Panetta Slams Israeli Isolation; Is Israeli Policy Destabilizing US Allies?

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta , on a visit to Israel and Palestine before heading to Egypt, publicly upbraided the Likud government of Israel for having become isolated diplomatically in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, and warned direly that brute military force would not be enough to provide for Israel’s security.

Panetta said,

“It’s pretty clear, at this dramatic time in the Middle East when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that is what has happened…”

Panetta added,

“The important thing there is to again reaffirm our strong security relationship with Israel, to make clear that we will protect their qualitative military edge… As they take risks for peace, we will be able to provide the security that they will need in order to ensure that they can have the room hopefully to negotiate.”

Panetta said he was aware of that Israel had more and better weapons than its neighbors… “but the question you have to ask is – is it enough to maintain an military edge if you are isolating yourself diplomatically?”

“Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength…” he said.

Panetta is clearly concerned at the bad relations between Israel and Turkey, and the increasingly rocky relationship between Israel and revolutionary Egypt, where angry demonstrators invaded the Israeli embassy and chased the ambassador out of the country. The Israeli ambassador to Jordan also had to leave briefly, because of the threat potentially posed by anti-Israel demonstrations in Amman.

The Obama administration, for which Panetta is speaking, is deeply frustrated with blustery Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his far right cabinet, including thuggish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman (a former Moldovian club bouncer).

But it is most likely that the Obama administration has other reasons for pressuring Netanyahu at this juncture. Pro-American Arab allies throughout the region are facing widespread protests and even revolutionary movements– in Bahrain and Yemen most prominently, and to a lesser extent in Jordan and Morocco. The closeness of those governments to Washington (and by implication to Tel Aviv) is among the strikes against them in Arab public opinion, because of the execrable treatment by Israel of the stateless, often homeless Palestinians. While pro-American oil states like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have tried to bribe their populations into quiescence, so far with some success, the Obama team must be frantic that Netanyahu’s provocations will help produce even more turmoil in the Arab world.

If Saudi Arabia blew up over the royal family’s close ties to Washington, the price of petroleum would rise astronomically. Saudi Arabia produces 9.7 million barrels a day of the 88 million barrels a day of petroleum pumped globally. Take that off the market (the revolution in Libya took its entire oil production offline) and there would be a global crisis of Depression-era proportions. Although oil futures prices and supplies have softened in the past quarter (down 17%) on expectation of Libya’s production coming back online and continued weak economic growth in Western Europe and North America, supplies are still tight by historic standards. You take 11% of world production off the table, and the price rise wouldn’t be serial, it would be exponential. (I.e., the price wouldn’t go up 11%, it would go up to like $500 a barrel, compared with $79 now for West Texas Crude).

The stability of pro-American Arab regimes in this time of enormous instability depends in some important part on public anger about treatment of the Palestinians. So to have Netanyahu and Lieberman caroming around making inflammatory statements and adopting belligerent policies, and blowing off Obama’s peace process is rather inconvenient. An announcement by the Palestine Authority that there was a prospect of progress on Palestinian rights through negotiations with Israel would be very, very helpful right about now.

But what does Obama (and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia) get? Announcements of settlement expansions on the West Bank, and Israeli air strikes on Palestinians in Gaza.

Netanyahu has refused to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith, and his adventurism against the Gaza aid flotilla of 2010 created a diplomatic crisis that continues today. After twisting the arms of Western European allies like Germany to oppose the Palestinian bid for membership in the United Nations, the Israelis deeply angered Germany and others by cheekily announcing that they will expand settlements yet again. The ostensible argument for opposing the Palestinian UN gambit was that it would make bilateral negotiations more difficult. But wasn’t that precisely what settlement expansion would do?

The Netanyahu government has unnecessarily set a course toward worsening relations with Turkey by refusing to apologize for killing 9 Turkish aid workers (one an American citizen) on the Mavi Marmara in late May of 2010. United Nations investigators found disturbing evidence of the use of excessive force by Israeli commandos. Turkey also objects to the Israeli economic strangulation of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, such that it prevents them from exporting any of their products and so has reduced them to poverty, with 56 percent being food insecure. Such blockades of staples imposed on non-combatants, including children, in an occupied territory are illegal in international law, not to mention inhumane and just plain creepy. I mean, what kind of a person keeps children living on the edge or prevents their parents from putting a roof over their heads? (An Israeli blockade to keep weapons from coming into Gaza would be legal and understandable, but since 2007 they’ve gone way beyond that policy into a very dark area of the soul.)

Turkey wants the blockade on Palestinian civilians dropped, and so does the vast majority of the world (talk about diplomatically isolated!) After the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who may have gotten kickbacks to do favors for Israeli policy, the new foreign minister, Nabil Alaraby, called the Gaza blockade “shameful.” (Alaraby has gone on to become secretary-general of the Arab League). Egypt shares the Israeli concern about weapons being smuggled into Gaza, but 99 percent of Egyptians object to the rest of the blockade.

The increasingly hostile rhetoric directed at Israel by the Turkish government over these issues, along with the popular protests against it in Egypt (where, if public opinion becomes important, relations are likely to turn even more chilly than those with Turkey– though likely the peace treaty is not in doubt).

Avigdor Lieberman’s response to Erdogan’s criticisms has been to implicitly threaten to ally with the PKK Kurdish terrorist group against Turkey, which is about the most explosive thing you could implicitly threaten Ankara with.

Throwing fuel on the flames has been the Netanyahu government’s arrogant refusal to freeze settlements on territory in the West Bank and around Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians, while negotiations proceed as to their ultimate disposition. In short, Israel is determinedly gobbling up the West Bank lands it militarily occupied in 1967, and the Palestinian Authority now says it just isn’t going to bestow legitimacy on this vast land-grab by engaging in mock negotiations that are doomed to leave the Palestinians with less and less territory– even while the negotiations are going on!

It is illegal for an Occupying power to flood the occupied territory with its own citizens, under the Geneva Convention of 1949. While an occupation can be legal, the extent of the violations Israel has committed against the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1949 Geneva Convention are so extensive as to have rendered their continued occupation of the Palestinians criminal at its core.

While the Baath government of Syria has been hostile to Israel and has supported small local anti-Israel paramilitaries like those of Hizbullah and Hamas, it hasn’t taken military action against Israel since 1973 and it intervened in Lebanon in 1976 and after to prevent the Palestinians and their allies from coming to power there. In short, because it is invested in order, the Baath has probably been less dangerous to Israel in recent decades than would be a populist regime of the sort that might emerge if President Bashar al-Asad is overthrown. And a revolution in Syria is not impossible, though it faces an uphill battle.

Even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq has taken a hard rhetorical line against Israel recently, warning that it might find ways of benefiting from Arab turmoil. The popular political forces in Arab Iraq, whether Sunni or Shiite, are virulently anti-Israel, contrary to what the Neoconservatives used to promise Tel Aviv. Denunciations of Israel are now issuing almost in tandem from Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.

And that’s another thing. Netanyahu’s and Lieberman’s obstreperousness are an opportunity for Iran to gain influence in the Arab world, and helps bolster Iran’s defense of the Bashar al-Asad government from its domestic critics.

Israel’s weird policy of illegally colonizing the West Bank and of keeping the Palestinians of Gaza under civilian blockade is damaging to Israelis. But they can probably get away with it.

My guess is that the Obama administration’s fear is that pro-American Arab regimes can’t get away with it.

23 Responses

  1. ‘take 11% of world production off the table, and the price rise wouldn’t be serial, it would be exponential. (I.e., the price wouldn’t go up 11%, it would go up to like $500 a barrel, compared with $79 now for West Texas Crude).’

    It would not happen because there would be an invasion force in there within a week. That is why the US does not care what the Arabs want – at the worst, they can seize their oil. It would not even require a large force as only the oilfields and terminals need to be seized.

    • The US military occupied Iraq, and nevertheless the Sunni Arabs closed the Kirkuk pipeline repeatedly when they wanted to. It isn’t as easy to keep the oil flowing as it may sound, if locals are determined to make holes in the pipelines and blow up refineries (how many times was that at Beiji taken off line?)

      • Furthermore, the Iraqi state oil employees’ union repeatedly threatened to wreck the entire production system, which they had kept running by heroic efforts during the sanctions, if any move were made to turn their facilities over to foreigners. No one ever moved against the union.

        We can expect that problem to be a hundred times worse with Saudi Arabia. They’ve not only observed what happened in Iraq, but they’ve had 40 years since Kissinger blackmailed them with an invasion threat to prepare a response. Many beleive that the Saudi fields are booby-trapped as a deterrent to invaders.

        Part of that response was that the US has become dependent on the very thing that we probably extorted out of the Arabs after ’73; that petrodollars be recycled as US investments. Without Saudi billions propping up our currency and real estate markets, what is America really worth?

  2. In the scale of things what Israel does now about the settlements, Gaza and the issue of Palestinian statehood before the UN can either enhance the efforts of Arab Spring around the world or greatly try to short it out.
    The world isn’t the same as last year and vast danger from climate change and global overheat threaten everything unless nations and people can work together in peace..
    I’m trying to grasp the different aspects of knowledge of neighboring countries brought to light in events surrounding the Arab Spring that continues to shake the world and don’t have a plan unless others grasp need for common purpose..
    I would think sharing resources and the right of safety for all should take priority but there are a lot of people with differing ideas. I know some people can be really, really mean to each other and hurt others and I can’t really say to let guard down but on the other hand I know what happens if people don’t so they start to trust each other very fast.

  3. Another fine summary Juan.

    But I don’t see Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank as “weird”. Israel’s raison d’etre is based on the predictions of prophets. Before Israel came into being in 1948, David Ben Gurion said “after we have established a strong state we will abolish the partition”. Netanyahu & Lieberman are fulfilling Ben Gurion’s prophecy.

    Egypt & Turkey seem to be heading towards improved relations with Tehran, and worsening relations with Jerusalem. Perhaps Iran can afford to let the Syrian regime fold. A democratic Syria will want to recover the Golan Heights, which Israel will never yield, even to a liberal democracy. So Israel will have another hostile fledgling democratic neighbour.

    It’s almost incongruous that a more democratic ME is more likely to be pro-Iran and anti-Israel, than anti-Iran and pro-Israel, but that’s where it seems to be heading. I suspect successive Washington & Jerusalem regimes have long “feared” that eventuality, hence their preference for absolute monarchies and military dictators.

    Is it any wonder that Israel is behaving like a headless chicken? They and their eternal partner have lost control of the arc of ME history? Israel has always bragged that it’s the only democracy in the region. What’s its mantra going be now – let me guess, we’re the oldest democracy in the region.

    • Well it would be weird if Iraq occupied and colonized part of Turkey based on the Code of Hamurabbi. Ancient ethical and religious texts are not usually good or normal bases for state policy. Hence weird.

  4. I think of a editorial cartoon with a split screen. In the first screen Netanyahu is walking around the UN with Uncle Sam on a leash and everyone at the UN is bowing down and smiling. In the next screen, unknown to Netanyahu, Uncle Sam is no longer on the leash and the temperment of the UN towards Israel has changed to one of outrage.

    Clearly, Israel is only a super power able to yeild wide influence as long as the US continues to be it’s b**ch. Without US support Israel is an overblown military power, much like Pakistan.

  5. Isn’t it possible that Netanyahu and his gang aren’t being stupid with their provocations, but that they’re deliberately trying to drawing Arab countries into attacking them? Hasn’t the US shown in the past that it will support Israel no matter what the cause, and that it would immediately enter a war on Israel’s side? Panetta and others who lecture Israel are merely setting themselves up to be ignored and insulted by its leadership. What’s the point of yet another talking-to, when Israel has learned that the US won’t change its Israel-first policy?

  6. If the price of oil rose “astronomically”, because of Saudi action, the USA would either have to employ military action to replace the Saudi regime — and enslave the Saudi people — or admit that all those armies in the oil-producing region that we’ve been paying for through all these years are paper tigers (at least today), put in place more to enrich MIC (war-profiteers) than to advance any (other) USA “national” interest. Not a choice that the MIC would want to see made.

  7. “Avigdor Lieberman’s response to Erdogan’s criticisms has been to implicitly threaten to ally with the PKK Kurdish terrorist group against Turkey.”

    Several years ago Sy Hersh wrote of Israeli efforts to develop an alliance with Iraqi Kurds because Maliki’s government would have nothing to do with them. Has this been ongoing, and is Lieberman’s threat really not a threat, but a reflection of some success to Israeli efforts?

    • There have always been antiwar activists who claim that Israelis are operating in US-occupied Kurdistan. Given the wide range of mercenary and death-merchant activities on which the new Israeli economy is dependent, there could be any number of reasons Israelis are there.

      But the key is “US-occupied”. Our remaining forces would become hostages if Israel tried to escalate the PKK war from its Iraqi strongholds. Turkish troops have crossed that border with impunity in recent years in unsuccessful searches for the PKK; the warlord pair that controls Iraqi Kurdistan probably is intimately tied to the PKK, and the Turks might go after the Kurdish government, which is hardly popular with either the Shias or Sunni Arabs. What will we do then?

  8. For those on the American right and their fellow travellers such as AIPAC who are supporters of Israel’s current policy, an analogy might be apt.

    How do they think the US would react if Mexico illegally occupied the area around, say, El Paso to stop cross-border violence and illegal gun smuggling from the US, grabbing more and more land so Mexicans could build “settlements?” It is exactly the same situation as exists on the West Bank today. (The analogy can be carried even further since the US forcibly stole Texas from Mexico back in the early 1800s.)

    Israel’s security will not come at the point of a gun (or from its 100-plus nuclear weapons). It’s a shame that, in using force against the Palestinians, Israel has not just isolated itself from the world, it is isolating itself from many of its Jewish supporters (such as J Street) around the globe.

  9. Very well said. I can’t understand why the Israelis can’t live in peace. As if they must have an enemy! One day the US will have its own problems and wont be able to help Israel :)

  10. Your article lays out the international problem quite nicely, but I would also like to see a good discussion of how Israel could dismantle the west bank settlements without precipitating a civil war among Israeli Jews. It seems to me that Israeli leadership believes that maintaining the status quo is its least bad option.

    • This is why they keep expanding, to ensure they cannot be made to return the land. With the influx of former USSR hardliners like A Lieberman, thes numbers have escalated hugely since the Oslo process.

  11. You wrote: “The Obama administration, for which Panetta is speaking, is deeply frustrated with blustery Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his far right cabinet, including thuggish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman (a former Moldovian club bouncer).”

    Yeah, that “frustration” was in full glorious display by Obama himself at the UN when he spoke like a Likudnik. Even the Moldovian bouncer gave his stamp of approval of Obama’s speech. This “frustration” is not reflected in this administration’s own shameless rhetoric, let alone actions.

    Telling zio-supremacist that they should moderate their crimes is a sick joke, when the US fully backs and rewards (militarily, financially, and diplomatically) ongoing zionist criminality. Nothing will change until the US puts its own interests, credibility and ideals, not to mention international law, ahead of zionist supremacist ethos, thievery and greed.

  12. It is not Israel that gives the US and its western allies trouble. It is the US and its western allies who ultimately give Israel trouble by pampering it to its detriment. In the process, Israel, the US and its allies have become unpopular all over the world for their double standards. The US and its allies have now become allies of Al-Qaeda with the hope of taking the steam out of Al-Qaeda. But this policy is to the detriment of poor Israel surrounded by hostile Islamic countries. Al-Qaeda has succeeded in manipulating the US and its allies to remove anti-Al-Qaeda governments of North Africa in a so-called Arab Spring which is, in reality, a NATO Spring. Libya is a NATO-Al-Qaeda victory, not a Libyan victory at all! Ultimately it is poor Israel that will suffer!

  13. Juan, your writing is so blatantly anti-Israel it borders on the absurd. The area is disputed territory. The jewish people have a valid a claim to the area as anyone, especially the Old City of Jerusalem. Any settlement will need to consider claims by both peoples, no matter how much you object. As far as the arabs being upset, no arab government has been a friend to the jewish people even before 1967: forced expulsion, dhimmi status, pogroms, the Mufti of Jerusalem’s flirtation with Hitler.

    • No, it is not disputed territory. The West Bank and Gaza were awarded to the Palestinians in the same UNGA partition plan that created Israel and of which Israel partisans are so proud of Israeli leaders for accepting. If they accepted it, then why are they claiming the West Bank and Gaza? The UN Charter, to which Israel is signatory, forbids the acquisition of territory by aggressive military conquest of neighbors, which means it forbids Israel to simply take and annex the West Bank. I know of no international-law basis for which the Old City of Jerusalem has a different status than any other parcel of territory a priori.

      Whether any Arab government has been a friend to the “Jewish people” (you mean to “the Israeli government”) is not relevant to whether it is legitimate to gobble up Palestinian territory and keep them stateless and without rights, just one step above chattel slaves.

      • Just to add to Juan’s great reply: There is always this “jewish people” lie, as if most Jews expect to live on stolen land, claimed to be from G-d the real estate agent. As for Ken’s “absurd anti-isael” comment, does he ever read the MSM? Juan is very measured in his arguments.

  14. Very nice article.

    Something needs adding. Every time you take away a piece of any country’s puzzle you must know what is going to replace it.

    Israeli governments always project the half-true, half fantasy siege mentality, Arab threat, and Palestinian threat in order to maintain their narrative. It’s not incidental that the old time Israeli line was always יהיה טוב!‏, ‘It will be good!’ i.e., later, while now it is not so good.

    All Israeli governments have used the victim narrative to cement authority and build popular support for abusive government and business policies.

    Therefore. Take away problems with the Palestinians and the neighboring Arabs, and who will the Israeli government have to blame for all their problems? And their failure to provide basic standards? (i.e., dumping most sewage untreated into the ocean, failure to provide European levels of education and income, desperate road shortage, immense percentages of land locked out of the market under government ownership and byzantine impossible laws…?)

    The country will have to find other bugaboos, and fast. Iran? Who else? Their own selves?

    I’m talking about the fighting couple that after the psychiatrist gets them to act normal toward each other break up because there’s no ‘action’ any more.

    Fixing the Pal problem will leave a gaping hole on the game board that must be filled and it would be good to know by what.

  15. Palestinian-Israeli Three Third Settlement Peace Plan
    This is a synopsis of the Palestinian-Israeli Three Third Settlement Peace Plan. The following will be dealing with the disputed land that is being illegally occupied by the State of Israel. With 80% of the Jewish Israeli’s settlers on 20% of the occupied land. One third of the occupied land running adjacent to the 1967 Armistice Line will become part of the State of Israel with some conditions placed upon it. The second one third will be part of the new State of Palestine with some conditions placed on it. The last one third will be the new State of Jerusalem with many conditions placed on it.

    Today the State of Israel controls 93% of the land in Israel proper. That is lease to Jewish people only through 49 and 98 year leases. The Jewish one third of land will have a different set of by-laws allowing of a more in mix population 1/3 Palestinian and 2/3 Jewish. The same will hold true on the Palestinian one third with 1/3 Jewish and 2/3 Palestinian. With the people on either side being able to apply for dual citizenship. Only by creating the conditions for a mix of Palestinian and Jewish population along the border of the two states will the condition for a long term peace be created.

    The most contentious part to both sides and the international community is the Old City of Jerusalem. The Old City of Jerusalem has an international religious significance like no other city in the world where three of the world’s major religions come together. For this reason the State of Jerusalem must be created with a whole new range of by laws creating equal access and security for all. The State of Jerusalem will be run by a council 1/3 Palestinian, 1/3 Israeli and 1/3 from the international community. The Israelis will head up and run the State of Jerusalem security forces that will be made up of 1/3 Israelis, 1/3 Palestinians and 1/3 from the international community. The Jewish settlements that fall into the State of Jerusalem will again be divided 1/3 Jewish, 1/3 Palestinian and 1/3 for the international community. The international community could be people from the universities, churches, the Vatican, the United Nations, European Union, international civic organizations, Arab League, Mosques and Temples from around the world.

    It will take great sacrifices by the people on both side with a properly balance social engineering plan implemented for peace to workout. There will always be a small minority on both sides will try to derail any plans for peace because they will not be satisfied until the other side is wiped out. They must be sidelined for the greater good of the majority of people on both sides.

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