Friendship is a good thing. It can also spell trouble when goals diverge and the more powerful friend controls the relationship. The United States and Israel are friends, perhaps more so now than ever before. President Bush cares about Israel and this caring arises far less from political considerations as from a deepfelt personal perspective. But the relationship is not of equals and the two countries have different, at times clashing, interests, which explains why in the recent period Israel has incrementally ceded sovereignty, its right to make decisions about its security without first securing American approval.
The U.S. - Israel relationship has always been imbalanced because the Jewish state is small, endangered and dependent on American support. Israel is like the child or student who is constantly being graded. While it's good to get U.S. approval, the process is degrading. During the current Bush presidency, the two countries have often been extremely close and yet Israel has forfeited more of its independence because it does not fully share America's Middle East calculations and goals. This loss of sovereignty is a clear and present danger to Israel.
The following is from a New Yorker profile by Jon Lee Anderson: "After his brief flash of assertiveness, he seemed more a supplicant than ever. His relationship with Washington - which gave him security, status, and a certain amount of pride - revealed itself in all its dependency and weakness." This was written about Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's President, but it can serve as an apt description of Prime Minister Sharon. It also tells us how the U.S. treats close and dependent allies during the imperial presidency of George W. Bush. In return for American support, these allies are required to follow the script prepared for them in Washington. Key decisions must be reviewed and approved by American officials.
In short, these allies surrender much of their sovereignty. Any sign of independence, including the assertion that they cannot dance to the American tune, is met by rebuke and perhaps retaliation. Mr. Karzai got his spanking recently in Washington; Mr. Sharon has been chastised and threatened repeatedly. To an extent, he is the Co-Prime Minister, sharing authority with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and other U.S. officials.
When Mr. Sharon announced the Gaza withdrawal last year, his close advisor Dov Weisglass declared that because the withdrawal would be traumatic for Israelis, after it was completed Israel would need a respite before it yielded other territory. He has now backtracked, because the U.S. has told his boss that he must. The Gaza withdrawal will result in more and not less American pressure on Israel.
Putting aside our views on Gaza, isn't it necessary for Israel to assess what happens after Palestinians take control of what had been Israeli territory before it gives up additional territory? Hamas says that, at most, it will abide by a temporary truce and Hezbollah won't even go that far. Iran, Hezbollah's sponsor, advocates Israel's destruction and is proceeding with an extremely dangerous nuclear arms program. Israel is to ignore these inconvenient facts because Washington's Middle East strategy requires that further concessions be made.
Israel continues to do heavy duty work for the U.S. in Iraq and provides vital information regarding Iran. Presumably, in return it should receive U.S. intelligence on Iranian developments that affect it. But as the still murky AIPAC story indicates, the U.S. has withheld information that has a direct bearing on Israel's security.
Of course, the United States does not want to endanger Israel. However, its geopolitical considerations now give top priority to establishing better relations with the Islamic world, buttressing Mr. Abbas among the Palestinians, getting out of the Iraq quagmire, securing as much Saudi Arabian oil that it can get and figuring out what to do with Iran. If Israel figures in these calculations, it is in ways that are inimical to its welfare. While the U.S. gives Israel cover in the United Nations and shields it somewhat from European hostility, these are of secondary importance to the Jewish state. Israel has to worry about suicide bombers, not about nasty words at the U.N. We should keep in mind the schoolyard ditty about sticks and stones.
Israel has made remarkable progress in developing good relations with China and India. Apparently, this is not to Washington's liking. Supplicants do not have the right to play in the big leagues. Israel has a fraction of one-percent of the population of China or India and it is the height of chutzpah for it to engage in significant diplomacy with these major powers. When Israel sold unmanned aircraft or drones to China, Washington pounced, acting as if a great sin had been committed. The supplicants have done their penance, with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom formally apologizing for Israel looking out for its own economic and diplomatic interests. In addition, four senior military officials have been dismissed and Israel has signed an agreement requiring all arm sales to China be reviewed and approved by the U.S.
It could have been worse, as Mr. Shalom might have been ordered to fall on his sword or, perhaps, each night for a year attend a different Jewish organizational dinner.
A Jewish leader with strong White House contacts tells me that the situation has deteriorated since the presidential election, that there has been a shift away from the White House to the State Department in the management of Israeli - Palestinian negotiations. Secretary of State Rice is, in effect, making decisions for Israel. I never thought that I would pine for the return of Madeleine Albright.
If Israel does not regain its sovereignty, it may gain much American applause while it puts itself at great risk.