Israel-U.S. Relations, Obama Visits Afghanistan, and Another Occupation Election

The recent tensions between the U.S. and Israel are real: Powerful voices in the U.S. are acknowledging that the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” is dangerous and the settlements at the heart of the current spat really are illegal. With the legitimacy of the entire U.S.-backed “peace process” once again being challenged, President Obama is using firmer diplomatic language with Netanyahu. But there’s no evidence yet that the administration is ready to use this moment to actually change U.S. policy.

Obama visited Afghanistan as conditions there continue to deteriorate, with violence spiking in Kandahar in anticipation of the imminent U.S./NATO escalation there and new evidence of the rising numbers of Afghan civilians killed by U.S. troops at checkpoints. And Iraq held its most recent election, with the country still occupied by 98,000 U.S. troops and more than 100,000 U.S.-paid mercenaries.

But first, a bit of good news. The U.S.-Russian agreement for a new version of the long-stalled START could begin the process of realizing Obama’s vision of a world free of all nuclear weapons. If the agreement is signed and implemented, it would be a small but significant step towards making good on the U.S. (and Russian) obligation, under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to move towards “nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament.” For decades the U.S. has stood in violation of the NPT, and Washington’s focus solely on nonproliferation, its obsession with other countries’ nuclear programs while continuing to disdain its own disarmament obligations, made that hypocrisy blatantly obvious.

An agreement to cut the thousands of nuclear warheads and missiles in the U.S. arsenal by less than 25 percent is obviously insufficient — each of these current weapons makes the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs pale into insignificance. But if the pressure remains, it could be a first step towards real nuclear disarmament. Only then will U.S. calls for nonproliferation have any legitimacy.

Israel-Palestine or Israel-U.S.?

The tensions that erupted during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel a couple of weeks ago are indeed real. Biden and the Obama administration see the Israeli action as a slap in the face, a poke in the eye, a smack upside the head…choose your preferred metaphor. The problem is, Washington’s outrage was 90 percent about timing, and only 10 percent about substance — that is, the administration was insulted because the announcement that Israel had just approved building 1,600 new settlement housing units in occupied Arab East Jerusalem surprised Biden during his visit. Only about 10 percent of the concern seemed to focus on the settlement expansion itself.

But the dust-up occurred while the Obama administration faces new challenges to its Middle East policy. In the region Arab allies have pulled away from Washington, recognizing that they can no longer pacify furious populations. The Arab League refused to endorse Palestinian participation in a new round of “proximity talks,” and the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority itself said no talks without a complete settlement freeze. In Washington there is a growing chorus of influential voices finally admitting that the longstanding U.S. policy of uncritical embrace of Israel, with unchallenged military, economic, legal and diplomatic support and protection, wasn’t serving U.S. interests. That means considering the possibility — gasp! — that maybe, just maybe, Israeli and U.S. interests aren’t always identical.

Now the Pentagon’s most influential general, David Petraeus, has admitted that the widespread public view of the U.S. as Israel’s backer in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undermines U.S. strategic goals in the region — widely interpreted to mean it puts U.S. troops at risk. He is backed up by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as well as Biden.

A no-brainer, yes, for any high-schooler paying attention to a current events lesson. But that obvious strategic reality has almost never been acknowledged by military leaders, who have in the past been unwilling to challenge their civilian counterparts’ pro-Israeli assumptions and strategies, even if they didn’t share them. (It should be clear that Petraeus’ own framework for criticizing the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” has nothing to do with international law, human rights, or justice – it is a military judgment aimed at strengthening the U.S. military occupations and control of the strategic region.)

And it’s not only the military and political elites. A new Zogby poll indicates that almost two-thirds of Democrats believe in the statement “Israeli settlements are built on land confiscated from Palestinians and should be torn down and the land returned to Palestinian owners.” Within the Jewish community, AIPAC can no longer claim that it’s speaking for a monolithic Jewish bloc. (There never was such a bloc, of course, but few were willing to challenge AIPAC’s claim to speak for it.) The shift in elite opinion sets the terms for policy changes once thought impossible.

Some Israeli leaders are already recognizing the new discourse in Washington. The influential Israeli analyst Akiva Eldar wrote in Ha’aretz that “as far as President Barack Obama and his senior advisers are concerned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to blame for nothing less than damaging the standing of the U.S. in the Middle East and the Muslim world.” That’s a lot worse than just being blamed for the delay in starting a new round of so-called “proximity talks.”

Influential New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, long viewed as an echo chamber for Washington’s mainstream pro-Israel voices, weighed in with the new admission that for Israelis, peace with the Palestinians is not a necessity but has become a hobby. Newsweek noted that Israelis are dismissing the need for peace with the Palestinians because they already have it on their own terms: “While the global recession plunged other countries into crisis in the past year, nearly all of Israel’s indicators have held steady. Tourism, a good gauge of overall welfare, hit a 10-year high in 2008. Astonishingly, the IMF projected recently that Israel’s GDP will grow faster in 2010 than that of most other developed countries. In short, Israelis are enjoying a peace dividend without a peace agreement…Israelis have intellectually disengaged from peacemaking.”

Certainly Israelis are doing fine with the status quo. There are few Israeli victims, and indeed the occupation doesn’t affect their daily lives. But that reality is already changing, as the international BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns are gaining strength and beginning to bite. The BDS movement, launched in a global call from Palestinian civil society in 2005, is transforming how Israel — and the rest of the world — define Palestinian resistance to occupation and apartheid. Although the core of Palestinian resistance has always included nonviolent mobilization, acts of armed resistance over the years largely determined how that movement was perceived. The BDS movement, along with the turn away from armed struggle by resistance organizations in recent years, is rapidly changing that perception.

Israel’s international diplomatic isolation is growing as well. In last week’s Human Rights Council decisions, only the U.S. voted to protect Israel from the otherwise unanimous support for “the inalienable, permanent and unqualified right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including their right to live in freedom, justice and dignity and to establish their sovereign, independent, democratic and viable contiguous State.” The council also reaffirmed its “support for the solution of two States, Palestine and Israel, living side by side in peace and security; stresses the need for respect for and preservation of the territorial unity, contiguity and integrity of all of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem; and urges all Member States and relevant bodies of the United Nations system to support and assist the Palestinian people in the early realization of their right to self-determination.” The wide European support for this resolution was particularly significant, given the current negotiations underway to allow Israel to join key European institutions.

The question now is whether the Obama administration is prepared to recognize that there is a new reality at home as well as in the region. Whatever we may think of the past, holding Israel accountable for violations of international and U.S. law is no longer tantamount to political suicide in Washington. We haven’t yet seen evidence of any such recognition. Despite real anger regarding the settlement issue, the administration’s response has been limited to verbal criticism and demands (albeit far harsher in tone than normal). It’s as if someone told Obama and his top officials that simply upping the ante of requests is enough to bring Israel around. But they were wrong.

So far the requests have gone like this:
Obama: Please freeze settlements.
Netanyahu: No.
Obama: Please freeze settlements.
Netanyahu: No.
Obama: Please freeze some settlements.
Netanyahu: No.
Obama: Please freeze just a few settlements, not including Jerusalem, just for a short time.
Netanyahu: Well, maybe…No.
Then Obama stopped asking.

Real pressure sounds like this:
Obama: Please freeze all the settlements, since they’re all illegal under international law, as a reasonable first step towards ending the occupation.
Netanyahu: No.
Obama: Okay. Then you know that $30 billion in military assistance former President Bush agreed to give you, and I agreed to implement? You can kiss that goodbye. Call me if you change your mind.

Stay tuned.

In Afghanistan

Obama arrived in Afghanistan for a six-hour visit that was officially about reminding President Hamid Karzai — once again — that corruption and graft wouldn’t be tolerated, and cheering on the U.S. troops. The timing had to do with an unexpected free day following the health care debate, and Obama had wanted to go to Afghanistan for a long time. Officially.

Unofficially, the timing was almost certainly linked to internal Afghan and regional diplomatic developments. Just before Obama arrived, Karzai had returned from meeting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In recent weeks, Pakistan had been signaling its insistence on being part of any talks between the U.S.-backed Afghan government and parts of the Taliban.

We don’t know for sure what Obama told Karzai, but it’s a good bet that along with a stern lecture about corruption and graft, there were some pretty direct reminders that even as other regional actors begin asserting stronger influences inside Afghanistan, only the U.S. can guarantee the political survival of the unpopular Karzai and his corrupt government.

That’s becoming a more difficult task by the day, as Karzai battles not only opposition to his own government’s inability to provide basic services, but also rising outrage at the increasing violence caused by the same U.S. and NATO troops that keep him in power. The imminent U.S./NATO offensive looming in Kandahar, the spiritual home and organizational base of the Taliban, is already causing increased casualties as Taliban and other resistance forces attack U.S.-backed government officials (and inevitably civilians nearby).

Reports in U.S. mainstream media are documenting the dramatic rise in unarmed civilians killed and injured by U.S./NATO troops at military checkpoints across the country. Since last summer, at least 30 Afghan civilians have been killed and 80 injured by occupation troops. Even Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, admitted that “we have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.” The New York Times quoted another U.S. military official who acknowledged, not surprisingly, that “many of the detainees at the military prison at Bagram Air Base joined the insurgency after the shootings of people they knew.”

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And Iraq…

Results from the Iraqi elections of early March have finally been released — and no one is very happy. Technical legal issues remain, with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s secular party appearing to have a two-vote plurality over current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s “Rule of Law” coalition. Within the Shi’ite religious coalition, it was the anti-occupation party of Muqtada al-Sadr who emerged victorious. But no one won anything close to a majority. Legal challenges by Maliki’s party (alleging voter fraud — charges raised only after Maliki slipped out of first place) remain. At least five of Allawi’s winning candidates still face the possibility of losing their appeals after disqualification by the election screening committee (led by pre-war Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi). The Kurdish coalition will try to play kingmakers.

Regardless of the final legality, there’s no question that months of political jockeying — with the potential for significant election-driven and sectarian violence rising — lie ahead. Iraq’s election was held, once again, under the military occupation of 98,000 U.S. troops and more than 100,000 U.S.-paid contractors. Obama is committed, by his own promises and the U.S.-Iraq security agreement signed by Bush, to the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops by the end of this July, and to complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of 2011.

Whether Obama plans to use the inevitable election instability as an excuse to postpone those troop withdrawals — either by re-missioning combat troops by re-naming them “trainers” or “logisticians,” or by simply renegotiating the U.S.-Iraq agreement to extend the December 31, 2011 withdrawal deadline, depends on how much political pressure can be brought to bear on the administration. Pressure to demand a much faster withdrawal just might help ensure that at least the existing deadlines — already far too lengthy — are rigidly respected.

As usual, we have a whole lot of work to do.

IPS fellow Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.