Monday, September 16, 2019

Israeli Secret Ops Undermining the United States: Political Realism as Undercutting Allies

On September 14, 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was “giddy with excitement” after U.S. President Trump had communicated “the possibility of moving forward” with a mutual defense pact.[1] This communication was punctuated, however, by “cautious wording.”[2] Trump had recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s state capital and recognized Netanyahu’s annexation of the occupied Golan Heights. What accounts for the caution regarding a defense pact? Moreover, why had Trump been quiet concerning the Israeli election that was coming up in a week or so? Netanyahu was polling behind his contender, so vocal support from Trump, such as on Netanyahu’s campaign pledge to annex the Jordon Valley, would have been valuable to the sitting prime minister. At least part of the answer may have something to do with Israel’s undercutting military action in Iraq. American allies have their own geo-political agendas that can include undercutting the United States militarily.

There is the public relationship, which is all smiles, and there is what is really going on secretly. Which is real? 

First of all, just two days before Trump conveyed a vague interest in moving forward on a defense pack, Politico had broken the story that U.S. Government had determined over the last two years that Israel had been behind the "StingRay" cellphone surveillance units found around the White House.[3] Those machines could act as cell-phone towers and thus obtain cell-phone calls, texts, and data from people in the White House, as well as coming and going. Although Trump publicly claimed that he didn't believe that Israel had been spying on him, his reaction in secret may have been different, as he was known to be lax with his cellphone security and may have had personal information extracted. In public, the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister denied the story, but in private, their relationship may have been damaged.
Secondly, according to the U.S., Israel had likely been involved in a strike near Baghdad in July, 2019. According to two U.S. officials, the strike complicated America’s relationship with Iraq.[4] It was in Israel’s interest to target militia groups with close ties to Iran. Pentagon spokesman Sean Robertson pointed out that the U.S. military has “repeated spoken out against any potential actions by neighbors that could lead to violence in Iraq.”[5] It is interesting that one of the closest U.S. allies would act so anyway. In an interview, Netanyahu, who also acted at the time as Israel’s defense minister, admitted that he had “given the security forces a free hand and the instruction to do what is needed to thwart” Iran’s plans “in Iran itself, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen.”[6] Whether Netanyahu merely relegated the fallout for the U.S. or had an interest in driving a wedge between the U.S. and Iraq goes beyond my intel. 
Thirdly, Israeli military forces, dressed as Iraqis, had secretly entered Iraq before, using complicit British guns to shoot at American soldiers and thus destabilize the situation in the eyes of the Americans and thus manipulate them to increase their involvement there. Both the British and Israeli states had an interest in keeping the U.S. mired in the Middle East, though I doubt the British interest was principally to weaken the dollar. Israel’s interest is rather obvious in having a powerful ally close by militarily. In any case, special relationships tend to get weakened by undermining actions on the ground.
Perhaps political realism, a theory that maintains that states pursue their respective interests rationally, really does explain how states act in secret. But is such a narrow preoccupation of interest rational? A single-minded privileging of immediate interests is not rational, I submit, because the longer-term benefits from a longer-term interest are discounted or ignored outright. Allies can realize such benefits unless either state puts short-term opportunism (from short-term interests) above the sort of self-restraining motivation that respects as binding the other state's interests. 
In secret, states may indeed be opportunists even in trying to weaken an ally while proffering supportive platitudes in public. After all, the present-value of money, which holds that having money today is worth more than having it tomorrow (hence interest on a savings account is compensation), stems from the importance of instant gratification in human nature. Given this genetic staple, trust simply does not exist between states, even allies. The maxim that a state will only act in concert with an ally when the immediate strategic interests are in line is not rational, I submit, because the benefits from self-constraining immediate interests are given up; such benefits, if allowed, would result in a more optimized state interest being realized. 

Even medium-term benefits may not be realized. Netanyahu, for instance, may find that his desire to be re-elected is not sufficiently supported when a “trusted” ally is more hesitant than usual in offering support. From the American standpoint, it may not even make sense to have a mutual-defense pact with an ally that takes cell-phone data from near the White House and plows ahead militarily at the detriment of the United State's costly work in Iraq. Why would the U.S. agree to spend money and lives to defend Israel unless America were itself attacked? To be in a mutual military pact, both sides must be capable of and willing to recognize and act on obligation even when the immediacy of interest could benefit by acting contrarily even if in secret.

1. Oren Liebermann, “Trump May No Longer Be the Gift that Keeps on Giving for Netanyahu,”, September 16, 2019 (accessed on the same day).
2. Ibid.
3. Daniel Lippman, "Israel Accused of Planting Mysterious Spy Devices Near the White House," Politico, September 12, 2019.
4. Barbara Starr et al, “Israel Likely Had a Role in Iraq Airstrike that Has Roiled US-Iraqi Relations,”, August 23, 2019 (accessed on September 16, 2019)
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.