Does the United States Have More Leverage Over Israel Than It Thinks?

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! What have you been up to since our last debate?

Emma Ashford: Well, this morning I got stuck in traffic. I miss the era of COVID-19 and work-from-home options, when the only traffic I’d encounter between breakfast and work was my kids’ toy cars!

But it did give me time to catch up on the news, and there are a few controversies I think we need to address: the contentious question of who blew up the Nord Stream pipelines back in September 2022 as well as the escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians and the political turmoil within Israel itself, as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip this week highlighted. Austin couldn’t even leave airport grounds due to protests!

Both Nord Stream and Israel are controversial topics, and lots of folks in Washington will avoid talking about them in case they say the wrong thing and it ends up torpedoing their chances for a high-profile job later in life! But they’re also important. I’m sure you’d agree with me that addressing important stories in this column is more important than our future job prospects, right?

MK: Fortunately, I always say the right thing, so I am on safe ground!

EA: Yeah, right.

MK: Let’s start with Nord Stream. You are right that there is controversy over who destroyed the pipeline amid reports of new intelligence this week. I would like to underscore that I am glad that the pipeline is gone. It was a mistake for Germany to build a pipeline that deepened its economic dependence on Russian President Vladimir Putin—a mistake German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has essentially acknowledged with his Zeitenwende policy and effort to decouple from Russian energy supplies. The elimination of the pipeline made that transition easier and cut off a source of revenue that Putin could use to fuel his war machine.

But who blew it up? It was always puzzling. Journalist Seymour Hersh recently reported that it was the United States, but his reporting is not always reliable, and I find this story implausible. U.S. President Joe Biden has shown himself to be very cautious in this war and otherwise. He was unwilling to even sanction the pipeline before the war. There was little chance that he was going to authorize a covert military attack on an ally’s infrastructure.

EA: True. Even putting aside how poorly sourced and fact-checked the Hersh piece was, the idea that the Biden administration would have authorized this simply never passed the sniff test for me.

By the same token though, I was always somewhat skeptical that it was the Russians. Yes, it was possible that Putin decided to send a message to the West that he could attack its infrastructure at will. But it would also have been a self-sabotaging choice given the Kremlin’s hope that energy would become its trump card this winter. Back in September, Putin likely hoped that the harsh winter might push Western European states to sue for peace and seek to reopen gas transit.

MK: I agree. The Putin hypothesis did not make much sense either. So that leaves the Ukrainian government, but that also seems risky for the Zelensky administration.

EA: Or another Eastern European state like Poland or the Baltics. No one wants to mention that, since it would be incredibly damaging to relations among NATO allies, but it’s always been a possibility. These are the states that have always been most opposed to the existence of Nord Stream—and the states with the most to lose from Germany restarting gas supplies from Russia.

MK: It’s possible, but it also seems like a stretch. They depend on the United States and NATO to meet their core security needs. And they decided to attack a NATO member’s infrastructure without telling Washington? I don’t buy it.

EA: It made more sense than the idea that the U.S. government did it! But I think the new revelations—that it was a nonstate pro-Ukrainian group—sound quite plausible. There are plenty of Ukrainian oligarchs with the resources to bankroll such an operation, even now.

Of course, this should raise significant concerns for Ukraine’s Western backers. The leaked reports suggest this was probably not known at the highest levels of the Ukrainian government. That is itself problematic. As Mark Galeotti, an academic who studies espionage in the post-Soviet space, put it, the whole thing “raises an equally alarming possibility: that the [Ukrainian] government is simply less in control than it and we might like to believe. It is hard to believe … that an oligarch would bankroll what Berlin could construe as a terrorist act without a nod from someone in government.”

And if it were a Ukrainian oligarch who bankrolled it, then there are potential economic complications; it might actually benefit some business interests in Ukraine that control existing pipelines and benefit from transit fees. It’s a real mess.

MK: The New York Times described the attackers as “opponents of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, but does not specify the members of the group, or who directed or paid for the operation.” So, I agree that a pro-Ukrainian or anti-Putin group without direct authorization from any government is also a plausible hypothesis. But it raises at least as many questions as it answers. I think we are still mostly grasping in the dark until we learn more.

EA: Yes, but I suspect that Western leaders won’t like it when they do learn more. I’m also curious whether there might be ties to the assassination of Darya Dugina, daughter of Kremlin-linked demagogue Aleksandr Dugin, outside Moscow in August 2022. That was another incident with no obvious perpetrator and no obvious military value. But ultimately, U.S. leaders should be very worried if nonstate actors in Ukraine or Eastern Europe are bankrolling and planning their own covert attacks. There’s the potential risk that governments could lose control of the escalation dynamics in the conflict.

And not to go all Richard Nixon here, but I do think the Germans in particular are going to be questioning how much Ukrainian leaders knew and when they knew it. It’s possible that the Zelensky government was ignorant of the whole thing, but it’s another reminder that there are definite places where Ukrainian and European or American interests diverge. German and French leaders have already been less committed than U.S. leaders to supply future arms shipments and support for Ukraine; they’d probably be even more hesitant to continue high levels of support indefinitely if the Ukrainian government appears unreliable and untrustworthy.

MK: I am also opposed to violent nonstate groups, but at this point, we are speculating without much evidence. Another possibility is that this was just a stunt for actor Johnny Knoxville’s next movie!

But there is another controversial set of issues this week about which we know more. What do you make of developments in Israel?

EA: Well, there’s been more violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians, a headline summary that could have been written basically any week in the last 20 years. But things just keep getting worse and worse. Prospects for peace are almost gone, and violence is spiraling out of control.

The most recent spark came in the Palestinian village of Hawara, where Israeli settlers went on a violent rampage against residents in response to the killing of two Israeli boys. One senior Israeli general even described the attack as a “pogrom,” a word with obvious connotations for a Jewish audience.

Worryingly, Israeli troops did nothing to stop the settlers’ attack and even prevented Palestinian residents from coming to help, suggesting that this is more than simple vigilante justice. In the aftermath, a senior member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government—Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich—even called for the town of Hawara to be “wiped out.” Smotrich is due to visit the United States this week, and the Biden administration will not meet with him formally as a result of his extreme views.

MK: The loss of life is tragic. And it does seem like Israel may be engaging in selective justice, tolerating violence committed by rampaging settlers in a way it does not when there is a rampage by violent Palestinians. (A Palestinian gunman who shot and injured three Israelis at a central Tel Aviv cafe on Thursday was quickly and justifiably shot dead by police.)

Israel proudly claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, but episodes like this (and Netanyahu’s battle with the courts) are tarnishing its reputation as a country governed by the rule of law. It would be ideal if we could achieve a peaceful, two-state solution, but as you rightly point out, that is essentially unimaginable at this point.

I would also like, however, to put this in a broader context from a global security perspective. The Israel-Palestine conflict is simply not as important as it used to be. It is a small civil conflict in a small country. Washington is too busy focusing on deterring simultaneous wars with China and Russia to broker Middle East peace.

Moreover, the Abraham Accords have transformed the region. The old theory was that peace in the Middle East would happen from the inside out. First, Israel would have to solve the Palestine problem, and then it might be able to unlock a broader rapprochement with other Arab countries.

Now, we are seeing that Middle East peace is already happening, but it is working from the outside in. Israel is improving relations with other major Arab countries in the region while Palestine simmers. Those countries do worry about the latest flare-up because it imperils their domestic standing—but not yet to the point that they are thinking about cutting ties with Israel.

I wish I had better news, but I suspect that the Palestine issue will not be resolved anytime soon, and—except for those directly involved in the conflict—it will not matter that much.

EA: That’s a cop out. Yes, it’s true that the Palestinians have been mostly abandoned to their fate by Persian Gulf states since the signing of the Abraham Accords. But that doesn’t mean the United States is uninvolved. Washington is a principal backer of Israel, with an agreement to provide it almost $40 billion in military aid in the next decade. It also provides Israel with cover at the United Nations, purposefully vetoing or blocking resolutions that might condemn Israeli settlements or violence against Palestinians.

And despite the spike in violence and growing extremism of Israel’s governments in recent years, U.S. policy hasn’t changed. This new Netanyahu government includes ministers so extreme that their parties have been declared terrorist groups in the past. Meanwhile, Netanyahu is trying to undermine the Israeli judiciary in an attempt to free himself from corruption charges, and Smotrich and others are openly calling for Palestinians to be removed from their land. He’s proposing state-backed ethnic cleansing, but Washington continues to arm and fund Israel and won’t even deny Smotrich a visa to visit the United States!

America can’t fix every problem in the world. I doubt it can solve Middle East peace. But it can condition its aid on Israel’s government to prevent atrocities, not create an environment permissive to them.

MK: The Biden administration is not happy with escalating violence in the West Bank, Smotrich’s statement, or Netanyahu’s battle with Israel’s judiciary. U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price called Smotrich’s statement “repugnant” and “irresponsible,” for example. But what would you have the administration do? Israel is America’s closest partner in the Middle East. Threatening enemies in public makes sense, but I think disputes with friends are best handled in difficult conversations behind closed doors. Those conversations are already taking place, including with Austin’s visit to Tel Aviv on Thursday, when he made the case that a focus on the West Bank risks distracting from the bigger challenge posed by Iran.

Indeed, the United States and Israel are coming closer together on this issue. The Pentagon recently announced that Iran’s breakout timeline to one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade fuel is now only around 12 days. There is no prospect of a negotiated nuclear deal anytime soon. I think we will be entering a period of more protracted conflict with Iran over its nuclear program, and it is important that the United States and Israel closely coordinate on this problem.

EA: It’s actually the exact opposite. The United States doesn’t need to incentivize Israel to work with Washington against Iran; Israel needs the United States to work with it. If anything, the potential of a looming regional conflict gives the United States more leverage to push the Netanyahu government on domestic issues, whether it’s his proposed court reforms or the growing crisis in the West Bank. That’s the message put—perhaps a little more delicately—by Austin this week, telling Netanyahu that domestic Israeli turmoil distracts from a focus on Iran.

And Washington has other tools at its disposal as well. As Matthew Duss and Zaha Hassan, two scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pointed out in an article recently, the United States hasn’t imposed any meaningful consequences for Israeli settlement building since then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush withheld some loan guarantees in 1992! At a certain point, Biden needs to think about sticks, not carrots: withholding military aid, conditioning loans, or even sanctioning organizations associated with illegal settlement building.

Let’s be extremely clear about the stakes here. Michael Barnett, a scholar at George Washington University who studies human rights, wrote this week that he is genuinely concerned the situation in Israel could tip over into genocide or mass crimes against humanity. All the preconditions usually seen in such situations are there.

Ultimately though, the United States and Israel have security interests in common regardless of domestic politics; it’s not like Israel is going to suddenly welcome an Iranian bomb if the U.S. government pushes harder on the Palestinian question. There are a lot of places around the world where the costs of supporting human rights are too high for the U.S. government; this is not one of them.

It’s not even politically unpopular. A majority of Americans now support conditioning aid to Israel, and there are growing calls from prominent American Jewish leaders to push back on the Netanyahu government and its extremism; even columnist Thomas Friedman—hardly a fringe anti-Israel voice—has openly called for change in U.S. policy.

MK: I think we agree that the United States should work with Israel to pursue vital national security interests, such as preventing rogue states from developing nuclear weapons, and our values by promoting democracy and human rights.

I think we just disagree on the right way to get there.

Name calling, like Thomas Nides, U.S. ambassador to Israel, reportedly calling Smotrich “stupid” and threatening to “throw him off the plane” does not help. Bold, public condemnations or threats to cut aid might make some feel good about themselves, but I don’t think it will help Biden achieve his objectives with Netanyahu.

EA: What would achieve U.S. objectives with Netanyahu? Because it seems to me like they’ve tried all the polite, talking-to-allies versions of this and his government has only gotten worse. What’s left except sanctions, visa restrictions, and explicit condemnation?

MK: Over the years, U.S. influence with Israel has usually been greater when Washington decides to hold it close rather than push it away. Former U.S. President Gerald Ford’s famous “reassessment” of Israel policy did not work. And when I staffed the Pentagon’s Middle East desk during the Obama administration, my conclusion was that bear hugs work best.

We saw something similar with Biden and Saudi Arabia earlier in the administration. Biden made a big public statement about making Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” and then he had to go crawling back later.

To say it again, I think it works better to condemn enemies publicly and discuss differences with friends behind closed doors.

EA: Honestly, with friends like these, who needs enemies?

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