In March relations between the US and Israel reached a 30 year low. US Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel trying to push forward the ‘Israel/Palestine peace process', but the announcement of the building of another 1600 homes for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem led to the withdrawal of the Palestinian Authority. This slap in the face for the US brought a blunt response from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "As Israel's friend, it is our responsibility to give credit when it is due and to tell the truth when it is needed". The US does not agree with more building in East Jerusalem, as President Obama re-emphasised when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited Washington at the end of March.
This public row appears to demonstrate that the Obama regime is going to ‘stand up' to Israel's increasingly unpredictable actions, after the Bush administration's automatic backing for Israel. The new White House team looks like it's trying to advance the Israel/Palestine peace process and work towards a long-term settlement. That, at least, is how the media has been presenting it.
Of course, the Obama team would dearly love to bring about a settlement because the Israel/Palestine conflict is a festering sore in its side. But it's not because the US state want to bring ‘peace and good will' to the Middle East, but because the current impasse is undermining its wider imperialist strategy in the area, which is to impose its control over the region.
The fact that, a year after coming to power, the Obama team has been faced with such an act of insubordination by its ally underlines the stark assessment made of its inability to impose its will made by the International Crisis Group (a think-tank that offers advice on ‘resolving' conflicts)."Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking in 2009 never really got off the ground, as symbolised by the Obama Administration's inability to bring the parties to the negotiating table. The US was unable to achieve either a comprehensive settlement or steps by Arab states to begin normalising relations with Israel. By the end of the year, the peace process was at an impasse, with both sides increasingly questioning the viability of an end-of-conflict two-state solution". (ICG Annual Report 2010.) This is a damning indictment of what was supposed to be a newly invigorated peace offensive.
Why has Obama had such a lack of success?
The new president came into office insisting that he would usher in a new era of US engagement with the rest of the world after the eight years of the Bush administration. Central to this ambition was the new emphasis on peace making between the ruling classes of Israel and Palestine. Along with the US ‘withdrawal' from Iraq - an odd form of withdrawal that leaves 100,000 US troops still stationed there - this was meant to revamp the image of America around the world: from warmonger to peacemaker.
Is this failure down to Netanyahu increasingly operating as a loose cannon? Has this one man and his coalition allies managed to scupper the ambitions of the world's only superpower and its bright new smiley figurehead? No!
It's true that Netanyahu's intransigence over the building of new homes for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem, and his reluctance to comply with US demands that he makes a real effort to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority dominated by Fatah (and even Hamas in Gaza), are an obstacle to US ambitions to clean up its image and its ability to engage with other imperialist powers in the region. Why should the Syrian or Iranian ruling classes limit their own imperialist ambitions when the US is not even able to bring to heel an ally that is totally dependent upon it? The central question however, is why does Netanyahu feel able to defy the world's only superpower?
Netanyahu and his six-party coalition can see that the US is weak. In the Bush years the US let Israeli imperialism pursue its ambitions in the Lebanon, towards the two Palestinian statelets (and their regional backers Syria and Iran) as part of a policy that tried to impose the US's will militarily. This policy failed in Iraq and is looking increasingly like failing in Afghanistan. It is one of the reasons Bush's team was replaced by Obama's. But the new team is still faced with the same situation. In this context the current factions that make up the Israeli government are now more confident about defending the Israeli national interest, with much less concern for the consequences.
Other fractions of the bourgeoisie have criticised Netanyahu's headstrong approach, especially towards the US, but they are all united in the desire to defend the national interest. This means confrontation with its regional rivals, above all Iran. The other fractions may want to do this through cooperation with the US, but, faced with the weakness of the world's policeman - exemplified by its inability to impose its diktat over Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world - their arguments are weakened. And the arguments for pursuing Netanyahu's line, even if its means problems with the US, are being strengthened. After all, what is the US going to do to Israel? Despite its unruliness it's still the main ally of the US in an increasingly unstable region.
Cauldron of tensions
Other regional powers such as Syria and Iran are also trying to take advantage of the US's inability to impose its will.
Iran is the starkest example. Its determination to develop nuclear weapons has been reinforced by the US's weakness. The US has very limited options. A direct military strike is something that it wants to avoid while it still has Afghanistan on its hands. In addition, the situation is pushing Israeli imperialism into an increasingly belligerent posture, even allowing for the already significant weight of the military apparatus in the Israeli state. Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear power station in 1981, and is part of the international propaganda campaign to justify a pre-emptive strike to stop Iran getting nuclear weaponry.
The US is thus faced with a double challenge. It wants to stop the development of Iranian nuclear weapons and at the same time stop Israel further undermining its position and making the situation much worse by attacking Iran.
The influential US journal Foreign Affairs summed up the prospect facing the US. "The advent of a nuclear Iran -- even one that is satisfied with having only the materials and infrastructure necessary to assemble a bomb on short notice rather than a nuclear arsenal -- would be seen as a major diplomatic defeat for the United States. Friends and foes would openly question the U.S. government's power and resolve to shape events in the Middle East. Friends would respond by distancing themselves from Washington; foes would challenge U.S. policies more aggressively". (‘After Iran gets the Bomb' Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010.)
Syria is one of these foes. As another report by the International Crisis Group underlined, while the ‘West' (ie the US) is looking to Syria to engage with it, the Syrian ruling class is waiting to see how much clout the US actually still has.
"The West wants to know whether Syria is ready to fundamentally alter its policies - loosen or cut ties to Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah; sign a peace deal with Israel - as a means of stabilising the region. Syria, before contemplating any fundamental strategic shift, wants to know where the region and its most volatile conflicts are headed, whether the West will do its part to stabilise them and whether its own interests will be secured.
From Syria's vantage point, there is good reason to cling to the status quo. For almost four decades, it has served Damascus well. Despite a turbulent and often hostile neighbourhood, the regime has proved resilient. It has used ties to various groups and states to amass political and material assets, acquiring a regional role disproportionate to its actual size or resources. One does not readily forsake such allies or walk away from such a track record." (‘Reshuffling the Cards? (I) Syria's Evolving Strategy' ICG Middle East and North Africa Report 14 December 2009)
Faced with a US that is looking increasingly weak in the Middle East, and an Israeli imperialism that is increasingly inclined to throw its weight around, the Syrian bourgeoisie is going to have to receive some good offers from the US to side with it. However, it is also not very keen on a nuclear Iran. It is allied with Iran in its confrontation with Israel as their mutual rival, but they also have conflicts over Iraq and, more widely, their competing influence in the region.
This cauldron of tensions is being stirred up further by the other major powers. French imperialism has been developing its relations with Syria, while German imperialism has been courted by Israel. In March a very high level Israeli delegation of ministers visited Berlin. China and Russia have also been involved with Iranian imperialism.
It's not because of Netanyahu or because of Israeli imperialism as a whole that the US has failed to impose itself in the region.
Unlike a bourgeois think tank like the International Crisis Group that wants to solve capitalism's insoluble problems, the ICC analyses the situation in order to understand the direction imperialist conflicts are leading. We can see that, faced with the weakness of the US, it is trying to impose itself more and more brutally. The diplomatic quarrel with Israel is an expression of this. It had to make a display of slapping down Israel in order to show the rest of the world that it was serious. The fact that the Israeli bourgeoisie is still going ahead with its building projects is yet another blow to US credibility. It is also another reason for regional powers to push ahead in the drive to satisfy their imperialist appetites. If the US cannot maintain order in the area then all states are going to be set against each other. In the Middle East this has the terrifying prospect of the use of nuclear weapons either by an increasingly desperate Israel or by an Iranian imperialism grown more confident with the reduction of Iraqi influence.
At the beginning of April Israel carried out a series of bombing raids on Gaza in retaliation for the killing of the first Israeli soldiers in the area in over a year, and the renewal of rocket attacks from Gaza. This is the most serious assault since Israel's 22-day offensive against Gaza in late 2008/early 2009. Israel has threatened to further escalate the air strikes. Iranian President Ahmadinejad warned Israel that any further attacks would bring it "closer to certain death." None of the imperialisms in the area are holding back as the US is showing itself less and less capable of policing the region.