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U.S.-Israeli Relations: Don't Call It a Crisis

Paul Pillar

A piece by Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic bearing the title “The Crisis in U.S.-Israeli Relations is Officially Here” has elicited much comment, including from colleagues at The National Interest. Goldberg has performed a useful service in at least two respects. One is that his piece highlights how friction in the U.S.-Israeli relationship is primarily an epiphenomenon of an Israeli policy trajectory that is detrimental to Israel itself—no matter what U.S. officials may or may not say about the policies, publicly or privately—and not only detrimental to others. In commenting, for example, on the latest insertion of right-wing Jewish settlers into Arab areas of East Jerusalem—which many Palestinians unsurprisingly see as another step in de-Palestinianizing East Jerusalem so much that it could not become capital of a Palestinian state—Goldberg writes, “It is the Netanyahu government that appears to be disconnected from reality. Jerusalem is on the verge of exploding into a third Palestinian uprising.” He's right about the potential for a new intifada, one that could emerge spontaneously from bottled-up frustration and anger and would not need to be ordered or directed by anyone.

Another service by Goldberg is to portray the relationship far more realistically than one would conclude from the boilerplate that both governments routinely serve up about supposedly unshakeable ties between close, bosom-buddy allies. The fact is that the interests that this Israeli government pursues (not to be confused with fundamental, long-term interests of Israel and Israelis generally) are in sharp and substantial conflict with U.S. interests. No amount of pablum from official spokespersons can hide that fact.

For both these reasons, Goldberg's article deserves a wide readership.

The most recent expressions that reflect the true nature of the relationship are not just a matter of unnamed U.S. officials mouthing off. Goldberg notes in the third sentence of his piece that the comments he is reporting are “representative of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli [emphasis added] officials now talk about each other behind closed doors.” So the barbed tongues extend in both directions, but with two differences. One is that in this relationship the United States is the giver (of many billions in aid, and much political cover in international organizations) and Israel is the taker; harsh comments are far harder to justify when they are directed by an ungrateful beneficiary to its patron rather than the other way around. The other difference is that Israeli leaders insult the United States not just through anonymous comments to journalists but also publicly and openly; the current Israeli defense minister is one of the more recent and blatant practitioners of this.

One can legitimately question some of the particular accusations by the U.S. officials that Goldberg reports, not to mention the scatological and indecorous terminology employed. But to concentrate on this is to overlook the larger and far more important contours of the relationship. The most fundamental truth about the relationship is that, notwithstanding routine references to Israel as an “ally,” it is not an ally of the United States beyond being the recipient of all that U.S. material and political largesse. An ally is someone who offers something comparably significant and useful in return, particularly on security matters. That this is not true of Israel's relationship with the United States is underscored by the priority that the United States has placed, during some of its own past conflicts in the Middle East such as Operation Desert Storm, on Israel not getting involved because such involvement would be a liability, not an asset.

The core policy around which much of this Israeli government's other behavior revolves, and which defines Israel in the eyes of much of the rest of the world, is the unending occupation of conquered territory under a practice of Israel never defining its own borders and thus never permitting political rights to Palestinians under either a two-state or a one-state formula. This policy is directly contrary to U.S. interests in multiple respects, not least in that the United States through its close association with Israel shares in the resulting widespread antagonism and opprobrium.

One of the biggest and most recent U.S. foreign policy endeavors is the negotiation of an agreement to restrict and monitor Iran's nuclear program to ensure it stays peaceful. Completion of an agreement would be a major accomplishment in the interest of nonproliferation and regional stability. The Israeli “ally” has been doing everything it can to sabotage the negotiations and prevent an agreement.

It is a fallacy to think that making nice to the Israeli government will get it to back off from its opposition. It is a fallacy because that government has shown it does not want any agreement with Iran no matter what the terms, and because it is dishonest in expressing its opposition. There certainly is genuine concern in Israel about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon, but that is clearly not what is behind the Israeli government's opposition because the sort of agreement that is shaping up would make it markedly less likely, in terms of both Iranian motivations and capabilities, for Iran ever to make a nuclear weapon than would be the case with no agreement. That's the very purpose of the agreement. The Israeli government instead seeks to keep Iran permanently in diplomatic exile, precluding any cooperation between Iran and the United States on other issues (which would dilute Israel's claim to being the only worthwhile U.S. partner in the Middle East) and retaining the specter of Iran and a nuclear threat from it as the “real problem” in the Middle East supposedly more worthy of international attention than the occupation and unresolved plight of the Palestinians. These objectives, as well as the setback for the cause of nonproliferation that collapse of an agreement with Iran would entail, also are directly contrary to U.S. interests.

The best way to handle the implacable opposition to an Iranian deal from Netanyahu—who, according to Goldberg's reporting, has “written off” the Obama administration—is to write off Netanyahu and any hope that he could be brought around on the subject. Needed instead is to expose—to Israelis, as well as to members of Congress and other Americans—the fundamental dishonesty of Netanyahu's opposition. Maybe a useful step in doing that would be to bring back Netanyahu's cartoon bomb that he displayed at the Untied Nations General Assembly and point out how the preliminary agreement reached with Iran last year (and which the Israeli prime minister consistently denounced) has already drained the bomb and moved the Iranian program back from the lines that the Israeli prime minister drew with his red marker.

Calling Netanyahu to account certainly is not a sufficient condition to achieve political change in Israel, with its ever steeper rightward tilt, but it is probably a necessary condition. The state of the relationship with the United States is highly salient and highly important to many Israelis, but it will not be a driver of political change as long as it remains masked by all that boilerplate about how great the “alliance” is.

There are a couple of problems with the title of Goldberg's piece (which is probably the doing of an editor, not Goldberg). One is that there isn't “officially” a crisis. The fact that official statements continue to talk about a supposedly rosy relationship is part of what is, as explained above, wrong.

The other problem is that in this context the word crisis is a misnomer. The term usually indicates a potential for a big turn for the worse, especially the outbreak of a war between whatever two parties are experiencing a crisis. That's not what's involved here. The only reason the term crisis comes up regarding U.S.-Israeli relations is the fictional, deliberately inflated view of the relationship as something qualitatively different that ought to defy any of the usual rules that apply to any patron and client or to any bilateral relationship. Sweep aside the politically-driven fiction about two countries that supposedly have everything in common and nothing in conflict and instead deal with reality, and the concept of crisis does not arise at all. What you have instead is a bilateral relationship that is like many others the United States has, with some parallel interests and objectives along with other objectives that diverge—sometimes sharply—and with honest recognition of the latter being a normal part of business. Being honest and realistic is good for U.S. interests, and in this case it would be good for the long-term interests of Israel as well.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister, Israel/Flickr.                   

TopicsIsrael United States RegionsMiddle East

The Deepening Divide in U.S.-China Cyber Relations

The Buzz

Recent revelations by a group of security researchers of another China-based hacking group, reportedly more sophisticated than Unit 61398, is likely to set off the usual recriminations and denials, but have very little impact on the U.S.-China bilateral relationship. The Chinese embassy has already responded that “these kinds of reports or allegations are usually fictitious,” a response that Robert Dix, vice president of government affairs for Juniper Networks, colorfully and baldly describes as the Chinese giving “a big middle finger to anybody in the United States that’s tried to out them or point fingers in their direction.”

The report on the group, called Axiom, describes a six-year campaign against companies, journalists, civil society group, academics, and governments, and may preclude any real discussion on cyber issues between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit next week. There was, however, very little chance that their sidebar discussion was going to lead to major progress. The differences between the two sides are deep.

An article that ran last week in the People’s Liberation Army Daily[Chinese] criticizing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and efforts to develop the laws of armed conflict in cyberspace shows just how deep the differences are. The focus of the piece is the Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyberspace. Written by a group of international experts at the invitation of NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, the manual addresses many of the specific applications of law to cyberspace, including the use of force, when and how states can defend themselves, as well as questions of proportionality, distinction, and neutrality. The report was non-binding and is not the official ruling of NATO, the United States, or any other government.

The Chinese have long been skeptical about the applicability of international law to cyberspace. This article goes one step further, casting the manual as an effort to manipulate cyberspace using law. In particular, the author levels four charges:

- Post hoc justification: the manual argues that using the Internet for strategic action is permissible, and that countries can send false information to make the enemy believe that there is an ongoing error, wage psychological warfare, fabricate command issues, and steal enemy codes, signals, and passwords, all things the United States is said to have already done.

- Unilateralism: this is another example of the U.S. military using its strength to define rules that reinforce its dominance.

-Cold War thinking: NATO is an alliance designed for collective defense. Even though it is supposed to be a partnership, the United States will lead the organization into a confrontation over cyberspace.

-Bad faith: NATO says the group that researched and wrote the manual is independent, but the author of the article implies this cannot be true because of the leadership of Michael Schmitt, who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College.

There was some hope that discussions about international law might be a useful area of cooperation for the United States and China. The 2013 Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force report suggested that the U.S. State and Defense Departments “should call together a group of legal advisers from Kenya, Brazil, China, India, Tunisia, South Africa, Turkey, and other important developing cyber powers to work on these questions.” Perhaps the task force was naive in its hope that these discussions could be the basis for collaboration, but it is surely not a good sign that some in Beijing see the process as a weapon and source of greater mistrust.

The above first appeared in CFR’s blog Net Politics here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsCyber Security RegionsChina

China's Afghanistan Challenge: Testing the Limits of Diplomacy

The Buzz

In just two months' time, international forces in Afghanistan will hand over security responsibility to local personnel. In preparation for the handover, and the eventual withdrawal of foreign militaries, Beijing has substantially raised its traditionally low-key diplomacy in the country.

China has pursued dozens of bilateral and multilateral diplomatic mechanisms with Afghanistan and surrounding countries that have focused on the issue of security. As I write in a new Lowy Institute Analysis, diplomacy is one of China's two major policy pillars in Afghanistan (the other is to substantially increase economic engagement).

Beijing's key interest in Afghanistan is security. China wants to prevent the spread of terrorism, and in particular terrorist ideology, into the Chinese province of Xinjiang, as well to ensure that Afghanistan does not function as a strong base for Uyghur militancy. Beijing will not commit militarily to Afghanistan, so how will it use diplomacy to prevent new instability spreading to Xinjiang?

Beijing will attempt to reduce the security threat in two main ways:

1. Stabilise Afghanistan, or prevent further deterioration in the Afghan security environment.

2. If 1. fails, limit the spread of new instability regionally and reduce the direct threat to Xinjiang.

Beijing's direct influence in stabilizing Afghanistan is limited. It will commit huge levels of economic support. Diplomatically it is encouraging surrounding countries to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. But security will be left to Afghan forces and any residual foreign troops. The US will likely play the role of mediator in Afghanistan if necessary, as happened during the recent electoral deadlock.

On point 2, Beijing has more diplomatic options. China maintains contacts with a broad range of actors and groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Since the Karzai Government came to power in 2001, contact with the Taliban has often been via intermediaries. But more recently Beijing has reportedly rebuilt the direct links it had with the Taliban prior to the US invasion in 2001.

Beijing seeks guarantees that Afghanistan won't function as a base for Uyghur militant groups. It also wants Chinese investments in Afghanistan protected from Taliban attacks. There are mixed views to how effective this approach will be. Some Chinese sources say the Taliban doesn't want to raise the ire of Beijing because this could complicate the Taliban's relationship with Pakistan, which has close ties to China. Others question the Taliban's commitment to China's requests. Insurgents have attacked Chinese resource projects in Afghanistan on numerous occasions, and in 2012 Reuters quoted a Taliban spokesperson saying it opposed China's largest investment in Afghanistan, a copper mine near Kabul.

Beijing has also vastly increased its regional diplomatic footprint. China hopes to achieve a consensus on the Afghan issue among surrounding countries because they are at the front line of containing any new Afghan instability. What this consensus may look like is vague, but could include increasing regional cooperation on issues such as anti-narcotics and counter-terrorism, with practical measures such as intelligence sharing, joint military exercises and judicial or law-enforcement training (some of these already happen bilaterally or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

There are clear obstacles. Officials in Central Asian countries are suspected of close links to the drug trade. And there are long running concerns that Pakistan's security and intelligence services help shelter terrorists. Also, many countries in the region have antagonistic relationships with each other.

Despite challenges, Beijing's diplomatic approach may suffice to quell the terrorist threat from Afghanistan. The number of Uyghur militants sheltering in Afghanistan (and Pakistan too) in all likelihood remains small, and the capability of external Sunni Uyghur militant groups to launch attacks in China appears limited. It would take a significant capability leap from these groups to be a constant operational threat to China.

However, diplomacy, economics or military intervention cannot prevent the spread of terrorist and religious propaganda into Xinjiang. This was consistently identified by Chinese interlocutors in research interviews for my Lowy Institute Analysis as the greatest external threat to Xinjiang's stability.

The Chinese Government probably hypes the ideological threat from abroad – as many governments do. Xinjiang's problems are overwhelmingly domestic, stemming from a disenfranchised Uyghur population that chafes under religious repression, economic imbalances and ingrained discrimination. But concerns abound that ideological messages could resonate with this group.

The most prominent external Sunni Uyghur militant group, the Turkistan Islamic Party, undeniably encourages violence in Xinjiang and supports Uyghur separatism. Its media output has become more sophisticated in the past few years. Other groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda have also expressed ideological support for Uyghurs in Xinjiang, although this doesn't appear to have led to operational support.

Chinese analysts understand the limits of diplomacy in regard to Afghan security, but it is seen, along with an economic contribution, as the least-worst policy option. Shi Lan of the Xinjiang Academy for Social Sciences sums it up: “Dialogue is the best choice we have for solving this issue. Of course, I feel it may be difficult to achieve results with dialogue, but we have to try.”

Dirk van der Kley is a PhD candidate at Australian National University, focusing on Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia. Dirk previously worked as a Research Associate in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and in China as a translator as well as in business development.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsAfghanistan RegionsChina

4 Things You Didn’t Know About the U.S. Air Force’s Role in Fighting Ebola

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With so much misinformation circulating about the scale and domestic danger of the Ebola threat, less attention has been paid to the U.S. military’s effort to stem the disease’s spread in Africa. Operation United Assistance is now well underway, drawing the joint armed services together with a wide range of interagency and multinational partners. While the headquarters of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division have been the most visible element of this operation, much of the behind-the-scenes work has been conducted by the U.S. Air Force. I spoke with Air Force participants to get a sense of this contribution:

1. The U.S. Air Force is the backbone of the anti-Ebola effort. From the outset of Operation United Assistance on September 17 to October 21, Air Mobility Command (the U.S. military’s worldwide airlift system, commanded by General Darren McDew) flew 208 sorties in support of operations, transporting 1,989 short tons of cargo and 595 passengers. This provided the logistical foundation for the entire mission.

2. Airmen are building bases and getting their hands dirty right alongside the Army. There are over 200 Airmen on the ground—roughly one quarter of the United States’ total 880 troops currently deployed to West Africa.  These Airmen are civil engineers, logisticians, and operational coordinators, engaging in a wide range of tasks. They are assessing sites for temporary air bases and pitching in with the building.

3. Airmen are providing medical support, too. The Air Force’s Expeditionary Medical Support System (EMEDS) are devoting critical in-house talent to Operation United Assistance’s medical mission set. The Air Force’s 633rd Medical Group completed deployment of a modular hospital in Liberia on October 20—the first deployment of a facility of its kind. This hospital will be used to train crucial emergency care responders.

4. Volunteer Air Force Reservists and the Air Guard provide significant capability. The Air Force relies heavily on volunteers in its Reserve Component (which includes the Air Guard and the Reserves) for all of its day to day and surge operations.  Accordingly, many of the C-17 sorties are being flown by Air Force Reservists, who have volunteered to take time off of their civilian jobs to support the anti-Ebola mission. Likewise, 70 Airmen from the Kentucky Air Guard 123rd Contingency Response Group have deployed to Senegal with active duty airmen from California and New Jersey to support the Joint Task Force—Port Opening (JTF-PO) operation, where their mission is to move the supplies and support through to the main effort.

Although the Air Force supplies only a quarter of the most visible “boots on the ground” for this mission, without the other dozens of less visible “boots in the air,” there would be no military mission at all.

The above first appeared in CFR’s blog Defense in Depth here.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsEbola RegionsAfrica

Ukraine Votes for a Future in Europe

The Buzz

On Sunday night, I sat in a chilly school gym while election officials in the city of Lviv went through the tedious process of counting and reconciling paper ballots for Ukraine's parliamentary election. Millions of Ukrainians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new Parliament, less than a year after former president and Putin puppet Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in the Maidan protests. There was no heat, because most of the gas that powers Ukraine comes from Russia and is too expensive to use this early in the season. Despite the conditions, however, I will not forget the Ukrainian people I met while observing their election.

There was the kindly grandmother, running a rural polling station, who was so proud to have a foreign observer, especially an American, visit her village. She told me that the little hamlet, aptly named Velyka Volya ("Great Freedom"), was the place where a group of Ukrainian resistance fighters, in a 1946 version of Masada, committed suicide rather than surrender to the encircling Soviet troops.

An elderly man at a downtown polling station shared his story. As a medical student following the Second World War, he joined the resistance and fought the Soviets until his capture in 1951. He was shipped to a Russian gulag and survived for six years before being released, but authorities prevented him from going home. He never returned to medical school. He was so happy to be serving as a precinct secretary in a democratic election in his native land. He pleaded with me for America to send arms and Kevlar so that Ukraine's young men would have a fighting chance against Russian regulars.

A young mother arrived at a suburban precinct. In tow was her three-year-old daughter, dressed in a white snow suit that matched her own. The little girl clutched and waved Ukraine's blue and yellow flag and smiled the whole time that her mom underwent the formalities of casting her vote. The election was about the child. Her mom envisioned for her a future of freedom and the rule of law in the sunlit uplands of the West, not of despotism in the wintery East.

The precincts were manned by fresh-faced kids. Of the seventeen precinct election committees my team visited, most had a majority of twenty-something members. Some were made up entirely of young people. The Maidan protests that claimed the lives of 100 of their contemporaries inspired them to get involved to stop the apparatchiks from stealing another election. These young people are taking their country back and corrupt, one-party rule has no part in their plans.

One of these young post-Maidan activists is Hanna Hopko. She is a thirty-two-year-old mom and committed Christian with a PhD in communications. Hopko has already established herself as a reformer who took on big tobacco in her effort to rid Ukraine's bars and restaurants of second hand smoke—no easy feat in a country where cigarettes are still sold everywhere. Hopko was the number one candidate on the Samopomich Party list. Until Sunday, Samopomich had never contested a parliamentary election. What it lacked in national election experience, it made up for with a pro-European, free-men and free-markets platform. While it appears that President Petro Poroshenko's bloc will win a narrow victory, the International Republican Institute exit poll shows Samopomich taking an unexpectedly strong third-place position. Dozens of its "outsider" candidates, led by Hopko, will now be demanding reform from inside Ukraine's Parliament.

Finally, for the first time since the Soviets occupied Ukraine in 1918, there will be no Communist Party representation in Ukraine's legislative assembly. When the exit polls were released just after 8 p.m., showing that the Communists were well below the 5 percent threshold for proportional representation, several Ukrainian voters pumped their fists and smiled. For them, this election was a welcome end to Communist influence over their lives.

Notwithstanding the war and the punishing economic circumstances Russia's invasion and occupation have inflicted on them, Ukrainians are happy today. They showed the world that they remain unbowed in the face of aggression and are committed to a future in the democratic West.

Robert C. O'Brien is the California Managing Partner of a national law firm. He served as an US Representative to the United Nations. He was a member of the International Republican Institute delegation that monitored Ukraine's parliamentary elections on Sunday. He also advised Republican presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney on foreign policy matters. Robert’s website is www.robertcobrien.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertcobrien.

Image: Robert C. O'Brien

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElections RegionsUkraine

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