In five essays published in The Bayview Review under the inclusive title, “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity” [www.thebayviewreview.com, June 12, June 17, June 19, July 2, July 31, 2012] I argued that the political energies opened up by the Arab Spring – most of them negative and aggressive in character, and all of them harmful to Arab people — have had the incidental effect of increasing the range for initiative by the government of Israel in the diplomatic and security arenas. This is partly in spite of, but also partly because of, the fact that pledges to liquidate the sons of pigs and monkeys resound daily throughout the region. Now we must add to that list of “Opportunities for Israel” the sudden freeze in relations between the United States (with its allies) and Russia (with its allies) arising out of the crisis in the Ukraine.
The Diplomatic Revolution That Wasn’t.
From the moment that anti-government protesters in Tunisia drove out their long-entrenched dictator in January 2011, starting-up copy-cat protests in Egypt and then throughout the Arab world, the global television news channels proclaimed the beginning of the Arab Spring, and virtually closed down all their other bureaus so that none of us should miss a moment in this refreshing story of the discovery of democracy throughout the Arab world. The congenital weakness of journalists for group-think was displayed at once. Somewhere into the second year, however, optimism began to give way to disappointment; during the third year disappointment gave way to deep concern; in the fourth year to panic.
There was another dimension to this story that only gradually got noticed. This was the impact of these events on international diplomacy. Throughout these months (down to about the mid-summer of 2013) relations among the major players in the West were frequently strained to breaking point as the United States seemed constantly trying to slip away unnoticed while civil disturbances in one after another of the Arab states created conditions approaching anarchy and as cries went out for “The World” to do something for the masses of innocent civilians suffering from the ambitions of a range of political movements. When it all began, the television interviewers were giving the weight of their attention to prominent Western-educated politicians who spoke of their efforts on behalf of democracy, freedom of speech and religion. But before long it became clear that they were outshouted by voices dedicated to restoration of an imaginary great age of Islam.
Sometime in late Summer of 2013, it seems, the major powers in world affairs quietly gave up on the notion that anything could be done to save the Arab world from itself; henceforth, diplomacy was redirected towards saving the rest of the world from proliferation of the example set by Bashir al-Assad’s employment of certain Weapons of Mass Destruction. After many months of mutual recrimination, the team of Putin & Lavrov now reached out publicly to the team of Obama & Kerry, and a way was found to keep the Armageddon-effect contained within the boundaries of Syria. Within weeks, the diplomatic revolution achieved over this issue had softened attitudes towards the international pariah Iran, and agreements were signed allowing Iran to postpone its nuclear ambitions in return for the lifting of sanctions.
Incidentally, this diplomatic gambit left several regional powers – notably Israel and Saudi Arabia — feeling abandoned, and, at the same time, it gave renewed impetus to the ancient Shia/Sunni feud. (See my essays, “How the Geneva Accords Have Increased the Isolation of Israel,” January 28, 2014; and “Civil War Has Begun in the Heartland of Islam: The Shia/Sunni Feud,” April 11, 2014.) Likewise incidentally, Putin’s initiative regarding Syria rescued President Obama from the humiliation that was surely awaiting him as the European powers backed away from public support of his own nebulous plan to rescue the Syrian people — somehow, by force if necessary, but without putting either boots or guccis on Syrian ground.
The lesson from this moment seemed to be that motives for cooperation of the powers were, after all, much greater and also more obvious than motives for friction, suggesting an interest across the board in stability. A very good sign.
But then, just as we were all getting used to the idea of the end of the bipolar world and the unfolding of limitless possibilities for creative diplomacy, the wheels fell off. Suddenly, the United States and the Russia were at each other’s throats because of an issue in a region far away from the Middle East. Popular demonstrations in Kiev had brought down Ukraine’s democratically –elected government in the wink of an eye, and Western governments were now accusing Putin the Terrible of manipulating elements of local discontent within the distracted Ukraine for the purpose, evidently, of beginning the reconstruction of what was once the Warsaw Pact. Out of nowhere, the NATO alliance had been given a new lease on life. Some commentators were now talking about a Return to the Cold War.
Return to the Cold War?
There is a real but limited cogency to this notion. But there is so much that is very different between 1947 and 2014 that I think it is better to speak of Cold War Two — to make the point that World War Two happened precisely because our leaders in the late 1930s misapplied the analogy and took all the steps necessary to avoid the Great War, World War One, and in doing so caused World War Two — what Winston Churchill would call the Unnecessary War.
In an essay to follow this one, I intend to review the origins of the Cold War and suggest similarities and differences between the circumstances that set that war in motion (between 1946 and 1950) and the present circumstances portending Cold War Two. In the present essay I want to examine one limited but highly significant change in attitude and behavior on the part of one of the most steadfast friends of the United States. It is a change that would have been unthinkable before the Ukraine crisis began morphing into a major re-alignment of political loyalties. I speak here of a shift in Israel’s relation with the United States and an attendant shift in Israel’s attitude towards Russia.
An Experiment in Triangulation.
In mid-April, as the Obama government was busy seeking solidarity with its NATO allies and with the EU in response to Russia’s actions in and around Ukraine, someone in the U.S. State Department looked behind to discover that Israel was not in line. The gist of this story can be culled from a headline in the Israeli daily, Haaretz: “U.S. officials angry: Israel doesn’t back stance on Russia” (www.haaretz.com April 13, 2014.) Here we read:
White House and State Department officials in Washington have built up a great deal of anger over Jerusalem’s “neutrality” regarding Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. Senior figures in the Obama administration have expressed great disappointment with the lack of support from Israel for the American position on the Ukraine crisis and with the fact that the Israeli government puts its relations with the United States and with Russia on the same plane.
One senior U.S. official noted that one of the reasons for the anger in the White House was Israel’s absence from the UN General Assembly vote about two weeks ago on a resolution censuring the Russian invasion and expressing support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
That last line needs to be read carefully. It was not that the Israeli delegation abstained; it just failed to show up for the vote! Reading further we learn that “in response to U.S. inquiries Israel attributed its absence at the vote to a strike by the Foreign Ministry’s employees. The White House and State Department found the explanation wanting, especially in light of lack of advanced notice.” “And well they should!
According to Haaretz,
The Americans viewed Israel’s behavior as ungrateful, in light of Washington’s unshakable support for Jerusalem in the UN … [while] in the Kremlin and in the Russian media Israel’s action was seen as an expression of support for Moscow, or at the very least a lack of opposition to the invasion of Ukraine.
Israel’s government does not acknowledge receiving the “unshakable support” that Haaretz imagines it has received from the U.S. – neither at the United Nations nor in the global diplomatic community nor in the inter-governmental circles where matters of mutual U.S.-Israeli security are discussed. The Netanyahu government was strong-armed publicly by Kerry and Obama into entering into this latest and (to date) most disastrous round of the Peace Process and has already paid the very heavy price of releasing to the open air many hundreds of murderers of Israeli civilians who have since been feted publicly as saviours throughout the PA and are now living on public pensions—paid for, as everything ultimately is in Abbas’s fiefdom, with money from outside governments and friendly NGOs – including those associated with the mainline churches. In short, with your money.
Predictably, the Peace Process has now ended in failure, against a backdrop of almost universal denunciation of Israel for its “intransigence.” Yet it is Mahmoud Abbas who has wantonly sabotaged this diplomacy for the purpose of entering an alliance and forming a new “Government of Palestine” with Hamas. Abbas has always known that Israel cannot negotiate with this entity, openly dedicated to the liquidation of all the sons of pigs and monkeys from the face of the earth. Whatever Abbas might have presumed, everybody else on earth knew that this gambit must end the United States’ participation in the “Peace Process.”
This must be reckoned an unqualified humiliation for the Obama administration – a brutal recompense to Mr. Kerry for many hundreds of hours of shuttle diplomacy, occurring around the edges of all those flights to all those European conferences which were intended to “fix” the situations in Syria, in Ukraine, in various places in Africa, etc.
Since the Peace Process fell apart, the United States, presently the Only Superpower, has lost a huge amount of its credibility, as Vladimir Putin has so far defied it with virtual impunity over the crisis in Ukraine. Among many other consequences, this has brought out among the Israelis an appetite for triangulation that would not have seemed decent until now.
An editorial in the Jerusalem Post illustrates this appetite clearly:
There is no shame in taking advantage for now of Putin’s evident aim to restore his country’s superpower status….There would be no pain for Jerusalem to occasionally signal to Washington that Israel’s allegiance is not always unconditional or for free. [Editorial: “Israel and Ukraine,” Jerusalem Post, April 244, 2014.)
Asked by Israeli television for comment on the Ukraine crisis, Foreign Minister Lieberman told Israel’s Channel 9 television: “We have good and trusting relations with the Americans and the Russians, and our experience has been very positive with both sides. So I don’t understand the idea that Israel has to get mired in this.” According to Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post,
When White House and State Department officials read these comments, they nearly went crazy. They were particularly incensed by Lieberman’s mentioning Israel’s relations with the United States and with Russia in the same breath, giving them equal weight. The United States gives Israel $3 billion a year in military aid, in addition to its constant diplomatic support in the UN and other international forums. Russia, on the other hand, supplies arms to Israel’s enemies and votes against it regularly in the UN. [Herb Keinon, “Israel not about to enter Russia, Ukraine fray, FM Lieberman says,” Jerusalem Post, April 22, 2014.]
Every serious student of the history of Israel since 1948 will know that the assessments that we find here in the Jerusalem Post and in Haaretz — of the “unshakable support” that Israel has received from the U.S., standing in contrast to Russia, which “supplies arms to Israel’s enemies and votes against it regularly in the UN” — are simplistic.
The academic and journalist literature on U.S./Israel relations is abundant and growing every day but the literature on the Russia/Israel relationship is scarce and specialized. With this in mind, I intend to review in an essay to follow the history of Israel/Russia relations since the founding of the State.