Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu certainly knows how to return a favor. To express his gratitude for the United States having engaged in laborious 17 month multilateral negotiations that succeeded in eliminating Iran’s ability to construct a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu is now demanding more money from Washington because the agreement has, in his esteemed opinion, made Israel more vulnerable. As Israel is already the largest recipient of United States military assistance at $3.1 billion a year the jump to $5 billion might seem relatively inconsequential, but for Netanyahu it will mean that 25% of his entire defense budget will now come from the United States, enabling Israel to free up funds to provide free university education and medical treatment for its citizens, something that the American taxpayers who come up with the money do not enjoy. And our government has repeatedly expressed its disapproval of the Israeli settlements for the building of which there is no shortage of funds in the Israeli budget, some of which surely comes from us. We are helping them to do what we ask them not to do. Insanity?
And it seems that beyond that there is no limit to Israel’s own particular form of expressing “thank you America.” Even as Israel prepares to accept the additional money it seems disinclined to restrain either its actions or its rhetoric towards anyone who questions its behavior, including the President of the United States. One would think the prospect of receiving an extra $20 billion dollars would produce at least a little moderation but the Israeli government appears to be intent on sending a message to the Barack Obama White House telling the world who is really in charge.
Last Tuesday, with Netanyahu off attending a meeting of global movers and shakers in Davos Switzerland, the Israeli government announced that it would be seizing from Arab owners 380 acres of arable land near Jericho in the Jordan River valley. The land has been up until now considered an Israeli Army security zone so even though it was Palestinian property the owners were not allowed to use it. Settlers are reportedly already encroaching on the land and it will no doubt soon transition into a new settlement bloc with the blessing of the military and government. Israel has also announced the destruction of West Bank buildings used by Bedouin tribesmen that were financed by the European Union (E.U.), presumably so it can declare the land vacant, permitting its annexation to construct permanent homes for Israeli Jews.
The seizure and demolitions produced predictable protests from the Europeans, the Arab League, the Palestinians themselves and also from Washington. But as in the case of the all too fungible money flowing incessantly from Washington, Israel’s having already stolen tens of thousands of acres of Arab land on the West Bank while planting something like 600,000 illegal settlers, many in heavily guarded compounds, a few hundred more acres matters little. But that would be to ignore the essentially political reality that the Netanyahu government always responds to critics by taking the offensive, in this case carrying out actions that are gross violations of international law a few days before a U.S. delegation is due to arrive in Tel Aviv to discuss Israel’s new aid package. It demonstrates Israel’s contempt for the interests and sensitivities of the United States.
Indeed, Netanyahu does not behave as he does because he is compelled to do so or has some good reason for responding to critics disparagingly. He does so because standing up to the world community enhances his political stature among his extreme right wing supporters in Israel, who rejoice in telling critics that they do not care one bit about the increasing international sentiment condemning their behavior. And Netanyahu knows he can in reality behave with impunity because he de facto owns the U.S. Congress and the mainstream media and has said as much, noting that for him “I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get in the way.”
Several recent incidents demonstrate the Netanyahu disdain for the opinion of the United States as well of the rest of the world. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro was on the receiving end of Bibi’s wrath when he commented that “continued settlement growth raises honest questions about Israel’s long term intentions,” adding that the Israeli authorities do not investigate attacks on Palestinians “vigorously,” that there was increasing vigilantism by settlers, and that there are two standards to the rule of law “one for Israelis and another for Palestinians.” Shapiro was referring to civil law prevailing in Israel while the army operates on the West Bank under martial law, which has far fewer protections for the accused and where shoot to kill policies against Arab demonstrators have become common. The criticism, as mild as it was, drew an angry response from Netanyahu, who called statement “unacceptable and untrue.” A political ally of Netanyahu called the American Ambassador a “little Jewboy.”
Israel, which fancies itself a democracy, does indeed have different standards of justice. As part of a new program of action against “terrorists,” Israel last week began arrests of anyone who posts content on Facebook that the government considers to be anti-Israeli. As it is not necessary to actually do anything to fall afoul of the new regulations, the offense is in the nature of a thought crime. Inevitably, Arabs have been arrested but no Jews. It is also interesting to consider whether Israel believes its extraterritoriality on what it considers terrorism to extend to Americans and Europeans who criticize Israeli actions. Many of those who are reading these words might well find themselves arrested if they should ever have to enter Israel for any reason.
Israel and its friends have also responded sharply to a European Union demand first put in place last November that products derived from the Israeli settlements be labeled as such, enabling consumers to avoid them if they choose to do so. Last week, the E.U. also indicated that any business or government to government dealings with Israel must not involve the settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Israel’s point of view is that the West Bank settlements are de facto part of Israel. The Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom has also been subjected to Israel’s wrath after she suggested that it might be worthwhile to investigate whether Israeli police and military have been executing Palestinian prisoners extra-judicially. More than 141 Palestinians have died in the recent unrest versus 24 Israelis. There have been numerous reports that some of the Arab victims have been shot and killed after they were either incapacitated or arrested while a leading Rabbi has called for all Palestinians to be executed. The Netanyahu government has attacked Wallstrom, stating that her comments were “a mix of blindness and political stupidity.” She has been officially banned from travel to Israel.
Israel’s pit bulls in the think tanks and media have inevitably joined in the discussion. Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post explains “Why it’s correct to label the Obama administration anti-Israel,” citing, among others, the deranged Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, who describes identifying settlement produced goods as “blatant anti-Semitism” coupled with a warning that that “it should be clear to Jews everywhere that the 1930s are returning.” Rubin also cites the ever reliable Elliott Abrams, who sees a broad movement to discredit Israel, commenting that the U.S. failure to condemn the E.U. action means that Obama is “joining the jackals.”
Rubin and her friends seek to twist the argument by maintaining that other areas “in dispute” do not have their products labeled, but they ignore the fact that there is no other situation anywhere in the world quite like Israel’s continued military occupation coupled with the introduction of settlers, destruction of the local economy and exploitation of aquifers and other natural resources. And the West Bank is hardly disputed, except by the Israel first last and always crowd. It is clearly Palestinian land.
Giving Israel more money will not make Netanyahu behave but there is no possibility that the largesse will somehow be terminated because America’s timorous leadership is afraid to confront the obvious. The whole world understands that Israel is the ultimate rogue nation, propped up by the only remaining superpower, which appears to be a helpless giant whenever it is confronted by the Israeli Prime Minister’s demands. Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard has recently suggested that the most influential papers within the U.S. mainstream media might want to consider featuring on their opinion pages more foreign power realists and a lot fewer neocons, in part because the former have been consistently right while the latter have nearly always been wrong. How true. It would be a breath of fresh air to open a newspaper and not be confronted by Elliott Abrams, Jennifer Rubin, Robert Kaplan, Charles Krauthammer and the Kagans spewing their nonsense about the Middle East.
A realist would instead ask “What are America’s interests in the Middle East?” and “Why do we have a widely promoted ‘special relationship’ with Israel?” The answers would demonstrate that Washington and Tel Aviv’s interests do not coincide and never have. And that the special relationship is a self-serving fiction invented by Israel’s friends. Understanding that and acting upon it would be a real change that many of us could quite comfortably live with.