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By Barry Rubin

In one of his out-of-control anti-Israel rants, Andrew Sullivan included in his list of alleged evils that Israel had repeatedly “defied” the United States. That point stuck in my mind and made me reflect how demonstrably untrue is that charge contrary to what people might think.

Certainly, there have been incidents of friction and disagreement–though always fairly short-lived–and at times Israel has either convinced U.S. policymakers of its position or the two sides agreed. Yet consider on all the key issues of the last twenty years how Israel did heed every major U.S. request.

In 1991, President George Bush asked Israel not to respond to Iraqi attacks. This was a huge request for any country whose civilians were being targeted by missiles and especially for Israel which has always believed that retaliation is essential to maintain its credibility. I can speak from personal experience here, with the nearest hit about ten blocks away. The country not only faced the terror of sudden missile attacks, with the possibility of bacteriological or chemical warheads, but was also largely shut down economically for weeks. Yet Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir agreed, and Israelis stood by passive while the United States fought Iraq in Kuwait and Baghdad shot missiles onto its soil.

The Oslo agreements were an Israeli initiative yet during the nine years of negotiations that followed, Israel and the United States cooperated closely. Israel made a very forthcoming offer in 2000 supported by the United States that was rejected by the Palestinian leadership. There were no major incidents of conflict during the Clinton Administration.

The George W. Bush years were ones of relative amity. Ironically, the greatest disagreement, contrary to mythology, was Israel’s lack of enthusiasm for the Iraq war. The concern was that Israel would be asked to pay the political bill afterward, that Saddam might again fire missiles, and that the project of making Iraq into a democracy seemed ill-fated. But Israel supported its ally once the decision to attack Iraq was made.

The administration of Barack Obama has been seen as one of great tension and a U.S. policy less supportive of Israel. Yet every time Obama made a request or demand, Israel has complied, if not immediately then after a brief period, with concessions that were very difficult given internal politics and perceptions of its own interests:

  • Obama called for an Israeli freeze of construction on settlements in the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked a freeze.
  • Obama insisted on direct Israel-Palestinian negotiations. Netanyahu supported this stance beginning in mid-2009.
  • When Obama changed his position and also demanded a freeze on Israeli construction in areas of Jerusalem beyond the 1967 border, an extremely difficult concession for Netanyahu and Israel to make, the Israeli government did so.
  • Finally, when Obama insisted on a change in the sanctions’ regime imposed on the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu quickly complied. The U.S. government approved the terms before they were announced.

Thus, on all of the four big issues during the first 17 months of the Obama presidency, Israel did do what the United States asked. In exchange, Israel received no concession whatsoever from either the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. It did get continued U.S. cooperation and praise for so doing, yet basically received nothing new in exchange for these steps.

Whether this compliance was wrong or right in terms of Israeli interests isn’t the point here. What’s important is that Israel did take actions and risks at the behest of the U.S. government, which also puts the lie to the idea that Israel “controls” U.S. policy. In addition, Washington made some commitments in response to these concessions which have often been forgotten by successive U.S. governments.

It should also be noted that neither Hamas nor the Palestinian Authority (nor Iran or Syria for that matter) complied with any U.S. request or demand during this period yet reaped benefits from Israeli concessions or U.S. efforts at engagement. Indeed, the PA has continually refused to enter direct negotiations with Israel. And despite stories of U.S. “pressure” has lost nothing as a result.

These points are one small example of how myths about Israel and U.S.-Israel relations are so easy to concoct yet equally easy to demolish with simple reference to the facts. Large elements in the mass media constantly claim that Israel, or at least the current government, doesn’t want peace despite all the efforts, sacrifices, and risks made.

Equally, they claim that the PA is moderate and does want peace despite the fact that it does nothing to promote such an outcome. In 2000, the PA rejected the Camp David and Clinton plan deals, launched a violent and terrorist war, and continued it for five years. During the last five years, the PA has not taken a single step toward ending incitement, educating its people for a two-state compromise solution, or offering better terms to Israel. It has not moved one bit from its stance in 1993, 17 years ago.

Meanwhile, as I predicted, here’s the Washington Post cartoon, “explaining” how Netanyahu and Abbas are “equally” against direct talks, despite Netanyahu advocating and Abbas opposing them for the last 16 months!


Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) CenterMiddle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).   

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