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Israeli Tail

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Israeli Tail, American Dog

15 January 2009

Israeli Tail, American Dog

 By Gwynne Dyer

Ehud Olmert really doesn’t care any more. He is serving out his time as Israel’s prime minister until next month’s election, but then he will spend a long time fighting the corruption charges that forced him to resign, and he won’t be going back into politics afterwards even if he wins. Not after two bloody, futile wars in three years, he won’t. So he’s very angry, and he tells it like it is.

On Thursday, 8 January, he had a problem. The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was going to vote for a United Nations Security Council resolution that called on both Israel and its Palestinian enemy, Hamas, to accept a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, she had been largely responsible for writing it, and Olmert was furious. He wanted more time to hammer Hamas, so he phoned up George W. Bush and yanked on his choke-chain..

According to Olmert’s account of what happened, given in a speech on 13 January in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, “I said, ‘Get me President Bush on the phone’. They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said, ‘I don’t care: I have to talk to him now’.

They got him off the podium, brought him to another room, and I spoke to him.”

“I told him, ‘You can’t vote in favour of this resolution.’ He said, ‘Listen, I don’t know about it. I didn’t see it. I’m not familiar with the phrasing’.” So Prime Minister Olmert told President Bush: “I’m familiar with it. You can’t vote in favour.”

Bush did as he was told: “Mr Bush gave an order to Secretary of State Rice and she did not vote in favour of it — a resolution she cooked up, phrased, organised, and manoeuvred for,” said Olmert triumphantly. “She was left pretty shamed, and abstained on a resolution she arranged.” The Security Council passed the resolution 14-0, but the United States, its principal author, abstained.

Senior Israeli politicians are usually much more circumspect about the nature of their relationship with the occupants of the White House, and Olmert’s colleagues were appalled that his anger had led him to speak so plainly. It is one thing to talk to the president of the United States that way. It is quite another thing to reveal to the American public that Israeli leaders talk to US presidents in that tone of voice.

The Bush administration, deeply embarrassed, tried to deny Olmert’s account of the conversation. The State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said that the story was “just 100 percent, totally, completely not true,” and the White House deputy press secretary, Tony Fratto, said more cautiously that “there are inaccuracies” in Olmert’s account of events. Olmert’s office replied curtly that “the Prime Minister’s comments on Monday were a correct account of what took place.” He really doesn’t give a damn any more.

There is little reason to doubt Olmert’s story: he may be extremely cross, but why would he make it up? After all, he did get his way. And there is every reason to doubt the Bush administration’s denials. Not only does the story humiliate Bush personally, but it gives wings to the suspicion, already widespread in the United States, that under Bush, the Israeli tail has consistently wagged the American dog.

Merely to mention this issue is still to court accusations of anti-Semitism, but the fear of such accusations that once silenced any serious examination of Israeli influence on American foreign policy has dwindled in the past few years. Indeed, Olmert’s little indiscretion has opened up a wider question: is it normal for Israeli leaders to speak to American presidents like this?

There can be little doubt that Ariel Sharon, Olmert’s predecessor, also spoke to Bush in a bullying way, because he bullied everybody. Did Binyamin Netanyahu give orders to Bill Clinton? Probably not, because silken menace is more his style, but he certainly got his way almost all of the time. Did Yitzhak Shamir talk to George H.W. Bush that way? He wouldn’t have dreamt of it, and the senior Bush would never have stood for it.

These discussions usually end up being about the alleged power of the “Jewish lobby” over US foreign policy, and in Congress it is obviously huge. The vast majority of the members of Congress will always vote for bills that involve aid or support for Israel, in many cases because they know what will happen at the next election to those who don’t. But the key foreign policy decisions are made in the White House, not in Congress, and the presidency is different.

At the top, it really depends on who the president is. Ronald Reagan always gave Israel everything it wanted, whereas Bush senior forced Shamir to start talking to the Palestinians after the first Gulf War and paved the way for the Oslo accords and the “peace process.” The United States is still a sovereign country, and it can choose its own Middle East policy if it wishes.

Which way will it go under the new administration? Well, can you imagine Barack Obama letting an Israeli prime minister talk to him like that?

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Senior…voice”; and

“Merely…this”)

Israeli Tail, American Dog

11 October 2004

Israeli Tail, American Dog

By Gwynne Dyer

In a US election campaign that is more about foreign policy than any presidential race in decades, one issue is completely off-limits: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. George W. Bush and John Kerry both back Israel one hundred percent, and neither man will offer a single word of criticism about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” plan, even though it means abandoning the notion of a peace settlement. Once again, the Israeli tail is wagging the American dog.

Last week, Sharon’s chief of staff and most trusted adviser, Dov Weisglass, indulged in a carefully calculated indiscretion in an interview with the newspaper Ha’aretz. “The “disengagement” is actually formaldehyde,” he said. “It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” Perfectly true, of course, and yet it was a shocking thing to say out loud.

Sharon was never really going to accept a peace deal with the Palestinians that required giving up most of the illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied territories conquered by Israel in 1967. (Indeed, he was the man responsible for starting the settlements in the first place.) Yet when he came to power in 2001 he inherited the Oslo peace accords, which imagined an Israeli-Palestinian peace based on two states living side by side — and the Palestinian state was to be created on exactly those territories.

Sharon had to pretend that he agreed with that goal because the whole international community (including the US) supported the two-state solution. Over the past few years the “Oslo process” mutated into the so-called “roadmap” to peace, but the goal remained the same: Israeli evacuation of the occupied territories and the creation of a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel. In the past six months, however, Sharon has achieved break-out.

His escape involved two mechanisms. One was the “security fence,” a barrier to stop Palestinian attackers infiltrating into Israel that runs not along the border but deep inside the occupied territories, leaving most of the illegal Jewish settlements on the Israeli side. (It was condemned by the International Court of Justice in July not because it tries to protect Israelis, but because it ignores the border and effectively annexes large parts of the occupied Palestinian territories to Israel.) The other was “disengagement”.

“Disengagement” means that Israel will evacuate its settlements in the densely populated Gaza Strip, where 7,500 Jews live surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians, and four other tiny settlements with only a few hundred people that lie beyond the “security fence” in the northern West Bank. They never made any sense in terms of the cost of protecting them anyway, but by abandoning them Sharon can seem to be making a major concession for peace — while hanging on to all the other West Bank settlements where the vast majority of the settlers live forever.

Forever is a long time, and Sharon still maintains the pretense that at some future time, when there is a different Palestinian leadership, there might be further negotiations about a Palestinian state. But Dov Weisglass spilled the beans on 6 October, pointing out that he had negotiated an agreement with the Bush administration in late August in which the United States had changed its policy of 37 years and agreed that the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank would eventually become part of Israel. The 190,000 Jewish settlers there, he boasted “will not be moved from their place.”

“What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns,” said Weisglass, adding that this would stall the peace process indefinitely. “When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda…all with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”

Weisglass said what he did to win back the more fundamentalist supporters of Sharon’s Likud party, who are threatening to abandon the party on the grounds that God gave Israel the land and it must never yield an inch of it. Bush presumably did what he did in order to retain the votes of the extreme evangelical Protestants, estimated to account for a third of the Republican core vote, who believe that God’s plan requires the expansion of Israel and a great war in the Middle East. But why does Kerry go along with it?

Presumably because his advisers tell him that in a tight election it would be suicide to alienate American Jews, most of whom reflexively support any Israeli government, regardless of its policies, and most of whom are still traditionally Democratic voters. It all make sense in terms of political tactics, but it commits America to a policy that is contrary to international law and is not supported by any other government in the world except Israel’s.

If Kerry should win, it means that he, too would be shackled to a policy that makes it impossible for America’s European and Arab allies to cooperate in any Middle Eastern initiative he might launch with the goal of extricating American troops from the mess in Iraq.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“His escape…disengagement”; and “Presumably…Israel’s”)