WASHINGTON: Three months before the end of his presidency, George W. Bush signed into law what amounts to an American guarantee to preserve Israel’s status as the Middle East’s military superpower. The 2008 law helps explain why President Barack Obama and his team have had little influence on the Israeli government. In theory, U.S. military aid to Israel, running at around $3 billion a year, could serve as a tool to exert American pressure when it comes to such matters as Israeli settlements in the West Bank or pounding Gaza to rubble in a campaign that killed hundreds of civilians. In practice, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can ignore complaints from the executive branch of the American government, secure in the knowledge that he can count on the backing of Congress. That support has been solid and unquestioned for decades.
The Gaza war is a case in point. Not long after the Senate passed a rare 100-0 vote on a resolution that endorsed the Israeli attack on Gaza without mentioning civilian casualties, Obama issued the first of several calls for restraint and the need to avoid civilian deaths. The State Department sharpened the language after the bombing of a United Nations Refugee Agency school, calling it a “disgraceful” act.
Two days before that statement, the House of Representatives had voted 395 to 8 to provide an additional $225 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, developed with American help to intercept rockets fired from Gaza. That followed American approval, through military channels, of an Israeli request to replenish its arsenal with grenades and mortar rounds from U.S. stockpiles in Israel. The transaction bypassed the White House and the State Department, blindsiding both.
There are other limits on an administration’s use of military aid to exert influence. One of them is the Naval Vessel Transfer Act of 2008, which includes a clause that highlights the unique relationship between the United States and Israel. The clause commits the U.S. to ensuring that Israel has a “qualitative military edge” over actual and potential adversaries. The law’s definition of “qualitative military edge” leaves little room for ambiguity.
“The term qualitative military edge means the ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors, while sustaining minimal damages and casualties, through the use of superior military means, possessed in sufficient quantity, including weapons, command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that in their technical characteristics are superior in capability to those of such other individual or possible coalition of states or non-state actors.”
Giving Israel an edge is a practice followed by a string of administrations going back to Lyndon Johnson. But what was previously a tool of foreign policy turned into a legal obligation in 2008.
The QME, as it is known here, was on full display just two months after Bush signed the law. A three-week war between Israel and militants of Hamas killed 1,116 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. In the latest display of Israel’s awesome military might, the war that began on July 9, the death toll is equally lopsided: almost 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, 64 Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians.
In the early days of the conflict, now on hold as Egyptian-brokered peace talks are underway in Cairo, Israel’s American-born ambassador in the United States, Ron Dermer, told an audience of pro-Israeli Christians in Washington that the Israeli Defense Forces deserved a Nobel Peace Prize “for fighting with unimaginable restraint.”
Instead, he said, “some are shamelessly accusing Israel of genocide and would put us in the dock for war crimes.”
The peace prize suggestion found few followers outside the Israel-right-or-wrong community. But it reflected the Israeli government’s contention that it was Hamas who committed war crimes, both by firing rockets into residential areas in Israel and by deliberately putting Gazan civilians in the line of fire to produce, as Netanyahu put it, “telegenically dead Palestinians.”
The United Nations Human Rights Council has set up a commission of inquiry into Israel’s assault on Gaza and Palestinian leaders are considering joining the International Criminal Court, a move that would allow them to press charges.
That prospect apparently worried Netanyahu enough to appeal for assistance from his many supporters in the U.S. Congress. According to the New York Post, the Israeli leader asked a group of visiting American legislators led by Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who has been a staunch defender of Israel, to resist a wave of global condemnation and help keep Israel out of the International Criminal Court.
The newspaper quoted Steve Israel as saying Netanyahu had asked the visitors “to work together to ensure that this strategy of going to the ICC does not succeed.”
If the past is any guide, American lawmakers will comply. They will also make sure that the law on the qualitative military edge stays intact.
Bernd Debusmann is a former Reuters world affairs columnist. This article was written exclusively for The Daily Star.