Jan 21 2013

US Fails to Use Leverage With Israel

Published by at 1:51 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics,US-Middle East


By Daoud Kuttab

During the past few decades, one can easily and accurately trace times in which world powers (especially the US) were able to influence a political process.

At least two Israeli elections come to mind: the victory of Labor’s Yitshaq Rabin replacing Yitshaq Shamir in the early 1990s and not long after that, the victory of Ehud Barak and the defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu. In both cases, the US was looking for a leader that could usher in a peace process and in both cases, they seem to have gotten what they want. This time around, the US seems to be interested in getting rid of Netanyahu but is unlikely to succeed.

There is no doubt that both Rabin and Barak, both decorated military leaders, are strong characters that don’t need the help of outsiders. Ironically, the current roster of contenders for the top position in the upcoming Israeli elections don’t have any army experience to speak of. Neither Netanyahu, Zipi Livni nor Shelly Yachimovich can compare militarily to either Rabin or Barak.

Washington, no doubt, would like to see changes taking place in the upcoming elections. The Israeli public is sending conflicting messages. Polls show that right-wing Israeli leader Netanyahu will easily win the elections and at the same time, that the Israeli president Shimon Peres is polling even higher than Netanyahu, even after he made scathing attacks publicly blaming Netanyahu for the failure of the peace process.

The Israeli elections are happening at a time when the US president is trying to finalize his new security and foreign-policy team. The senior positions in the departments of defense, state and the CIA are all being replaced, and the president has been campaigning and negotiating nonstop to avoid the financial cliff.

Israelis are surely not willing to allow anyone, including their best ally, to intervene in their right to elect whoever they feel will be best to defend them and work in their interests.

The Americans have not and will not question the right of Israelis to determine who represent them, but the US can and should make it clear to the Israeli public what the consequences of their actions and those of their newly elected leaders will be.

Articles like that published recently by Jeff Goldberg and David Remnick seem to reflect a careful US effort to portray that the path that the Likud-Beitinu list will lead Israelis down is most likely against the very interests of the people of Israel. With that message coming from a trusted ally like the US president, the average Israeli voter should stop and listen. Understanding the consequences of their actions before they cast their votes is important.

Is this interference in the internal politics of Israel? Hardly. And if this process can speed up the learning curve, some might argue, why wait until after the disaster.

The roster of politicians offering themselves for the country’s highest executive post do not encourage average, peace-loving Israelis to change their leadership.

Former NY Times Jerusalem bureau chief Tom Friedman used to boast about how he would deal with an Israeli leader who accepts American financial and political support while rejecting Washington’s political advice. “They need to be squeezed with invisible hands,” Friedman swore. And to explain what he meant, Friedman suggested that maybe spare F-16 parts are delayed. When the Israelis complain, US officials would claim that it must be a computer error. As the delay of the spare parts continues, the Israelis will get the message. External pressure, if not performed sensitively, can easily boomerang.

Maybe the era in which powerful countries like the US can decide the direction of other countries has weakened. This is not a bad thing, but it would be sad if the Israelis were immune from criticism while getting financial aid and being protected politically by the very same countries. It will also be sad if the US continues to yield pressure only on weaker partners while allowing the stronger partners to continue, as the saying goes, getting away with murder.


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