How Israel Became a Rogue Ally | Crooked Media
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March 16, 2024
What A Day
How Israel Became a Rogue Ally

In This Episode

This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he’s invading the Palestinian city of Rafah despite strong opposition from the Biden administration. Why does Israel, a country that seems to rely on the U.S. for so much, increasingly ignore and defy its long time American patron? And at what point is a defiant ally not really an ally at all? This week on How We Got Here, Israel’s decades-long effort to break free of their military, economic, and diplomatic dependence on the United States—and what it means for the peace process.

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Erin Ryan: So, Max, I’ve been following the dynamic between Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu pretty closely. 

 

Max Fisher: And listeners should know this is not because you have the world’s worst sense of fun. 

 

Erin Ryan: No, no, it’s because I’ve noticed something very hard to explain about their relationship, and I have a great sense of fun. I have multiple books on reproductive coercion around the world on hold at the Los Angeles Public Library as we speak. 

 

Max Fisher: But you know who isn’t having fun, Erin, is Joe Biden every time he talks to Benjamin Netanyahu. 

 

Erin Ryan: Well, this is a thing. They really don’t like each other. Biden has been trying for months to rein in Netanyahu’s war in Gaza. And every day, 2 million people in Gaza pay the price for his failure. 

 

Max Fisher: Biden just gave Netanyahu this big public ultimatum to not invade Rafah, which is a city in Gaza. 

 

Erin Ryan: And you’d think, you know, Israel is this tiny little country that relies on America for weapons, aid, diplomatic cover at the U.N., etc.. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm hm. 

 

Erin Ryan: So presumably Israel has to listen to the US. But Netanyahu came right out and said he’s invading Rafah no matter what the U.S. says. 

 

Max Fisher: Boy, if you know anything about foreign policy, that is not how that is supposed to work. 

 

Erin Ryan: [music break] I’m Erin Ryan. 

 

Max Fisher: And I’m Max Fisher. This is How We Got here, a series where we explore a big question behind the week’s headlines and tell a story that answers that question. 

 

Erin Ryan: Our question this week, why does Israel, a country that would seem to rely on the U.S. for so much, increasingly ignore and defy its longtime American patron? And at what point is a defiant ally not really an ally at all? 

 

Max Fisher: And of course, some of this is specific to the way that Biden has handled this moment. I guess he’s issuing demands to the Israelis, but he’s also cutting them a lot of blank checks, so you can see why they might think they can blow them off. 

 

Erin Ryan: For sure, though this has been going on since long before this war or before Biden. So it’s bigger than anything he’s doing. 

 

Max Fisher: Or not doing. 

 

Erin Ryan: The story we want to tell you this week is one that goes a ways to explaining why Israeli leaders have been getting bolder and bolder in defying the Americans. 

 

Max Fisher: It’s a story of a very deliberate effort by the Israelis, one stretching back a few decades to break free of their military, economic, and diplomatic dependance on the United States. 

 

Erin Ryan: American leaders are starting to notice. Just this Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest ranking Jewish leader in American history. The dictionary definition of a pro-Israel Democrat, got so frustrated with Israel that he condemned Netanyahu’s leadership and called for new elections in Israel. 

 

[clip of Chuck Schumer] As a lifelong supporter of Israel. It has become clear to me the Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7th. 

 

Erin Ryan: Wow. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. Wow. It’s a big moment. Of course, the stakes matter here a lot less for Biden or Netanyahu or Chuck Schumer than for the tens of thousands of innocent people in Gaza who have already been killed, and the 2 million still facing daily threat of starvation, bombardment and the trauma of losing family. 

 

Erin Ryan: Not to mention the 3 million more Palestinians in the West Bank living under an occupation that the U.S. has been failing for decades to get the Israelis to roll back. 

 

Max Fisher: And of course, Israel still benefits enormously from US support in lots of ways. Like maybe most importantly, from all the weapons that Washington supplies for its war in Gaza. 

 

Erin Ryan: Right. And we’re not disputing that. 

 

Max Fisher: What we are saying is that Israel has been carefully re-engineering all this stuff, from its military programs to its diplomatic relationship, in ways that make it less reliant on America, with the specific goal of freeing Israel to defy Washington exactly like it’s doing now. 

 

Erin Ryan: Oh, boy. Well, we should back up to show people how this all used to work. 

 

Max Fisher: So the idea that Israel depends absolutely on American support started in 1973, when Israel fought what was another in a series of wars against the neighboring Arab states. Israel was on the verge of losing catastrophically. But then Richard Nixon, of all people, stepped in with this big emergency resupply that allowed Israel to beat back the invaders. 

 

Erin Ryan: Ah. Richard Nixon, well known liker of Jewish people. Not at all notoriously anti-Semitic. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. Nixon had no, like, special feelings, special love for Israel. This was before Israel was a big issue in U.S. politics even. This is really just all about the Cold War and preventing these Soviet allied Arab states from dominating the Middle East. And Nixon wanted to prop up Israel as this new pillar of American influence. 

 

[clip of Richard Nixon] And I said, I will not let Israel go down the tube. Therefore, I approved an alert, alert of our forces, uh nuclear and conventional. A couple of days after that, [?] backed down. And finally the ceasefire went into place. 

 

Erin Ryan: And then, of course, a few years later, Jimmy Carter sponsors the Camp David Accords that strike peace between Israel and Egypt, in part by promising to give both countries billions of dollars in aid every year in perpetuity. This moment is the origin of the idea that Israel is a small country surrounded by adversaries whose continued survival relies on American support. 

 

Max Fisher: And that was pretty true for a long time. Like Israel remember, was a much poorer country back then than it is today, with a less sophisticated military. 

 

Erin Ryan: Even as Israel got richer and its neighbors posed less of an existential threat, it became more reliant on the U.S. in other ways. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, that would be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel, of course, had been occupying the Palestinian territories since 1967 and was coming into growing conflict with Palestinian resistance groups. 

 

Erin Ryan: This was also a time of global decolonization. So governments worldwide, especially in Asia and Africa, took up the cause of pressuring for Palestinian liberation. 

 

Max Fisher: Enter again the United States. Which–

 

Erin Ryan: Ugh. It should it should have like a bah bah bah bah theme song. 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] A little theme music?

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah. 

 

Max Fisher: Uh. So America used its diplomatic weight to shield Israel, for example, by vetoing any critical resolutions on the United Nations Security Council. 

 

Erin Ryan: The Americans also became the primary mediators of the Israel Palestine conflict, and throughout the U.S. was supplying arms to protect Israel in this and other conflicts. 

 

Max Fisher: And as a result of all this, it became conventional wisdom within Israeli politics that one of the prime minister’s most important jobs is keeping the Americans onsides. Israeli voters rewarded or punished politicians based on how effective they were at pleasing Washington. 

 

Erin Ryan: That sounds dysfunctional. [laughter] I’m picturing the Israeli James Carville saying, after the incumbents lose a contested election, it’s the American Alliance stupid. 

 

Max Fisher: That is actually kind of what happens. 

 

Erin Ryan: There’s an Israeli, James Carville? 

 

Max Fisher: Well, we are going to be the Israeli James Carville. 

 

Erin Ryan: Oh okay. 

 

Max Fisher: But that reaction does happen. 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay. Uh. Yeah. That brings us to the story of how and why the Israelis start looking to break from their dependance on American help. 

 

Max Fisher: So if you had to pinpoint a moment when things started to change for the Israelis, you could do a lot worse than May 1989. 

 

Erin Ryan: I swear to God, if you try to pin this all on Milli Vanilli. 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] Np, another much debated recording from the late ’80s. Secretary of State James Baker’s speech to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. 

 

[clip of James Baker] Now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel. Israeli interests in the West Bank and Gaza, security and otherwise can can be accommodated in a settlement based on resolution 242. Forswear annexation. Stop settlement activity. Allow schools to reopen. Reach out to the Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights. 

 

Erin Ryan: Wow. James Baker, leftist icon. Granted, I don’t get to speak at AIPAC a lot, but this all sounds pretty uncontroversial. 

 

Max Fisher: So Baker basically announced that the US was shifting policy from being a simple mediator between Israelis and Palestinians to overtly opposing and working to end Israel’s occupation. 

 

Erin Ryan: Israeli leaders, and I’m putting this gently flipped their shit. 

 

Max Fisher: I think that’s accurate. 

 

Erin Ryan: Here’s what a New York Times columnist wrote of the speech. And he wasn’t speaking here for Israeli leaders, but he might as well have been, quote, “the Israel haters are slavering at the thought that the speech means the United States is getting ready to dump Israel or cut her off from economic and military support, unless she follows Washington instructions.” 

 

Max Fisher: That might have been the end of it, if not for something that happened just about two years later in 1991. 

 

Erin Ryan: 1991 World Championships between the uh Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves? 

 

Max Fisher: Yes, that’s right! That’s exactly–

 

Erin Ryan: Greatest world series of all time. 

 

Max Fisher: That’s the answer yeah.

 

Erin Ryan: To this day? 

 

Max Fisher: So in addition, that’s mainly what happened. But in addition to that. 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay. 

 

Max Fisher: Um. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. 

 

Erin Ryan: Oh, yeah. That makes more sense in the context of what we’re talking about. 

 

Max Fisher: Saddam had  invaded Kuwait. The US led a big coalition against him with support from several Arab states. And Saddam, in response, fired a bunch of missiles at Israel, threatened to fill the missiles with nerve gas, and he hammered Israeli cities for weeks. 

 

[clip of unspecified news reporter] The Gulf War has transformed Tel Aviv from Israeli heartland into frontline. And as the attacks continue, in spite of the arrival of American Patriot missiles, the residents of this city are now living a nightmare that they had prayed would never happen. 

 

Erin Ryan: This was a really weird plan. 

 

Max Fisher: Saddam not a smart guy. 

 

Erin Ryan: Saddam wanted to provoke Israel into retaliating, which he thought would force Arab states to drop out of the war. And Israeli leaders did want to respond. But their old frenemy James Baker, and his boss/bestie President George H.W. Bush, pressured them not to. 

 

Max Fisher: Israelis were furious about this. Um. This guy named Moshe Arens, who is the defense minister at the time, spent pretty much of the rest of his life trying to warn Israelis that their country had, in his view, put itself in a position where the Americans could stop it from defending itself. Like here he is talking about this, 20 years later, in 2010. 

 

[clip of Moshe Arens] We got into uh conversations, uh to some some extent and even arguments about an Israeli response to the Scud missiles that were flowing in Jerusalem. I remind you again, this was a five week period, so there was plenty of time to do some thinking and and talking and discussing and even arguing and even for me to take a trip to Washington to tell uh President Bush that uh, we could not, reconcile ourselves with the continuing situation of these missiles falling in Israel. 

 

Erin Ryan: And then there was this housing loans thing a year later, which was way more important than it sounds. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. Bush had promised Israel a $10 billion loan to help it build houses for Jews fleeing the then collapsing Soviet Union. But then he conditioned the loans on Israel following certain steps in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

 

Erin Ryan: It is beyond wild to me that conditioning aid to Israel is now treated as some fringe issue. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Erin Ryan: Too far left for any mainstream Democrat. But when it was actually done by noted left wing radical [laughter] comrade George H.W. Bush. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, that’s former CIA director and honorary fifth member of the squad, George H.W. Bush. 

 

Erin Ryan: Oil industry magnate and DSA International Affairs Committee co-chair George H.W. Bush. 

 

Max Fisher: Anyway, Israel’s leader at the time, uh never got those housing loans from Bush and ended up losing the next election over it. 

 

Erin Ryan: Just like Israeli James Carville tried to warn them. 

 

Max Fisher: So there’s three big things in a row. Baker’s speech, the Iraqi missile attacks, the lost loans convince a big faction of Israeli politics that their reliance on the Americans has become a problem, actually, more than a problem, an existential threat in its own right. 

 

Erin Ryan: The Israeli right wing is especially freaked out by Bush pressuring them on peace with the Palestinians, which they see as intolerable because it would mean the creation of a Palestinian state and giving up territory that they see as rightly theirs. 

 

Max Fisher: Here’s a clip of a then little known, low ranking Israeli right wing politician, the deputy Prime Minister getting super mad about this. 

 

[clip of Benjamin Netanyahu] We will make our demands and they will make their demands, but we’re not prepared to negotiate one thing. Our neck, our head, our heart, our existence. 

 

Erin Ryan: Oh my God, it’s baby Netanyahu. 

 

Max Fisher: Jumpscare. 

 

Erin Ryan: He sounds like a Batman villain even then. 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] It’s kind of his comic book villain origin story. Um. 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay. 

 

Max Fisher: Anyway, the Israeli right lost power in 1992 as a result of all this, left wing Labor Party came in and spent the next few years engaged pretty sincerely in the peace process. 

 

Erin Ryan: In 1996, Bill Clinton kind of confirmed the Israeli right’s worst fears by trying to quietly help the left wing Labor Party beat the right wing Likud party in Israeli elections. 

 

Max Fisher: But it didn’t work. And who should come to power now convinced that the Americans are both his benefactor and his adversary but new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

 

Erin Ryan: That’s how a lot of teenagers feel about their dads. 

 

Max Fisher: It’s honestly that’s that’s client state vibes. Angry teenager. You’re angry and they don’t know why. 

 

Erin Ryan: Benefactor/adversary things got off to a rocky start. Here’s Clinton a year later describing his talks with Netanyahu over the peace process. 

 

[clip of Bill Clinton] We had a very specific, frank, candid and long talk. And now uh we’re going to come uh talk to the Palestinians and see whether there’s something we can do to get this thing going again, and we’ll do [fading out]

 

Erin Ryan: I would also like to have a frank, specific and candid talk with Netanyahu. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, you and me both. So Netanyahu does very grudgingly make a couple of concessions to peace like prisoner releases, because he knows he’s still vulnerable to pressure from the Americans. 

 

Erin Ryan: He takes a real hit from his base for these concessions. It’s one of the reasons that in 1999, he lost an election and retired from politics?

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, it turns out that guy is the original bad penny. 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay. This is all to say that Israel in the ’90s was not yet totally pursuing that big strategic shift where it tried to break free of their dependance on the Americans, but it was taking some real steps in that direction. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. Like it was developing more of its own military production so it wouldn’t be reliant on American arms. Um. At this point, a little over 3% of Israel’s entire economy was dedicated to military R&D, which is almost four times what it was in the United States at the peak of the Cold War. 

 

Erin Ryan: Conflict between Israel and nearby Arab states was mostly over by the 1990s. So they didn’t need so much American help there. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was heating up. 

 

Max Fisher: And that’s a really big turning point for how that conflict changes Israeli politics. Uh. Before all this, it was really important to Israelis that they be seen as a Western democracy in good standing. So they pressured their leaders to keep the Americans and the Europeans happy. And mostly Israeli leaders did want peace. 

 

Erin Ryan: There are two big rounds of conflict known as the First Intifada, or uprising from 1987 to 1993, and then the much more violent Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005. 

 

Max Fisher: And of course, this was hardly something that just happened to Israelis. The majority of deaths were Palestinians, many or most of whom were civilians killed by Israeli forces. 

 

Erin Ryan: The point is that the conflict includes a number of bus and cafe bombings targeting Israeli civilians, which ends with Israeli public opinion much less concerned with making peace or with being seen as a nice Western democracy. 

 

Max Fisher: It also ends with Israel re-engineering the conflict in ways that are designed to make it worse for Palestinians, and more day to day bearable for Israelis. And that means things like military checkpoints and a now 400 mile long wall cutting through the West Bank. 

 

[clip of unspecifed person] You can’t talk about the war alone as it is. The concrete that we see here, nine meters high, 800km long around the west bank. It is inside the west bank. It’s with the wall, with the streets, the apartheid roads, the network, the complicated network that separate the roads for the Palestinians from the roads of the Israeli settlers. It is the checkpoints that controlling the Palestinian, eh Palestinian life. It’s creating a kind of a new reality that the Palestinians will be able, enable the Palestinians to live in the ghettos and enable Israel to control the Palestinians forever. 

 

Max Fisher: This is for the three million Palestinians in the West Bank, a huge escalation in the severity of the Israeli occupation that has been ongoing, remember, since 1967. 

 

Erin Ryan: And it leaves a lot of Israelis thinking, hey, we can force the Palestinians behind walls and checkpoints now. Why do we need to have a peace process at all with the annoying Americans droning on about concessions?

 

Max Fisher: That’s the Israel in which Benjamin Netanyahu comes roaring back into power in 2009, and with the exception of a brief stretch in 2021 and 2022. He’s held that job ever since. 

 

Erin Ryan: Wow. He allegedly retired in 1999 when he lost. Ten years later, he came back. 

 

Max Fisher: And has been there ever since. It’s not much of a retirement. 

 

Erin Ryan: The people who preach never give up are always the ones who probably should have given up. [laughter] This is when Netanyahu’s Israel really starts driving toward independence from American influence. Not coincidentally, it’s the same year that Obama came into office. 

 

Max Fisher: So Netanyahu began treating the Americans as both a source of essential military and diplomatic support, but also a problem to be managed or even confronted. 

 

Erin Ryan: There were times when it almost seemed like he wanted conflict to accelerate the splintering of Israel from America, which is a very Homeland, season one [laughter] plot point. 

 

Max Fisher: There was this infamous Oval Office meeting between the two leaders in 2011 where Netanyahu, like, openly lectured Obama, really hectoring him over the U.S. peace plan, which was pretty much the same plan that had been around since Carter. 

 

[clip of Benjamin Netanyahu] It’s not going to happen. Everybody knows it’s not going to happen. And I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly, it’s not going to happen. 

 

Erin Ryan: I’m sorry to harp on his voice, but I feel like whenever I hear Netanyahu talk that I am getting a call from a person who’s asking me to pay some ransom. 

 

Max Fisher: Well, that that is, in fact, what you’re hearing in that conversation. And we did pay him $4 billion for that. 

 

Erin Ryan: Oh, okay. Okay, well, that makes sense then. Netanyahu really believed that American peace talks represented a threat to Israeli security. And owing to his experience in the ’90s, to his own hold on office. 

 

Max Fisher: And to be clear, this reflects a very specific right wing Israeli nationalist worldview that says that any independent Palestinian state is a threat simply by its existence, and that Israel has to control the West Bank forever to defend itself. 

 

Erin Ryan: We should just come out and say that he’s wrong. 

 

Max Fisher: He’s wrong. 

 

Erin Ryan: He’s wrong. What he’s doing is institutionalizing the occupation as permanent and de facto annexing Palestinian territory through things like settlement expansion. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm hmm. And even if all of that had been effective at making Israelis safe, which, you know, clearly look around, it has not. It’s illegal under international law to subjugate Palestinians under a forever occupation that robs them of their rights. [music break]

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Erin Ryan: The point here is that a lot of Israelis had already thought for years that Washington’s push for peace made America a kind of threat, even as Israelis also saw American support as critical. Now, with Obama in office, they came to see winning at least partial autonomy from America as urgently important. 

 

Max Fisher: So Netanyahu took a gamble. 

 

Erin Ryan: You might say, in the parlance of the time, that he called one of his lifelines. 

 

Max Fisher: And the name of that lifeline. 

 

[clip of Benjamin Netanyahu] Governor Romney, Mitt. It’s a pleasure to welcome you in Jerusalem. We’ve known each other for many decades. God, we were so young then.And for some reason, you still look young. I don’t know how you do it. [laughter]

 

Erin Ryan: Oh yes. I too call my friends who I’ve known for decades by their last name, comma, first name. Governor Romney, Mitt? Yes. Netanyahu invited Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to Israel, where Netanyahu embraced him in an implied endorsement of his campaign. 

 

Max Fisher: So this is not the kind of thing that a client state like Israel normally does. Try to intervene in the electoral politics of its great power patron. 

 

Erin Ryan: What if it fails, right? What if it backfires and you alienate the Americans? 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. What if? Well this is why this is an important moment in that Israeli push to break free of American influence. That Netanyahu took this gamble at all means that he and the Israelis he represented believe that the upside was high enough to justify that risk, and also that if it had blown up in his face, he could have survived having totally alienated Washington, which he was sure trying to do. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah, there was a whole bunch more ups and downs after this in the Obama Netanyahu years. 

 

Max Fisher: When Obama was reelected, Netanyahu’s office actually put out this video trying to make nice that we cannot play for you because it includes and this is true, the Golden Girls theme. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah. Thank you for being a friend. Indeed. It’s act– that’s actually a really mean song to play at somebody who is definitely not your friend. 

 

Max Fisher: No. Yeah, it’s a little passive aggressive. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah. Obama gave a speech in Israel that called out Israeli actions like settler violence that stood in the way of peace. 

 

Max Fisher: Going a little bit James Baker mode. 

 

Erin Ryan: Netanyahu gave a speech to Congress trying to whip up opposition to Obama’s nuclear talks with Iran. 

 

Max Fisher: Which huge deal at the time. And during all of this, Obama is still giving Israel a lot of diplomatic cover at the UN and a lot of big ticket military support. 

 

Erin Ryan: Why am I not surprised? So the U.S. is hardly wielding its most powerful leverage with Israel, which might mean, say, conditioning military aid rather than expanding it. 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] What a crazy idea. There was a prevailing belief in Washington, one that went way back to the Bill Clinton years, that, yes, Netanyahu is a problem. The Israeli right is a problem, but Netanyahu controls access to peace. So if you want peace, then you have to make him feel secure enough that he believes he has the margins to risk an occasional concession. 

 

Erin Ryan: Make Netanyahu feel secure enough. Go back in– 

 

Max Fisher: That was the plan, yeah. 

 

Erin Ryan: Go back in time and make sure he got enough attention as a child. But concessions are not what this produces.

 

Max Fisher: No. And many of Netanyahu’s supporters in Israel love seeing him stand up to the Americans. Uh. But others were still nervous to see him alienating them, uh until Trump got elected and gave the Israelis everything they wanted. 

 

Erin Ryan: Which created a sense of impunity for Israeli leaders in dealing with Washington. They took the lesson that they could all but kick sand in the president’s face, and eventually someone like Trump would get elected and all would be forgiven. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah you can see how they got there. And Netanyahu had been gradually adopting a new diplomatic strategy to gain even more autonomy from Washington. 

 

Erin Ryan: So in football terms, this is sort of the Andy Reid air raid offense of diplomatic philosophies. 

 

Max Fisher: I have no idea. 

 

Erin Ryan: Complicated. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay. [laughter]

 

Erin Ryan: Complicated. Effective. Sophisticated. 

 

Max Fisher: Uh. I first heard this described, not quite in those terms by an Israeli social scientist named Dahlia Scheindlin. She called it the other friends policy. Here’s Dahlia talking to me a couple of days ago. 

 

[clip of Dahlia Scheindlin] I pin it to, at least from the mid 20 tens, that he seemed to have a very clear vision of how to expand Israel’s foreign relations to nontraditional allies or or even traditional allies, but cultivating new relations by expanding trade and expanding diplomatic relations, and breaking new ground with countries who were not traditional allies. And it seemed to me a pretty concerted strategy to reduce Israel’s dependency, not just on the US, but also on Western countries in general. 

 

Max Fisher: So nontraditional allies, to be clear, is a nice way of saying right wing strongmen think like Viktor Orban of Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Narendra Modi of India. 

 

Erin Ryan: These are all nationalist leaders who, in addition to making up the nightmare blunt rotation to end all nightmare blunt rotations. 

 

Max Fisher: Mm hmm. 

 

Erin Ryan: Don’t criticize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and in a lot of cases, treat it as laudable. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, Trump actually helps this along by securing a series of peace agreements between Israel and Arab states that still did not formally recognize Israel. 

 

Erin Ryan: And if you’re wondering how he did it, it’s pretty simple. He gave the Arab states big payouts, and to win over the Israelis unilaterally ceded almost every longstanding U.S. demand on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Wow. Donald Trump finally paid somebody. [laughter]

 

Max Fisher: So here’s a telling moment for you. When Netanyahu ran for reelection in 2019, in the middle of all this, he got Vladimir Putin to come stand beside him in Jerusalem. 

 

Erin Ryan: This, I think, really spoke to the shifting politics of not all Israelis, but certainly the Israeli right, which by this point was fully embracing the politics of ethno nationalism. 

 

Max Fisher: Which means that those voters no longer cared so much about being seen as a Western democracy in good standing. 

 

Erin Ryan: What they want is a leader who will deliver support from strongmen like Putin and Modi, who don’t care about things like settlement expansion. They still want American support too, but it’s hardly the end all be all anymore. 

 

Max Fisher: Here’s another telling moment from the 2019 Israeli elections. Remember that video of Netanyahu lecturing Obama in the Oval Office that got him in so much trouble? Well, in 2019, Netanyahu released it as a campaign ad. 

 

Erin Ryan: All of this suggests Netanyahu had successfully blunted what was once one of the big levers of American influence over Israel. The desire of Israeli voters to keep Washington happy. 

 

Max Fisher: And that’s really just the start. Shortly after Joe Biden came into office, Israel fought a brief conflict in Gaza. And the Israelis, who in the past would have been asking the Americans for military aid and diplomatic cover, or at least for permission to go ahead, pretty much just ignored Washington. 

 

Erin Ryan: The White House did call for a cease fire, but tellingly, only after the Israelis had already said that one was more or less in place, which just drew attention to how irrelevant the Americans had become. 

 

Max Fisher: In past conflicts, Israel had relied on U.S. weapons, especially missile defense. But by then the Israelis operated their own missile defense, and they had modified it to run cheaply enough that they’ll take American help, but they don’t need it. 

 

Erin Ryan: The Israeli economy is a lot bigger than it used to be too. When the US first started delivering those annual $4 billion aid packages as part of the Camp David Accords. That was the equivalent almost 10% of Israel’s economy. 

 

Max Fisher: Wow. 

 

Erin Ryan: Now it’s worth less than 1%. 

 

Max Fisher: So take all this together. Israeli leaders don’t need American military help as much because they have their own Israeli made weapons now. 

 

Erin Ryan: They don’t need American aid like they used to either. 

 

Max Fisher: They don’t face political backlash at home for pissing off American presidents, and they even get rewarded for it. 

 

Erin Ryan: And they don’t worry as much about losing Americans because they have all those other friendly countries now. 

 

Max Fisher: That’s part of how Netanyahu felt emboldened to, as of a year or two ago, start overhauling Israeli democracy or dismantling Israeli democracy to restrict rights for non-Jews and weaken checks on his power. 

 

Erin Ryan: But I’m wondering whether Israel can really still afford to reject American influence today, months into its war on Gaza? 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Erin Ryan: So that war has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians. It has destroyed much of Gaza and forced 2 million people into crowded camps and rubble fields where they’re at severe risk of disease, starvation, and continued Israeli bombardment. So there’s rightly a lot of global outrage. 

 

Max Fisher: I asked Dahlia Scheindlin, that Israeli social scientist about this. And just to put her answer in context, Dahlia has been extremely critical of the Israeli war in Gaza. She was trying to gauge whether the Israeli public might be rediscovering their wariness of alienating traditional allies like the US. 

 

[clip of Dahlia Scheindlin] I think that there’s no question that Israelis are worried about their foreign relations in general. They know that the major consequence of this war for Israel so far in the global sphere has been global opprobrium, and that everybody is angry at Israel. But I think that it would be wrong to assume that Israelis then conclude that they need to change their policy on the war. What the regular public tends to assume when they think about how badly Israel’s foreign relations are now is, why do they all hate us? Nobody else can understand what we went through on October 7th. If they went through it, they would they be doing the same thing. Maybe they just all hate Jews. You know, so that is the kind of underlying thinking and not always underlying. Sometimes it’s very explicit. In fact, often it’s very explicit. 

 

Max Fisher: Dahlia, by the way, has a new book out. It’s called The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel. 

 

Erin Ryan: You also have to wonder, if oh, I don’t know, President Joseph R. Biden might be losing patience with the idea of Israeli leaders openly and repeatedly defying U.S. presidents. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, there’s been a pretty humiliating pattern of the Biden administration gently trying to guide the Israelis away from some escalation in Gaza and the Israelis blowing them off. 

 

Erin Ryan: And as part of that, Biden giving the Israelis a lot of open ended support for a war that his administration, confusingly, also seems to oppose. 

 

Max Fisher: Yet five months in, Biden found a little bit of his inner James Baker this week when he publicly announced that an Israeli invasion of Rafah would be a redline for him. 

 

Erin Ryan: But Netanyahu, in response, went on German TV and told Biden to stuff it. 

 

[clip of Benjamin Netanyahu] We’ll go there. We’re not going to leave them. Uh. You know, I have a red line. You know what the red line is? That October 7th doesn’t happen again. Never happens again. And to do that, we have to complete the destruction of the Hamas terrorist army. 

 

Max Fisher: That’s not how you talk if you think you’re still the prime minister of an American client state. It’s how you talk if you think you’re leading a self-sufficient, autonomous power that just happens to get a lot of free American weapons, but can risk alienating Washington. 

 

Erin Ryan: But we should say that doesn’t mean that Netanyahu is right about Israel no longer needing to rely on Americans. He might be just overplaying his hand. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. And just to be explicit, we are not saying that America, for certain no longer has enough leverage to force Israel to halt its war in Gaza. The Israelis for sure have spent many years eroding that leverage, with the hopes of getting to the point where Washington could no longer boss them around. But it’s not clear whether or not Israel has actually gotten there. And these are really extreme circumstances. 

 

Erin Ryan: Look, you don’t know until you try. And Biden has not really tried in the way that he could. He could condition military aid on certain steps, like allowing the US to deliver aid into Gaza. 

 

Max Fisher: Or just stop giving military aid until the invasion and bombing stop. 

 

Erin Ryan: Or threaten to stop vetoing UN Security Council resolutions over the war. 

 

Max Fisher: Here’s uh Dahlia Scheindlin again. 

 

[clip of Dahlia Scheindlin] I guess the real question that I’ve been asking is, did Israel’s strategy work? In other words, having cultivated the kinds of new alliances or trying to boast of better relations with you know BRICS countries and the Abrahamic countries, the countries that signed agreements with Israel in 2020, the Arab countries, uh did this help Israel with a room for maneuver at a time when the other countries in the world are severely angry at Israel. And I don’t know if there’s one answer to that question, but I do think that those relations provide a kind of interesting balance to the traditional Western allies and America. Of course, the overriding story is that Israel is deeply dependent on America to support the war. And everybody knows that. American voters know it. Certainly progressive Democrats know it. 

 

Max Fisher: I think I’m left with two things here. I mean, I think on the one hand, the U.S. should just pull whatever levers it has, regardless of whether or not we think those levers are still enough to force Israel to change course. There are you know, two million innocent people in grave peril right now from Israel’s invasion and even if the war ended tomorrow. There’d still be five million Palestinians living without rights under Israeli occupation. And if anyone has the power to remove these people from harm other than the Israeli leadership itself, it’s the White House. So there’s a basic moral obligation to try. But on the other hand, I do think that that leverage is getting weaker every year thanks to this Israeli strategy to weaken it. And that strategy is working. You can see it working over the last ten, twenty years. I don’t know when it will advance to the point that American influence is insufficient to end the occupation, but if it hasn’t already, it’s going to soon. And then that window will close. 

 

Erin Ryan: And then, you know, on the domestic end with Americans here. We are in a very consequential election year. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Erin Ryan: Israel has a demonstrated very sophisticated propaganda arm. And if we continue to not get along with the Israelis in a way that angers them enough. I mean, who’s to say that a foreign country with that much power and sophistication wouldn’t attempt to influence our elections? 

 

Max Fisher: Well, Netanyahu has done it before. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah. 

 

Max Fisher: He’s tried to intervene. It hasn’t been through shadowy hacking or anything, but he’s definitely tried to get openly involved. Um.Let’s end with Schumer’s speech saying that Israel was at risk of becoming a pariah state and that the Netanyahu government had to go. It’s just words for now. But it sure feels like a turning point. [WAD theme music starts playing]

 

[clip of Chuck Schumer] The fourth major obstacle to peace is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has all too frequently bowed to the demands of extremists like ministers Smotrich and Ben Gvir and the settlers in the West Bank. Prime Minister Netanyahu has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take the precedence over the best interests of Israel. He has been too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza, which is pushing support for Israel worldwide to historic lows. [music break]

 

Max Fisher: How We Got Here is written and hosted by me, Max Fisher and Erin Ryan. 

 

Erin Ryan: Our producer is Austin Fisher. Emma Illick-Frank is our associate producer. 

 

Max Fisher: Evan Sutton mixes and masters the show. 

 

Erin Ryan: Jordan Cantor sound engineers the show. Audio support from Kyle Seglin, Charlotte Landes and Vasilis Fotopoulos. 

 

Max Fisher: Production support from Leo Duran, Raven Yamamoto, Natalie Bettendorf and Adriene Hill. 

 

Erin Ryan: And a special thanks to What a Day’s wonderful hosts Tre’vell Anderson, Priyanka Aribindi, Josie Duffy Rice, and Juanita Tolliver for welcoming us to the family. If you didn’t know, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter, check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. Don’t forget to follow us at @CrookedMedia on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter for more original content, host takeovers, and other community events. And if you enjoyed this episode of What a Day, consider dropping us a review on your favorite podcast app. 

 

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