Israel Flotilla Attack Strains U.S. Relations

Israeli intransigence is sapping American support for our longtime ally, and both sides need to act to save the relationship.

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

There are times when nations make big mistakes, and there are other times when, confronted with golden opportunity, countries just fritter it away. The Bush administration had its test, in that moment when all Americans were united after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It chose, almost inexplicably, to divide the nation instead.

And the state of Israel had an opportunity, as well, on Sept. 12, 2001. America and Islam had each other's full attention, and everyone knew that solving the Palestinian problem would remove a major irritant in that relationship. And even if one accepts the Israeli argument that Hamas was an immoveable stumbling block, the opportunity was there for Israel to strengthen its historic ties with the United States which had just, after all, been attacked by a bunch of crazed Arabs.

Incredibly, Israel has kicked the moment away. With American troops fighting Muslim extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the CIA doing who-knows-what to slow down the Iranian nuclear arms movement, Israel has decided that what's really helpful is to revive Palestinian martyrdom. That's it, Israel. Put your best friend on the spot, with stupid acts of belligerency, when hundreds of its sons and daughters are dying fighting your avowed enemy.

[See a roundup of our editorial cartoons on Afghanistan.]

I have warned in this space how Israeli intransigence is sapping American support for our longtime ally, and that both sides need to act to save the relationship. Americans are increasingly raising the question: Who needs this?

The latest sign comes in today's commentary from Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the mainstream Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

America’s ties to Israel are not based primarily on U.S. strategic interests. At the best of times, an Israeli government that pursues the path to peace provides some intelligence, some minor advances in military technology, and a potential source of stabilizing military power that could help Arab states like Jordan. Even then, however, any actual Israeli military intervention in an Arab state could prove as destabilizing as beneficial. The fact is that the real motives behind America’s commitment to Israel are moral and ethical. They are a reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, to the entire history of Western anti-Semitism, and to the United States’ failure to help German and European Jews during the period before it entered World War II. They are a product of the fact that Israel is a democracy that shares virtually all of the same values as the United States.

The U.S. commitment to Israel is not one that will be abandoned. ... The United States has made it clear that any U.S. support for Arab-Israeli peace efforts must be based on options that preserve Israel’s security, and its recent announcements that it will consider 'extended regional deterrence' are code words for a U.S. commitment that could guard Israel, as well as its neighbors, against an Iranian nuclear threat.

But, says Cordesman, "the depth of America’s moral commitment does not justify or excuse actions by an Israeli government that unnecessarily makes Israel a strategic liability."

It does not mean that the United States should be passive when Israel makes a series of major strategic blunders--such as persisting in the strategic bombing of Lebanon during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, escalating its attack on Gaza long after it had achieved its key objectives, embarrassing the U.S. president by announcing the expansion of Israeli building programs in east Jerusalem at a critical moment in U.S. efforts to put Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track, or sending commandos to seize a Turkish ship in a horribly mismanaged effort to halt the 'peace flotilla' going to Gaza.

"It is time Israel realized that it has obligations to the United States, as well as the United States to Israel," Cordesman argues. Israel needs to recognize "that it is a tertiary U.S. strategic interest in a complex and demanding world. ... The United States does not need unnecessary problems in one of the most troubled parts of the world, particularly when Israeli actions take a form that does not serve Israel’s own strategic interests."

He adds: "No aspect of what happened this week off the coast of Gaza can be blamed on Israeli commandos or the Israel Defense Forces. Israel’s prime minister and defense minister had full warning about the situation, and they knew the flotilla was deliberately designed as a political provocation to capture the attention of the world’s media in the most negative way possible. They personally are responsible for what happened."