Tag Archives: Netanyahu

israel flag gaza palestine hamas

Nothing New in Israeli Politics

The Palestinian question cannot be shunned by Israel’s political class and by its Jewish electorate since it is part and parcel of Israel’s essence. No “new” coalition can change this fundamental fact.

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israel flag gaza palestine hamas

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Although almost two months have passed since Israeli citizens have cast their vote to elect the 19th Knesset, a government is yet to be formed.

In the meantime, there are three considerations to be made. The first one regards Netanyahu’s claim that the main issue on which his government will focus will be “socioeconomic”. In the summer of 2011 tens of thousands of Israelis protested against austerity measures and the rising price of housing. The opposition seized the opportunity and accused the Netanyahu government of mismanaging the economy and finance of the country. Therefore Netanyahu pledged to make it his priority to see to it that no Israeli will ever again have to suffer financial angst.

There are two hidden aspects to the “socioeconomic” agenda. Firstly, Netanyahu believes that by focusing on it he will be able to focus solely on “domestic” issues. That is, he will be able to cast aside, at least for a while, anything which is “foreign”. By “foreign” Netanyahu means one thing and one thing only: the stagnation of the peace process with the Palestinians due to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. Thus it is not a sincere desire to ease Israeli citizens’ lives that drives the Netanyahu to focus on the “domestic socioeconomic” issue but rather a desire to to postpone the creation of a Palestinian state.

The second hidden aspect is the fact that the “socioeconomic” situation which needs to be ameliorated pertains to Jewish Israeli citizens and not to all Israeli citizens. Indeed, the “socioeconomic” status of the Arab population has been neglected up to the point of asking whether Israel is a democracy at all. No wonder less than half of the Arab population was expected to vote.

The second consideration concerns the fact that any “new” coalition will not be that new after all since it will either be constituted by political parties which are not sincere about peace or by political parties which, while professing to be part of the “peace camp,” have not won enough seats to make a real difference.

The two possible heavyweight candidates to join Netanyahu are Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), led by Naftali Bennet, a software tycoon, who has made explicit his intent of expanding settlement construction and to annex Area C of the West Bank, equivalent to 61% of the territory (indeed, Netanyahu himself pledged not to dismantle any settlements); and Yesh Atid, a centrist political party founded by Yair Lapid, a former journalist and TV presenter, who has delivered his main electoral speech at the University of Ariel, arguably the biggest and most controversial settlement in the West Bank. Mr. Lapid has also stated that Jerusalem must remain undivided (read: Israeli).

The political parties which seem genuinely interested in the peace process are Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah which won a mere 5% of the votes; Meretz also at 5% and Kadima at 2%. The three Arab-Israeli parties combined did not even make it to 10%.

Since settlement construction is deemed illegal under international law, it can be safely stated that the “new” government will be composed of criminal elements. The international community should condemn ferociously the policies of these political parties and make it clear that Netanyahu’s alliance with them is frowned upon. Alas, the only reaction seen so far was the usual hand tapping by the British Foreign secretary William Hague.

The previous two brief reflections lead me to the third and final one which perhaps is the most important: governments are not formed ex nihilo, they are elected by the people. Two things follow from this. Firstly, the policies which are implemented or which the elected parties pledge to implement reflect the values of the people voting for those same parties. Therefore the underlying problem is not so much that there are a few racist individuals in Israel’s political arena but that a great part, if not a majority, of the Israeli public shares these racist values and wishes for them to be implemented.

Secondly, and following the above remark, the Israeli public shares the responsibility for racist policies being implemented against the native Arab population. We are accustomed to aim criticisms at governments and other political institutions for injustices perpetrated by nations. The fact of the matter is, though, that in Israel people do elect governments and therefore share responsibility. Change will not come by putting pressure on the political establishment but only once the Israeli institutions will be reformed in such a way as to create a radical shift in the Jewish Israeli public’s values.

The Palestinian question cannot be shunned by Israel’s political class and by its Jewish electorate since it is part and parcel of Israel’s essence. No “new” coalition can change this fundamental fact.

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Photo Credit: Lilachd

The Streets of Jerusalem

An Introduction To The Forthcoming Israeli Elections (Part One)

With the recent announcement from Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli elections will be held approximately 8 months ahead of schedule (in early 2013), we thought an introduction to the domestic Israeli political landscape was in order. 

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The Streets of Jerusalem

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The government of the 18th Knesset was one of the most stable in the topsy-turvy world of Israeli politics: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now the second-longest serving premier in Israel’s history of squabbling, multi-party coalition governments. This represents a rare achievement in the fickle world of Israeli politics, where internal wrangling and ego-fuelled disputes are daily occurrences.

With the Israeli elections scheduled for 22nd January 2013, all of the Knesset’s 120 seats are up for grabs. Below, I attempt to navigate the obfuscated, irascible and often irrational nature of Israeli politics, by providing an outline of the ‘major’ parties vying for representation in the 19th Knesset.

Likud Squared

‘Likud’- Hebrew for ‘Consolidation’, constitutes a merger of a disparate band of right-wing parliamentary parties. The 2013 elections have wrought the ‘consolidation of the consolidation’ in the ‘nationalist camp’: the merging of Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Shocked political commentators compensated for being caught off-guard by coining the new slur towards this government-in-waiting: ‘Bieberman’.

The ideological incongruity between these parties contextualises cross-party shock at the news. Yisrael Beitenu is a ‘special interest’ party of Israel’s Russian-born population. Branded ‘The Russians’, Lieberman supporters are unique for their espousing of both secularism (Yisrael Beitenu are often called ‘The Pork Party’) and right-wing ‘ultranationalism’.

By contrast, Likud rose to power in 1977 on the backs of ‘Mizrahim’: orthodox Jews from Arab countries alienated by the Europeanised, socialist secularism of the Labor-led administration. Whilst Lieberman’s pronouncements during his current tenure as Foreign Minister were crass and peppered with nationalist bombast, the American-educated Netanyahu represents the Western-media savvy, ‘silver tongue’ of the Israeli right, taking the Likud to its current 27 seats.

At a glance, one can discern the underlying fundamental precipitants of the merger. Representing but one section of Israeli society and holding only 15 Knesset seats, Lieberman’s lofty Prime Ministerial ambitions would indubitably be rendered unlikely. By co-opting the rising star of the right, Netanyahu neutralised a potential Prime Ministerial contender, positioning Lieberman as an heir, not an opponent. Both leaders have, naturally, denied that a power-sharing deal was cemented.

Though polls had previously been kind to both parties, snap post-merger polling has painted a less rosy picture. Likud may lose both Mizrahi voters put off by Lieberman’s secularism and centre-right voters who eschew Yisrael Beitenu’s apathy towards the international community. The merger has also engendered discomfort from Likudniks who considered themselves Prime Ministers in waiting. Whilst the happy couple are enjoying the honeymoon, inter-party acrimony is already fermenting. 

Yalla (Bye?) Kadima

Kadima is a name rooted in Israeli slang: ‘Yalla Kadima’- ‘let’s go: forward’- is ubiquitous during rush-hour traffic jams. Thus, it is ironic that ‘Yalla Kadima’, a centrist party founded in 2005, is at risk of becoming ‘Yalla Bye’- a streetwise idiom denoting decampment.

Since Ariel Sharon, Kadima’s founder, suffered a stroke in 2006, the party was led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The loss of government to Likud in the 2009 elections led to Livni being displaced as leader by her rival, Shaul Mofaz. The latter’s bumbling has not endeared the party to skeptical Israeli voters: despite joining Netanyahu’s coalition in May 2012, Mofaz backtracked, returning Kadima to opposition in mid-July. Polling has consistently shown the party plummeting from its current position of 28 Knesset seats to single-digit figures.

Despite being mired in sleaze and corruption, rumours abound about Olmert’s return to politics as head of a centre-left ‘mega-party’.  Livni is also the subject of speculation; will she found a centrist partyjoin Labor or ally with Olmert? Rather than stand as a testament to their survivability, the resurgence of previous washed-up leaders is demonstrative of a vacuum of electable talent on the centre-left.

The Redemption of Labor

Despite having led every Israeli government from 1948-1977, many pundits predicted the demise of the Labor Party throughout the 18th Knesset. The party enters the 2013 elections with its  lowest-ever mandate of eight Knesset seats, having been decimated by former Labor leader Ehud Barak’s decision to split from the party in 2011.

Barak, the highest-decorated soldier in Israeli history, was replaced by Shelly Yachimovich, a political neophyte with no security experience, often a necessity for Israeli electoral success. Unlike its European namesakes, Labor has failed to connect with working-class Israelis, many of whom are Russian or Mizrahi, due to the predominance of hawkish positions in these demographic groups vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

Starting from a low point, Labor is oddly well-placed to spin a lacklustre result as a positive gain. Buoyed by widespread societal dissatisfaction at the high cost of living, Labor strategists hope to broaden the party’s appeal by focusing on socio-economic issues, rather than the flaccid peace process: Yachimovich has successfully recruited the leaders of the cross-party social protest movement.  With Kadima faltering, opinion polls suggest Labor will supplant them as the official opposition.

Netanyahu’s government finally fell due to the unwillingness of his coalition to agree to a wide-ranging budget of austerity measures. When the cuts bite, Labor is banking upon the vindication of their social-democratic platform: if they under-perform electorally, expect them to play ‘the long game’ and sit out the next government in opposition.

This is the first of a two part series. You can read the second part here.

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 Photo credit: dmitrysumin

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Israeli State Sponsored Xenophobia

The unjust treatment of both illegal immigrants and Arabs stems from the same racist values which are so pervasive in Israel’s public institutions.

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[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the most difficult questions for any policy maker today is how to deal with illegal immigration. This is especially a problem for countries whose economy is relatively decent and who border or are close to countries where the basic institutions needed to look after the needs of the population are dysfunctional or nonexistent.

One of the governments having to deal with this issue is Israel. Nearby Eritrea and Sudan have been inefficient towards their citizens for as long as one can remember and Sudan in particular has seen and is still seeing prolonged periods of violence. In the past few years Eritreans and Sudanese have been seeking refuge in close-by countries such as Egypt and Israel.

The Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has recorded an influx of 60,000 refugees with 2,000 to 3,000 more every month. For a country with a population of 7.6 million it is a high number indeed. Many of these immigrants end up living in neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv. This has caused rising bitterness among locals who accuse the immigrants of all sorts of “dirty” deeds.

Slowly but steadily, and also due to the recent case of three Eritrean immigrants being accused of sexual assaulting a 19 year old girl, this bitterness has metamorphosed into hatred which has been manifested through a variety of attacks against the immigrant community. The incidents include the throwing of molotovs against a building housing immigrants, verbal abuse against Hotline for Migrant Workers, an aid organization, and, most importantly, an anti-immigrant protest which ended with the demonstrators attacking random immigrants on the street.

Such reactions on behalf of the local population, however heinous, are not irrational bouts. On the contrary, they have a logic of their own, that is, they are the result of specific circumstances. In Israel, these circumstances take the form of political and social institutions imbued with racist and xenophobic values.

In other words, what we are witnessing right now in Israel is the logical outcome of the racist ideology pervasive in its public institutions. The central principle of this ideology is that Israel is and has to remain a Jewish state and it needs to preserve its “Jewish character” by whatever means possible. This ideology can be observed by looking firstly at the statements made by top ranking politicians and secondly at the decisions taken by the political establishment as a whole.

Eli Yishai, Israel’s Interior Minister, commenting on the possible deportation of migrant workers from Israel in October 2009, asked rhetorically ‘Do [the workers] not threaten the Zionist project in the State of Israel?’. Netanyahu has explicitly declared that the influx of immigrants is jeopardising Israel’s Jewish character. At the anti-immigrant rally held in south Tel Aviv, several Members of Knesset (MK), Israel’s parliament, were present. One of them, Likud MK Danny Dannon, called for deportation. Another, Likud MK Miri Regev, shouted “the Sudanese [are] a cancer in our body”. Notice that these remarks, and the first two in particular, do not mention economic difficulties as obstacles for absorbing immigrants but the preservation of the Jewish character of the state.

The measures the government has taken against the influx of immigrants also manifest xenophobic values. Firstly, the biggest detention centre in the world is being built in the Negev desert, capable of housing up to 11,000 immigrants. Human Rights groups have criticised the construction of the detention centre pointing out at the inhumane conditions it will subject the inmates. Secondly, the government has resorted also in this case to building a wall on its southern border, just as it is doing in the north with Lebanon and in the occupied Palestinian territories. Thirdly, politicians have pledged to deport the immigrants against their will and knowing that they face severe consequences in their countries of origin. Fourthly, the Knesset passed a bill which defines anyone crossing the southern border of Israel illegally as an “infiltrator” who can be detained up to three years. Fifthly, the government is not recognising the immigrants’ status as refugees. Out of the 60,000 plus people who crossed illegally into Israel in the past few years, only six have been bestowed with a refugee status (and only 170 since 1949), meaning that all the others do not enjoy the rights accorded to refugees. The last of these measures violates the first article of the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees adopted by the UN General Assembly and of which Israel is a signatory.

Moreover, the police have been accused of feeding the public incorrect data about immigrants. For instance, the media has quoted the police as stating that immigrants were responsible for 40% of crimes, a figure repeated by MK Danny Dannon. But at a meeting held by the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, police data showed that in 2011 immigrants were responsible only for 2.24% of crimes thus showing that much of the fear raised among locals was unnecessary and illogical.

To be sure, the social phenomenon where the local population resorts to extremist actions against immigrants is certainly not peculiar to Israel, far from it. What needs to be appreciated, though, is that the background structure of Israeli society is responsible for and supporting this  phenomenon. Although the government boasts of being the only democratic country in the region, it is actively inciting the population to such actions by both pronouncing inflammatory and racist remarks and taking concrete steps in maintaining the “Jewish character” of the nation, that is, getting rid of anything which threatens the “Jewish demographic”, as the native Arab population knows all too well. In fact, the unjust treatment of both illegal immigrants and Arabs stems from the same racist values which are so pervasive in Israel’s public institutions. And let us not forget the incentives the Israeli state has designed in order to attract Jews wishing to become citizens of Israel, starting with the Law of Return, which shows that influx itself is not the problem.

The sick irony in all of this is unmissable: while Israel points to the repeated persecution of the Jewish people and its culmination in the racist policies of Germany during the 30s and 40s, it turns away foreigners escaping very similar situations precisely in order to preserve its purity.

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Günter Grass & German Emancipation

We should hope that Günter Grass’ courage and bravery in criticizing Israel will be mimicked by more Germans.

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[dropcap]G[/dropcap]ünter Grass’ poem “What must be said”, in which the German Nobel laureate openly criticised Israel’s policies in the Middle East, its nuclear program, and the hypocrisy of western governments in the support they give the Jewish state, has predictably attracted much attention, controversy and criticism.

As expected, Bibi Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, has attacked Grass by reminding everyone of the poet’s dark past as a member of the Waffen SS. Eli Yishai, Israel’s Interior Minister, has gone as far as barring Grass entrance into Israel in turn reminding everyone of the character of the “sole democracy” in the Middle East. In fact, Grass himself remarked that the only two other establishments which have barred him from entering a country due to his criticisms were the military junta in Myanmar 25 years ago and Erich Mielke, the head of East Germany’s Stasi. The chant against Grass’ supposed “anti-Semitism” has been joined by many other intellectuals sympathetic to Israel’s policies.

Günter Grass anticipated in his poem that he would be charged with being anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, doing so is unfair. Grass explicitly recognises in the poem the mistake he made by joining the Nazi movement calling his decision ‘a stain never to be expunged’ (although to many it might not matter, Grass was only seventeen when he was drafted in the Nazi unit). Furthermore, he expresses his connection with Israel using emotionally strong words. These two points are found in the following stanza of the poem:

Why though have I stayed silent until now?

Because I thought my origin,

Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged

Kept the state of Israel, to which I am bound

And wish to stay bound,

From accepting this fact as pronounced truth.

Moreover, Grass stated in an interview following the publication of his poem that he was not writing against Israel as a country but against the Israeli government, ‘It’s that which I criticize, a policy that keeps building settlements despite a UN resolution’.

Others have criticised the author by remarking that he published the poem solely in order to galvanise his declining career and that from a literary point of view, the poem is nil. Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, called it “pathetic”. But there have also been some constructive criticisms. Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist and regular op-ed contributor to Haaretz, wrote that although the poem itself exaggerates on certain points due to perhaps the writer’s old age, the content of the poem needs to be taken seriously since it is written by a distinguished artist who means no harm.

But there is one element in some criticisms which is most irritating. Many have pointed out that having been a member of the SS is not the only factor in Grass’ biography that makes his poem so controversial. The other factor is his nationality itself, that is, being German.

Some critics point out that Grass’ poem might be interpreted as an attempt by a German to emancipate himself from his nation’s past by finally openly criticising Israel but that since the poem is not that good, mainly because it lacks subtlety, then it all seems like a “clumsy” attempt or even, as a contributor on Newsbook, The Economist’s blog, wrote, a ‘giant gaffe’. In fact, the contributor concludes his op-ed by stating that ‘Mr Grass may have provoked the controversy to get attention, or he may have done so to break the taboo of Germans criticising Israel. But that taboo has been broken before, and by more nuanced and informed voices.’

These criticisms seem not to grasp the significance of such emancipation. Germany’s population (except perhaps the great influx of immigrants) still lives with a great sense of responsibility and guilt for what happened to the Jews during the Second World War. This burden from the past defines present generations of Germans which objectively have nothing to do with what happened almost seventy years ago. Anyone who has been in Germany knows that talk about Nazism is taboo. This is the extent to which this element in the German collective consciousness goes.

The importance of Grass’ poem is not how informed or precise it is. Grass is not an historian. And why should it matter if others have already said it? Truly breaking a social taboo needs more than just one event: it needs a repeated effort by a plurality of individuals. Furthermore, I cannot recall many Germans who are bestowed with Grass’ fame and have spoken so loudly against Israeli policies. Although that might be a consequence of my personal ignorance, as I hope it is, it does not detract from the courage it has taken Grass to publish this poem. It is precisely the courage of not only a German to speak out against Israeli policies, but a German who has actively participated in one of the most lethal anti-Semitic political movements and who is looking for redemption that needs to be appreciated. Hopefully, Grass’ example will give courage to other Germans to do the same.

Israeli Settlers

Settlers Are The True Threat To Israel

It is in the interests of the Israelis, the Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East to stop the settlers.

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he settler movement is viewed as the ultimate expression of the Israeli injustice against the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and thus is seen primarily as a threat to the native Arab population. Although this is certainly true, there is another aspect of the settler movement which is rarely appreciated and which needs to be spelled out explicitly. This is the fact that the settler movement is not only a direct threat to the Palestinian population but it is a direct threat to Israeli society, the one living within the lawful borders.

The settler movement’s culture is characterised by a messianic understanding of the historical contingencies which brought about the State of Israel. More importantly, this religious fervour is often translated into violence against the native population justified precisely on religious grounds by extremist Rabbis. The forms of violence range from burning Palestinian property, to looting villages, to the most heinous of crimes, such as premeditated murders and full blown terrorist organisations. An instance of the latter is the Kach movement following the steps of Rabbi Meir Kahane whose members included Baruch Goldstein, a settler responsible for the mass murder of 29 Palestinians in the Hebron mosque. To all effects, this culture can be called a form of religious fundamentalism. The extent of their conviction is that anyone who opposes the idea of the return of Judea and Samaria –the biblical names for Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories- to the Jews, is a traitor. This has been proven by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, a member of the settler movement.

The settler movement opposes vehemently the peace process. For example, in October 1998 during the summit held at the Wye River Plantation between Netanyahu and a Palestinian delegation mediated by Clinton, representatives of the settlers exerted pressure on the Israeli side by personally showing up to discourage any kind of compromise. After hearing the news that at the summit Netanyahu had agreed to cede 13% of the Occupied Territories to the Palestinian Authority, the Yesha Council, a former umbrella organisation representing most settlements, defined the Wye consensus as a “treason agreement”.

More importantly, the settler movement is supported by all the main Israeli authoritative institutions: political, military, and legislative. Most governments since 1967 fiercely supported the expropriation of Palestinian land for the construction of settlements. The only exception was Rabin’s government, whose fate we have already mentioned. Governments also invest substantial amounts of tax-payers’ money in order to fund the needs of the settlers. This money could be used in more productive manners, such as investing in curbing poverty within Israel, a growing social problem attested by the protests held in July 2011. The army supports the settler movement by both guarding illegal settlements and outposts and going as far as arming the settlers themselves with sophisticated weaponry.

In the Occupied Territories two sets of laws are implemented: one for the settlers and one for the native population, the former being much more lenient than the latter. The Israeli High Court has repeatedly given absurdly short sentences for obvious crimes. In October 1982, Ishegoyev, a settler near Hebron, shot a thirteen year old Palestinian in the back killing him after the latter had thrown stones against his garbage truck. He was sentenced to three months of public service work. But perhaps the most memorable case is that of Yoram Shkolnick. A settler in March 1993 Shklonick overheard on his radio that a Palestinian, who had tried to stab other settlers had been captured by the military and was tied up and lying on the floor in a place nearby. Schklonick arrived at the site armed with an Uzi submachine gun and filled the Palestinian’s body with bullets. He was initially convicted to a life sentence but Weissman, at the time Israel’s President, reduced his sentence on two occasions so that Schkolnik was released from prison seven years after having been sentenced. This legal leniency only helps to solidify the settler’s belief in the righteousness of their cause.

The settlers represent a threat to Israeli society in three ways. Firstly, their violent tactics might in the future be aimed not solely against Palestinians but against anyone who opposes the settlement movement and this includes Israeli citizens. A case in point is the violent tactics used by the settlers against, paradoxically, the army in the rare occasions when the latter has been deployed in order to evacuate certain illegal outposts. Secondly, Palestinian attacks against Israeli citizens are a direct consequence of the failure of the peace process. Since the settlement movement is not only the major obstacle to peace with the Palestinians but also the locus in which the brutality and injustice perpetrated against the native population is justified, it is the major source of motivation for such attacks.

Thirdly, the settlement movement is responsible for the alienation of Israel from the international community. This is caused by Israel’s continued violation of international law due to the settlers’ pressure. This is illustrated, for instance, by the recent withdrawal of Israel from the UN Human Rights Council to protest against the organisation’s decision to probe the settlements. It is not inconceivable that in the future Israel will no longer enjoy the support of key players in the global arena and that because of their alienation will suffer material and not only verbal condemnation. This would impinge directly on Israeli citizens.

Moreover, since peace between Israel and Palestine is also one of the crucial steps in the stabilisation of the entire Middle Eastern region, the settlement movement threatens communities beyond the borders of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. It is then in the interest of the Palestinians, Israelis and the region at large to stop the settlement movement.

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Netanyahu & Olmert Policy Variations Towards Iran

To what extent does the policy towards a nuclear Iran of the present Benjamin Netanyahu premiership differ from that of Ehud Olmert?
{Oriental Studies, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford}

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Introduction

In examining the Israeli position and policy towards a nuclear Iran, it is possible to note different attitudes between the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima’s Ehud Olmert. Netanyahu is more intense and dramatic in portraying nuclear Iran, while Olmert was more subtle and calmer. While both called for international awareness of the Iranian nuclear threat, they varied in approach and intensity. Furthermore, it will be shown that the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency has intensified the danger a nuclear Iran would pose to Israel. This essay is divided into three main sections: first, what a nuclear Iran means to Israel; second, how international attention was drawn to the threat; and finally, what actions Netanyahu and Olmert have called for to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. This essay will show how in speeches and interviews, Netanyahu and Olmert presented a nuclear Iran to the world.

What does a Nuclear Iran mean to Israel?

Israel’s security has always been a priority since the state’s establishment in 1948. Israel’s birth was mired in conflicts, from within its territories and from its surroundings. Israel views itself as an island surrounded by a hostile sea, namely its Arab neighbours that view Israel as an illegal state[1]. However, Israel sees itself as the homeland for the Jewish people: since the exile of the Jews by the Romans in the 1st and 2nd Centuries CE after the destruction of the Second Temple, there are more Jews living in Israel than anywhere else in the world[2]. As a result, Israeli governments have been concerned about the security of their citizens, and even more so about the potential destruction of the Zionist dream of returning the Jews to their homeland.

With this sense of threatened existence, Israel has been fearful of Iran since it announced the restart of its nuclear programme in 1992[3]. Ever since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic regime of Iran has often spoken against Israel and Ayatollah Khomeini has called for its destruction[4]. However Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, saw the election of Mohammad Khatami as President of Iran in 1997. Even though Netanyahu initially saw Khatami’s election as a “positive development” for Israel[5], the Iranian leadership led by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continued to speak against Israel and call for its destruction[6]. However, Khatami himself was considered a moderate and liberal figure in Iranian politics[7]. He sought to improve relations with the West[8], and, moreover, he condemned acts of terrorism against Israelis[9]. This shows that the threat of a nuclear attack by Iran was not as present during Khatami’s presidency. Furthermore, during this period, there was little comment on Iran’s nuclear programme by Israeli officials.

This changed when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the sixth President of Iran in August 2005. More conservative in outlook, he resumed the early rhetoric of the Islamic Republic. A few months after his election, Ahmadinejad addressed a ‘World without Zionism’ conference and declared that Israel was a “disgraceful blot” that should be “wiped off the face of the earth”[10]. By calling for the complete destruction of Israel, Iran posed a realistic nuclear threat. Although there were attempts by Ahmadinejad’s ministers to improve his image after this speech by saying that he had been misunderstood[11], his statements proved difficult to ignore and the threat he posed to Israel’s existence intensified. With Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric, one can observe greater concern and urgency in the statements of both Olmert and Netanyahu.

After Ariel Sharon’s serious stroke in January 2006, Ehud Olmert was appointed acting prime minister, and following an election, he became Israel’s 12th prime minister. Sharon had already spoken against Iran and had warned of its developing nuclear programme when he said that Iran “makes every effort to possess nuclear weapons”, and that it would soon pass the “point of no return”[12]. Olmert echoed these sentiments when he discussed Iran’s enriching of uranium for the purposes of developing a nuclear weapon[13]. This shows that there was already a belief within Israel that Iran was intent on pursuing a nuclear programme.

However, during his time as prime minister, Olmert has displayed uncertainty over the authenticity of Iran’s nuclear programme. In an interview, he stated that he was unconvinced about Iran’s technological advancement in actually developing a nuclear warhead. Moreover, he said that Iran was not “as close as it pretends” to developing such weapons. He bases his judgement on what Iranian leaders have said, and has decided that although it is not far from it, Iran still does not have the technology[14]. According to a US intelligence review, despite the existence of a nuclear programme, Iran is still a few years away from manufacturing a nuclear weapon[15]. Iran has also signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows it to develop nuclear energy for “peaceful purposes”[16]. Olmert, thus, lacked the confidence to overtly accuse Iran of possessing nuclear weapons.

The debate over whether or not Iran has nuclear weapons is secondary to the fact that the threat of a nuclear Iran was enough to generate genuine fear. Despite doubt over Iran’s current capabilities, Israel believes that it is or at least will be armed in the foreseeable future, and this fear is enough for Israel to feel threatened. In an interview with the German weekly news magazine Der Speigel, Olmert stated that he believed that Iran’s nuclear threat was serious enough, and that Israel was convinced of Iran’s military programme and that Iran will fight to defend it[17]. Furthermore, in a poll published in Israel in 2006, it showed that 79% of Israeli Jews believe that Iran posed a genuine threat to Israel’s existence while 66% believe that Iran would develop a nuclear weapon and use it against Israel[18]. This shows that although Olmert himself was initially reluctant to talk of Iran’s nuclear weapons in real terms, the fear amongst Israelis was high. In order to appear as if he had its citizens’ interests at heart, he had to speak against Iran and the threat of its nuclear arms programme.

Although Olmert talks about the threat Iran poses to Israel’s existence, his views are fairly calm and he discusses the threat of Iran in vague terms, instead of painting a bleak picture. Furthermore, his tenure as prime minister was marked by a bribery scandal and criticism over his accidental admittance of Israel’s nuclear weapons on German television while on a state visit to Germany[19]. Olmert’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and his heightened warnings and calls for further action against Iran coincided with increased corruption charges against him in Israel; many of his statements against Iran date from May 2008 when he was facing a ballot within his own party that would result in his removal[20]. By raising concerns about Iran, it could be said that Olmert was trying to encourage support for himself as well as to unite his party behind him.

However, since Netanyahu was appointed prime minister in March 2009, the tone against Iran has become more fatalistic. Netanyahu’s recent statements play on the sense of insecurity and hostility Israel feels, especially when he portrays Ahmadinejad as Hitler. This began when Netanyahu was leader of the opposition. While addressing the United Jewish Communities General Assembly, he openly declared that, “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs”. He went on to say that Ahmadinejad was preparing for another holocaust[21].

He echoed these sentiments when he became prime minister. In an interview with CNN’s Larry King, Netanyahu’s tone when speaking about Iran was ominous. He believed that it was “imperative to take note when someone [Ahmadinejad] calls for our [Israel’s] extermination”[22], which would be a modern-day Holocaust. By comparing Ahmadinejad’s Iran to Hitler’s Germany, Netanyahu was able to conjure up certain emotions and memory of the Holocaust, and the fear and threat the Jewish people experienced. Netanyahu’s terms were more dramatic than how Olmert addressed the threat. Moreover, Netanyahu was able to connect the present idea of a nuclear Iran with a not so distant past, in the form of a new Holocaust, thereby making the threat seem more urgent. This was enough to generate and perpetuate the fear against Iran. It also helped increase the urgency in Israel’s need for regional security, as well as international support.

Iran as a Nuclear Threat: Not Just an Israeli concern

As has been discussed above, Israel has been greatly concerned with Iran’s threats against its existence. In order to secure Israel’s security in the region, both Olmert and Netanyahu have portrayed the nuclear threat posed by Iran as a global concern. By doing so, Israel is not isolated and places itself under the responsibility of the international community. Olmert began to internationalise the nuclear threat when he first stated that Israel should not be the one to condemn Iran’s nuclear programme. Instead, he names the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany and France as those who should be at the forefront because they have the capabilities[23].

By making the nuclear threat a global concern, Olmert was able to place the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of other countries; particularly countries Israel considers allies that can deal with the Iranian threat. Moreover, to Olmert, the 2003 war in Iraq and the subsequent removal of Sadam Hussain improved Middle Eastern security, particularly for countries that have been targeted by Hussain, such as Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Olmert therefore sees President Bush as the “natural partner” in fighting terror[24]. This shows that the US would be an ally in a possible war with Iran, especially since Iran is considered a country that supports terrorism and actively calls for the destruction of Israel.

Netanyahu’s current term in office displays continuity with Olmert, especially in terms of the latter’s internationalising of Iran’s nuclear threat. Even as leader of the opposition, Netanyahu maintained the government’s position of making Iran an international concern. He even said that although Israel “would certainly be the first stop on Iran’s tour of destruction… [the arsenal] will be directed against ‘the big Satan’, the US, and the ‘moderate Satan’, Europe”[25]. A few months after he was sworn in, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Netanyahu stated that Iran was a threat not only to Israel but also to the entire international community. He qualified this global fear by stating that Iran is known to sponsor terrorism worldwide. He went on to say that it was possible that Iran could supply these terrorists with nuclear weapons[26]. Netanyahu portrays a nuclear Iran as a threat to global security through its support of terrorist activities. By continuing Olmert’s policy of internationalising the Iranian threat, Netanyahu has been able to place pressure on its allies to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Military Action Against Iran: Security at Any Price

The threat posed by Iran, compounded by Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, has made both Olmert and Netanyahu voice drastic options to counter it. In 2008, while on a visit to America, Olmert addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee where he proposed that Iran should be stopped “by all possible means”[27]. There have also been calls by Netanyahu for the international community, particularly the US, to use military might in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In displaying that the US is also being threatened by Iran, he believes that responding through military means is “necessary”[28]. Both called for possible military action against Iran and in this sense, they do not differ too much from each other.

In speaking of such extreme actions, both have been quite vague about details. Olmert once stated, “There are many things that can be done economically, politically, diplomatically and militarily”[29]. Although he states the different options available to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he is vague about specific actions. In looking at the available options in addressing Iran, Netanyahu was also vague. As leader of the Likud Party in late 2006, he said, “all ways must be considered” but did not chart their specific details[30]. This shows that Netanyahu and Olmert do not differ too much from each other for calling for action against Iran, they are both unable to outline the details.

Despite the calls for military action, it is still considered an extreme option. Until now, Israel has acknowledged sanctions as a viable short-term solution. Olmert does say that the international sanctions are only the first step, and should be intensified[31]. Netanyahu echoes similar support for sanctions and has called for other countries to follow America’s lead[32]. He feels that sanctions can only do so much and are not enough to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. While Olmert calls for the intensification of sanctions, Netanyahu believes these are not sufficient. Olmert was less willing than Netanyahu to opt for a military response to Iran’s nuclear threat.

Netanyahu has recently been more overt in his call for military action against the nuclear threat posed by Iran. This began even when he was leader of the opposition. During an interview with Army Radio, he hinted that Israel was militarily equipped and capable to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, although he was vague about the specifics[33]. In New Orleans on 8 November 2010, he addressed the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. In his speech, he declared that it was necessary to mount a “credible military threat” against Iran in order to avoid war[34]. This statement came about soon after the victory of the Republicans in the US House of Representatives. Some Republican politicians like Representative Eric Cantor and Senator Lindsey Graham had already started to talk of military action in dealing with Iran[35]. The similarity with Republican rhetoric could have made Netanyahu more comfortable and confident than Olmert in calling for a military response to Iran. In this case, Netanyahu has shown more openness than Olmert in expressing more drastic measures to deal with a nuclear Iran.

Conclusion

The recent Wikileaks revelation, with all its limitations, has exposed Saudi Arabia as another country in the region that is fearful of Iran’s possible nuclear threat. The Saudi king has even suggested that the US government destroy Iran’s nuclear programme[36]. This shows that Israel is not alone in its fear and the threat has indeed become internationalised. Olmert and Netanyahu have both been consistent in making the Iranian nuclear issue global. The Ahmadinejad presidency has caused further concern as he openly calls for the destruction of Israel. However, as can be seen, Olmert has been quite calm in condemning Iran. Although he labels it as a threat to Israel, he does not elaborate what this threat exactly entails. Netanyahu has presented the Iranian issue in bleaker terms by comparing it to Hitler’s Germany, and by doing so, adds a sense of urgency to protect Israel. In terms of stopping Iran’s nuclear programme, Olmert believed sanctions as necessary, and if anything, they should be intensified. Netanyahu has been more open about calling for military action against Iran. Despite coming from different political backgrounds, they are united in the calls against Iran and see it as a threat to Israel. They only differ in terms of approach and intensity.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

1 Avner Cohen, The Worst-kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p.xx

2 Ibid, p.xxiii

3 Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United Sates, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p.266

4 Anoushiravan Ehtshami and Mahjoob Zweiri, Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives: The Politics of Tehran’s Silent Revolution, (New York: IB Tauris, 2007), p.109

5 Naomi Segal, “Netanyahu Takes Positive View over Election of Iranian moderate”, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 30 May 1997, www.jweekly.com, (Accessed 21 February 2011)

6 “Address by Minister of Foreign Affairs Levy to the United Nations General Assembly, 29 September 1997”, Meron Medzini (Ed.), Israel’s Foreign Relations: Selected Documents, 1996-1997, Volume 16, (Jerusalem: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1999), p.360

7 Fred Halliday: “Iran and the Middle East: Foreign Policy and Domestic Change”; Middle East Report (No. 220; Autumn 2001)

8 Ewen MacAskill and Chris McGreal, “Israel Should be Wiped Off Map, Says Iran’s President”, The Guardian, 27 October 2005, www.guardian.co.uk, (Accessed 20 February 2011)

9 Parsi, Treacherous Alliance, p.211

10 MacAskill and McGreal, “Israel Should be Wiped Off Map”, (Accessed 20 February 2011)

11 Anoushiravan Ehtshami and Mahjoob Zweiri, Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives: The Politics of Tehran’s Silent Revolution, (New York: IB Tauris, 2007), p.114

12 “Sharon: Iran’s Nuclear Weapon Programme Nears Point of No Return”, CNN, 13 April 2005, http://articles.cnn.com/, (Accessed 1 March 2011)

13 “Interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: ‘We Want Genuine Peace’, Der Speigel, 18 June 2008, www.spiegel.de, (Accessed 21 February 2011)

14 “Olmert: Iran ‘not as close as it pretends’ to nuclear capability, PM: International Diplomatic Pressure on Iran will in the End Keep Tehran from Attaining Nuclear Weapons”, Haaretz, 22 April 2007, www.haaretz.com, (Accessed on 21 February 2011)

15 Parsi, Treacherous Alliance, p.266

16 Ibid, p.267

17 “Interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert”, (Accessed 21 February 2011)

18 Cohen, The Worst-kept Secret, p.xxiv

19 “Israeli PM in Nuclear Arms Hit”, BBC, 12 December 2006, www.news.bbc.ac.uk, (Accessed 22 February 2011)

20 “Olmert’s Party Considers Ballot Over Scandal”, Reuters, 30 May 2008, (Accessed 1 March 2011)

21 Peter Hirschberg, “Netanyahu: It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany; Ahmadinejad is Preparing Another Holocaust”, Haaretz, 14 November 2006, www.haaretz.com (Accessed 1 March 2011)

22 “CNN Larry King Interviews Benjamin Netanyahu”, CNN, 7 July 2010, www.youtube.com, (Accessed 22 February 2011)

23 “Interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert”, (Accessed 21 February 2011)

24 Romesh Ratnesar, “Israel Should Not be on the Forefront of a War against Iran”, Time Magazine, 9 April 2006, www.time.com, (Accessed on 22 February 2011)

25 Hirschberg, “Netanyahu”, (Accessed 1 March 2011)

26 “CNN Interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 22 September 2009, www.mfa.gov.il, (Accessed on 21 February 2011)

27 Butcher, “Israel’s Ehud Olmert”, Accessed on 21 February 2011)

28 Hirschberg, “Netanyahu”, (Accessed 1 March 2011)

29 “Interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert”, (Accessed 21 February 2011)

30 Hirschberg, “Netanyahu” (Accessed 1 March 2011)

31 Butcher, “Israel’s Ehud Olmert”, (Accessed on 21 February 2011)

32 “CNN Larry King Interviews Benjamin Netanyahu”, Accessed 22 February 2011)

33 Hirschberg, “Netanyahu”, (Accessed 1 March 2011)

34 Ron Kampeas, “With Republican Victory, Netanyahu has support on Iran”, 11 November 2010, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, www.jweekly.com, (Accessed on 22 February 2011)

35 Ibid

36 Ian Black and Simon Tisdall, “Saudi Arabia Urges US Attack on Iran to Stop Nuclear Programme”, The Guardian,8 November 2010, www.guardian.co.uk, (Accessed 1 March 2011)

 

Books

Cohen, Avner. The Worst kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Ehtshami, Anoushiravan and Mahjoob Zweiri. Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives: The Politics of Tehran’s Silent Revolution. New York: IB Tauris, 2007.
Medzini, Meron (Ed.). Israel’s Foreign Relations: Selected Documents, 1996-1997, Volume 16. Jerusalem: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1999.
“Address by Minister of Foreign Affairs Levy to the United Nations General Assembly, 29 September 1997”.
Parsi, Trita. Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United Sates. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
Articles
Halliday, Fred. “Iran and the Middle East: Foreign Policy and Domestic Change”. Middle East Report. No. 220, Autumn 2001.
News articles (Websites)
Black, Ian and Simon Tisdall. “Saudi Arabia Urges US Attack on Iran to Stop Nuclear Programme”. The Guardian, 28 November 2010, www.guardian.co.uk.
Butcher, Tim. “Israel’s Ehud Olmert: “All Possible Means” must be used to stop nuclear Iran”. The Telegraph, 4 June 2008. www.telegraph.co.uk.
“CNN Interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu”. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 22 September 2009. www.mfa.gov.il.
“CNN Larry King Interviews Benjamin Netanyahu”. CNN, 7 July 2010, www.youtube.com.
“Interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: ‘We Want Genuine Peace’. Der Speigel, 18 June 2008. www.spiegel.de.
“Israeli PM in Nuclear Arms Hit”. BBC, 12 December 2006, www.news.bbc.ac.uk.
Hirschberg, Peter. “Netanyahu: It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany; Ahmadinejad is Preparing Another Holocaust”. Haaretz, 14 November 2006, www.haaretz.com.
Kampeas, Ron. “With Republican Victory, Netanyahu has support on Iran”. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 11 November 2010. www.jweekly.com.
MacAskill Ewen and Chris McGreal. “Israel Should be Wiped Off Map,
Says Iran’s President”. The Guardian, 27 October 2005. www.guardian.co.uk.
“Olmert: Iran ‘not as close as it pretends’ to nuclear capability, PM: International Diplomatic Pressure on Iran will in the End Keep Tehran from Attaining Nuclear Weapons”. Haaretz, 22 April 2007, www.haaretz.com.
“Olmert’s Party Considers Ballot Over Scandal”. Reuters, 30 May 2008. www.reuters.com.
Segal, Naomi. “Netanyahu Takes Positive View over Election of Iranian moderate”. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 30 May 1997. www.jweekly.com.
“Sharon: Iran’s Nuclear Weapon Programme Nears Point of No Return”. CNN, 13 April 2005. http://articles.cnn.com/.
Ratnesar, Romesh. “Israel Should Not be on the Forefront of a War against Iran”. Time Magazine, 9 April 2006. www.time.com.
[/toggle]

 

stop-all-us-aid-to-israel

American Aid To Israel Is A Good Thing

If you want a peace process, you want American aid to Israel.

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[dropcap]D[/dropcap]aniel Vanello’s piece on the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East threw up a point worthy of further discussion: why, given Netanyahu’s poor track record of seeking a settlement with the Palestinians, does the US continue to provide Israel with such copious quantities of military aid?

For Israel is undoubtedly the foremost military power in the region. She possesses the latest military technology – courtesy of our cousins across the pond – weapons that the rest of the region would do far more than kill to get their hands on. Her secret service, Mossad, an organisation world-renowned for its ruthlessness and efficacy, is employed regularly to remove threats to Israeli security on an ‘under the radar’ basis, thus negating the need to resort to more conventional methods of debilitating enemies. And of course, should the worst come to the worst, the Jewish-majority state is the only Middle Eastern country to possess nuclear weapons, an option that has been considered in the past – 1973 Yom Kippur War. Surely therefore, continued American military aid to Israel is not only unnecessary – she is more than capable of defending herself – but, given the current economic climate and popular world opinion being racked up against the ‘only democratic state in the Middle East’, concurrently politically inadvisable?

Ron Paul, the septuagenarian libertarian currently running for the Republican presidential nomination, has had his remarks on the matter turned into something of a political hailstorm. His opinion follows that of above: firstly, that US aid to Israel is illogical given the tremors rocking the American economy, and secondly, that Israel no longer needs the hardware that America is able to provide – Israel would profit far greater from intelligence sharing and a curtailment of arms sales to neighbouring states. So why exactly does this father/spoilt-daughter relationship continue?

The $3 billion worth of military aid provided annually to the Jewish-majority state was brought about following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Our starting point, however, lies with the 6 Day War of 1967. The war (annihilation may be a more accurate description) saw Israel wrest control of the Sinai peninsula from Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s troops, proceeding to take up positions just east of the Suez Canal. Nasser thankfully/unfortunately (delete as appropriate) died in 1970 and was replaced by Anwar Sadat, an unassuming man that most – initially – had little time for. He was regarded as a toothless tiger: the military leadership were considered to be the main movers in the Egyptian establishment. However Sadat proved to be quite the strategist. Within two years of assuming power he had attempted to bring about some form of settlement with Israel, his objective being to regain control of the Sinai. Golda Meir (the feisty then Prime Minister of Israel) refused to partake in diplomacy with the Egyptian, her supposition being that no Arab leader could or should be trusted. Having had his overtures rejected, Sadat, along with his Syrian allies, invaded Israel in order to bring Meir to the negotiating table (the esteemed Ahron Bregman argues that Sadat had been encouraged by Henry Kissinger, the Machiavellian US National Security Advisor of the time, to initiate the war).

Whilst the 1973 war is quite possibly the most exciting and enthralling (and bloodiest) of all the Arab-Israeli sparring contests, I should probably get back on topic. Thus, to summarise ’73 in one sentence: initial Arab successes were countered by Israel, and following the implementation of a ceasefire the positions that had been initially held by both sides at the Suez Canal were retaken. The ’73 war was an Arab political victory and did much to shake the Israeli military command – they had been taken completely unaware. This provided the foundations for an initial peace settlement, for the Disengagement Treaties of 1974 were the start of the peace process, not the Camp David Accords of 1978 as is often asserted. The Disengagement Treaties mark the point at which American military aid to Israel was engaged. Should Israel arrive at a settlement with Egypt, and thus return control of the Sinai, she would be afforded the following:

1. $3 billion per annum of military aid;
2. an affirmation that no US peace plan would be put forth to international opinion without prior Israeli approval;
3. a promise that the United States would protect the Jewish-majority state against the USSR (having been threatened in the 1967 war), and;
4. a commitment that the US would ensure that the military aid supplied would maintain Israeli military superiority in the region.

Needless to say the deal was accepted and thus the peace process was born. 1974 marked the point at which America changed her tack when dealing with Israel: instead of trying to pressure the country into doing something she would rather not do, the US would shower her with gifts.

So, to conclude, next time you read about how stupid it is that America gives Israel so much money when it appears that Israel is doing nothing to warrant receiving such generous donations, remember that without such American overtures the Middle East would most probably be a far more unstable region that it is today. Of course, I might be completely wrong, maybe the peace process is a bad thing?