Rumors are floating around about why Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in Washington – again – last week when Israel’s official top diplomat, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is nowhere to be seen. This was Barak’s seventh visit to DC; Lieberman has been here exactly once.

So what’s up with that? Why isn’t Israel’s most important envoy playing the key diplomatic role with Israel’s most important diplomatic sponsor? One reason is that Lieberman is an embarrassment to many, even here in Washington’s Israel-can-do-no-wrong political culture. His party, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) is so far right that Kadimah — the party of the 1982 “Butcher of Beirut” Ariel Sharon and Tzipi Livni who helped orchestrate the assault on Gaza — and the extremist settlement-backing Likud party of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, look centrist and center-right by comparison.

Lieberman’s gang goes way beyond normal Israeli extremism, calling not just for unconstrained settlement expansion, but various versions of “transfer” – the preferred Israeli euphemism for ethnic cleansing. That means the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel, including some who are Israeli citizens, starting with those who refuse to sign an oath of loyalty to Zionism. In May 2004, Lieberman announced that 90 percent of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who amount to 20 percent of the population, would “have to find a new Arab entity” to live in because “they have no place here. They can take their bundles and get lost.” He called for executing Arab members of the Knesset who speak to Hamas, or who call for commemoration of the nakba, the Palestinian expulsion and dispossession from what would become Israel in 1947-48. Back in 1998 Lieberman urged Israel to bomb Egypt’s giant Aswan Dam, a move that would have flooded pretty much all of Egypt and drowned most of Egypt’s 80 million people. And in 2003, as transport minister, Lieberman called for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons to be drowned in the Dead Sea – and offered buses to take them there.

So it’s not particularly surprising that even in Washington he creates a bit of a cringe factor. (That’s not to say it bothers everyone – shortly after his 2009 selection as foreign minister, Lieberman was a special guest of Brookings’ Saban Center, welcomed by former president Bill and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)

But it’s not only delicate U.S. political sensibilities that have made the defense minister Israel’s key interlocutor with Washington. It’s because the U.S.-Israel relationship is, even after the Cold War, grounded in a web of military-strategic ties that put the Pentagon-IDF links, the connections between the other military-intelligence agencies, and the ties of arms manufacturers in both countries, at the center of the alliance.

Despite the very public spat between the Obama administration and Netanyahu over settlement policy, the U.S. never threatened to reduce those strategic and military ties. Every U.S. request to Israel about settlements began with the reminder that Israeli security remained at the top of U.S. priorities, that the U.S. remained committed to maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge.” What is unchanging is the collaboration of military, military-industrial, military-intelligence alliances that makes all the political efforts of the pro-Israel and arms manufacturing lobbies, and then Congress, much more lucrative and thus much easier.

Just a few days ago Israel and the U.S. agreed on mutual development of the Arrow-3 anti-missile interceptor. Built jointly by Boeing and the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, it will cost up to $100 million – all paid by U.S. taxpayers. The Jerusalem Post reported Israel was worried that President Obama might abandon the funding because of the economic crisis. Maybe Israel feared the Obama administration thinks $100 million could better be used funding 2000 new green union jobs here at home? But not to worry – the funding remains. New missile interceptors for nuclear-armed Israel are apparently more important than U.S. jobs.

A couple of weeks earlier, the Obama administration had asked Congress – not that they needed much urging – for an additional $205 million to pay for Israel’s new Iron Dome anti-rocket system. That one will replace 4,100 more potential U.S. jobs. But who’s counting?

And let’s not forget all of this is on top of the $30 BILLION in military aid George W. Bush promised to Israel over the next ten years, which President Obama immediately agreed to implement. And on top of the absolute commitment to make sure Israel is never held accountable at the United Nations for its violations of international law, or in the U.S. for its violations of U.S. domestic law (like the Arms Export Control Act).

Although many of the far-right hawkish elements, neo-cons and otherwise, that have mobilized for years for an attack on Iran are mostly not inside the Obama administration, there are exceptions. Non-partisan hawk Dennis Ross is still President Obama’s top adviser on Iran. And we should not forget that 47 members of Congress – fully a third of the Republicans in the House – recently supported a resolution explicitly endorsing, really almost encouraging, Israel’s “right” to attack Iran. And then the joint military exercises. One of them, Juniper Cobra (don’t you love these tree-grows-in-the-desert names?) was last fall, just as war-talk against Iran was rising once again. According to Brig-Gen Doron Gavish of the Israel Air Force, it was “not aimed at any country in the region,” but was simply to “present the opportunity for a technological and professional exchange with the US military.” Oh, okay. So it’s not about Iran. Uh-huh.

Recent reports indicate some in the U.S. have decided the best response to Israeli threats of a strike against Iran, is perhaps to keep relations with Israel really really tight – maybe to head off such an attack, maybe to keep abreast of the planning, maybe to help in the attack, maybe all of the above. The dangerous consequences of such a reckless action remain. (A few years ago I wrote about what would happen “the day after” a military attack on Iran…unfortunately it remains relevant.)

Of course the strategic ties are not only military – they include economic, political, diplomatic and other support, some of them even more important than the military.

But right now the military ties are key. Look at a few of what Rep. Howard Berman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, prepared as 2010 election talking points for Democrats:

  • President Obama has spent more time trying to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions than any other foreign policy issue and it’s something he raises as his top priority in virtually every conversation with world leaders.
  • Obama and Democrats in Congress have provided Israel with every single penny of foreign assistance appropriations that Israel has asked for. In 2007, the United States and Israel signed a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that calls for the U.S. to provide $30 billion in security assistance over the following 10 years.
  • Under Obama, Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, or QME, is being reestablished, after having been neglected for too many years, and the U.S. and Israel have achieved new levels of close security cooperation. Later this year, the Pentagon is likely to sell Israel an initial batch of 25 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, and other sensitive technology.
  • The United States and Israel recently completed their largest-ever joint military exercise. The three-week Juniper Cobra 10 air defense exercise involved deployment of a thousand U.S. troops, from all four branches of service, alongside an equal number of Israel Defense Forces personnel.
  • The Obama administration has integrated U.S. missile defense technology into Israel’s expanding anti-missile shield…The administration also will continue to fund development of the Arrow-3, the most advanced variant of Israel’s long-range, high-altitude system for countering Iranian ballistic missiles.
  • Obama asked Congress for $205 million to support Israel’s deployment of the Iron Dome rocket defense system, in addition to the $3 billion budgetary request the Administration had already made for security assistance for Israel.
  • In June 2009, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2410, the “Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal years 2010 and 2011”. This bill, introduced by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), authorizes appropriations to Israel; amends the Arms-Export Control Act to authorize the President to export spare and replacement parts or components of defense items to Israel; amends the Arms Export Control Act to require the Administration to certify that an arms sale to another Middle Eastern country does not threaten Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME); authorizes appropriations for co-development of missile defense projects with Israel, including the Arrow, David’s Sling, and Iron Dome systems; and expresses the sense of Congress that Israel has the inalienable right to defend itself in the face of an imminent nuclear or military threat from Iran as well as from terrorist organizations and the countries that harbor them.

That’s what they want to brag about – so maybe they’re not so embarrassed after all. Defense Minister Barak comes to Washington because he’s in charge of Israel’s military – and that’s what the U.S. is interested in. And boy does that make the work of the pro-Israel lobbies and the arms profiteers easier!

Phyllis Bennis is director of the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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