It is almost 30 years since Menachem Begin gave his now famous reply to the administration in Washington, which threatened Israel with punishment over the Knesset’s passage of the bill applying Israeli law and administration to the Golan Heights: “Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic?” For many years, Israeli governments have insisted on maintaining a position of proud independence to friend and foe alike. Everyone should know that we are not a banana republic.
Interestingly enough, just as Israel repeatedly defeated its enemies and grew in strength militarily and economically, it began the slide toward behaving as a vassal of the United States. Ten years ago, under pressure from Washington, Israel canceled a large contract for the supply of Phalcon airborne warning and control aircraft to China. The contract had been duly signed, a large down payment had been made, and Chinese president Jiang Zemin, on a visit to Israel, had been assured that the aircraft would be delivered. But shortly after he returned to China the contract was peremptorily canceled under pressure from Washington.
It was a blow to the close relationship that had developed between Israel and China, and the Chinese leadership, wise to the ways of the world, concluded that Israel was not really independent.
But with Benjamin Netanyahu’s second government and Barack Obama’s entry into the White House, things have gone from bad to worse. After Obama’s Cairo speech, Netanyahu announced, despite his pre-election platform, that he favored the establishment of a Palestinian state. This was followed by the government’s decision, contrary to pre-election promises, to freeze construction in Judea and Samaria for 10 months. The humiliation of Netanyahu during his visit to the White House resulted in a decision effectively freezing construction in parts of Jerusalem.
And now after the interception by the Israel Navy of the flotilla of boats that tried to break the blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza, the Israeli government, under pressure from the White House, established an investigative committee including international observers. The composition of the committee was not announced until it had been approved by Washington. That set a record for Israeli subservience to Washington. One wonders what will come next.
Not that one should deal lightly with the subject of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. It is an important component of Israel’s strategic posture. At least some of Israel’s deterrent capability rests on the assumption that the United States would support Israel in any conflict with its enemies.
Therefore the question needs to be addressed: Does Israeli subservience to the United States really strengthen that relationship? After all, that relationship has been built up over many years on a foundation of common ideals, values and common interests. A relationship that has stood the test of time and many differences of opinion over the years, and that has been beneficial to both nations.
Now that the Obama administration has decided to raise the profile of the differences of opinion that existed for many years, Israel giving in to Washington’s demands may momentarily assuage tempers in Washington. But the emphasis is on momentarily. Additional demands will be coming, and if they are not accommodated the situation may worsen. In Jonathan Alter’s book “The Promise” on Obama’s first year in the White House, Obama is quoted as saying: “I know how to handle Netanyahu.” And after a year of dealing with him, Obama probably gives himself a good score on this subject.
Has the government’s policy of giving in to Washington’s demands strengthened the relationship between the two nations? It certainly does not seem that way at the moment. And what if the Israeli government had stuck by its positions – would that have resulted in a crisis? Or by sticking to its principles when vital Israeli interests were at stake, would the Israeli leadership have gained respect in Washington? The jury is still out on this question.
But it is clear that Israeli subservience to American demands does not strengthen Israel’s image in the eyes of its enemies and in the capitals of Europe and Asia. The net result of this Israeli policy in recent years is negative. Add to that, and not least important, how Israelis feel about themselves in light of this subservience. After having attained independence at great sacrifice, and having gotten used to a democratically elected leadership determining the nation’s course of action, it is a blow to our self-esteem to see our leaders obeying orders that come from abroad.