It is entirely unsurprising that congressional Republicans, along with some Democrats, have jumped with both feet on the last-minute dispute between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government over the latter’s defiant settlements policy and the former’s willingness to let the U.N. Security Council condemn it. But already there are signs of an overreaction to the dustup that tell us a lot about the strangely central role Netanyahu plays in the GOP version of foreign policy.
The most predictable part of the brouhaha is the GOP backlash against the United Nations for this latest incident in its long history of antagonism to the Israeli occupation of Arab lands. The U.N. has been a perennial target for conservatives of almost every hue, and thus a point of unity for people who don’t agree on much of anything else. For President-elect Donald Trump, the U.N. is the obvious symbol of international restraints on U.S. freedom of action. The Security Council resolution is thus an easy pretext for a fight that was going to happen anyway, as Richard Gowan observed at Politico:
Donald Trump likes attacking soft targets, and the United Nations is about as soft as they come. Over the past two months, U.N. officials have been bracing for an entirely inevitable clash with the next U.S. administration. Their only question has been exactly what would set off the showdown. Would it be climate change? Torture?
Now they have their answer. The president-elect is gearing up to do battle with the U.N. even sooner than expected, and his casus belli is a classic sore point in U.S.-U.N. relations: Israel. Trump not only tried to stop the U.N. Security Council’s recent resolution condemning Israeli settlements, but also suggested the U.N. itself will face consequences once he is president, tweeting, “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.”
The conservative Washington Free Beacon reports that sentiment for “retribution against the U.N.” via a funding cutoff is very high among congressional Republicans. But there’s also strong interest in going beyond the U.N. and disrupting traditional alliances with countries that are not willing to defer to the current Israeli government’s drift toward permanent occupation and perhaps even annexation of the occupied territories:
Other punitive actions by Congress could include … scaling back ties with foreign nations that voted in favor of the controversial [U.N.] measure, according to multiple sources who spoke to the Free Beacon about the situation both on and off the record.
This broader offensive would presumably follow Israel’s own decision to suspend normal diplomatic relations with countries that voted for the Security Council resolution, including France, Russia, Britain, France, Russia, China, Japan, Ukraine, Angola, Egypt, Uruguay, Spain, Senegal, and New Zealand.
Think about that for a minute. Britain and France are two of America’s oldest, strongest allies. Japan has long been the fulcrum of U.S. policy in East Asia. Russia and China are strategic competitors with whom the U.S. must deal on a broad range of diplomatic, economic, and security issues. Egypt has been nearly as important to U.S. Middle East policy as Israel itself. All those vital relationships — including a rapprochement with Russia that Donald Trump seems to want so badly — could be subordinated to a desire to back up Bibi Netanyahu’s desire to “punish” countries that take a position on the Israeli occupation that is largely shared by nearly half the Israeli population and the opposition parties that represent them.
The identification of U.S. foreign policy with Israel, and the identification of Israel with Netanyahu and his coalition partners who make no bones about wanting to annex the occupied lands, is by now an old story in the GOP. It was certainly manifest in 2012 when presidential nominee Mitt Romney repeatedly said: “[W]e will not have an inch of difference between ourselves and our ally Israel.” The idea that there might be U.S. interests distinct from Netanyahu’s has been almost entirely lost in some conservative policy circles.
The reasons for this strangely Bibi-centric view of the world are familiar and manifold: the Christian Right’s peculiar and apocalyptic form of Zionism; the rise of Islamophobia among conservative “base” voters; a sort of Bibi-envy over right-wing Israeli flouting of international law and “political correctness;” and the desire to split the Democratic Party from its supposedly Jewish intellectual and donor base.
But there are two very particular reasons for Republicans to amp up their rhetoric on Israel and the U.N. at this exact moment: First, it’s the last chance to take a shot at Barack Obama (and for that matter, John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee whose speech on the two-state solution has inflamed right-wing Israeli and U.S. opinion nearly as much as the U.N. vote), and second, it’s an opportunity to close ranks with Donald Trump on one of the rare foreign-policy issues where he and they entirely agree.
In that respect, whatever you think of the merits of the Obama administration’s actions toward Israel during the last few days, it has provided a late holiday gift to its domestic opponents, and arguably to Netanyahu, who could well be planning to use the brouhaha as an excuse to formally abandon the two-state solution and expand settlements or even begin annexing occupied turf in big chunks. If that’s the case, it’s all the more perverse, but fascinating, to watch U.S. conservatives express a willingness to turn U.S. foreign policy upside down in the rush to dry Bibi’s crocodile tears over the insults he has had to endure via a toothless U.N. resolution abetted by a lame-duck president and secretary of State.