The A-Z of Israel
On 22 January, Israelis will go to the polls. The world watches – but how much do we really know about the country that calls itself “the sole bastion of democracy” in the Middle East?
A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
V is for Veto
Avi Shlaim writes: In English the letter V stands for victory, but not in Yiddish. After Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol at once began to wear a Churchillian V sign. His wife, Miriam, a militant moderate, said to him: “Eshkol, what are you doing? Have you gone mad?” With characteristic humour he replied: “No. This is not a V sign in English. It is a V sign in Yiddish! Vi krikht men aroys?” Roughly translated, that means: “How do we get out of this?” It is a question to which Eshkol’s compatriots have not yet found an answer.
The world did offer a way out: UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the principle it incorporated of land for peace. Israel was asked to relinquish its territorial conquests in return for peace with its Arab neighbours. Whenever this principle was put to the test, it worked. It was the basis of the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and the one with Jordan in 1994. Peace with Syria was also on offer but it came at a price that Israel was not willing to pay: the complete restoration of the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty.
The core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, is the Palestine question. Resolution 242 addressed this as a refugee problem but since then a broad international consensus has emerged in favour of a two-state solution based on Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with minor border modifications. Yet Israel has undermined this option by expanding its settlements on the West Bank. Rhetoric aside, the real aim of the ruling Likud party is to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
How can a small country like Israel defy almost the entire international community? Part of the answer is that Israel enjoys the virtual power of a veto on the UN Security Council. It exercises this power not directly, but through a proxy – the United States of America. Since 1972 the US has used the veto 42 times on behalf of Israel. This partisanship in favour of one side undermines the credibility of the US claim to serve as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Since 1967 the United States has arrogated to itself a monopoly over the diplomacy surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict, excluding as far as possible the other actors. True, there is the Quartet, which consists of the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, but in the absence of real American pressure on Israel to end its illegal colonisation of the West Bank, the Quartet remains futile. In April 2003, following the invasion of Iraq, the Quartet issued its road map for peace in the Middle East. The road map envisaged the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005. It was a good map but it led nowhere quickly because of the Bush administration’s indulgence towards Israel. With US connivance, Israel vetoed the road map. The Quartet’s special envoy is Tony Blair. Need one say more?
The election of Barack Obama raised high hopes of a more even-handed policy. In his 2009 Cairo speech, he solemnly pledged his support for Palestinian statehood. He also identified the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank as the main obstacle to peace. Obama had three confrontations with Binyamin Netanyahu (see B for Bibi) to secure a freeze on settlement activity but he backed down each time. In an effort to persuade Netanyahu to extend a partial, ten-month settlement freeze by 60 days, he proposed a long-term security agreement, a squadron of F-35 fighter jets worth $3bn and the use of the US veto at the UN Security Council to defeat any resolution that was not to Israel’s liking. Secure in the knowledge that the money comes not from the president but from Congress, Netanyahu rejected this extraordinarily generous offer. Perversely, the lesson that Obama’s advisers drew from the experience was not that he should have been tougher, but that it had been a mistake to raise the matter in the first place. And the lesson Netanyahu drew was that he could continue to defy the president with impunity.
Subservience to Israel involves America in internal contradictions and diplomatic isolation. Two recent examples serve to illustrate the point. In February 2011 the UN Security Council voted on a resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank. Fourteen members voted in favour and only the US voted against. Now the official US position is that the settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace. So the veto of this resolution was tantamount to a vote against the Americans’ own policy. The other example of US duplicity was in relation to the Palestinian bid for enhanced status at the UN in September 2011. The Americans claim that to favour the emergence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and UN recognition would, logically, be a step in that direction. Yet they joined the Israelis to threaten dire consequences if the Palestinians went ahead with their bid.
Israel’s friends in Washington argue that the interests of the two countries are identical. This is patently not true. I would argue that the occupation of the Palestinian territories does not serve Israel’s long-term interest because it erodes democracy and leads inexorably to an apartheid state. Be that as it may, the occupation most emphatically does not serve US interests. On the contrary, it undermines America’s position in the Middle East and beyond. As General David Petraeus told Congress when he was in charge of Central Command, the occupation hurts the Americans by fomenting anti-US sentiment in the Muslim world and limiting strategic partnerships with Arab governments.
Israel’s ability to impose its own agenda on its senior partner is all the more remarkable given its dependence in the economic, military and diplomatic spheres. Since 1949, America has provided economic and military aid worth $115bn to the Jewish state. US aid continues to run to $3bn a year. The US is also Israel’s main supplier of arms and the guarantor of its “qualitative military edge” over all its adversaries. Last but not least, the Americans shield Israel from the sanctions that are usually visited on serial violators of UN resolutions. It is this unconditional support from the sole surviving superpower that enables Israel to continue to dominate the region militarily, to attack its neighbours with impunity, to steal Palestinian land and to frustrate the international consensus in favour of an independent Palestinian state in a mere 22 per cent of Mandate Palestine.
Obama’s election for a second term has in no way diminished his tolerance for Israeli stonewalling. During the 2012 presidential race, Netanyahu openly supported the president’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Yet in the TV debate on foreign policy, the two candidates vied with each other to protest their unconditional support for Israel. If Romney had won, he would have tilted US policy even further in favour of Israel, to loud cheers from the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Obama won but all the structural constraints that limited his freedom of action in the first term, notably the power of the Israel lobby, remained in place. In practical terms, his victory amounts to a vote in favour of the colonial status quo and a veto of the two-state solution.
As the defence minister Moshe Dayan once said to Nahum Goldmann, the veteran American Zionist leader: “Our American friends give us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, and we reject the advice.” “What would you do if we make the money and arms conditional on accepting our advice?” Goldmann asked. Dayan had to concede that Israel would have little choice but to follow its ally and benefactor.
Slowly, American public opinion is shifting against Israel because of its intransigence and ingratitude. But we are unlikely to see a US president any time soon who has the courage to follow Goldmann’s simple advice.
Avi Shlaim is an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford and the author of “Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations” (Verso, £10.99)