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Israel's silicon army

As it retreats into greater indifference toward global opinion, Israel has come to rely on cynical appeals to American technophiles and evangelical Christians. Spencer Ackerman on Netanyahu's last allies

"Jerusalem is not a settlement," Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in an address to an Aipac conference in March.

As it retreats into greater indifference toward global opinion, Israel has come to rely on cynical appeals to American technophiles and evangelical Christians. Spencer Ackerman on Netanyahu's last allies. Before the ships dubbed the Gaza Freedom Flotilla had their fateful encounter with the Israel Defence Forces early Monday morning, the main Israeli criticism of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which sponsored the convoy, was that they were so unwilling to acknowledge Israeli suffering that they refused to deliver a package to the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. But hours after a murky nighttime operation in which Israeli commandos boarded a ship filled with humanitarian aid in international waters, killing at least 10 civilians and suffering wounds themselves, the boats had become "an armada of hate and violence" with "ties to Global Jihad, al Qa'eda and Hamas", in the words of Israel's deputy foreign minister.

If you were unaware that the activists on the humanitarian-aid flotilla were allied with al Qa'eda, you must not be on the press list of the American Israel Public Affairs Council (Aipac). "Interesting," read the subject line of an e-mail from spokesman Josh Block,  who thought journalists should know: "Flotilla org tied to 2000 Al Qaeda Attack on LAX, weapons smuggling." Aipac's desperate response to the raid indicated the depth of the disaster for Israel. As of this writing - early evening on Monday, May 31 - practically nothing is clear about the details of the IDF's operation, and much of what has been reported will probably be revised as new facts accumulate. But the broad context is that Israeli soldiers engaged in an operation to stop a ship full of civilians carrying medical aid and construction equipment from breaking an Israeli-imposed blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza. It was not the first time that Israeli actions have redounded to the benefit of Hamas: the flotilla attack was merely the latest instantiation of a pattern dating back to the imposition of the blockade after Hamas's 2007 takeover of Gaza and the disastrous three-week war that began in December 2008. Despite that pattern, and given that the point of the flotilla itself was to provoke international outrage over the Gaza blockade, it's worth asking why the Israeli government chose to take the bait.

More than a few Israeli commentators blasted the Netanyahu government for this public-relations catastrophe, but the line from Israel's Foreign Ministry remained resolute: in an official statement it condemned the flotilla as a "violent provocation" and said its occupants "bear sole responsibility for the unfortunate consequences." If that's the message coming from Israel, it's worth asking who the audience is supposed to be. Under the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, a small and nasty leader buoyed by a right more powerful and opposed by a left more weak than at perhaps any earlier time in Israel's history, foreign policy reflects and magnifies a yearning within Israel to enjoy the international benefits of peace without having to make any, except that which it imposes. But most of the world is reluctant to grant Israel the impunity that Netanyahu expects - with one very big and recently-emerging exception.

**** Not even George W Bush was as aggressive a unilateralist as Benjamin Netanyahu, whose foreign policy has shown disinterest in maintaining warm relations with traditional Israeli allies - even including the United States - if it means reducing Israel's freedom of action against the Palestinians. For decades, Israel lamented its international isolation and sought to reverse it, even if most Israelis retained a tragic scepticism about whether the world would ever embrace them. But Netanyahu's government practically wears the world's contempt as a badge of Israeli virtue. Its emissary to the outside world, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is a racialist who believes Arab citizens of Israel ought to affirm their belief in Israel as a Jewish state or be expelled to the West Bank, which led the liberal columnist Akiva Eldar to compare him unfavourably to the dead Austrian neo-fascist Joerg Haider. Lieberman's deputy, Danny Ayalon, alienated Turkey - the only Muslim nation in which Israel can get a diplomatic hearing - by attempting to humiliate the Turkish ambassador in a staged photo-op.  

But what damaged Israel's relationship with Turkey was something more than Danny Ayalon's antics: "Israel's offence against Gaza," as the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has observed, "became a milestone in Turkey-Israel relations." For three weeks in December 2008 and January 2009, Israel re-invaded Gaza and killed more than 1,000 Palestinians. This was a retaliation for Hamas's deliberate targeting of civilians with rocket attacks into southern Israel. Those attacks failed to kill a single Israeli. A United Nations commission headed by an internationally respected jurist deemed Hamas's rocket attacks to be war crimes - but levied the same charge against the actions of Israeli soldiers in Gaza.

The Israeli response was to slander that jurist, the South African judge Richard Goldstone, as a self-hating Jew doing the bidding of his anti-Semitic masters at the United Nations. Substantive refutations of the Goldstone report have not been in evidence, as the Israeli refusal to even conduct its own independent investigation indicates. But one need not look to the United Nations for evidence of criminal conduct in Gaza: the Israeli military whistleblower group Breaking the Silence published its own collection of first-hand testimonies from 54 veterans of the Gaza war last year. They described an offensive that featured "the destruction of hundreds of houses and mosques for no military purpose, the firing of phosphorous gas in the direction of populated areas, the killing of innocent victims with small arms, the destruction of private property, and most of all, a permissive atmosphere in the command structure that enabled soldiers to act without moral restrictions."

Much of the rest of the world has reacted in horror to Gaza. The United Statesis a notable exception. The Obama administration did not wish to alienate Israel by joining the international chorus of outrage, and calculated that it could earn Jerusalem's goodwill by shielding Israel from consequence at the United Nations in the wake of the Goldstone report. On both fronts the Obama administration miscalculated. Netanyahu treated American support as Israel's birthright and publicly embraced a two-state solution - which he first announced in mid-2009, 16 years after the signing of the Oslo Accords - as a kind of concession. Meanwhile he proceeded with settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a move unacceptable to the moderate Palestinian leadership, even announcing a new development during the US vice president Joe Biden's visit to Israel in the spring.

The Netanyahu government's indifference to international opinion even extends to the more liberal precincts of the American Jewish community. Never before has an Israeli ambassador to Washington refused to speak at a major conference of a pro-Israel Jewish organisation. But last year, that's exactly what Ambassador Michael Oren did to the new "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby group known as J Street, which had invited Oren to keynote its first annual conference. Oren replied by nastily and tendentiously, questioning whether J Street could actually be called pro-Israel. Its offences were to advocate zealously for a two-state solution, the exact stated policy of the Netanyahu government at the time. Oren ultimately climbed down from his offensive position, but not before J Street's leaders defended their pro-Israel bona fides in a variety of embarrassing media appearances. It represents the first time that any Israeli government has ever rejected the outstretched hand of an American Jewish organization - the first time that an Israeli government has ever deigned to tell the American Jewish community how it may and may not express support.

American Jews, who have historically formed the public backbone of the US-Israel relationship, today show signs of being unreliable future allies for an Israel that backs away from its commitments to peace and its obligations for justice. Younger generations of American Jews, owing to complex mix of fraying identity-based bonds and reluctance to grant Israel an exception to their liberalism, are less reflexively pro-Israel than their parents. AIPAC's difficult and occasionally hostile relationship with J Street reflects that emerging tension in the American Jewish community, a rift that is likely to deepen if Israel continues its disinterest in the peace process.

There is, however, an audience that has grown inclined to replace American Jews as reflexive supporters of a rightward-drifting Israel: white evangelical Protestants. In 2005, polling by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life discovered that more than any other American Christian group, white evangelical Protestants, the most conservative voting bloc in America, were predisposed to supporting Israel. Just over 40 percent of all Christians - white, black, Latino, Protestant, Catholic - were sympathetic to the Israeli plight. But 55 per cent of evangelicals were. The Palestinian national experience roused the support of a mere six per cent of evangelicals. And nearly half of them considered religion to be the single biggest factor motivating their sentiments.

Political professionals looking to build a durable base of support for an increasingly illiberal Israel have ample raw material in this voting bloc, with none of the emotional and political conflicts now visible within the overwhelmingly liberal American Jewish population. Because for all the conspiracy theories about disproportionate Jewish power in America, white American evangelical Protestants, a largely conservative group, are among the most disproportionately-powerful people in the world. The Republican Party in the United States expends massive resources to marshall and expand their share of the vote, which goes overwhelmingly go Republicans - just as the Democrats struggle to co-opt or marginalise their electoral influence.

A generation ago, Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, two Jewish writers whose work has helped shape the conservative agenda in America, argued that American Jews ought to get over their residual fears of what was then known as the "Christian right" and embrace them as fellow lovers of Israel, even if that love is predicated on a millenarism in which the Savior eventually rids the world of Jews who fail to see His light. Pew's findings have made them prophetic. And there is new mortar for the bonds of this conservative American-Israeli coalition: mutual hatred for Barack Obama, the American president whose meagre efforts to midwife a two-state solution have been greeted with contempt by Netanyahu. 

Netanyahu offers the evangelicals a key defeat for Obama's foreign-policy agenda, helping pave the way for a conservative restoration. The evangelicals offer Netanyahu rear-guard counter-pressure against Obama's peacemaking efforts. They are not likely to fret about dead or dying Palestinians or dead "aid workers" - or are they terrorists? - aboard a flotilla off of Gaza. They share Netanyahu's instinctual contempt for humanitarian do-gooders, his opprobrium for international institutions, and his antipathy to an independent Palestine as an endgame for the conflict.

A post-Bush, post-Iraq conservative movement isn't entirely sure what its foreign policy is. But it has congealed around a critique of Obama as insufficiently committed to American power. The Fox News host Sean Hannity referred to Obama's first presidential travels to Europe as an "American apology tour," a critique amplified throughout right-wing media after Obama rejected Bush's unilateralism.  Gentile politicians on the American right have seized their opportunity. In late May, Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican Party, told a New York rally for West Bank settlers that under Obama, "the American government has abdicated her traditional solidarity with Israel." It isn't important that Steele was the one "abdicating" America's traditional opposition to settlement construction. What's important is how Steele signaled that the contemporary Republican Party is ready to embrace the most fanatical understandings of Israel.

Building out that critique are the presumed leading lights of the 2012 GOP presidential field. Mitt Romney, the protean former Massachusetts governor and failed 2008 candidate, recently published a book called "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness" that argued Obama "has won the praise of America's enemies" and "turned his back on America's allies." What nation served as Romney's prime example? "President Obama has exerted substantial pressure on Israel to stop its settlements while putting almost no pressure on the Palestinians," he wrote. "He has done this despite the fact that Israel is among America's greatest allies, a true and faithful friend, one that has made real sacrifices for peace." A less-sophisticated version of this criticism appears regularly on Sarah Palin's Facebook page. 

But support for the blend of Israeli politics that Netanyahu represents is not yet Republican catechism. The party's platform embraces the two-state solution that Netanyahu grudgingly accepted last year as a diplomatic necessity. But a new book, eagerly embraced by Aipac, might represent enough of an effective reframing to bring even minimally political right-leaning American gentiles into the fold. Start-Up Nation, co-authored by a mouthpiece for the US occupation of Iraq, presents Israel as the nation-state version of a plucky tech start-up. That vision of economic vitality is premised on ceaseless war.

*** Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor, the former aide to the US Iraq viceroy L Paul Bremer, and Saul Singer is a quintessential light airport read: a page-turner about how a country under external threat makes a virtue out of necessity. What makes Israel a good testing ground for a network of rechargeable electric-car batteries? The fact that its neighbours close their highways to Israeli motorists, and there's not a lot of Israel to drive on. That spirit of defiance is similar to the one displayed by a Massachusetts man named David Khoury, who moved back to his family's village in the West Bank to open a microbrewery as a demonstration of faith in the Palestinian economy. 

But the broader message of Start-Up Nation is more problematic. There's a cliche-fueled narrative early on about how an uncredentialled Israeli whizkid made millions by selling online-payment giant PayPal a reliable algorithm for figuring out a potential client's financial solvency. How did Shvat Shaked, who "didn't have the brashness of an entrepreneur", outperform titans of industry? "Hunting down terrorists," he explains. Shaked's detective skills taught him that the frequency of a person's online footprints was a sign of reliability: like a terrorist, someone looking to game PayPal isn't going to leave an extensive Googleable trail.

That sort of anecdote forms the stock response to the book's central question: why is the Israeli economy so dynamic? Their answer: because conditions of constant peril compel critical thinking in the military, and military service sets the tone for Israeli culture. The Israeli investor and "unofficial economic ambassador" Jon Medved presents the excited authors with a graph showing foreign business flowing into Israel during the Second Intifada. Singer and Senor are quick to inform us that he wasn't suggesting "a correlation between violence in Israel and its attractiveness to investors", because that would be absurd. What they show instead is that Israel can assert a kind of normality amidst perpetual war - with the help of the world's premiere capitalists.

Senor and Singer present no explicit political agenda, but their presumptions are that the status quo within Israel will continue. The trouble with their book from a business perspective is that there aren't many countries that live under conditions analogous to Israel. To really embrace Start-Up Nation as a road map for achieving national economic vitality requires a willingness to believe that your society, too, is on the cusp of ever-present perpetual war, since relentless conflict is the only engine Start-Up Nation identifies for Israel's success. Who would want to live under those conditions?

Well, maybe there are people outside of Israel who believe such an unhappy fate confronts their country. Like the guy in the airport bookstore with his BlackBerry clipped to his braided belt. He's not the most political guy in the world, but he thinks Israel is under attack from the Arabs, and that unlike the Arabs, the Israelis are Christian-friendly fellows who understand the value of the dollar. They're not running around with their faces covered blowing up pizzerias, and he thinks they have to fight guys who do. He's worried that this is the future of the United States. He's worried that if it is, his small business may not survive. He's worried that the socialist in the White House doesn't understand that you enjoy peace only after winning victory. Whatever the authors' intentions, Start-Up Nation is a book that presents Israel as safe for gentiles - or, at least, for those that can be persuaded to vote in Republican primaries.

*** So it's no surprise that, on a rainy morning this spring at Aipac's annual policy conference in Washington, the organisation's executive director Howard Kohr practically read from its pages. To "help Israel assume its rightful place in the institutions and organisations that uphold the community of nations," Kohr told a cavernous ballroom packed fill of pro-Israel activists and politicians, Israel's advocates needed to get the rest of the world to recognise "the economic miracle that is 21st-century Israel." A nation "built from the ashes of the Holocaust is today's Start-Up Nation," he said proudly.

Amidst that embrace, it was perhaps inevitable that the Obama administration would see an opportunity for outreach. The Obama administration lost its first round of skirmishes with Netanyahu. It underestimated both Netanyahu's lack of appetite for a negotiated peace and how exhausted Israelis are with being told that they have to negotiate a disengagement from the West Bank. But senior Obama officials insist that they aren't going to give up on a peace process to reach that goal. So over the past several months, senior American officials have slipped their own beaming references to Senor and Singer's book into speeches as a diplomatic way of praising Israel in a fashion that Israel evidently wishes to be praised. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton led the way in her address to the 2010 Aipac conference. "Look at the spread of high-tech start-ups, the influx of venture capital, the number of Nobel laureates," she marveled to an audience that wanted to hear her marvel. Jim Jones, Obama's national security adviser and an object of distrust in conservative American Jewish circles since his time as Middle East envoy at the end of the Bush administration, followed suit a few weeks later at a pro-Israel think tank. America's ties to Israel, he said, are "the bonds of pioneers in science, technology and so many fields where we cooperate every day".

The difference is that Clinton and Jones coo the praises of Start-Up Nation in order to earn Israeli comfort with the administration's pursuit of a negotiated peace with the Palestinian Authority. But Start -Up Nation wouldn't be what it is if it was interested in that peace. It's a book for a peaceless Israel where normality is asserted aggressively and the rest of the world is expected to acquiesce. That's the normality Netanyahu embodies: one in which he can keep building settlements in Jerusalem across the 1967 border - and if the Palestinian Authority rejects the move as a cynical obstacle to a negotiated peace, they're the obstructionists. 

The bitter truth is that Kohr, Senor, Singer, Netanyahu, Clinton and Jones aren't wrong about Israel's economic boom. The problem is that asserting that such things are the most salient aspects of Israel in a world where Israeli commandos stop humanitarian aid from reaching improverished Palestinians is a cynical insult to the world's intelligence. The world will be ready to celebrate Israel after the flag of an independent Palestinian state flies over a divided Jerusalem. Until then, reciting those achievements will be nothing more than the politesse of diplomats who are waiting to get to the point. 

The early indications after the flotilla raid are that Netanyahu has found a pattern of geopolitical behaviour that works for him. Contained within the Foreign Ministry's statement was a line suggesting how Israel will react to any credible inquiry in to what happened. "Israel expects an objective approach that does not play into the hands of the planners of this violent provocation," it stated. In other words, as long as the inquiry clears Israel, Israel won't seek to discredit it, as it tried with Goldstone.

Obama reacted with typical caution after the flotilla raid. He accepted Netanyahu's cancellation of their scheduled meeting. His press office expressed regret for the "loss of life" in the raid and noted that many of the wounded are "being treated in Israeli hospitals." He deferred all condemnation of the raid by expressing "the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning's tragic events as soon as possible." 

Withholding blame may sound to the international community like tacit support for Israel. But in Netanyahu's Start-Up Nation, the international community can either support Israel or it can be ignored. And if the man in the Oval Office hasn't given him carte blanche, Netanyahu can take comfort in the prospect that an emerging rightist trend in America provides him with other options. But if that trend doesn't appeal to a majority of American voters, or if the politicians who manage to ride it into power dismiss it when governing, then Netanyahu will have committed a historic error. Israel is a regional superpower, not an international one. Its military relies almost exclusively on American military partnership, even if US policymakers pay a price for pressuring Israel. For Netanyahu to place the basis of the US-Israel relationship on a foundation that rests with a faction of one American political party, no matter how strong, is more deleterious to the Israeli client than to the American patron. The consequences of that destabilisation may not emerge after the flotilla raid. But ultimately Israel has a great deal to fear from its new rightist turn.

Spencer Ackerman is the national-security correspondent for The Washington Independent.