Biden incident not the first time Israel tugged our reins
Appeared in print: Monday, Mar 29, 2010
Is there really a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations? Yes and no.
Yes, because the world’s premier power doesn’t care to have its vice president publicly humiliated by a nation where the entire population is smaller than that of Los Angeles County. No, because the elected politicians nominally running the government of the world’s premier power live in mortal fear of the Israel lobby in the United States. This time, as always, No will carry the day.
So, yes, we can call it a crisis, but not one that was prolonged. Barack Obama is not the first president to have lost patience with Israel for messing up Uncle Sam’s larger plans. Hillary Clinton is not the first secretary of state to shout angrily down the phone to Tel Aviv.
But the dust already is settling. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t stop new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. The United States will go on issuing all required loan guarantees. Some pro forma “concessions” by Israel will be deemed enough to permit the quisling Palestinian Authority to participate in what ludicrously is called “the peace process.”
Recall other crises, all satisfactorily resolved in Israel’s favor.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger publicly blamed Israel for the breakdown of negotiations with Egypt over withdrawing from the Sinai. Ford said he was going to tell the American people that U.S.-Israel relations should be recast.
Prodded by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, 76 U.S. senators signed a letter to Ford telling him to lay off Israel. He did.
In March 1980, President Jimmy Carter was forced to apologize after his U.N. representative, Donald McHenry, voted for a resolution that condemned Israel’s settlement policies in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem and that called on Israel to dismantle them.
In June of the same year — after Carter requested a halt to Jewish settlements and his secretary of state, Edmund Muskie, called the Jewish settlements an obstacle to peace — Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced plans to construct 10 new ones.
In August 1982, the day after President Ronald Reagan requested that Ariel Sharon end the bombing of Beirut, Sharon responded by ordering bombing runs over the city at precisely 2:42 and 3:38 in the afternoon, the times coinciding with the two U.N. resolutions requiring Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
In March 1991, Secretary of State James Baker complained to Congress that, “Every time I have gone to Israel in connection with the peace process … I have been met with an announcement of new settlement activity. … It substantially weakens our hand in trying to bring about a peace process, and creates quite a predicament.”
In 1990, Baker had become so disgusted with Israel’s intransigence on the settlements that he publicly gave out the phone number of the White House switchboard and told the Israelis, “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”
On Sept. 12, 1991, President George H.W. Bush got sufficiently infuriated by the pro-Israeli lobby’s success in getting enough votes in both houses of Congress to override his veto of Israel’s request for $10 billion in loan guarantees that he declared to the TV cameras, “I’m up against some powerful forces. They’ve got something like 1,000 lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question. We’ve got one lonely little guy here doing it.” A national poll taken immediately afterward gave the president an 85 percent approval rating. The lobby blinked, but not for long. Not only did the loan guarantees ultimately go through, but Jewish voters turned strongly against Bush in the 1992 elections, a fact that George W. Bush never forgot.
In January 2009, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly boasted that he had “shamed” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by getting Bush to prevent her at the last moment from voting for a Gaza cease-fire resolution that she herself had worked on for several days with Arab and European diplomats at the United Nations.
Olmert bragged to an Israeli audience that he pulled Bush off a stage during a speech to take his call when he learned about the pending vote and demanded that the president intervene.
“I have no problem with what Olmert did,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Forward. “I think the mistake was to talk about it in public.”
I should note that this list does not reach into the dark backward of time and such ringing affirmations of the relationship as Israel’s assault on the USS Liberty in June 1967, killing 34 and wounding 171, all covered up by the Johnson administration, most notably Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara.
In sum, as Stephen Green wrote in “Taking Sides: America’s Secret Relations With Militant Israel” (Morrow, 1984), “Since 1953, Israel, and friends of Israel in America, have determined the broad outlines of U.S. policy in the region. It has been left to American presidents to implement that policy, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and to deal with tactical issues.”
So yes, the crisis soon will be over. And no, there is no new era in the offing for U.S.-Israel relations.
Alexander Cockburn writes for The Nation and other publications from his home in Petrolia, Calif.