As the country reviews its spending on defense and foreign assistance, it is time to examine the funding the United States provides to Israel.
Let me put it another way: Nine days ago, the Israeli cabinet reacted to months of demonstrations against the high cost of living there and agreed to raise taxes on corporations and people with high incomes ($130,000 a year). It also approved cutting more than $850 million, or about 5 percent, from its roughly $16 billion defense budget in each of the next two years.
If Israel can reduce its defense spending because of its domestic economic problems, shouldn’t the United States — which must cut military costs because of its major budget deficit — consider reducing its aid to Israel?
Look for a minute at the bizarre formula that has become an element of U.S.-Israel military aid, the so-called qualitative military edge (QME). Enshrined in congressional legislation, it requires certification that any proposed arms sale to any other country in the Middle East “will not adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge over military threats to Israel.”
In 2009 meetings with defense officials in Israel, Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher “reiterated the United States’ strong commitment” to the formula and “expressed appreciation” for Israel’s willingness to work with newly created “QME working groups,” according to a cable of her meetings that was released by WikiLeaks.
The formula has an obvious problem. Because some neighboring countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are U.S. allies but also considered threats by Israel, arms provided to them automatically mean that better weapons must go to Israel. The result is a U.S.-generated arms race.
For example, the threat to both countries from Iran led the Saudis in 2010 to begin negotiations to purchase advanced F-15 fighters. In turn, Israel — using $2.75 billion in American military assistance — has been allowed to buy 20 of the new F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighters being developed by the United States and eight other nations.
American arms merchants enjoyed a dominant year in 2010 as the United States was responsible for selling more than half of all weapons worldwide.Although U.S. arms exports actually declined last year, compared to 2009, the dramatic drop in global arms deals resulted in American suppliers controlling 53% of the market (up from 35% in 2009). Altogether, the U.S. inked $21.3 billion in new weapons orders with foreign countries in 2010. These figures do not include arms deals made directly between commercial weapons makers and other countries outside of the U.S. government program known as the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system.Only 49% of all U.S. deals were with developing countries, which usually account for the vast majority of international military purchases. These nations accounted for 70% of all new arms agreements with American suppliers last year. In 2010, U.S. companies led the world in arms sales to developing countries, controlling 40% of the market.The United States overwhelmingly dominates arms sales to the Near East, with the bulk of sales in the last four years going to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Iraq.
The New York Times documents the shift in the Arab world at a time when Washington is largely viewed as siding with occupiers (Israel) and brutes (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain etc):
A last-ditch American effort to head off a Palestinian bid for membership in the United Nations faltered. President Obamatried to qualify his own call, just a year ago, for a Palestinian state. And President Nicolas Sarkozy of France stepped forcefully into the void, with a proposal that pointedly repudiated Mr. Obama’s approach.
The extraordinary tableau Wednesday at the United Nations underscored a stark new reality: the United States is facing the prospect of having to share, or even cede, its decades-long role as the architect of Middle East peacemaking.
Even before Mr. Obama walked up to the General Assembly podium to make his difficult address, where he declared that “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.,” American officials acknowledged that their various last-minute attempts to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with help from European allies and Russia had collapsed.
American diplomats turned their attention to how to navigate a new era in which questions of Palestinian statehood are squarely on the global diplomatic agenda. There used to be three relevant players in any Middle East peace effort: the Palestinians, Israel and the United States. But expansions of settlements in the West Bank and a hardening of Israeli attitudes have isolated Israel and its main backer, the United States. Dissension among Palestinian factions has undermined the prospect for a new accord as well.
Finally, Washington politics has limited Mr. Obama’s ability to try to break the logjam if that means appearing to distance himself from Israel. Republicans have mounted a challenge to lure away Jewish voters who supported Democrats in the past, after some Jewish leaders sharply criticized Mr. Obama for trying to push Israel too hard.
The result has been two and a half years of stagnation on the Middle East peace front that has left Arabs — and many world leaders — frustrated, and ready to try an alternative to the American-centric approach that has prevailed since the 1970s.
“The U.S. cannot lead on an issue that it is so boxed in on by its domestic politics,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator in the government of Ehud Barak. “And therefore, with the region in such rapid upheaval and the two-state solution dying, as long as the U.S. is paralyzed, others are going to have to step up.”
The arms industry is a massive global market of Western nations, willing dictatorships and heaps of money.
New Statesman reports on the world’s largest arms fair recently held in London:
The two main exhibition halls have previously hosted concerts by Roxy Music, Alice Cooper and UB40. But today they are crammed with around 1300 exhibits, selling guns, bombs and the latest in security technology. A handful of stalls are devoted to life-saving equipment. Most of the space, however, is reserved for displays featuring 100lb hellfire missiles, AK47 rifles, stealth tanks and even gold-plated handguns.
The quiet dissipates and is replaced by the sound of chatter. Business cards change hands, and multi-million pound contracts are being negotiated. At a large stand run by the defence arm of SAAB, a Swedish company more renowned for its cars, Håkan Kappelin is showing off a laser-guided missile system to delegates from India. It has a range of 8km and can travel at speeds of up to 680 metres per second.
“It could be deployed inside a city like London. And you can engage any type of target,” he says. “Not like when you use an infra-red system, where you have problems with houses in the background. Just reload in five seconds and engage the next target.”
The delegates nod approvingly. “680 metres per second,” one repeats to another.
Upstairs, in a briefing room, Defence Secretary Liam Fox delivers a speech. Anti-arms campaigners have levelled criticism against the government for doing deals with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of crackdowns on protesters across the Arab world. Fox is dismissive. “I am proud that the UK is the second biggest defence exporter in the world,” he says. “This is fundamental part of the coalition government’s agenda for economic growth, but it is also part of our strategy of enlightened international engagement.”
While Washington and much of the West turns away, citizens must continue raising their voices. Anthony Shadid writes in the New York Times:
Activists trade stories of colleagues forced to eat feces in prison and high-ranking Shiite bureaucrats compelled to crawl in their offices like infants. Human rights groups say 43 Shiite mosques and religious structures were destroyed or damaged by a government that contended that it faced an Iranian-inspired plot, without offering any evidence that Tehran played a role. Backed by the armed intervention of Saudi Arabia, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa declared martial law in March, and though it was repealed June 1, the reverberations of the repression still echo across the island.
“They told me, ‘There are two ways we can deal with you — as a human or as an animal,’ ” Matar Matar, 45, recalled being told after he was arrested by men in civilian clothes in May and jailed for three months.
Saudi Arabia’s interior minister yesterday accepted undisclosed damages from a British newspaper for a false story claiming that he had ordered police chiefs in the kingdom “to shoot and kill unarmed demonstrators without mercy”.
The Independent newspaper and its Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, offered “sincere apologies” at the high court in London to Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.
It was announced in court that the “substantial” damages being paid to Prince Nayef would be handed over to charities.
Rupert Earle, the prince’s barrister, told Justice Nicola Davies that the bogus claim arose from internet stories in March about Shiite activists in Saudi Arabia trying to organise a protest march.
Several websites, said Mr Earle, claimed that Prince Nayef had told police chiefs in each of Saudi Arabia’s provinces that demonstrators “should be shown no mercy, should be struck with iron fists, and that it was permitted for all officers and personnel to use live rounds”. Although there was no truth in the claim, the barrister said, The Independent repeated it in an article in April in which Mr Fisk suggested that Prince Nayef was “worthy of investigation by the International Criminal Court at The Hague”.
Prince Nayef had not been given an opportunity to deny issuing the order and the article was reproduced on various websites and paraphrased in numerous stories carried by leading Arabic-language media, Mr Earle said.
In 2008 my second book, The Blogging Revolution, was released. It told the story of the internet in repressive regimes.
Now, post the Arab uprisings, I’ve updated the title and it’s been released globally this week as an e-book via Melbourne University Press:
The hope that the Arab world had not long ago put in the United States and President Obama has all but evaporated.
Two and a half years after Obama came to office, raising expectations for change among many in the Arab world, favorable ratings of the United States have plummeted in the Middle East, according to a new poll conducted by Zogby International for the Arab American Institute Foundation.
In most countries surveyed, favorable attitudes toward the United States dropped to levels lower than they were during the last year of the Bush administration. The killing of Osama bin Laden also worsened attitudes toward the United States.
In Saudi Arabia, for instance, 30 percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of the United States (compared with 41 percent in 2009), while roughly 5 percent said the same in Egypt (compared with 30 percent in 2009).
“The very high expectations that were created in 2009 – there’s been a letdown since then,” said James Zogby, the president and founder of the Arab American Institute, of which the foundation is an affiliate.
Fewer than 10 percent of respondents described themselves as having a favorable view of Obama. The president’s ratings were the lowest on “the Palestinian issue” and “engagement with the Muslim world,” as the categories were described in the survey.
The poll was conducted over the course of a month among 4,000 respondents in six countries: Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. Pollsters began their work shortly after a major speech Obama gave on the Middle East, in which he spoke broadly of his vision in the Middle East and pressed Israel, in unusually frank terms, to reach a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.
The findings are largely in line with those of a poll conducted in the spring of 2010 by the Pew Research Center, which also found favorable views of the United States and Obama slipping. As with the new poll, Obama got his worst ratings for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Zogby said he saw the president about a month ago and mentioned that he was conducting another poll of views in the Arab world. The president, Zogby said, predicted that views of the United States would remain unfavorable because of the intractable nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What weapons for an occupied people? A population facing repression? Cultural, academic and economic boycotts are important tools and must be utilised. I argued this in a recent essay in Overland in relation to Sri Lanka and Palestine.
This post on Mondoweiss shows that the debate is global and opponents of boycotts have fewer arguments by the day. In Sri Lanka, Tamils face a Colombo regime that discriminate based on ethnic background. In Israel, Palestinians are second class citizens simply because they’re not Jewish. BDS now:
On the eve of the passing of the anti-boycott bill in the Israeli Knesset today by a majority of 47 to 38, a debate on cultural boycott was held at the London Literature Festival in the Southbank Centre, initiated by Naomi Foyle of British Writers in Support of Palestine (BWISP). The debate motion was: “Where basic freedoms are denied and democratic remedies blocked off, cultural boycott by world civil society is a viable and effective political strategy; indeed a moral imperative.”
Supporting the motion, Omar Barghouti, founding member of PACBI, and Seni Seneviratne, British-Sri Lankan poet and performer; opposing, Jonathan Freedland, columnist for The Guardian and the Jewish Chronicle, and Carol Gould, expatriate American author, film maker, and ‘a vocal critic of what she sees as increasing anti-Americanism and antisemitism in Britain’.
Although the chair referred to the Palestinian call to boycott Israel as a ‘model boycott’, the debate was in theory not specific to I/P. Seneviratne, who is very knowledgeable about the South African experience, opened with a poem of Brecht’s, “When evil-doing comes like falling rain”, and addressed the history of cultural boycott, arguing that it is up to the oppressed people to decide what they can, and cannot, endure. She emphasised that the Israeli state strategy to co-opt culture showed it understood art was not beyond politics, the same way other countries have feared and murdered intellectuals and banned the work of cultural producers. Otherwise the debate was entirely focused on I/P.
As expected from those opposing the motion, there was much ‘whataboutery’: “look at Syria, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia”, as well as misrepresentation: “you will be shunning the dissenters, individual artists, writers, scholars”, and outright lies: “there was not a consensus in Palestinian society on BDS.” Perpetrating the myths of liberal Zionism was Freedland, who began smugly as the Voice of Cultural Sensitivity, Dialogue & Coexistence and ended up tetchy and defensive in the face of polite demands from the other side for moral consistency and the reminder that no state committing the crimes of Israel is “welcome in the Western club of democracies”.
Given that Freedland is still under the intentional illusion that this a conflict between two nations, rather than a case of settler colonialism, his empty rhetoric was not surprising. He might have wished for someone less morally compromising on his team, however. Carol Gould ‘judaized the debate’ as Barghouti put it, and to a repulsive degree. One particularly shocking statement of hers was that Israel’s industry ‘emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust’. She concluded with an extraordinary defense of ‘dovish’ Israeli president Shimon Peres’s order to shell the UN compound in Qana, Lebanon in 1996, which resulted in the deaths of over 100 civilians.
Barghouti and Seneviratne made a strong team and while their approaches to the subject matter were different, the message was the same: ‘We will never convince the colonial masters to give up their privileges’, so boycott is a legitimate tactic.
Pro-boycotters were in the majority that night, and the motion passed easily.
The elephant in the room for decades. We sell them weapons, indulge their fundamentalism and allow gender apartheid without comment. The moral bankruptcy of Western foreign policy could almost be summarised through its relationship with Saudi Arabia alone.
Here’s a fascinating new feature in Vanity Fair about the regime’s ties to the 9/11 hijackers:
In spite of the fact that it had almost immediately become known that 15 of those implicated in the attacks had been Saudis, President George W. Bush did not hold Saudi Arabia’s official representative in Washington at arm’s length. As early as the evening of September 13, he kept a scheduled appointment to receive Prince Bandar at the White House. The two men had known each other for years. They reportedly greeted each other with a friendly embrace, smoked cigars on the Truman Balcony, and conversed with Vice President Dick Cheney and National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
There is a photograph of the meeting, which has been published in the past. This year, however, when the authors asked the George W. Bush presidential library for a copy, the library responded in an e-mail that the former president’s office was “not inclined to release the image from the balcony at this time.”
It would soon become evident that, far from confronting the Saudis, the Bush administration wanted rapprochement. The president would invite Crown Prince Abdullah to visit the United States, press him to come when he hesitated, and—when he accepted—welcome him to his Texas ranch in early 2002. Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice were there, along with Secretary of State Colin Powell and First Lady Laura Bush.
It seems that 9/11 barely came up during the discussions. Speaking with the press afterward, the president cut off one reporter when he began to raise the subject.
Let me get this straight. A web evangelist, working for the US government, admires the ability of the internet to assist Arab revolutions and compares its power to Che Guevera, a man the establishment regards as a terrorist.
I guess backing real freedom in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is a bridge too far for this real lover of democracy:
Speaking at the Guardian’s Activate summit in London on Wednesday, Alec Ross said “dictatorships are now more vulnerable than ever” as disaffected citizens organise influential protest movements on Facebook and Twitter.
The US has pledged to back the pro-democracy movements that have swept the Middle East and north Africa since January. Ross welcomed the “redistribution of power” from autocratic regimes to individuals, describing the internet as “wildly disruptive” during the protests in Egypt and Tunisia.
“Dictatorships are now more vulnerable than they have ever been before, in part – but not entirely – because of the devolution of power from the nation state to the individual,” he said.
“One thesis statement I want to emphasise is how networks disrupt the exercise of power. They devolve power from the nation state – from governments and large institutions – to individuals and small institutions. The overarching pattern is the redistribution of power from governments and large institutions to people and small institutions.”
Ross said that the internet had “acted as an accelerant” in the Arab spring uprisings, pointing to the dislodging of former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in little over a month. The internet had facilitated leaderless movements, Ross added, describing it as the “Che Guevara of the 21st century”.
However, he said it was a “bridge too far” to describe the Egyptian uprising as a “Facebook revolution”.
A rather startling Newsweek feature that shows just how shallow the US understanding of the Middle East has been for decades. Working with tyrants and torturers and murderers, in the name of fighting “terrorism”, has meant that the overthrow of such figures in the last six months has resulted in US eyes and ears becoming close to blind and deaf. Expect Washington to support any kind of reliable brutes in the months and years ahead:
Among American spies there’s more than a little nostalgia for the bad old days. You know, back before dictators started toppling in the Middle East; back when suspected bad guys could be snatched off a street somewhere and delivered to the not-so-tender mercies of interrogators in their home countries; back when thuggish tyrants, however ugly, were at least predictable.
It’s not a philosophical thing, just a practical one. Confronted by the cold realities of this year’s Arab Spring, many intelligence and counterterrorism professionals now see major dangers looming near at hand, while the good news—a freer, fairer, more equitable and stable Arab world—remains somewhere over the horizon. “All this celebration of democracy is just bullshit,” says one senior intelligence officer who’s spent decades fighting terrorism and finds his job getting harder, not easier, because of recent developments. “You take the lid off and you don’t know what’s going to happen. I think disaster is lurking.”
Which is why the Americans have once again turned to Riyadh as their discreet and indispensable ally. In Yemen particularly, the Saudis have their own operatives on the ground and many tribal leaders on their payroll. The kingdom’s main objective—to stabilize Yemen while eliminating Al Qaeda—is much the same as Washington’s. But can Saudi Arabia really resist the region’s seismic change? If the country is about to erupt as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria have done, would local intelligence services know? Would the Americans? The record is far from encouraging.