There’s a new neocon catchphrase going around. I heard it first on Chris Hayes’s show a couple of weeks ago, when Eli Lake turned to Phyllis Bennis and said something like “Okay, we get it, you don’t like Israel” — after Bennis mentioned the amount of aid Israel receives from the U.S. Then Danielle Pletka, a major player at the American Enterprise Institute upped the ante, devoting a blog post to Obama’s “hate” for Israel.
Honestly, anyone who has written or spoken in public about the Israel-Palestine question is subject to this, whether openly or behind their back. It is a stark charge, often used to insinuate anti-Semitism. But rather than being simply defensive, it might be helpful to explore one’s feelings more deeply. I’ve been to Israel twice, have met dozens of Israelis who were outstanding in terms of wisdom, vision, compassion, eloquence. There are several I know better who I’d count as among the most impressive people of my acquaintance.
Israel in a general sense has a great deal going for it: its science and medicine are first rate, and it produces many great scholars. All things being equal, it would probably rank high on my list of favorite countries — the way I feel about Switzerland perhaps or Spain — a place where I would happily spend a year, root for their teams when playing countries I don’t particularly care for, etc.
But of course all things aren’t equal. As an American, one is never asked simply to like or respect Israel as a foreign country — one is asked to more or less worship the place. TAC contributor Michael Desch has an excellent short-form summary in Foreign Affairs. Some key points:
When it comes to Israel, however, American security guarantees are far less hedged and legalistic, leaving little doubt that the United States seeks to protect it from almost any imaginable threat. In a 1994 address to the Knesset, U.S. President Bill Clinton waxed poetic on the subject. “Your journey is our journey,” he told the Israelis, “and America will stand with you now and always.” In a 2008 speech in Jerusalem, President George W. Bush was similarly expansive: “When you confront terror and evil,” he said, “you are 307 million strong, because the United States of America stands with you.” So when President Barack Obama declared that the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is “unshakable,” or as he recently put it, in more colloquial terms, that the United States will “always have Israel’s back,” he was following in a long tradition.
Of course, the commitment to Israel’s security goes well beyond rhetoric. The United States has provided Israel with more than $160 billion in bilateral aid since 1948, most of it for military purposes. About 60 percent of all U.S. aid to foreign militaries now goes to Israel, constituting around 20 percent of the Jewish state’s annual military spending, according to the Congressional Research Service. Washington requires other recipients of its military aid to spend the money in the United States, but allows Israel to use a significant part of its aid allotment to buy weapons from its own defense industry rather than from U.S. suppliers.
The United States also takes steps to ensure Israel’s ready access to American arms. The United States prepositioned ammunition and equipment in Israel in the 1980s as part of its war reserve stocks for allies program, and now regularly allows the Israel Defense Forces to replenish their supplies from them, as they did after the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Israel also benefits more than any other country from the U.S. Excess Defense Articles program, a veritable military flea market open to “major non-NATO allies” of the United States, a designation that Israel obtained in 2001.
Desch was responding in part to Netanyahu’s insistence that Obama adopt Israel’s “red lines” for dealing with Iran and start a war that might conceivably be in Israel’s interests but is certainly not in America’s. But in fact the special relationship is broader than that. Netanyahu, a rabid ethnic nationalist who has done everything he could to squelch the Oslo peace process, and whose real views about America are aptly summarized by his quote “America is a thing you can move very easily” — a bit of candor caught off the record when Netanyahu was speaking to some right-wing Israeli settlers — is treated quite literally like royalty on Capitol Hill and in American newsrooms. Congress grants him 30 standing ovations. David Gregory refers to him as “leader of the Jewish people.” This “special relationship,” with all that it implies about my country, its relationship to the Middle East and the entire world, and its ability to look sensibly after its own affairs, I genuinely do detest.