Now that title ought to catch a few Google searches there. Anyone who’s ever been in an abusive relationship understands the belief that sometimes, even though he keeps on yelling and hitting, you know, deep down, you’re just right for one another and eventually he’ll become the guy you knew when you first met him.
And it can sure as hell seem that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is one of Israel dumping abuse on the U.S. while expecting money to go out and buy cigarettes. From Netanyahu telling Obama to basically fuck off to the Pentagon saying perhaps the friendship isn’t worth the costs, there’s not much good feelings between the two.
But geopolitics is not about feelings. It’s a rational, interest-based way of looking at the world. And everyone does what’s easiest to keep themselves safe.
Let’s begin at the beginning and remember that once upon a time, Israel and the U.S. were less than buddy-buddy
In the 1948 war that created Israel, you might guess that America rushed to save Israel with tanks and guns just as it’s doing now. But you’d be wrong.
Zionism was inspired quite a bit by socialism during its formative years in the late 1800s. The Israeli kibbutz, an agricultural wonder-land of community and equality, is a socialist inspiration. With that in mind, you might be less than shocked to learn that communists in the post-war Czechoslovak government were responsible for arming the Israelis during their early do-or-die days. Israel was another potential communist state back then, and intrepid Czech ministers saw opportunity in selling their caches of weapons left over from World War II.
The love affair was short-lived when Stalin, paranoid as ever, began to see Jewish conspiracy and ordered a worldwide purge of anyone who might harbor loyalties to the new state. By then, it didn’t matter – the Arab coalition that had rushed to destroy Israel in ’48 was demoralized. Partly because of this defeat, almost every government that participated in the war was overthrown by 1960.
Anybody remember Suez ’56? Well, of course you don’t
In 1956, a few years after a coup in Egypt had ousted the reliable king and brought uber-Arab Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, Britain and France approached Israel with a deal the still-wobbly state couldn’t refuse – arms in exchange for cooperation against Nasser’s Egypt, which had nationalized the Suez Canal against their wishes.
The conspiracy involved Israel invading the Sinai and then the French and British invading Egypt in a “peacekeeping mission.” It didn’t work; the U.S. and the Soviets, who were both courting Nasser as a client, were furious. Nobody thought well of Israel, the Anglo-French lackey, especially in Washington. It’d be from the French primarily that the Israelis would arm themselves until the U.S. took over in the 1960s.
While the U.S. didn’t think much of Israel, it also didn’t think much of Nasser, either
And Nasser was happy to play the Americans off the Soviets more than a few times to get better arms deals and economic packages. Eventually, the Soviets dumped enough arms to get Egypt, along with Syria, into their camp. A regional counterweight was needed, but who? Saudi Arabia, reliably pro-American, was essentially a wasteland; Iran was also then a solid ally, but too far to change the situation.
You see where I’m going with this. When the Kennedy administration started to support Israel, they weren’t doing it out of heart-warming feelings of fidelity for the state that was sheltering survivors of the Holocaust. A well-armed Israel could check both Egypt and Syria, and perhaps even help bring down their Soviet-backed leaders.
And when you see America’s support in a Cold War context, things make more sense in ’67, ’73, and ’82
In all those Arab-Israeli wars, Israeli forces went up against Soviet-backed ones, crushing Soviet military hardware and humiliating communists worldwide. In 1973, when it looked like Israel might lose, America rushed massive aid to shore up the IDF – mostly because it couldn’t stand to let Soviet-aligned Egypt and Syria win.
And the strategy worked. In exchange for American arms, Egypt famously switched sides in 1979. Syria was isolated from then on, the last reliable Soviet ally in the Middle East, and just to make the point clear, Israel’s war in Lebanon in 1982 also helped Damascus understand it couldn’t win another war against Israel, regardless of how much kit the Soviets supplied them with.
In the meantime, what Israel did in Gaza and the West Bank was page five news, if news at all, in the U.S. With the Soviet Union still looking for global domination, the Israeli occupation was just another wretched little local affair that was easy to overlook.
Of course, the context changed when the Cold War ended and the First Intifada began
When Palestinians had the nerve to get all uprising-y about the occupation in the late 1980s and early 90s, the U.S., for the first time, was thrust into the role of peacemaker in a place it hadn’t cared about peace before.
What had happened? Israel still had its uses, even after the Soviets ghosted themselves. Syria was by no means a good guy in American eyes, and a balancer nearby didn’t harm things. But more than that, a combination of Israeli lobbying, Republican pandering to American religious folk, and a well-organized American-Jewish lobby had made Israel into a political sacred cow in the United States. Successfully, these efforts made Israel above reproach; Israel was equated with the just reward for a people who had survived the Holocaust.
Moreover, Israel was reliable in a way that nobody else in the region was. Even Egypt under Hosni Mubarak couldn’t promise Israel’s level of sycophancy, which played well amongst American tourists on pilgrimage. As governments came and went, all agreed that American friendship was key. U.S. politicians liked that; they could trumpet their friendship with a pliable little democracy with conations of holy righteous to their uninformed voters back home.
With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. sought stability in the Levant any way it could get it. But thanks to effective lobbying, Israel had transformed itself into the irrational pillar of American politics we know today. After 9/11, Israel skillfully turned the Second Intifada into an arm of the War on Terror. From communists to jihadists, the U.S. and Israel had found common cause once more.
Except nothing’s as simple as it used to be
The relationship with Israel is now ripe for change in a big way. The U.S. seeks a new regional balance of power after letting affairs drift for nearly twenty five years. Iran, for once, appears like it might work its way into the U.S. camp. Syria has cannibalized itself into irrelevance; Iraq is so weak it hardly counts; the Gulf states are all too worried about holding onto what they’ve got that none save Qatar are ready to challenge the status quo.
As a balancer, Israel has lost most of its usefulness. When David Petraues described the country as a liability, he was talking about that.
Nobody benefits from the current occupation and conflict except a handful of hardliners within Israel and Palestine, who gain in status whenever they pick a fight. From an American perspective, it’s beyond pointless.
And that’s why when the U.S. Congress failed to vote for an Israeli aid package for the first time in memory, nobody should be all that surprised.
Woe to the settlers; their best days are behind them
For Israeli and Palestinian hardliners, the days of letting the conflict further careers are rapidly coming to a close. No great Arab power backs the Palestinians like in the good old days; Iran may abandon them too if they can get a better nuclear deal with the U.S. As for Israel, American patience is rapidly wearing thin, and a just-as-effective-but-way-more-convincing Palestinian lobby is gaining traction in U.S. politics, even among Jewish people.
Nobody is saying Israel should fuck off and die, but more people than ever are saying two states in the area are probably the best idea available.
If and when peace comes, it won’t be because suddenly people have grown souls; it’ll be because the hard geopolitical needs of the superpower will have forced them to shut up. That day is not yet here, but it’s on its way.