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.
“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…”
“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.