Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Obama's Awkward Israel Problem



When veteran White House Press Corps reporter Helen Thomas asked President Obama point blank at his first press conference if he could name any country in the Middle East that currently possesses nuclear weapons back in early February, what followed was an awkward pivot and deflection. In the end, the question went unanswered. Because, as pointed out by one commentator, any answer would have been considered a "gaffe." It is almost amazing that the U.S., who threatens war on other nations for any *alleged* construction of nuclear weapons, cannot even be honest about its own allies WMDs. Dated protocols and strategic alliances turn usually soapbox standing politicians of all stripes dumb and mute whenever the question is raised. Stephen Zunes at Foreign Policy In Focus points out this goes deeper however, as acknowledgement of Israel's nuclear arsenal would put the U.S. in the odd bind of enforcing its own laws--namely the 1976 Symington Amendment, which restricts U.S. military support for governments which develop nuclear weapons.

But as the U.S. will continue to funnel some $3 billion each year for the next 10 years to the Israeli military machine, that law could cause more long awkward pauses. Below, Stephen Zunes writes about the current administration's close ties with the Israeli state, and its consequences.


Obama and Israel's Military: Still Arm-in-Arm

Stephen Zunes March 4, 2009

FPIF

In the wake of Israel's massive assault on heavily populated civilian areas of the Gaza Strip earlier this year, Amnesty International called for the United States to suspend military aid to Israel on human rights grounds. Amnesty has also called for the United Nations to impose a mandatory arms embargo on both Hamas and the Israeli government. Unfortunately, it appears that President Barack Obama won't be heeding Amnesty's call.

During the fighting in January, Amnesty documented Israeli forces engaging in "direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects in Gaza, and attacks which were disproportionate or indiscriminate." The leader of Amnesty International's fact-finding mission to the Gaza Strip and southern Israel noted how "Israeli forces used white phosphorus and other weapons supplied by the USA to carry out serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes." Amnesty also reported finding fragments of U.S.-made munitions "littering school playgrounds, in hospitals and in people's homes."

Malcolm Smart, who serves as Amnesty International's director for the Middle East, observed in a press release that "to a large extent, Israel's military offensive in Gaza was carried out with weapons, munitions and military equipment supplied by the USA and paid for with U.S. taxpayers' money." The release also noted how before the conflict, which raged for three weeks from late December into January, the United States had "been aware of the pattern of repeated misuse of [its] weapons."

Amnesty has similarly condemned Hamas rocket attacks into civilian-populated areas of southern Israel as war crimes. And while acknowledging that aid to Hamas was substantially smaller, far less sophisticated, and far less lethal — and appeared to have been procured through clandestine sources — Amnesty called on Iran and other countries to take concrete steps to insure that weapons and weapon components not get into the hands of Palestinian militias.

During the fighting in early January, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization initially called for a suspension of U.S. military aid until there was no longer a substantial risk of additional human rights violations. The Bush administration summarily rejected this proposal. Amnesty subsequently appealed to the Obama administration. "As the major supplier of weapons to Israel, the USA has a particular obligation to stop any supply that contributes to gross violations of the laws of war and of human rights," said Malcolm Smart. "The Obama administration should immediately suspend U.S. military aid to Israel."

Obama's refusal to accept Amnesty's call for the suspension of military assistance was a blow to human rights activists. The most Obama might do to express his displeasure toward controversial Israeli policies like the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories would be to reject a planned increase in military aid for the next fiscal year and slightly reduce economic aid and/or loan guarantees. However, in a notable departure from previous administrations, Obama made no mention of any military aid to Israel in his outline of the FY 2010 budget, announced last week. This notable absence may indicate that pressure from human rights activists and others concerned about massive U.S. military aid to Israel is now strong enough that the White House feels a need to downplay the assistance rather than emphasize it.

Read rest of article here.




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