On February 18, 2011, the United States vetoed a United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policy and activities in Palestine, with all other members, including the United Kingdom and France, voting in favor. In a transparent attempt to cover itself with a weak and predictably unacceptable gesture, the Obama Administration offered in advance a tactical device to displace the resolution: a “statement” to be made in the name of the UNSC. The “Washington Post” of the same date got it right: “Although U.S. officials have consistently criticized the settlement policy, a vote in favor of the resolution would have angered Israel and its U.S. supporters, including Republican lawmakers, who had urged the Obama administration to stand with Israel at all costs.” Nothing there about vital U.S. national security interests; tactics are a poor substitute for strategy, and “at all costs” is a formula for bankruptcy.
Once again, the “need” to support Israel has blinded Washington to American interests elsewhere that are in combination far more important. This judgment would hold even in the absence of the revolutionary changes currently sweeping the Middle East and their potential impact on U.S. security. Sure enough, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed his appreciation for President Obama’s support. We have yet to see the reaction to the U.S. veto of those seeking to displace totalitarian or monarchical regimes some of which are long-time friends of America. At a bare minimum, whatever chance there was that the new wave in the Arab and perhaps wider Muslim world might let bygones be bygones is now an open question. Whatever diplomatic prestidigitation is surely being tried at this very moment, its effect will be limited given the impossibility of confidently identifying just who will be in command across North Africa, the Middle East and – who knows? – beyond. (Meanwhile, any Arab inclination to beware of Iran’s current leadership and its openly absurd threats to Israel may well be attenuated in light of the latter’s insupportable objection to the non-threatening passage of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal, an international waterway.
There being no defensible strategic argument in support of the U.S. veto, given Israel’s regionally superior (and American-provided) defense establishment and the obvious inability of Iran to make good on its threats, we must go back to the “Washington Post” judgment quoted above which, while refraining from labels, brings immediately to mind the seemingly sacrosanct Israel Lobby and its grip on American policy. This is an old story that made its biggest splash five years ago following the publication, in the “London Review of Books” – apparently, and shamefully, after the refusal of any American journal to get involved – of a paper by American academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt proposing this unexceptional thesis: “The thrust of U.S. policy in the (Middle Eastern) region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.”
The outcry from the Lobby, its champions and its clients was deafening and replete with character assassination and, inevitably, charges of anti-Semitism, but the bombarded professors had some distinguished defenders. The late Tony Judt, writing in the “Financial Times” on May 22, 2006, noted that the loss of American influence required urgent repair work, but that such efforts could not be expected to succeed while “US policy is tied by an umbilical cord to the needs and interests of one small Middle Eastern country of little relevance to America’s long-term concerns….” And Columbia Professor Mark Mazower, also relegated to the pages of the FT for want of a willing American host, concluded at the end of an article on April 3, 2006: “There is no reason why the partnership between the US and Israel should not be susceptible to the same kind of cost-benefit analysis as any other area of policy. After all, no special relationship lasts forever: ask the Brits.”
These views had special pertinence in the context of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, lustily cheered on by the Israelis, the Lobby and their neo-con American enablers and deplored by the rest of the world. This writer was moved to pose the following question in a letter published at www.americandiplomacy.org on April 28, 2006: “Were the Israel Lobby and its influential partners in the administration, all of whom admit to being hawks in general and strong supporters of Israel in particular, instrumental in, and perhaps crucial to, the decision to invade Iraq, itself an imminent threat to neither the United States nor Israel, a decision that all now know was based on manufactured intelligence, calculated deception of the public and the Congress, and a pre-determination to take down Saddam Hussein no matter what the facts, and a decision that has produced a situation of as yet unknown consequences in terms of the security of both the United States and Israel and in terms of the position and influence of the United States in the Middle East, the broader Muslim community and the world at large?”
My short answer to an inexcusably long question, of course, was a rousing “yes” but was not joined by a chorus from like-minded others. Five years later, and particularly in light of current developments in the region, is it not finally time to discuss and debate openly both the “at all costs” American support of Israel and the disproportionate power and influence of the Israel Lobby regarding that support and U.S. policy and American national security interests elsewhere in a rapidly changing world?