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War and Peace

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 23, 2018

In choppy waters: US President Barack Obama with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, last October. -- Reuters/ Kevin Lamarque   -  REUTERS

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Ties turn frosty as Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu tweaks President Obama’s strategic goals in alliance with right-wing extremists in the US Congress

Under fire from the Republican right-wing for allegedly slacking off on the war on terror, US President Barack Obama recently offered a retrospect on the rise of the Islamic State (IS). The IS today is the security threat that every government claims to be on guard against — with the exception of its covert but generous sponsors in the Gulf — “is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq which grew out of our invasion”. This was an example of “unintended consequences” and only meant that “we should generally aim before we shoot”.

A certain disdain for the Republican majority in the US Congress was implied but obvious. So was the pushback against the political stunt engineered by the congressional leadership, which had days before hosted a speech by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rubbish Obama’s effort to negotiate an end to Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions. Amidst several standing ovations from his loyal flock, the Israeli premier made the point that no good could come from dialogue with a regime steeped in theological evil.

Here was a man lusting for war, even if it meant shooting first and taking aim later. And as US Secretary of State John Kerry recalled just ahead of the speech, Netanyahu had as a private citizen, in 2002, cheered on the Bush administration’s intent to wage war on Iraq with rosy prognoses of all the miraculous transformations it would herald.

Appearing before a Congress committee, Netanyahu then pronounced that Iraq was a “good choice”, indeed the “right choice”. It was not a question of whether, but when “Iraq’s regime should be taken out”. The immediate reverberations would be felt in neighbouring Iran, where “young people and many others (would) say the time of such regimes, of such despots is gone”.

Netanyahu’s most recent expedition into congressional chambers won him little applause at home, with powerful figures in the security establishment berating him for injecting a bitter sense of partisanship into Israel’s one indispensable relationship. Clearly thwarted in his effort to gain political capital ahead of general elections to Israel’s parliament, Netanyahu resorted to ever more sordid manoeuvres.

Just a day before the voting began in Israel, Netanyahu tore up and very publicly trampled upon the frayed — but still vaguely intact — promise on which the US had sponsored a two-decade long peace process with the Palestinians. As voting opened, he posted a message on social media, darkly warning that peace and security were at mortal risk, with the left-wing transporting Israel’s Arab minority “in droves” to polling booths in order to defeat his government.

Race baiting is common currency in Israeli politics, but this latest foray attracted adverse comment because it came on the heels of a very public spat with the US administration. Palestinians, however, were delighted that the veil had been torn off the fiction perpetuated over two decades, indemnifying Israel as it relentlessly pursued its colonialist project.

Netanyahu’s effrontery now means that western governments will have no cover for their moral cowardice in the face of Israel’s prolonged defiance of law and decency. As insurance, Israel has added the threat of Islamic fundamentalism as a new scare factor to its armoury. It leaves unsaid the evident truth that the IS originated in its strategic ambitions, in part as self-fulfilling prophecy, in other part as unintended consequence.

The scenario today may, in some sense, represent the practical enactment of the blueprint sketched for Netanyahu in 1996, when he first assumed Israel’s premiership. Only into its fifth year, the peace process was already embattled. It was just the appropriate time, a group of US strategic zealots urged, for “a clean break”.

A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, a document authored by Richard Perle with inputs from a study group including Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, Charles Fairbanks and a few others who gained unparalleled influence in the Bush administration, laid out certain well-rehearsed lines for publicly articulating the new policy directions. Netanyahu was advised to repudiate the peace process and stake Israel’s claim to the entire land of Palestine. Israel suffered a crisis of national resolve, which needed to be dispelled. “Israel’s new agenda”, Netanyahu was urged to assert, could “signal a clean break by… re-establishing the principle of pre-emption, rather than retaliation alone”. Indeed, Israel was urged to rearrange the political geography of its region, “in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria”.

In the chessboard of regional geopolitics, this was an endeavour that would necessarily follow a complex route: “This effort (could) focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions”.

Israel loyalists in the US read the circumstances then as just right for all elements in the geostrategic plan to fall in place. In the event, it took the second Palestinian uprising for freedom in 2000, the arrival of the faith-based Bush administration in 2001, and the September 11 attacks on US soil later that year for first steps towards the grand plan.

A decade-and-a-half on, the US is sunk deep in a state of buyer’s remorse. But the right-wing, which thrives on public amnesia, is far from admitting it, as it rolls over in fawning loyalty to Israeli demands for more commitments of blood and treasure. The perpetuation of chaos in the region is today Israel’s sole assurance of security. And for the right-wing in the US, a permanent war economy promises deliverance from the economic train-wreck it engineered during the Bush administration.

(Sukumar Muralidharan is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla)

Published on March 27, 2015

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