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Why the U.S. Won't Cut Ties with Israel, No Matter How Extreme Its Government Gets

A thick web of military-strategic ties is at the heart of the US-Israeli relationship.

Rumors are floating around about why Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in Washington – again – last week when Israel’s official top diplomat, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is nowhere to be seen.  This was Barak’s seventh visit to DC; Lieberman has been here exactly once.

So what’s up with that?  Why isn’t Israel’s most important envoy playing the key diplomatic role with Israel’s most important diplomatic sponsor?  One reason is that Lieberman is an embarrassment to many, even here in Washington’s Israel-can-do-no-wrong political culture.  His party, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) is so far right that Kadimah -- the party of the 1982 “Butcher of Beirut” Ariel Sharon and Tzipi Livni who helped orchestrate the assault on Gaza -- and the extremist settlement-backing Likud party of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, look centrist and center-right by comparison.

Lieberman’s gang goes way beyond normal Israeli extremism, calling not just for unconstrained settlement expansion, but various versions of “transfer” – the preferred Israeli euphemism for ethnic cleansing. That means the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel, including some who are Israeli citizens, starting with those who refuse to sign an oath of loyalty to Zionism.  In May 2004, Lieberman announced that 90 percent of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who amount to 20 percent of the population, would “have to find a new Arab entity” to live in because “they have no place here. They can take their bundles and get lost.” He called for executing Arab members of the Knesset who speak to Hamas, or who call for commemoration of the nakba, the Palestinian expulsion and dispossession from what would become Israel in 1947-48.  Back in 1998 Lieberman urged Israel to bomb Egypt’s giant Aswan Dam, a move that would have flooded pretty much all of Egypt and drowned most of Egypt’s 80 million people.  And in 2003, as transport minister, Lieberman called for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons to be drowned in the Dead Sea – and offered buses to take them there.

So it’s not particularly surprising that even in Washington he creates a bit of a cringe factor.  (That’s not to say it bothers everyone – shortly after his 2009 selection as foreign minister, Lieberman was a special guest of Brookings’ Saban Center, welcomed by former president Bill and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)

But it’s not only delicate U.S. political sensibilities that have made the defense minister Israel’s key interlocutor with Washington. It’s because the U.S.-Israel relationship is, even after the Cold War, grounded in a web of military-strategic ties that put the Pentagon-IDF links, the connections between the other military-intelligence agencies, and the ties of arms manufacturers in both countries, at the center of the alliance.

Despite the very public spat between the Obama administration and Netanyahu over settlement policy, the U.S. never threatened to reduce those strategic and military ties.  Every U.S. request to Israel about settlements began with the reminder that Israeli security remained at the top of U.S. priorities, that the U.S. remained committed to maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge.”  What is unchanging is the collaboration of military, military-industrial, military-intelligence alliances that makes all the political efforts of the pro-Israel and arms manufacturing lobbies, and then Congress, much more lucrative and thus much easier.

Just a few days ago Israel and the U.S. agreed on mutual development of the Arrow-3 anti-missile interceptor. Built jointly by Boeing and the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, it will cost up to $100 million – all paid by U.S. taxpayers.  The Jerusalem Post reported Israel was worried that President Obama might abandon the funding because of the economic crisis. Maybe Israel feared the Obama administration thinks $100 million could better be used funding 2000 new green union jobs here at home?  But not to worry – the funding remains.  New missile interceptors for nuclear-armed Israel are apparently more important than U.S. jobs.

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