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Israel under fire: the 'special relationship' with the United States is under strain and Jewish-American attitudes towards Israel and its murky influence in the US are changing.

Israel is reeling from a global future triggered by allegations that its military committed war crimes during the 22-day invasion of the Gaza Strip last winter. Its deepening sense of international isolation has been compounded by growing pressure from the United States, its longtime strategic ally and protector, to abandon the West Bank to secure peace with the Palestinians. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's defiance--and periods of feigned compliance--can only further antagonise President Barack Obama's administration.

It is perhaps the gravest sign that attitudes about Israel--no longer the tiny nation of Holocaust survivors menacingly outnumbered by Arabs but a nuclear-armed occupying power--are undergoing profound change is the way that Americans, and American Jews in particular, now perceive Israel and its policies.

Jordanian columnist and academic Rami Khouri, a frequent visitor to the United States, noted that there is a "slow but steady erosion of the once absolute taboo to speak about the excessive influence of pro-Israeli groups in the United States.

"Pro-Israeli forces in politics and the mass media can still destroy a public career, especially for a politician, but the stranglehold on discussing this phenomenon is slowly loosening."

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Khouri, who is currently teaching at the American University of Beirut, cautioned that "this is noteworthy but not decisive, though only until it touches on the conduct of Congress and the White House".

Still, he concluded that the "early signs are clear nevertheless. The strict taboos that pro-Israeli zealots and political thugs imposed on the American public are slowly cracking, which can only be in the long-term best interest of the US, Israel and the entire Middle East".

One of the most significant shifts in Washington has been the emergence of a new and more moderate Israeli lobby that has broken away from the Likud-leaning and long powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, which has dominated--and intimidated--American political life when it came to US policy in the Middle East since the 1950s.

Lobbying

The lobby, the mainstream voice of the Jewish-American community, has succeeded in stifling virtually any criticism of Israel in Congress and the media, and in shoehorning pro-Israeli activists into senior levels of government. This was particularly true in George W. Bush's neocon-laden administration.

The new, doveish group called J Street, founded 18 months ago by two young Jewish political activists chafing at AIPAC's heavy-handed "Israel right or wrong" philosophy, held its first national conference in Washington towards the end of last year.

It attracted 1,500 delegates and dozens of members of Congress and important diplomats. The keynote speech was delivered by Obama's national security adviser, General James Jones, whose high-profile presence gave the gathering the presidential seal of approval.

The Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, appointed by Binyamin Netanyahu, was noticeably absent.

It remains to be seen whether the brash, left-leaning upstart organisation will survive AIPAC's efforts to discredit and destroy it and to gain credence and influence on Capitol Hill. J Street, propelled largely by liberal American Jews of the post-Holocaust generations disillusioned with AIPAC's strong-arm Likudnik philosophy and now strongly behind Obama's peace initiative.

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It advocates the creation of a Palestinian state, favours Jerusalem being the shared capital of the two states and engaging Hamas to get the fundamentalists to the negotiating table, which is the last thing Netanyahu wants--no more Palestinian enemy, no more justification for not finding a peaceful solution to a century of conflict.

The group has already survived a smear campaign by Likudnik hardliners in Washington. J Street's AIPAC opponents have been careful not to publicly endorse this, but their fingerprints are all over it. A long cover story in the 13 September issue of the New York Times magazine lauding the infant organisation gave it a big boost in the run-up to its first conference.

The smear campaign has intensified, underlining the growing discomfort of AIPAC's hardliners at this upstart challenger and its liberal policies which include talking to Arabs rather than killing or vilifying them.

"One must once again marvel at the shortsightedness of Israel's hardline supporters in the US, who seem intent on alienating the American Jewish community that is Israel's most valuable strategic asset," Jewish American commentator Daniel Luban wrote in an online analysis.

"The hawks seem to think that if only J Street is crushed, American Jews will obediently fall back in line behind Israel's every action.

"But I think they misread the mood of the Jewish community, the changes it has undergone in recent years, and the extent to which J Street is designed to play a moderating, rather than a radicalising, role on Jewish public opinion.

In recent weeks, the United States participated with Israel in the joint Juniper Cobra exercise to simulate countering missiles attacks from Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas.

That clearly signalled to Tehran that the US will stand together with Israel in the event of an Iranian attack.

It was also intended to deflect the condemnation of Israel's alleged war crimes in Gaza last winter made by renowned international jurist Richard Goldstone, a South African Jew, in a UN-mandated investigation.

But behind these events, which as much as anything reflect AIPAC's behind-the-scenes power in the US Congress and Senate, there is a new prickliness in relations between the US and an increasingly right-wing Israel.

Another spy

The 18 October arrest in Washington of a senior American scientist on charges of attempting to spy for Israel, did nothing to ameliorate this tendency.

Stewart Nozette worked at the White House on the National Space Council under President George H.W. Bush in 1989-90. He had also worked at the National Aeronautical and Space Administration and the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1990-99 where he held security clearances for top secret material.

Nozette's arrest in a sting operation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation has rekindled US claims that Israel has worked against its strategic ally and benefactor virtually from the moment it declared statehood in May 1948, from spiriting an estimated 200 pounds of weapons-grade uranium for its secret nuclear arms programme in the 1960s to wide-scale and persistent industrial espionage during which some of America's most-guarded secrets were stolen.

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Nozette had worked as a consultant for an unidentified aerospace firm owned by the Israeli government in 1998-2008. Although it is not clear what secrets he may have passed or intended to pass to Israel's intelligence services, US officials say he had given away classified material. His alleged activities can only intensify the concerns of Obama's administration about how far it can trust Israel, the key US ally in the Middle East.

The administration's effort to revive the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process and find a diplomatic solution to the problem of Iran's controversial nuclear programme have been hindered by Israel. In the final analysis, it does not want to see an independent Palestinian state on its doorstep, or a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic that would challenge the nuclear monopoly it has enjoyed in the region since the 1960s, thanks to US support.

Israel-US relations

But US concerns go back many years. Israeli intelligence has been caught running several espionage operations against the United States that have antagonised many officials in the US intelligence community.

That distrust of Israel has been growing, but Israeli political influence in the United States is so pervasive that most cases of alleged Israeli espionage pursued by the FBI have been quietly dropped--much to the chagrin of many senior agents. Most, but not all. The most damaging of these cases unfolded in November 1985 with the arrest of Jonathan Pollard, a civilian analyst with the US Navy who, from May 1984, had passed vast amounts of top-secret material to Israel. The Israelis are believed to have traded some of those secrets with Moscow to allow Jews to leave the Soviet Union for Israel. During his year-and-a-half of betrayal, for $2,500 a month and other inducements, Pollard, a Jew, stole at least 1,800 classified documents amounting to 800,000 pages. The case caused immense damage to US-Israeli relations.

Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. But many in the US intelligence establishment believe that Pollard was not the only spy employed by Israel operating in the United States at that time--and to this day.

One mysterious agent, codenamed "Mega", was detected during an electronic intercept of a telephone conversation between an official in the Israeli Embassy in Washington and a senior Mossad officer in Tel Aviv. "Mega" is believed to have operated at the highest level of government for years.

Ever since Pollard's capture, the FBI has been looking for a high-level mole in the US government who provided the numbers and dates of the secret documents that Pollard's handlers instructed him to steal when they conducted their weekly meetings in an apartment near the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

Much of the Israeli espionage, including Pollard's, was conducted by the highly secret Scientific Liaison Bureau, known by its Hebrew acronym Lakam. It was set up in the 1960s by Shimon Peres, now Israel's president, and was run by the defence ministry.

It was supposed to have been dismantled after Pollard was caught red-handed, but the Israelis simply gave it another identity, the Security Authority for the Ministry of Defence, known by its Hebrew acronym Malmab. The full extent of the damage caused by Pollard's treason remains unknown to this day because the Israelis have refused to return the most sensitive documents he passed to them. For years after Pollard's arrest, the Israelis claimed his spying was an unsanctioned rogue operation. But in January 1996, Israel granted Pollard citizenship.

In May 1998, after more than a decade of denials, the Israeli government (led by Netanyahu in his first term as prime minister) admitted that Pollard had operated as an Israeli agent against the US and was "handled by high-ranking officials".

Israel has made repeated requests for Pollard's release. But so heavy was the damage that he had inflicted and so intense the humiliation suffered by US intelligence, successive presidents have had no choice but to turn down these appeals.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the US Congress, reported in April 1996 that Israel "conducts the most aggressive espionage operation against the United States of any US ally".

Nothing much has changed since then. According to Duncan Clarke of the American University's School of International Service in Washington, who wrote a damning paper on Israel's industrial espionage in the US: "The United States and Israel agreed in 1951 not to spy on one another ... The agreement has been flouted repeatedly and flagrantly by Israel. Israeli economic espionage has infuriated the US intelligence community, especially the FBI and the Customs Service and has left a legacy of distrust in that community ...

"The greater concern, however, is not Israel's behaviour. Rather it is with those senior US officials and legislators who abide it. This aspect of the 'special relationship' with Israel annoys, even embitters, much of the permanent national security bureaucracy.

"It is also a latent domestic political issue with divisive overtones. Whatever immediate advantages Israel's illicit practices may bring, they could eventually weaken the long-run relationship that is the ultimate guarantee of Israel's security."
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Title Annotation:CURRENT AFFAIRS
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:1866
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