Little powers and big ones

One lesson that we can learn from the nasty war in Georgia is that if you are a small nation, a big power can crush you like a gnat. And you can’t necessarily depend on promises from other big powers to help you.

This is the problem of small nations, especially if they happen to be strategically located or important in some other way. Georgia’s pipelines from oil-rich Azerbijan into Turkey and to Georgia’s Black Sea ports make it ‘important’.

Israel is strategic because it is an obstacle to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the Mideast, both the Iranian and al-Qaeda variety. But its primary importance may lie more in its ‘location’ in the world’s psychological space than geography. If the size of a nation was proportional to the amount of news coverage devoted to it, Israel would be right up there with Russia.

The Georgians probably wish they weren’t so important to Russia today. But Israel’s relationship to its big brother, the US, is different: it’s both positive and negative.

Israel receives large quantities of aid from the US, mostly in the form of  grants and loan guarantees which can be used to buy weapons in the US. It is often said that Israel is one of the largest recipients of US foreign aid in the world (although this is misleading –  the US provides military assistance to other countries (e.g., Pakistan) directly from its defense budget, and this isn’t counted as ‘foreign aid’).

Since 1973, this aid has bought the US almost complete control of Israeli policy. In the light of this, the assertions by Mearsheimer and Walt and others that Israeli influence affects US policies against its own interests are not only false, but laughable.

For example, the “Annapolis process” in which Israel is pressured to acquiesce and even assist in the arming of the Palestinian Authority (PA) while engaging in negotiations that — if they succeed — will result in Hamas control of the West Bank, is in no way in Israel’s interest. Nor are the restrictions placed on Israel’s possible responses  to Hamas terrorism from Gaza.

US interests include good relations with the Arab oil powers, and even — despite appearances — a relationship, albeit not an entirely happy one, with Iran. Iran could cause great mischief for the West quite easily, and nobody wants to provoke her.

For example, Aluf Benn in Ha’aretz reported today that Israel will not get certain unspecified military equipment from the US which could be used in an attack on Iranian nuclear installations:

The Americans viewed the request, which was transmitted (and rejected) at the highest level, as a sign that Israel is in the advanced stages of preparations to attack Iran. They therefore warned Israel against attacking, saying such a strike would undermine American interests. They also demanded that Israel give them prior notice if it nevertheless decided to strike Iran.

On the plus side, if the US were not Israel’s patron, then she might be at the mercy of the Europeans who are both more dependent on Middle Eastern sources of oil and more driven by domestic politics to be pro-Arab than the US.

One of the complicating factors in the Israel-US relationship is the competing elements in the American government. State Department Arabists opposed Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948, opposed Nixon’s resupply of the IDF in 1973, and since 1967 have tried mightily to get Israel out of the territories regardless of the cost to Israeli security.

The White House, on the other hand has often been quite friendly to Israel. There was Truman, of course. And Bush’s letter of 2004 — in which he suggested that final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state need not be the 1949 armistice lines and that Palestinian ‘refugees’ could not expect to ‘return’ to Israel proper — undoubtedly caused teeth to gnash at Foggy Bottom.

Israel’s dependence on the US and its political obsequiousness is not healthy. How to reduce it is a difficult but critical question, especially now that US geopolitical and economic clout in the world is in an increasingly precipitous decline.

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One Response to “Little powers and big ones”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    The problem for Israel is that it has no alternative to the United States. It has nothing to threaten the U.S. with. The U.S. is in decline but how precipitous is not clear. It is still the single global military power. Israel’s acute problem of the moment is not its relationship with the U.S., however problematic this is. Israel’s problem is its lack of leadership. We have a lame- duck Prime Minister who is making committments to give up land to our first enemies.