Israel and the US: Dealing with Donkeys

At this week’s Yom Hazikaron ceremony on Mount Herzl to remember the fallen in Israel’s wars, Prime Minister Netanyahu commented: ‘We will realise the goals of victory – and at the centre of them is the return of all our hostages’. Many hostage family members simply do not believe him and regard such pronouncements as a masterclass in deception and subterfuge. Many family members waited outside cemeteries throughout Israel to protest against visiting ministers such as Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. Others pointedly and demonstrably walked out of official ceremonies. Given Netanyahu’s desire to move into Rafah, many believe that few of the hostages will return alive.

What does Netanyahu’s pronouncement of ‘Total Victory’ mean? He has singlehandedly destroyed the Diaspora’s pro-Israel diplomacy and deeply antagonised the Jewish state’s loyal friends. He has expanded the alliance between medieval Islamists and the far Left into a ‘Reactionary International’. But at the top of this list is Israel’s damaged relationship with its steadfast ally, the United States of America. 

The Americans have been privately asking Netanyahu since January to find a way out of the morass and to negotiate with Hamas, save the hostages and halt hostilities – but to no avail. Despite Secretary of State Blinken’s many visits to Israel, only ‘Total Victory’ will suffice. In recent weeks, the President has publicly criticised the Netanyahu coalition for its ideological intransigence and after many prevarications, the Biden administration has finally sanctioned a handful of Israeli settlers on the West Bank – an act which previously Democrat presidents have shied away from. 

In addition, Biden has put on hold a shipment of 3,000 bombs amidst ‘a reassessment’ of Israel-US relations. 

Biden however secured $18 billion in an emergency arms deal from an often hostile Congress. At the beginning of this month, Biden authorised a $827 million munitions shipment to Israel. 

The US republicans who have blocked aid to Israel for six months have now cynically discovered their voice in roasting the Biden administration because the president dared to criticise Netanyahu. Biden however has always identified with the cause of Israel ever since entering Congress half a century ago. His first official visit was to Israel in 1973 where he met Golda Meir. While Biden has always been a great friend of the Jewish state, he has often been at odds with its Likud governments over the years. 

Biden knows genocide when he sees it – and it is not taking place in Gaza. He was the first US president to recognise the Meds Yeghern – ‘the great evil crime’ of the Armenian genocide in 1915. And it should not be forgotten that Biden was quick to fly to Israel after the Hamas pogrom of ethnic cleansing on 7 October. 

When Ben-Gurion read out the Declaration of Independence exactly 76 years ago, the United States recognised the new Hebrew Republic eleven minutes later. It took Great Britain, the Mandatory power many more months to do so. It will be recalled that the Republican administration of President Eisenhower in the 1950s was keen on fraternising with the Arab states to limit Soviet influence in the Middle East and categorically refused to supply arms to Israel in the run-up to the Suez war in 1956. The Egyptian-Soviet arms deal in 1955 was of little consequence to the Republicans. Shimon Peres saved the day when his diplomacy succeeded in striking an agreement with the French to supply war materiel. It was only when John Kennedy became president in 1960 that a better relationship was restored. President Nixon changed the Republican mindset when he ordered an immediate arms-lift to a battered Israel during the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Since then, both Democrat and Republican administrations have considered Israel to be a loyal ally and an island of stability in ‘a tough neighbourhood’. 

Have the losses now outweighed the gains in Israel’s war against Hamas? President Biden thinks so. After all, even if the numbers claim of the Hamas Ministry of Health in Gaza are patently false; even if the BBC forgets to include the number of Hamas militants in the number of Palestinian dead; there are still thousands of Palestinian civilians who have lost their lives. War is indeed blind. 

The Rafah operation, characterised bizarrely by Netanyahu as Israel’s Stalingrad, is scheduled to last for two months. If Rafah is the military command centre of Hamas, then why wait seven months to attack the area? The Israeli press has reported that a three-star US Marine General visited Israel as early as October 2023 and raised the same question. 

In response to Biden’s criticisms, Netanyahu’s retort has been to proclaim: ‘Very well, ourselves alone’. This equates the chaos of a dysfunctional government with the actions of courageous dissidents in authoritarian societies – from the Soviet Union to apartheid South Africa. 

As many have noted in Israel, there does not appear to be a plan for ‘the day after’ but only the repeated claim that Israel faces ‘an existential threat’ even if only one member of Hamas remains standing. 

Netanyahu’s ideological contention is that the conflict with Hamas today is part and parcel of Israel’s ongoing War of Independence – a war that began in 1948. Netanyahu has therefore shunted the idea of a two-state solution into the sidings. This is in opposition to majority opinion in the Diaspora. Indeed Likud manifestos for national elections during the 1970s proclaimed that from the Sea to the River ‘there will only be Israeli sovereignty’.

Netanyahu has had problems with Democrat presidents in the past – Clinton, Obama and now Biden. As he prepared to leave the Wye Plantation talks with Clinton in 1998 when both Israelis and Americans thought that everything was cut and dried, Netanyahu suddenly brought up the release of Jonathan Pollard, convicted of passing secrets to the Israelis, as a condition. Clinton exploded and a deluge of profanities drenched Netanyahu. Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeline Albright viewed Netanyahu as a US Republican Congressman, inhabiting the clothing of a prime minister of Israel. 

Biden clearly worries about the division within the Democratic party over his attitude to Israel – and in particular the loss of support amongst young people. Netanyahu may be hoping that a reborn President Trump will come riding to his rescue in November. After years of a frigid relationship with Netanyahu, there appears to be a thaw in the air. 

Israel’s lions are today being led by donkeys. As David Rothkopf, the foreign policy analyst, pointed out: ‘Right now, Israel’s most effective leader is an 81-year-old Irish Catholic from Delaware’. (Ha’aretz 12 May 2024). The rift with America will only be repaired with the removal of Netanyahu from office and a return to political norms. After the failure of the political elite to protect the state and the people on 7 October, the day of reckoning will undoubtedly arrive. Many Israelis and Diaspora Jews hope that it will be sooner rather than later. 

Jewish Independent 16 May 2024

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