Tony Karon
The National (Opinion)
January 16, 2010 - 1:00am

Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, an old American slogan says. By that measure the US has hardly been a real friend to Israel over the past decade. It has enabled a pattern of Israeli behaviour so reckless as to endanger Israel’s prospects of ever achieving peaceful coexistence with the states and peoples around it.

An aggressive drunk often reserves his most toxic invective for those of his friends who tell him the truth: that his behaviour is intolerable, is dangerous to himself and others, and can’t be allowed to continue.

So it should come as no surprise that the most belligerent of Israel’s leaders are shaking their fists at Turkey, most recently in last week’s adolescent stunt in which the deputy foreign minister deliberately humiliated the Turkish ambassador. The specific complaint was a negative portrayal of Israelis in a Turkish TV drama. The deeper grievance is that Turkey, a long-time friend of Israel, has started to deliver a message no longer heard from the US or most of Europe: that normal relations with Israel depend on Israel pursuing a policy of peace.

During the Clinton years, while America’s Middle East policy was certainly biased in Israel’s favour, it was nonetheless based on a recognition that Israel was in a state of conflict precisely because its borders have never been finalised: where Israel begins and ends, and who belongs within those boundaries, has been a matter of conflict since 1948.

Mr Clinton and his Israeli partner, Yitzhak Rabin, understood exactly why the Palestinians had taken up arms: not because of some fanatical religious ideology or hatred of Jews, but because they had lost their land in 1948, and many had lost their freedom in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that began in 1967. The Palestinians had reacted as any proud people would have done under similar circumstances, and the Israelis knew it.

Mr Rabin believed peace could be achieved by restoring to the Palestinians at least some of the land they had lost, and offering a just solution to their plight. And Mr Clinton expressed his friendship with Israel by doing his best to help it to resolve its conflicts with its neighbours through a two-state solution.

But Camp David failed, the second intifada followed, Mr Clinton was succeeded by George Bush, and Ariel Sharon, a fierce opponent of Mr Rabin’s “land for peace” principle, became prime minister of Israel. He declared the peace process dead, and set about suppressing the intifada by overwhelming military force.

The 9/11 attacks sealed the shift in US policy. As a crucial front in its global “war on terror”, the Bush administration embraced Israel’s portrayal of itself as just another western country under attack from terrorists motivated by the same nihilistic ideology as those who struck the Twin Towers. And the suicide bombings of Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades played into that narrative, ending the very idea of pressuring Israel to make concessions for peace; the key issue in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship was now Israeli security. Israel was given free rein to bomb, blockade and besiege the Palestinians in the name of fighting terror.

Not only did Mr Bush give up on restraining Israel, but he managed to bully the Europeans into doing the same; perhaps they entertained the vain hope that supporting Israel’s “war on terror” would prompt Washington to press Israel to make a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.

Instead, it had the opposite effect. Israel was free to bludgeon the Palestinians on to the defensive, and build a security wall that kept out suicide bombers but also cemented Israel’s grip on vast areas of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. And behind that wall, with the Palestinians out of sight, Israeli society simply moved on.

Israelis no longer believe their society needs peace to ensure its long term viability. Opinion polls suggest that only 40 per cent of Israelis hope to revive the peace talks with the Palestinians, and only half that number believe such talks would achieve anything. Even if its leaders now routinely admit that demographics require a two-state solution, that is an abstract principle; at the moment, Israeli society is content with the status quo, however intolerable it may be for the Palestinians.

Whether Israel is expanding its grip on East Jerusalem, strangling Gaza’s economy or just bombing the place to rubble, US acquiescence has helped to cultivate among the Israelis an arrogance that brooks no criticism or restraint. When Barack Obama suggests that it would be in Israel’s best interests to stop all settlement construction, his plea is ignored by an Israeli leadership that knows no US president can afford the domestic political price of applying the necessary pressure on Israel.

Israeli leaders fret today that Turkey has “gone over to the Islamist” camp. The truth is that Turkey is simply a close ally willing to tell harsh truths – starting with its condemnation of Israel’s disproportionate use of force in Gaza last year. The Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan pays no heed to the self-defeating restraints Washington has imposed on its own ability to engage the likes of Iran and Hamas, and is quickly emerging as the most effective potential mediator in conflicts stretching from Gaza to Afghanistan.

If Israel took the long view, it would see these developments as positive. Until now, the only leader in the region willing to publicly challenge Israel’s behaviour has been the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose regional influence has swelled considerably as a result of those actions and the failure of others to challenge them.

It is better for Israel – and the US too, frankly – if Turkey takes the lead in saying things that western powers are no longer willing to say. Because the essence of Turkey’s message is simple: Israel needs to sober up.


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