The Coming Conflict between the US and Israel (Chernus)

Ira Chernus writes at

Are the U.S. and Israel Heading for a Showdown? No One Thinks So, But It Just Might Happen

Here’s the question no one is asking as 2012 ends, especially given the effusive public support the Obama administration offered Israel in its recent conflict with Hamas in Gaza: Will 2013 be a year of confrontation between Washington and Jerusalem?  It’s on no one’s agenda for the New Year. But it could happen anyway.

It’s true that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process appears dead in the water. No matter how much Barack Obama might have wanted that prize, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rebuffed him at every turn.  The president appears to have taken it on the chin, offering more than the usual support for Israel and in return getting kloom (as they say in Hebrew).  Nothing at all.

However, the operative word here is “appears.” In foreign affairs what you see — a show carefully scripted for political purposes — often bears little relation to what you actually get.

While the Obama administration has acceded to the imagery of knee-jerk support for whatever Israel does, no matter how outrageous, behind the scenes its policies are beginning to look far less predictable. In fact, unlikely as it may seem, a showdown could be brewing between the two countries. If so, the outcome will depend on a complicated interplay between private diplomacy and public theater.

The latest well-masked U.S. intervention came in the brief November war between Israel and Gaza. It began when Israel assassinated a top Hamas leader deeply involved in secret truce talks between the supposedly non-communicating foes.

Destructive as it was, the war proved brief indeed for one reason: the American president quickly stepped in. Publicly, he couldn’t have sided more wholeheartedly with Israel. (It felt as if Mitt Romney had won, not lost, the election.)  In private, though, as he pressured Egyptian President Morsi to force Hamas to a truce, he reportedly pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just as hard.

The truce agreement even had an Obama-required twist.  It forced Israel to continue negotiating seriously with Hamas about easing the blockade that, combined with repeated destructive Israeli strikes against the Palestinian infrastructure, has plunged Gaza so deep into poverty and misery. Talks on the blockade are reportedly proceeding, though wrapped in the deepest secrecy. It’s hard to imagine Israel upholding the truce and entering into a real dialogue to ease the blockade without significant pressure from Washington.

Washington is also deeply involved in the tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) in the West Bank. When P.A. president Mahmoud Abbas asked the U.N. General Assembly to accord Palestine observer status, Israel publicly denounced any such U.N. resolution. The Obama administration wanted to offer a far softer resolution of its own with Israeli approval. The Israelis gave in and sent a top official to Washington to negotiate the language.

In the end, the U.S. had no success; the stronger resolution passed overwhelmingly. Israel promptly retaliated by announcing that it would build 3,000 additional housing units in various settlements on the West Bank. To make the response stronger, the Israeli government indicated that it would also make “preliminary zoning and planning preparations” for new Israeli settlements in the most contentious area of the West Bank, known as E1. Settlements there would virtually bisect the West Bank and complete a Jewish encirclement of Jerusalem, ending any hope for a two-state solution.

Washington Can Lay Down the Law

There is a history of the Israeli government publicly announcing settlement expansions for symbolic political effect, and then, under U.S. pressure, pursuing only limited construction or none at all. Some observers suspect Netanyahu is now playing the same game.

As the New York Times reported, “For years, American and European officials have told the Israelis that E1 is a red line. The leaked, somewhat vague, announcement… is a potent threat that may well, in the end, not be carried out because the Israeli government worries about its consequences.” Prominent Israeli columnist Shimon Shiffer was more certain. “Netanyahu,” he wrote, “does not plan to change the policies of his predecessors, who assured the Americans Israel would not build even one house in problematic areas” like E1.

Maybe that’s why Netanyahu sounded so tentative on the subject in an interview: “What we’ve advanced so far is only planning [in E1], and we will have to see. We shall act further based on what the Palestinians do.” Israeli officials admitted to the New York Times that the move on E1 was “symbolism against symbolism.”

But several European nations took the E1 threat seriously and responded with unusually sharp criticism. Some Israeli insiders claimed that Obama’s hidden hand was at work here, too. The American president, they speculated, gave the Europeans “the green light to respond with extreme measures… The European move is essentially an American move.”  If so, it was all done in private, of course.  (The White House publicly denied the claim.)

However Peter Beinart, editor of the Open Zion page at the Daily Beast and author of The Crisis of Zionism, claims administration officials have told him that such behind-the-scenes maneuvering is Obama’s new strategy. Publicly, Washington will “stand back and let the rest of the world do the confronting. Once the U.S. stops trying to save Israel from the consequences of its actions, the logic goes, and once Israel feels the full brunt of its mounting international isolation, its leaders will be scared into changing course.”

As Beinart suggests, international isolation is what worries Israelis most. A cut-off of U.S. military aid would be troubling indeed but in itself hardly fatal, since Israel already has the strongest military in the Middle East and a sizeable military-industrial-high-tech complex of its own.

What Israel needs, above all, from the U.S. is diplomatic support to protect it from international rejection,

economic boycotts, and a diplomatic tsunami that could turn Israel into a pariah state. Political analysts have long assumed that any Israeli leader who loses the protection of the U.S. would pay the price at the polls.

That’s why some insiders, like Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, think Obama can “lay down the law” to Israel on E1 — behind closed doors, of course. The influential Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer puts the situation in the simplest of terms: “It is clear who is boss.”

Obama’s New Diplomatic Weapon

The rules of Israel’s political game, however, may also be changing. And that’s a key to understanding why 2013 could be the year of confrontation between the leaderships of the two countries. Netanyahu has allied his Likud party with the strongest party to its right, Yisrael Beitenu. To seal his victory in the upcoming election on January 22nd, he’s put his political fate in the hands (or talons) of his country’s hawks.

If he wins (which everyone assumes he will), he’ll have to satisfy those hawks — and they don’t care about shrewd secret bargaining or holding on to allies. What they want, above all, are public displays of unilateral strength made with much fanfare, exactly like the recent settlement-expansion announcement and the accompanying threat to turn E1 into an Israeli suburb. Many observers have suggested that the primary audience was Netanyahu’s new, ever-more-right-wing partners. Plenty of them still don’t trust him, especially after the ceasefire in Gaza under pressure from Washington.

Most analysts saw the Israeli announcement as a public punishment of the Palestinians for their success at the U.N. The BBC’s Kevin Connolly had a different interpretation: Israeli hawks felt that letting the U.N. vote pass without some strong response “would be seen as a sign of weakness.”

Israeli political life has always been haunted by a fear of weakness and a conviction that Jews are condemned to vulnerability in a world full of anti-Semites eager to destroy them. The hawks’ worldview is built upon this myth of insecurity. It demands instant retaliation so that Jews can show the world — but more importantly themselves — that they are strong enough to resist every real or (more often) imagined threat.

To keep the show going, they must have enemies. So they seek out confrontations and, at the same time, “actually welcome isolation,” as the venerable Israeli commentator Uri Avnery says, “because it confirms again that the entire world is anti-Semitic, and not to be trusted.”

“For the sake of his target voter,” writes another Israeli columnist, Bradley Burston, “it’s in Netanyahu’s direct interest for the world to hate Israelis” and for Obama to be “fed up and furious with Israel. That is, at least until Election Day.”

Obama owes the Israeli prime minister nothing after the recent U.S. election season in which Netanyahu practically campaigned for Mitt Romney and publicly demanded that the U.S. threaten an attack on Iran –- a demand that the administration publicly rebuffed.  The president might finally be fed up, and so in a mood to ratchet up private pressure on the Israelis.

If Obama is planning to put more heat on them, he will undoubtedly wait until after their election. Then, in the late winter months of 2013, before spring comes and Netanyahu can revive the possibility of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, the president might well provoke a showdown.

He has good reason. If he can secure a definitive halt to settlement expansion, he can bring the Palestinians back to the table with a promise to press Israel to negotiate seriously for a two-state solution. In a chaotic region where the U.S. seems to be losing ground weekly, Washington could score sizeable foreign policy points, especially in improving relations with regional powers Turkey and Egypt.

And faced with Netanyahu’s new post-election government, Obama would find himself with a new diplomatic weapon in his arsenal. Suppose — an administration aide might suggest to an Israeli counterpart — the U.S. publicly reveals that it’s allowing, perhaps even pushing, other nations to isolate Israel.

Some Israeli hawks would undoubtedly welcome the chance to proclaim Obama as Israel’s greatest enemy and demand that Netanyahu resist all pressure. But Israeli centrists — still a large part of the electorate — would be dismayed, or worse, at the thought of losing Washington as their last bulwark against international rejection. The fear that Israel could become a pariah state, blacklisted, embargoed, and without its lone invaluable ally would be a powerful incentive. They’d insist that Netanyahu show flexibility to avoid that fate.

Netanyahu would find himself caught in a political battle he could never hope to win. To avoid such a trap, he might well risk yielding in private to U.S. pressure, with the understanding that the two allies would publicly deny any change in policy and the U.S. would continue to offer effusive public support. (The Israelis could always find some bureaucratic excuse to explain a halt — even if termed a “delay” — to settlement expansion.)

Battle on the Home Front

That prospect should be tempting for Obama, but he has domestic political risks of his own to weigh.

There’s a common misconception that the administration worries most about “the Jews.” The latest polls, however, show 73% of U.S. Jews supporting Obama’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nearly as many want him to propose a specific plan for a two-state solution, even if it means publicly disagreeing with Israel. Nor is there too much reason to worry about Jewish money, since most Jewish contributors to the Democrats are liberals who are pro-Israel but also pro-peace.

Nor are Christian Zionists the big problem. They do have some clout in Washington, but not enough to make Obama fear them.

The administration’s main worry is undoubtedly the Republican Party and especially its representatives in Congress. Recent polls by CNN, the Huffington Post, and Pew indicate that Republicans are roughly twice as likely as Democrats to take Israel’s side, while Democrats are about five times as likely to sympathize with Palestinians. Men, whites, and older people are most likely to support Israel unreservedly in the conflict.

In the U.S. presidential campaign, Republicans were eager to play on the traditional American belief in Israel’s insecurity: an innocent victim surrounded by vicious Arabs eager to destroy the little Jewish state. Obama, the GOP charged, had “thrown Israel under the bus.”

But the issue never gained real traction, an indication that the domestic political climate may be changing. Another small sign of change: a relatively weak measure threatening a cutoff of funding to the Palestinians, which in the past would have sailed through Congress, recently died in the Senate.

If Obama and the Democrats come out of the “fiscal cliff” process looking strong, they will feel freer to put real pressure on Israel despite Republican criticism. The more they can keep that pressure hidden from public view, while mouthing all the old “we stand with Israel” clichés, the more likely they are to take the risk.

In such a situation, Israeli right-wingers might well give their GOP allies enough evidence to rip off the mask. Then, Obama would have to speak more candidly to the American people, though his honesty would surely be well tempered with political spin.

Our goal, he might say, has always been to make Israel secure, something long ago achieved. We’ve ensured that Israel maintains such a huge military advantage over its neighbors, including its Iron Dome missile defense system, that it is now effectively safe from any attack. And we’ll continue ensuring that Israel maintains its military superiority, as we are required to do by law.

But now at long last, he would continue, we are showing our friendship in a new way: by bringing Israel and its Palestinian neighbors to the negotiating table so that they can make peace. Israelis shouldn’t have to live eternally in a fortress. We refuse to condemn them to that kind of future. We are instead taking steps to help them be free to flourish in a nation that is genuinely secure because it has made peace. Some may call it tough love, but let everyone understand that it is an act of love.

Whether Obama believed such talk or not would hardly matter. Public theater deftly meshed with private diplomacy is the key to peace. And confrontation in 2013 could be the first step on the path toward it.

Ira Chernus is a TomDispatch regular and professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  He is the author, among other works, of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin and the online collection “MythicAmerica: Essays.” He blogs at

Copyright 2012 Ira Chernus


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13 Responses

  1. Ira Chernus’ position is credible. It’s substantiated by the fact that in the last election Obama bit the Lobby. That means the Lobby is no longer untouchable.

  2. For this plan to work, Obama needs to mix into the rhetoric about always being ready to protect Israel from any threat to its existence with a] a reminder of all he has done for them, especially in terms of equipment and training under his watch and b] START WEAVING INTO THE RHETORIC the fact that thanks to our help so far, Israel is the STRONGEST and faces no existential threats. It has the ability to fight off all surrounding countries at once; c] depending on the reception of this message at first, in a while, start throwing in our fear of Israel’s growing international isolation due to the “perception” that it is not doing enough to renew peace talks.

  3. “Israeli political life has always been haunted by a fear of weakness and a conviction that Jews are condemned to vulnerability in a world full of anti-Semites eager to destroy them.”

    I can’t imagine why that would be. see for instance, “None is too many”.

    Not that it in any way justifies the way Israel treats Palestinians.

    But any Jew that thinks that there aren’t large numbers of people in this world who hate Jews, is kidding him/herself.

    • It is possible to talk oneself into a conviction that the bigots are much more numerous and consequential than they are. Foxman gets anti-Semitism in the US up to 15% (and likely not a very influential 15%) only by including people who have a vague impression that Jews are over-represented among financiers.

    • “American political life has always been haunted by a fear of weakness and a conviction that Americans are condemned to vulnerability in a world full of anti-Americans eager to destroy them.”

      Or substitute Germans or Japanese. Perhaps the world is full of one’s enemies, but once it becomes the primary point of one’s politics, madness ensues.

  4. Why on earth do you think that the Europeans governments need a push or an authorization from Obama to show their disapproval toward Israel ?

    The European opinions are more and more against Israel which is no re seen as a victime, as a David against Goliath, but as exactly the opposite. And that is wat counts for elected governments.

  5. The Obama administration also seems to have taken a tough line with Israel over attacking Iran, including the assassination of scientists – while publicly insisting, in the most stilted and boilerplate language, that there was “no daylight” between them.

    It’s interesting to see Chernus put this together. Good piece.

  6. Sorry, but the writer is delusional. If Obama isn’t withholding the billions USD per year, nor joining with the rest of the world in the UN, even after Israel immolates children, what possible leverage does he have?

  7. Jimmy Carter’s best-remembered legacy was the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. It also won both Sadat and Begin an equal share of the Nobel Peace Prize.

    George W. Bush’s “Road Map For Peace” is largely forgotten and his presidency considered by many to border on failure.

    Obama’s legacy as a success or mediocrity may depend on his ability to finalize a comprehensive peace plan in between Israel and the Palestinians.

    • “If Prez Obama cared about peace in that region,
      we would have an Embassy in Tehran.”

      Why put the onus entirely on President Obama? The Iranian leadership (read Ayatollah Khamenei) would have to adjust its virulently anti-American stance before the U.S. considers opening an Embassy in Tehran. Both sides have to want the relationship, and each has to treat the other with respect. That is not achieved by continuing a 33-year rant and shouting of slogans such as, “Death to the Great Satan.”

      • Granted, I’m neither as smart or as well-read as most interlocutors here.
        But I believe that if President Obama publicly stated that he wanted to build a relationship on mutual respect, if not trust, that he would be answered with a willingness to explore that avenue.

        I know the general sense that a Muslim is allowed to lie in dealings with dhimmi, kafir, and thus shouldn’t be trusted. So what.
        In international politics, nobody and nothing is ever trusted.

        If the Prez should take my advice on this matter, he should take steps to ensure he is seen as proceeding in consultation with reasonable Jews, who constitute the majority of Jews. He should just ignore jihadi Jews like Lieberman.

  8. It’s hardly a new observation, but I had a history professor observe that “America” is a made-up thing, unlike the identities of other “nations” and large tribes and such with histories and identities forged via ancient migrations and old violence.

    So “We the people,” coming from all over the place, bringing our own identities that we are supposed to cast into the melting pot, are supposed to draw a ration of jointness back out of that pot and adhere to it. Kind of like the folks in places like The Villages, link to Which is a truly “manufactured community,” a microcosm of the country at large, where adherence to what the developer/ruler considers “Americanism” is written into the rules and regulations and covenants that you have to sign up for. Lots of retired “Warriors” there, many of the officer types that managed our MIC procurements and imperial adventure. The kind of place that if our common myths finally break down and disappear in the face of the real nature of what “We the People” have become, would be a great nucleus of a warlord locale with a ready, if aging, population of believers and battlespace managers.

    So it gets to be the uncomfortable, submerged, but nagging awareness and belief that an “American” is a frail thing, subject to many diseases and disorders, like “Commya-nism” and “Sharia Law” and “syndicalism” and all that silliness. Hence the fear of “Creeping” this or that “ism,” and the kinds of “public health measures” of quarantine and burning down “infected” structures and “treating the diseased souls” that people who laughably call themselves “The Right,” enforce. Like the deed restrictions in The Villages, where hypocrisy and the usual exceptionalism that lets the elevated few (but not the ordinary resident) paint their front doors whatever color they want, and engage in various kinds of extortion and fraud, and hammer their neighbors down into the mold that “protects their values,” property and otherwise…

    Just one piece, one part, one little reason why things are going to fly apart.

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