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Why Netanyahu is laughing all the way to the bank

Why Netanyahu is laughing all the way to the bank

David Petraeus said recently that US leverage on Israel to do the right thing in Gaza is 'overestimated' — that's just not true

Analysis | Middle East

Favors that one country gives to another imply leverage that the former can exert on the latter. Withholding, or even threatening to withhold, such largesse, focuses minds within the recipient country’s government and can influence its policies.

The favors that the United States has given to Israel have been enormous, as reflected in $318 billion, adjusted for inflation, in foreign aid through 2022 — far more than the United States has given to any other country since World War II. Thus, the leverage the United States has available to use on Israel is large. But it has used almost none of it.

Even when Israeli policies fly in the face of U.S. preferences, the result is nothing more than a verbal slap on the wrist. Examples include the countless times that construction of more Israeli settlements in occupied territory are followed by timid official U.S. statements but no action — such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying last month that he was “disappointed” by Israel’s latest announcement of new settlement construction in the West Bank.

When the subject of employing the leverage is raised, voices in response usually say something similar to what retired general David Petraeus said recently, which was that the United States is “committed” to Israeli security, that we tend to “overestimate the leverage,” and that Israel is currently in a “life and death situation.”

In fact, the days of Israel being a beleaguered, vulnerable state surrounded by strong, hostile neighbors are long gone. Israel has the most potent military in the Middle East — even just at the conventional level, let alone when considering nuclear weapons. Israel’s military offsets any numerical inferiority in raw numbers of troops with advanced technology that far surpasses what any other state in the region enjoys. Despite frequently heard rhetoric that attributes to some regime or group a supposed dedication to “destroying” Israel, no enemy of Israel has anything close to the capability of doing so.

One might argue that this secure Israeli position is thanks in part to all that U.S. assistance, and thus is a reason to continue the aid. But Israel is a wealthy country. It is in the richest 20 percent or even 10 percent of nations in the world, depending on how one measures GDP per capita. Israel can pay by itself for that potent military. The voluminous U.S. aid is a subsidy by American taxpayers to Israeli taxpayers.

Therefore, reduction or termination of the aid would not endanger Israeli security, no matter how much the United States considers itself committed to that security. Israel would spend what it must to meet its own conception of security. But interruption of the voluminous no-strings-attached American subsidy would certainly get the attention of Israeli politicians and thus can have considerable influence on Israeli policy.

In many respects, spending on, and use of, the Israel Defense Forces does not enhance Israeli security and may even detract from it. In recent years, the IDF has been largely occupied with keeping down a subjugated and thus discontented Palestinian population in the occupied territories and protecting Israeli settlements there. This is not a matter of securing Israel but instead of incurring the costs of choosing to cling to conquered territory and sustaining an illegal occupation.

The full range of costs of this use of the IDF was underscored by the lethal Hamas attack on southern Israel last October. One reason Hamas was able to perpetrate its atrocity so easily was that Israel had moved forces from the area in question to the West Bank.

Today, any munitions that the United States provides to Israel or finances are most likely to be used in further devastation of the Gaza Strip. That raises important issues, in addition to questions of leverage and influence, about possible U.S. complicity in war crimes. But for present purposes, one point to note is that because the Israeli assault has gone far beyond what can be construed as defense, any U.S. curtailment of the means for continuing the assault would be reducing devastation in Gaza, not Israeli security.

In fact, continuation of the assault, and any logistical or financial facilitation of the assault, is likely to decrease rather than increase the future security of Israelis. The suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza is breeding an entire angry generation that will be determined to strike back against Israel, including with terrorist violence. As journalist Peter Beinart observes, even if Israel could achieve the probably unachievable objective of “destroying Hamas,” we should expect that “Palestinians will create another organization based on trying to fight back, indeed using violence, given the extreme unimaginable violence that Palestinians have now suffered.”

Another relevant point about the current carnage in Gaza is that the U.S. has leverage that can curb the worst aspects of Israeli policies not only by influencing Israeli policymakers but also by directly inhibiting the execution of those policies. Although Israel will eventually make or obtain elsewhere the munitions it wants to use, at least in the short run the fewer bombs the U.S. provides that can flatten civilian neighborhoods, the fewer neighborhoods are likely to be flattened.

U.S. largesse toward Israel and the leverage that goes along with it extend far beyond military aid. The diplomatic cover that the United States has routinely provided Israel, shielding it from consequences of Israel’s own actions, are unquestionably of high importance to Israeli policymakers. Of the 89 vetoes the United States has cast in the history of the United Nations Security Council, more than half have been on resolutions criticizing Israel, mostly for its occupation of Palestinian territory and treatment of the Palestinians. The Biden administration has continued this pattern, vetoing multiple resolutions calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

Even just abstentions on such resolutions would jolt Israeli decisionmakers into having to think more seriously about changing their most damaging policies. Votes in favor would have even more of an effect, underscoring for Israel that it could no longer count on its superpower patron standing in the way of worldwide outrage over Israeli actions.

The Biden administration could take other non-military measures to exercise its considerable political and diplomatic leverage with Israel. It could reverse some of the all-in-with-Israel actions of the Trump administration, such as by re-establishing the consulate in East Jerusalem that had served as a principal channel of communications with the Palestinians. It could even join the 139 nations that have formally recognized the State of Palestine.

None of these diplomatic measures would jeopardize in the slightest the security of Israel or any U.S. commitment to that security. Nor would they entail international political or diplomatic costs to the United States. To the contrary, they would improve the U.S. global standing by making the United States less of an outlier from an international consensus.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu projects, at least as much as other Israeli leaders, the image of someone determined to go his own way regardless of what the United States wants or says. But that self-assurance is based on the now decades-old pattern of the United States not using its leverage with Israel. “I know what America is,” Netanyahu once said. “America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get in the way.”

If America were to stop being moved so easily and started getting in the way of objectionable Israeli conduct, Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders would change their tune.

The default U.S. policy toward Israel through multiple administrations has been to lavish unqualified support and hope that the United States can gain some influence through the very closeness of the relationship. The Biden administration has continued this approach with its influence-through-hugging notion. Clearly, the approach has not worked. It is past time to exercise the leverage the United States has had all along.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second right, confers with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, right, during their meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, left, to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. Miriam Alster/Pool via REUTERS

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