US-Israel Relations Sail into Icy Waters

By James Gundun – Washington D.C.

It would be foolish conclude that America and Israel’s special relationship is charted for divorce. Any long-lasting marriage hits a few cold spells, and tough times often unite. But a storm has chilled the waters.

Now, will America and Israel hit an iceberg?

President Barack Obama lost his battle with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the moment it began. Not the ideological or pragmatic battle necessarily, for Obama’s principles, were they sincere and he stuck to them, stand a better chance of creating a Palestine than whatever Netanyahu has in mind. The political battle is over though.

Never a match for the veteran Netanyahu, US policy with Israel was burned by one of Obama’s core weaknesses – inexperience. The Gaza war struck a month after his election. Obama went silent and would never say much afterward. Another month later Netanyahu had returned to power, already smelling blood from Washington, and proceeded to bite Obama repeatedly in action, word, and tone.

Obama barely reacted to the peace process over 2009 and into 2010, Netanyahu even less, and famously refused to place any blame on either of them. Obama’s approach must change if he expects any progress towards a sovereign Palestine and a secure Israel, if he truly desires the potential healing benefits to the region. He must actively engage the process not just during negotiations but before, or run the risk of conflict between all parties involved.

US envoy George Mitchell can’t move all the weight of Netanyahu’s upper hand by himself.

Impatient with Obama’s attempt to open a dialogue on Iran, Israel’s call for sanctions has escalated from “crippling” to “strangling” and finally unilaterally outside the UN. Recent denial of an attack after so many years of threats, coupled with its new drone fleet, further suggests preemptive activity. For now America is aware of the stupidity of a war against Iran and is restraining Israel, yet for how long is anyone’s guess.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has already implied that Israel doesn’t need America, saying, "We felt very proud that we never asked the Americans to come and fight for us. We basically… to paraphrase Churchill, we said, ‘Give us the tools and we will do the job.’"

The bomb has a timer so it must go off sometime. One of two things should happen in the next two to five years, either Israel (and potential allies) strike Iran or it builds a nuclear weapons program. Both outcomes will add enormous stress to America and Israel’s relationship. So too will the refusal of Russia and China to crackdown on Iran, which has forced America to risk its other interests by softening up on Russia and prematurely asserting itself over China.

Sensing a loss of momentum, Barak recently proclaimed from Washington, "Iran is not just a challenge for Israel. I believe it is a challenge for the whole world. I can hardly think of a stable world order with a nuclear Iran.”

Sadly for him America and Israel agree on the principle and not so much the course of action. At least until the economy, health care, Iraq and Afghanistan show signs of improvement, and that could be slower than anticipated.

Standing next to Secretary Clinton, Barak added an unusual but sensible twist, “I don’t think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, are going to drop it in the neighborhood. They fully understand what might follow – they are radical but not total ‘meshugah’ (Yiddish for crazy). They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process and they understand realities.”

One could think of many answers, and still it’s hard not to wonder why any action is necessary if Iran doesn’t intend to use its nuclear weapons.

America and Israel, along with the world, stand as good a chance to conflict over Iran as with Iran. Yet smaller icebergs cannot be ignored because of over-attention to larger threats, especially when they play a role in determining America and Israel’s course on Iran. The more America can accomplish in Palestine the less chance of conflict with Iran or Syria, and vice versa. Obama’s problem though, and a root problem of the region, is that progress with the Palestinians chips away at Israel’s special status with America.

The other day a UN motion to renew its pursuit of an investigation into the Gaza war and Goldstone report passed 98-7, with the other members abstaining or refusing to vote. The seven that voted against the non-binding resolution were Israel, America, Canada, Nauru, Panama, Micronesia, and Macedonia.

Israel and America didn’t want to be the only ones voting against investigating Gaza war crimes. No, that would be too obvious.

There are plenty, certainly too many examples of Israel’s settlement activity overriding a litany of US protests, insincere as they may be. Israel’s 10-month “moratorium” hasn’t put a stop on building in Jerusalem or laying claim to religious sites without warning. Clashes between Palestinians, Israeli settlers, and Israeli security forces are still a regular occurrence in the West Bank.

Just days ago Israel green lit 600 new homes in a Jewish settlement in annexed East Jerusalem as protests and clashes entered day six in Hebron. Though Israeli officials argue the plans were long in development, their approval shows no regard for the situation. One gets the strong feeling that Israel planned on stalling negotiations through other actions until its “moratorium” expires.

America has stood by watching helplessly, exactly as Netanyahu expected and Palestinians feared. 

A relatively similar scene is unfolding in the aftermath of Dubai. US officials have barely commented on the assassination of Hamas agent Mahmoud al-Mabhouh or Israel’s potential feuds with Britain, France, and Australia, but this time something might have to give. Dubai has sought the cooperation of America concerning credit card information from the assassination team, widely believed to be part of the Mossad’s Kidon department.

Dubai Police Chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim also told Al-Arabiya, "We have DNA evidence … from the crime scene. The DNA of the criminals is there. We will work via European and Australian diplomatic channels – and perhaps American – to set up a working team formed from the Emirates police force and those of at least seven other states to track down the gang responsible for the assassination.”

Already in protection mode, “spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters he wasn’t aware of a request for assistance from the U.A.E. in the probe. Spokesmen for the U.S. State Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation both declined to comment Friday.”

Israel’s single-minded pursuit of self-interest has inadvertently pitted its Western backers against their Gulf allies. America’s level of assistance to Dubai will surely influence its relationship with Israel and yet turning down the UAE, a dutiful partner in the post-9/11 world, comes with its own consequence.

Ironically the pro-Israeli Wall Street Journal points out, at the bottom of a report, “Mr. Mabhouh’s killing has won praise inside Israel. Earlier this week, opposition leader Tzipi Livni called the assassination ‘good news.’ But Israel’s international standing has suffered. As the uproar over fraudulent passports grows, some analysts are starting to question whether Israel, if it was involved, made a strategic blunder despite a tactical victory.”

That same echo can be heard from Israel’s settlement construction, encroachment upon religious sites, bombing of Gaza, all the way to jeopardizing relations with America in the first place. Even the best of circumstances damper in the brewing storm. The other day Clinton actually put in a word for Gazans and the blockade that smothers them.

"We discussed it at length and Sen. Mitchell and I made clear some of the concerns that we had and some of the ideas about what more could and should be done," she told reporters after she and U.S. special envoy George Mitchell met Barak. "We hope to see progress there."

Unfortunately her words carry little weight based on America’s accumulated and Israel’s current actions.

Daniel Levy, an analyst with the New America Foundation think tank, noted that Clinton was pressed by senior Arab officials when she visited the Gulf last week, "The threat to the peace talks is renewed violence in Gaza, but equally problematic for the United States is what the secretary heard in Qatar and Saudi Arabia ‘what are you doing for Gaza?’ It undermines the credibility of the United States."

Only when America needs something from the Arab states does it stand up for Gazans. And still Israel didn’t appreciate the move, real or fake. Barak immediately blamed Hamas. Doubtful that the blockade is coming down any time soon.

Many people would lament – and presently fear – the day America and Israel’s special relationship came to an end. Many more would cheer though, not out of negativity necessarily, but in the hope that balance may finally be restored to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, possibly the Middle East.

America and Israel’s special relationship shows no real signs of breaking. Maybe the day will never come. But it is floating, somewhere out in the distant darkness, awaiting fatal miscalculations.

– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst based in Washington D.C. He contributed this article to Contact him in The Trench, a realist newsletter, at

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