The bully came to Washington. The American president told him in no uncertain terms that the United States would not support a military attack on Iran at this moment. The bully met with 13,000 of his U.S. supporters in an effort to pressure the White House. It didn’t work. The bully went home empty-handed.
This is the conventional news analysis of Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington, his discussion with President Barack Obama, his speech at the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and his consequent loss of face. Many elements of this analysis are true. So, for instance, it’s certainly true that the Israeli hawk failed to convince the Obama administration to green-light an attack during the so-called zone of immunity before Iran achieves its putative desire of membership in the nuclear club. It’s certainly true that Netanyahu’s hard-line speech on Iran quite nearly brought down the house at the AIPAC shindig, where the audience included more than half the members of Congress. And finally, the Obama administration did indeed hold to its position of “diplomacy backed by pressure.”
For many observers, Obama has gone at least a pawn up in the intricate chess game with Israel. The president “established a position his critics may find hard to assail,” concluded The Guardian’s Chris McGeal. “He forced those many members of Congress and beyond who have conflated America's interests with Israel's on to the back foot by saying that on Iran there are differences – and he will serve U.S. interests first.” James Fallows in The Atlantic agreed: “The question is whether this tone genuinely buys Obama more time and freedom of action, rather than constraining his next decisions. I am betting we will look back on this as a chessmaster move. I am hoping that, too.”
But this story of Obama the diplomat standing up to Netanyahu the bully omits some important information. During Netanyahu’s visit, the Obama administration reportedly offered Israel a package of advanced military technology, including bunker-busting bombs and long-range refueling planes, as long as it postponed any attacks on Iran until 2013. In other words, Obama wasn’t only buying time, he was bribing Israel to prevent the kind of October surprise – or even July surprise – that might derail his reelection bid. And he was doing so with precisely the weapons that Israel could use to execute an attack on Iran.
Bribery is deeply embedded in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Half of all U.S. overseas military assistance, after all, goes to Israel. That’s $3 billion a year. And it will continue to rise every year until 2017, thanks to an agreement worked out under the Bush administration. And military assistance to Israel is unlike assistance to other countries in quality as well as quantity. “Israel’s $3 billion is put almost immediately into an interest-bearing account with the Federal Reserve Bank,” explains Walter Pincus in The Washington Post. “The interest, collected by Israel on its military aid balance, is used to pay down debt from earlier Israeli non-guaranteed loans from the United States. Another unique aspect of the assistance package is that about 25 percent of it can be used to buy arms from Israeli companies. No other country has that privilege.”
That Israel has been cutting its military spending – an otherwise admirable decision – means that the United States is increasingly picking up the slack. It also means that Israel, in theory, has increased its dependence on the Pentagon, which should translate into more U.S. political leverage over Israel. But with rare exceptions, the United States has not exercised this leverage. Israel, as I have argued elsewhere, is to the United States what North Korea is to China. These client states take everything from their putative benefactors except advice. Indifferent to international law, armed to the teeth, and isolated in their respective regions, Israel and North Korea dance to their own tune, however discordant it might be for everybody else.
Believe it or not, Obama’s “betrayal” of Israel has become a powerful meme in right-wing circles. Yes, this is the same president who went immediately from his acceptance speech at the Democratic Party convention in 2008 to speak with AIPAC, the same president who pushed the United States to veto a UN resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlement policy in the Occupied Territories, the same president who has continued to lavish military aid on the country.
In an article that labeled me as “pro-jihad” for an earlier World Beat column, Queen of the Islamophobes Pamela Geller writes of Obama’s “alienation of Israel.” In fact, Obama has the firm support of an Israeli intelligence and military elite (as neatly summarized by J.J. Goldberg in The Forward) that is deathly afraid of the consequences of an attack on Iran. As for Israelis themselves, their approval rating for Obama rose to 54 percent at the end of 2011, and only 19 percent of Israelis support an attack on Iran without U.S. backing. Even when it comes to Netanyahu, there’s been precious little alienation. “The story of Obama’s relationship to Netanyahu and his American Jewish allies is, fundamentally, a story of acquiescence,” concludes Peter Beinart in a Newsweek article that traces Obama’s evolution from a progressive Jewish position to something considerably more Likud-friendly.
Increasingly, Israel has come under mainstream media criticism for its domestic human rights as well. It’s not just the ghastly treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. It’s not just the second-class citizenship accorded to non-Jews inside Israel proper. It’s also the rampant extremism that is rising like bile in the Israeli body politic. “These days, emboldened fundamentalists flaunt an increasingly aggressive medievalism,” writes David Remnick in The New Yorker. “There are sickening reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting on schoolgirls whose attire they consider insufficiently demure, and demanding that women sit at the back of public buses. Elyakim Levanon, the chief rabbi of the Elon Moreh settlement, near Nablus, says that Orthodox soldiers should prefer to face a ‘firing squad’ rather than sit through events at which women sing, and has forbidden women to run for public office, because ‘the husband presents the family’s opinion.’ Dov Lior, the head of an important West Bank rabbinical council, has called Baruch Goldstein—who, in 1994, machine-gunned twenty-nine Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs, in Hebron—‘holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust.’”
Obviously you don’t need to be living in Afghanistan or fighting with the Taliban to have an aggressively medieval approach to women and martyrs.
Let’s conclude with one last observation about Israel, North Korea, and the role of bribery in U.S. foreign policy. The right wing here has been up in arms over the Obama administration’s recent deal with North Korea in which the latter has promised a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests as well as on its uranium enrichment program. As part of the deal, though technically not a quid pro quo, the United States will provide 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance. The opponents of this deft display of diplomacy are aghast…at what? Feeding hungry children and pregnant mothers? “Four separate international nutritional assessments in 2011 found chronic malnutrition that, according to the UN, affects one in three children under five,” I write in Beyond the Golden Couples of Pyongyang. “Pyongyang has been unable to wean itself from dependence on Beijing’s food and energy assistance, and, out of necessity, has negotiated lopsided deals with China over access to mineral wealth and ports.”
For its part, North Korea has offered U.S. negotiators a significant threat reduction. The bribery of Israel, meanwhile, consists of guns, not butter: more weapons to add to the disgraceful arms race in the region. And what we get in return is a dubious pledge that Israel will not attack Iran for the next 12 months. Since such an attack would benefit from the element of surprise, Israel might simply be lulling Iran into complacency. Yes, of course, I support virtually any diplomatic initiative that prevents a cataclysmic war. But honestly, when it comes to bribing Israel, we should at least be demanding our money’s worth—no unilateral military strikes, no illegal settlements, no human rights abuses—or else, as China has occasionally threatened to do with North Korea, we simply turn off the tap.