Apologist-in-chief for Israel’s crimes

November 29, 2012

Hadas Thier explains how U.S. support for Israel's Operation Pillar of Cloud is the product of the U.S.-Israel "special relationship."

MUCH WAS made of the perceived differences between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on the question of Israel and Palestine during the past election season. But whatever "slights" the Israeli population or its supporters may have once felt due to Obama's rhetorical condemnation of Israeli settlement expansion, "Operation Pillar of Cloud" should have settled the question of whose corner Obama sits in, and how squarely so.

During the weeklong pummeling of Gaza, 158 Gazans were killed, of which 103 were civilians including at least 30 children. And yet, as left-wing journalist Glen Greenwald explained, "Literally each day since the latest attacks began, the Obama administration has expressed its unqualified support for Israel's behavior."

Take, for example, Obama's proclamation of American support as Israeli bombs rained destruction on Gaza:

There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So we are fully supportive of Israel's right to defend itself from missiles landing on people's homes...Let's understand what the precipitating event here was that's causing the current crisis, and that was an ever-escalating number of missiles that were landing not just in Israeli territory but in areas that are populated.

Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Lawrence Jackson)

The message couldn't be simpler: the scores of Palestinians killed by Israeli missiles "landing on people's homes" don't count for Obama, despite the fact that it's Israel that occupies Palestinian land and has laid siege to Gaza, plunging the vast majority of its residents into desperate poverty.

True to form, Obama also had a word or two to lecture the left with:

[T]hose who champion the cause of the Palestinians should recognize that if we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza, then the likelihood of us getting back on any sort of peace track that leads to a two-state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future. So if we're serious about wanting to resolve this situation and create a genuine peace process, it starts with no more missiles being fired in Israel's territory, and that then gives us the space to try to deal with these longstanding conflicts that exist.

Not to be outdone, members of Congress "joined in a rare show of bipartisanship" in order to pass unanimous resolutions in both houses in support of Israel's "inherent right to self-defense."

OF COURSE, Washington's support for Israel went beyond rhetorical absurdities. The Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, reported an early green light from the U.S. to pursue "whatever measures are necessary," leaving open the horrifying possibility of another ground invasion of Gaza.

"Israel has received unequivocal and outstanding support from the United States and all branches of government," said Oren. "From the White House, from Congress, in both parties, completely bipartisan support." That bipartisan support includes continued massive military and financial aid to the tune of more than $3 billion a year.

In fact, military assistance to Israel increased under Obama's first term by $25 million a year. As the National Jewish Democratic Council explained in its response to Republican accusations that Obama was not pro-Israel enough, "Only those with the most partisan, facts-be-damned agenda would view the largest military assistance package for any foreign country in history at a difficult budgetary time as anything but a powerful way of supporting our closest ally, Israel."

Indeed, the White House's most recent declaration that it is "committed to seeking additional funding for Iron Dome and other U.S.-Israel missile defense programs" makes it clear that the administration is as dedicated as ever to continuing this trend.

In truth, no matter what the media chatter is about the "dysfunctional" or "fractious relationship" between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama, the U.S.-Israel alliance runs much deeper than occasional tactical differences between the two countries' elites.

Year after year, every U.S. administration--Democrat and Republican alike--has consistently granted unstinting support to its most dependable ally in the Middle East. U.S. support has bought and paid for the most advanced--and ruthless--military hardware in the world. Israel's ability to develop a nuclear arsenal with more than 200 warheads is also the product of this support. And finally, the U.S. has unswervingly stood behind Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights for more than four decades and its occupation of southern Lebanon for more than two decades.

Washington has vetoed dozens of UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli violations of international law, including what would have otherwise been a unanimous resolution condemning the illegal Israeli expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem last year.

So much for Obama's "tough talk" about the settlements.

There may be times when, for tactical purposes, the U.S. would prefer more restraint on the part of its overzealous ally. But at the end of the day, all it would take for Washington to enforce its wishes would be to cut off--or even partially decrease--its aid to Israel. This is why it is always completely disingenuous for Obama, or any other U.S. president, to feign impotence in the face of Israeli aggression towards Palestinians or its Arab neighbors.

In fact, U.S. support for Israel is as solid as its commitment to dominating the Middle East. Keeping its interests in play in a region that is home to two-thirds of the world's oil reserves has always been a top priority for the American ruling class. The importance of oil to global capitalism ensures that the region remains a critical arena within which to jockey for control and economic leverage over rivals.

ISRAEL HAS never been the sole player towards that end. The U.S. has always relied on a combination of allegiances across the region. But Israel remains its most reliable partner, and the recent Arab Spring is the most recent example of why. Egypt, after all, has been the recipient of the second-highest amount of U.S. aid--after Israel--for many years, and Washington is all too aware of the possible implications of the continued struggles there since the fall of their longtime ally, Hosni Mubarak.

The fear of mass Arab struggles against their own regimes has historically bound the U.S. into relying on its "special relationship" with Israel.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the growth of pan-Arabism disrupted Washington's ties to several Arab allies. U.S. efforts to prop up various regimes in countries like Lebanon and Iraq were all too susceptible to growing movements of Arab nationalists. Meanwhile, nationalists came to power in Iran in the early 1950s, leading to nationalization of oil properties. Then in Iraq in 1958 and Yemen in 1962, Arab nationalist movements overthrew pro-Western regimes.

At this point, the U.S. foreign policy establishment began to think more favorably about the idea of maintaining a "special relationship" with Israel, which according to a 1958 National Security Council document was the "only strong pro-Western power left in the Middle East." These events helped shift U.S. strategic thinking towards a primary focus on maintaining Israel as the strongest power in the region.

During the June 1967 war, Israel's resounding victory against neighboring Arab countries definitively proved its value to Washington. At the time, Newsweek summed up the new political reality in the Middle East this way: "As an indirect beneficiary of the Israeli blitz, the U.S. should at least be in a position to neutralize the Middle East, so that its oil can be profitably marketed and its waterways used for the benefit of world commerce."

As Phil Gasper wrote in the International Socialist Review:

By the early 1970s, U.S. economic and military aid to Israel had skyrocketed, amounting since then on a conservative estimate to almost $100 billion. About one-third of the entire U.S. foreign aid budget goes to an economically advanced country of only six million people. As a result, Israel has the highest per capita military expenditure in the world and possesses the most advanced military technology.

In exchange, Israel acts as a guardian of U.S. economic and imperial interests in the region. Its massive military presence helps to keep in check any opposition to American hegemony--whether that takes the form of Hezbollah, Iran or the recent Arab uprisings.

Even differences in intensity of strategy can serve U.S. interests. So while Washington may find unilateral Israeli threats against Iran to be "reckless," it can arguably work in the their favor to have the threat of a local rabid military power operating in the background, while the U.S. systematically works to more "rationally" and "diplomatically" isolate and weaken Iran.

Already in 1953, mainstream Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz specified with striking candor how Israel could be relied on to serve the West's strategic interests:

The West is none too happy about its relations with states in the Middle East. The feudal regimes there have to make such concessions to the nationalist movements...that they become more and more reluctant to supply Britain and the United States with their natural resources and military bases...Therefore, strengthening Israel helps the Western powers maintain equilibrium and stability in the Middle East.

Israel is to become the watchdog. There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive policy towards the Arab states when this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the U.S. and Britain. But if for any reason the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied upon to punish one or several neighboring states whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible.

More than 60 years later, this description still holds true. The watchdog may sometimes strain at the leash--and occasionally earn a reprimand from its master. But at the end of the day, both share a common goal of suppressing any resistance to imperialist domination of the Middle East. That's why building genuine solidarity with the Palestinian struggle requires building our resistance here, within the belly of the beast.

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