OXFORD, England — On Jan. 14, the Israeli defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, told the daily Yediot Aharonot, “Secretary of State John Kerry — who arrived here determined, who operates from an incomprehensible obsession and a sense of messianism — can’t teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians.” Even by Israeli standards, Mr. Yaalon’s comments were rather rude. Mr. Kerry’s crime was to try to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that began last July and to stipulate a nine-month deadline. This is the kind of talk that gives chutzpah a bad name.
The episode also reveals a great deal about the nature of the much-vaunted special relationship between the United States and Israel. It suggests that this relationship is a one-way street, with America doing all the diplomatic heavy lifting while Israel limits its role to obstruction and whining — repaying Uncle Sam’s generosity with ingratitude and scorn.
Israeli leaders have always underlined the vital importance of self-reliance when it comes to Israel’s security. But the simple truth is that Israel wouldn’t be able to survive for very long without American support. Since 1949, America’s economic aid to Israel amounts to a staggering $118 billion and America continues to subsidize the Jewish state to the tune of $3 billion annually. America is also Israel’s main arms supplier and the official guarantor of its “quantitative military edge” over all its Arab neighbors.
In the diplomatic arena, Israel relies on America to shield it from the consequences of its habitual violations of international law. The International Court of Justice pronounced the so-called “security barrier” that Israel is building on the West Bank to be illegal. All of Israel’s civilian settlements on the West Bank violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, but Israel continues to expand them.
Since 1978, when the Camp David Accords were brokered by President Jimmy Carter, the United States has used its veto power on the Security Council 42 times on behalf of Israel. The most shocking abuse of this power was to veto, in February 2011, a resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion that had the support of the 14 other members of the Security Council.
Some Americans, especially those of the neoconservative persuasion, favor the strongest support for Israel on the grounds that the interests of the two allies coincide in the Middle East. An argument can be made that the occupation of the West Bank serves Israel’s security interests even if it erodes the foundations of Israeli democracy and turns Israel into an international pariah.
There is no rational argument, however, that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank serves America’s national interest. On the contrary, as General David Petraeus told a Senate committee in 2010, the occupation foments anti-American sentiment throughout the Islamic world and hinders the development of America’s partnership with Arab governments. A resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is therefore a major, if not vital American interest.
America poses as an honest broker, but everywhere it is perceived as Israel’s lawyer. The American-sponsored “peace process” since 1991 has been a charade: all process and no peace while providing Israel with just the cover it needs to pursue its illegal and aggressive colonial project on the West Bank.
The Quartet, which consists of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and European Union, came up in 2003 with an excellent road map for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005. But the Quartet cannot act independently of the United States to pressure Israel. Its record suggests that it is little more than a clever American device for wasting time.
Mr. Kerry is to be commended for the energy and commitment that he has displayed in pursuit of peace in the Middle East and for the 11 trips he has made to the region in his first year in office. But his peace mission was doomed to failure from the start. The Kerry-hating Mr. Yaalon and his hawk-infested Likud party are committed to the geopolitical status quo on the West Bank at almost any price. Their real aim is to terminate the peace talks and blame the Palestinians.
In a normal country a defense minister who played fast and loose with such a crucial bilateral relationship would have been thrown out on his ear. But Israel is not a normal country.
The reason that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not disown his defense minister is that what Mr. Yaalon said is what Mr. Netanyahu thinks. The real problem is not Mr. Yaalon’s bad manners but the policy that he and Mr. Netanyahu are trying to foist on their senior ally: to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, to confront Iran, to protect Israel’s nuclear monopoly, and to preserve its regional hegemony solely by military means. This program is diametrically opposed to America’s true national security interests.
America gives Israel money, arms and advice. Israel takes the money, it takes the arms, and it rudely rejects the advice.
The fundamental problem with American support for Israel is its unconditional nature. Consequently, Israel does not have to pay a price for acting unilaterally in a multilateral world, for its flagrant violations of international law, and for its systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights.
Blind support for the Jewish state does not advance the cause of peace. America is going nowhere in the Middle East until it makes the provision of money and arms conditional on good manners and, more importantly, on Israeli respect for its advice.
Avi Shlaim is an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University and the author of “The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.”
January 30th 2014