Michael Jansen
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
December 8, 2011 - 1:00am

Israel has reacted angrily to tough US talk about both its regional and domestic policies, risking a fresh breach with the Obama administration which has always had a testy relationship with Israel’s right-wing regime.
The first unwelcome comments came from US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta who said Israel must engage with the Palestinians by returning to the “damn” negotiating table and take steps to halt the country’s growing isolation in the region.

Panetta dismissed Israeli arguments that the region is in too much turmoil to pursue peace and that the Arab Spring awakening is a danger to Israel. He said that Israel needs to resume meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians - now!

Panetta also made the case against Israeli military action against Iran aimed at destroying or disrupting its nuclear programme. He said that sanctions and diplomatic pressure are the most effective means of dealing with Iran without suffering the potentially destructive consequences of taking military action. Making the US position clear in no uncertain terms, he warned Israel against mounting a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He said this could produce “an escalation that would not only involve many lives, but [also] could consume the Middle East in confrontation and conflict that we would regret.”

He pledged that the US would safeguard Israel’s security, promote regional stability and prevent Iran from securing nuclear weapons but, he argued that Israel also has to “build regional support for Israeli and United States’ security objectives.” To pursue these interests, he told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to court Egypt and Jordan and reconcile with Turkey. Ankara was alienated by the killing of nine Turks by Israeli commandos in 2010 when they raided a Turkish ship carrying peace activists and medical supplies to Israeli blockaded Gaza.

Netanyahu responded defiantly to Panetta’s remarks by saying that Israel will take whatever measures it deems necessary to defend its national security. This is precisely what the Obama administration fears: that Israel will take military action which will drag the US into a war with Iran at a time Washington is facing a collapsing economy as well as destabilising uprisings around this strategic region.

A few days after Panetta spoke, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern over a series of “anti-democratic” bills proposed by right-wing Israeli government ministers. They seek to punish journalists who write or say things the right does not wish to be revealed and to curb the activities of left-leaning non-governmental organisations opposed to Israel’s colonisation efforts in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Clinton also cited the impact on Israel’s “democracy” of the rise of religious zealots who insist on segregation between men and women in buses and argue that religious Israeli male soldiers should not attend events where women sing.

Israeli ministers Yuval Seeinitz and Gilad Erdan agreed with Clinton that discrimination against women is unacceptable and said that something has to be done about it. Netanyahu did not reply to Clinton’s concerns because he does not intend to take on the zealots and their rabbis although they are undermining the liberal values Israelis used to hold in common with a large majority of US citizens.

These differences of opinion between Israel, on one hand, and the US defence establishment and US diplomatic corps, on the other hand, are highly significant at this point in time. Clearly, Washington is beginning to regard Netanyahu’s right-dominated Israel as a loose cannon which could very well put the US and its international interests in serious danger.

It’s about time. For decades US military men have been warning Washington’s civilian politicians that Israel could be a threat. The first to voice such concerns was James Forrestal, the first US secretary of defence. He served under president Harry Truman who recognised Israel’s establishment as soon as it was proclaimed in 1948 in spite of Forrestal’s warnings that this would alienate the Arabs and particularly oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

Clinton’s comments constitute a warning to Israel that the freedom granted to the religious right is not only endangering “Israeli democracy” but also Israel’s global status. Religious zealots are putting Israel’s legitimacy in peril as Israel’s legitimacy rests on its claim to be the region’s “only democracy.”

This claim has long been refuted by its relegation of Palestinian citizens to fifth or sixth class status while Jews of Oriental and African origin are consigned to classes between the Palestinians and the Occidental Ashkenazi ruling class. So far, the world has ignored Israel’s inequalities but Israel’s friends will not be able to dismiss discrimination against women.

It took courage for Clinton to criticise Israel on this issue. Before taking up her present position, she was a senator from New York and a strong supporter of Israel and all its actions. Clearly, she has become disenchanted.

US policy makers do not seem to have realised that there is a link between the current right-wing government’s hard line towards the Palestinians and Iran and soft line towards Jewish religious zealots.

Netanyahu and his colleagues are determined to hang onto every inch of Palestine and give nothing but very partial autonomy to the Palestinians. They are also absolutely determined to eliminate the challenge to this policy posed by Iran which supports Palestinian dissidents, Lebanon’s Hizbollah, and Israeli military hegemony in the region.

The claim right-wing nationalists make to the whole of Palestine is upheld by the religious zealots who believe that “God gave Palestine to the Jews” and that “not one inch” should be sacrificed to peace with the Palestinians and the Arabs. As quid pro quo, the largely secular nationalists of Netanyahu’s Likud and government have granted a free hand to the religious right although its actions risk alienating Israel’s influential but largely liberal friends in the West.

The connection is not, however, purely opportunistic. Even secular Zionists have always been influenced by the religious Zionist undercurrent. The late anti-Zionist Israeli Israel Shahak used to say, “Jews who do not believe in God still claim God gave Israel [Palestine] to the Jewish people.” Consequently, politicians and rabbis who believe they are doing “God’s will” are unlikely to listen to Washington’s all too mortal policy makers.


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