Israel's belligerent indifference to international opinion is testing the patience of even its staunchest allies, writes Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Quite unchastened by a meeting with Barack Obama, which had been more tense than any between leaders of their countries for a long time, Benjamin Netanyahu returned to Israel on March 25 to say more of what he'd said before. The previous weeks might have witnessed the sharpest crisis in Israeli-American relations for many years, but the prime minister seemed not to mind, and nor did his ardent supporters, rather the opposite.
"Obama, No You Can't" read one poster greeting him, and another, "Netanyahu Stand Strong", which is what he may be said to have done. Early on in his presidency, Obama had asked the Israelis to halt the building of Jewish housing in East Jerusalem. For Washington this wasn't some drastic demand like Ronald Reagan's "Take down that wall" in Berlin. All Obama, and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, wanted was for Israel, which has depended so much and for so long on American support, to make a conciliatory gesture.
What they got was a kick in the teeth. Netanyahu refused to halt building a year ago, and he has just refused all over again. An announcement of yet more housing projects in East Jerusalem was made as Joseph Biden, the vice president, arrived in Israel, which looked like a deliberate insult. This was taken very badly by Biden, until now as repetitious as any American politician in his protestations of support for Israel, as well as by Obama and Clinton.
Although Netanyahu claimed that he had known nothing of the announcement, and that it was merely a case of unfortunate timing, he was quite impenitent. By the time he reached Washington and spoke at a banquet given by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most zealous lobbying group, he said that "the Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement; it is our capital."
This defiance of the global superpower, which is Israel's chief patron, is part of a larger pattern. One question now being raised in the United States, notably by General David Petraeus, is whether Israeli obduracy is damaging the American national interest. Since that question answers itself, Petraeus's intervention may mark a turning point. But there is another question: Is such obduracy in Israel's own interests?
One thing is clear. Over the years, Israel has grown harder and less responsive to the outside world, to the point where her rulers show a remarkable indifference to the wishes and views of others, friends as well as foes. That spat with Obama is only one example. For many years, Turkey and Israel have been joined in an informal alliance. This is obviously not based on bonds of sentiment, but rather reasons of state: "my enemy's enemy ...", common fear of some Arab countries as well as of Iran. This alliance has had very practical military consequences, and maintaining the Turkish connection is important to Israel.
What Israeli politicians forgot was that sentiment does exist, and it does count. Whatever calculations of interest the Turkish military made about the advantages of working with Israel didn't alter the fact that the overwhelming majority of Turks are horrified by what Israel's forces have done, in Lebanon, and still more in Gaza at the beginning of last year. Shortly afterwards, Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, was denounced to his face by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister. They were both attending the World Economic Forum in Davos when Erdogan stormed out of a panel in which he had been taking part, with a blast against Israel.
No Arab state is openly sympathetic to Israel, and in no European country do political leaders find it necessary, as American politicians do, to recite formulaic lines about "Israel-our-truest-friend-in-the-Mideast". Sill, recent incidents have turned up the heat on Israel. Witness the anger when Mossad agents - as it is supposed they were - killed a Hamas leader in Dubai, and did so using stolen and counterfeit British passports. London subsequently expelled an Israeli "diplomat", who was in fact a Mossad agent.
What was so curious was the seemingly genuine surprise on the Israeli side. Or perhaps it can be explained. For years Israeli leaders of whatever party have acted on the assumption that absolutely any action they took would be approved, or at least tolerated, by the White House, or at least Congress. And so they unconsciously came to think that the rest of the world could go hang. "Or at least Congress" is an important distinction. The private resentment of one American president after another at Israeli brutality and obduracy is a fascinating story of its own, although no administration since that of Dwight Eisenhower has openly criticised Israel. But Congress can be turned off and on like a light switch. In the summer of 2006, when the assault on Lebanon horrified much of the world, the House of Representatives passed a resolution of total support for Israel by 410 votes to eight, and when the new Congress met in early January of last year at the height of the assault on Gaza, the Senate passed a unanimous motion of "unwavering commitment" to Israel.
Encouraged by that reflexive support, Israel has acted towards the Palestinians and neighbouring countries on the good old principle Oderint dum metuant: the crisp phrase borrowed by Cicero and relished by Caligula, meaning simply "Let them hate us so long as they fear us." And for a long time it has seemed to work. After 62 years and innumerable wars, Israel is still there, defying foreign foes and domestic fainthearts.
Whether it can work for ever is another matter. Asked what would happen in the long run, John Maynard Keynes famously replied, "In the long run we are all dead," and Israel seems to have taken that to heart, not to say Marx's dictum (Groucho, not Karl), "What's posterity ever done for me?" To be sure, that hasn't gone unchallenged in Israel, and those aggressive slogans weren't the only voices greeting Netanyahu on his return. Much of the Israeli press denounced him roundly, with a vehemence that would, amusingly enough, be unimaginable in the mainstream American media. Although the popular tabloid Yediot Ahronoth thought Obama had been rude to his guest, it said that "Netanyahu, too, needs to do some thinking".
Since he took office, "Israel's global status has been deteriorating to the point of genuine danger," the paper said, while the liberal Haaretz said that Netanyahu had returned "with egg all over his face". It was time he realised that "the days when the White House was considerate about the intricacies of Israeli domestic politics" were gone, Haaretz added. That referred to the precarious coalition supporting Netanyahu, in which he is a figure of positive reason and moderation besides such men as Avigdor Lieberman, his foreign minister. Lieberman wants a new partition to incorporate the West Bank settlements, has advocated the stripping of Israeli citizenship from anyone who wouldn't take a loyalty oath, and said that "if it were up to me I would notify the Palestinian Authority that tomorrow at 10 in the morning we would bomb all their places of business in Ramallah".
Most Israelis are less bloodthirsty but just as complacent, with both security and prosperity seemingly increased. Those who know the country have remarked how, in the past few years, the Israelis have withdrawn behind a mental wall matching the physical wall built to keep out terrorists, or just Palestinians. As Dan Ephron of Newsweek puts it, "a feeling that acceptance by Arabs no longer matters much, and a growing disaffection from politics generally, have, for many Israelis, called into question the basic calculus that has driven the peace process. Instead of pining for peace, they're now asking: who needs it?"
Or maybe who needs anyone else? For years there has been an endlessly popular song in Israel, The whole world is against us - and now, as Yediot Ahronoth says, that song may be coming true. What may also be true, or so the daily Maariv suggests, is that "The light that is looming ahead is the headlight of an oncoming train." Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the New York Review of Books and Harper's Magazine.