded otherwise. The president's recommendation to the allies demonstrates that he is just as aware as he ever was of how much of a problem the Israeli colonization activity is for the negotiation of a settlement, but that an affirmative vote by the United States would stoke “domestic fires” in a way that a similar vote by Britain or someone else would not.

As for the Knesset committee's assault on J Street, the comments of my National Interest colleague Jacob Heilbrunn get to what most needs to be noted, which is that what is routinely described as Israel's interests (or legitimacy, or security) represent instead the objectives or interests only of the Israeli government of the day, which is something different. But reflect further on this extraordinary happening of a committee of a foreign legislature investigating an advocacy group in Washington and presuming to pronounce what it stands for, for the purpose of undermining whatever influence that group hopes to have in the American political process. This shows how the powerful lobby that upholds the Likud point of view is so powerful that it thinks of itself not just as a lobby but as the lobby. And the lobby's first priority is to preserve its power by fending off any challenges to its position. This episode also shows how the dominant Israeli view of Washington is less one of an interlocutor to be engaged and negotiated with in the normal bilateral way than of a political process to be manipulated. Usually that manipulation is accomplished largely through the lobby in the United States. That a Likud-led committee in Israel is getting openly involved in manipulating the political playing field in Washington only makes explicit something else that should have been obvious all along.

Maybe the dropping of pretenses has something to do with the political upheaval in Arab states and the threat (from the Israeli government's point of view) of more democracy in those states. Netanyahu's government already has dropped, in its posture toward political change in the Arab states, much of the pretense of being a consistent lover of democracy in the region. But in turbulent times like this, falling back on naked, raw political power may be that government's most reliable way of attaining its objectives.

The attempt to silence J Street suggests that the Netanyahu government is determined to define Israeli interests in its own unchallenged, unthinking way. That makes it plausible that one of its chief objectives is one that, if it were challenged in open debate, would be seen to be against Israel's long-term interests: viz., the indefinite retention of the occupied territories and permanent subjugation of the Palestinian population that lives in them. As long as pretenses are being dropped, perhaps it is time to drop more of them and follow Henry Siegman's advice:

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