Two years ago, on the eighth day of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces belatedly identified a shortage of a certain kind of equipment. Israel turned to the United States with an urgent request to help close this operational gap. The Americans, who apparently were not thrilled by the start of the ground offensive - just a moment before a new president was to enter the White House - delayed their answer for 24 hours.
The General Staff endured some disturbing moments while waiting for Washington's approval . In retrospect, one sees that the IDF assumed that this was a show of muscle by the United States. Operation Cast Lead, compared to scenarios of all-out war in the future, is a relatively simple story. The IDF enjoyed absolute superiority over Hamas, and the threat to the Israeli home front from Gaza was limited.
But Israel's dependence on the United States - economic and especially military - is tremendous. It stretches over many issues: the military equipment the U.S. Army keeps in emergency depots in Israel, the provision of F-35 aircraft, and backing in the UN Security Council on issues like leveraging the Goldstone report and international sanctions on Iran.
The dependence on the United States is usually played down here, but the Israeli public is not naive. The precedent of the crisis over guarantees with President George H.W. Bush's administration - a crisis that contributed to the defeat of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in the 1992 elections - is still clearly remembered. This week it emerged that $205 million in American aid pledged for the acquisition of an additional Iron Dome missile interception system is being delayed because of a dispute in Congress. And Israel expects the administration to abide by its commitment and increase annual defense aid to $3 billion, an all-time record, while it deliberates over cuts in its defense budget.
U.S. President Barack Obama's initiative to renew the construction freeze in the settlements dropped from the diplomatic agenda because of clumsy management by the administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's delaying tactics. The continuation is liable to be worse. Columnist Thomas Friedman's call to the Americans to stop being Israel's "crack dealers" reflects a position that is gaining traction in Washington. The Americans can give Israel a cold shoulder in a thousand and one ways, while paying lip service to their commitment to its security.
The diplomatic vacuum that has developed in the region will soon be filled by moves that could be problematic for Israel: an attempt to expand the boycott by consumers and unions in Europe, exacerbation of the delegitimization campaign and increased international support for a Palestinian declaration of independence in the summer of 2011.
At a time when construction in the settlements is being renewed full steam ahead, Israel will find it difficult to gain international understanding for its position. The heads of the Palestinian Authority are also aware of the complications inherent in a unilateral declaration, but perhaps they will have a hard time stopping the snowball they themselves have sent rolling. This spring, Netanyahu is again likely to find himself knocking on the administration's door in a belated attempt to recruit Washington to thwart the Palestinian initiative.
Netanyahu's critics on the left have hastened to depict his retreat from continuing the freeze as final proof that the prime minister is lying to everyone all the time. But Netanyahu is not a swindler. His problem is something else. Even when he believes a move is necessary (such as recognizing a two-state solution ), he will make eyes at the alternative the whole time. It seems that even when the prime minister leaves Jerusalem for his weekend home in Caesarea he has to stop at Sha'ar Hagai along the way to check which way the wind is blowing.
At a time when Netanyahu is so indecisive on the Palestinian track, he is a lot more decisive regarding the Iranian threat. His aides describe a person imbued with determination to remove the new danger hovering over the Jewish people. This devotion is admirable, but it would be best if in this context Netanyahu remembered the importance of the United States. The thought that Israel will scramble its planes in the future and the Americans will be content with a salute and support is completely unrealistic.
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