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Israel: The Chimera of Friendship

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A standard trope of U.S. politics is that Israel is America's major ally in the Middle East, the friendship being born of Harry Truman's support for the creation of Israel in 1948 and the "shared values" of democratic governance and open societies. The sugary paeans of mutual adoration have been flowing ever since, along with $234 billion in aid and additional defense commitments over those 65 years. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went so far in a joint appearance with President Obama to say that "you are us, and we are you," about as close an alliance as one can imagine.

The issue of Israel as BFF is now vivid because the Iran nuclear deal has cast a shadow over the relationship. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested recently that the Jewish State would seek new allies in the world. Netanyahu has been harsh in his criticisms of the deal and has sought to quash it, while also renewing threats to bomb Iran. The Israel Lobby in the U.S. is working feverishly to disparage the deal and to coerce members of Congress to vote for new sanctions on Iran that would effectively end the negotiations.

The irony of course is that a nuclear deal with Iran, of which the interim agreement of last month is the first step, would strengthen Israeli security and stabilize the region.

The pressure for additional sanctions is almost completely the work of the Israel Lobby, principally the American-Israel Political Action Committee, AIPAC, which exercises extraordinary influence through its campaign contributions. But AIPAC's intimidation works mainly because of the Israel-as-sole-ally notion, one intoned by virtually every politician and the main reason there is a large contingent on the Hill ready to vote for more sanctions.

Israel has been an ally in a dodgy region that remains under the sway of strong militaries and reactionary monarchies, a human-rights disaster zone and one where grotesque inequality is the norm. And Israel and the United States do share some important values (constitutional government, political freedoms) and history (both are expansionist, settler nations that were ready to abuse the natives to gain territory and control).

But Israel's determination to be the spoiler of U.S.-Iran cooperation while continuing and intensifying its 46-year occupation of Palestine now casts doubt on its status as U.S. friend and ally.

A rational actor in the region would recognize the beneficial effects of encouraging Iran to stand down from the nuclear precipice. In a region where the United States, usually foolishly, has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on security -- trillions if counting the long-term costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars -- we owe it to ourselves to lower tensions and build cooperative relationships. Israel is the main obstacle to this broad and highly desirable goal of U.S. security and prosperity.

Israel's forceful occupation of Palestine is also an enormous cost to the United States. The fervent devotion to Israel by American politicians has linked the oppression of Palestinians to America in the eyes of much of the world. "The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the [region]," General David Petraeus told Congress three years ago. "The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support." Others in the U.S. military have quietly voiced similar concerns.

In an important new study by Thomas Hegghammer & Joas Wagemakers, they underscore one of Petraeus' main points: "The argument that al Qaeda leaders opportunistically 'exploit' the Palestinian cause is an implicit admission that the same cause motivates recruits. There can only be opportunism if there is something to exploit." That is, the charge is sometimes heard that Osama bin Laden and his cronies did not actually care that much about Palestinians, and used the issue opportunistically. But these scholars note that the sentiments about Palestine are dynamic and effectual regardless of AQ leaders' intentions. "It is a fact of political life in the region that many young Muslims feel strongly about Palestine and that this emotion often factors into the decision by non-Palestinian Islamists to engage in militancy," they conclude. There is "enough evidence to suggest that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict helps new al Qaeda recruitment."

If one assumes, as I and countless international relations experts do, that violent Jihadism is a principal threat to the United States, this is a damning indictment of Israel.

So we have two rather powerful examples of how Israel's actions and rhetoric -- and exceptional influence in American institutions -- are seriously harmful to U.S. values and interests. One looks for a counterbalancing set of actions that brace the idea that Israel is a friend and ally, but such a search finds little, certainly nothing of comparable value. We trade with Israel, we cooperate on intelligence, we have various joint projects, but those are activities common to many bilateral relationships.

Israel's belligerent and persistent obstructionism is not the action of an ally. It is time to lay that mythology to rest, and allow Israel to seek its best friends elsewhere.