In honor of our nation’s birthday and with the 51st anniversary of the six-day war just behind us, in June 1967, it is imperative that we remember the crew of the USS Liberty, who gave their lives not to a foe, but to an unprovoked attack. A review of this tragic event is hopefully useful in helping the American people grapple with, and perhaps even acknowledge, that the mantra in Washington that Israel and the United States’ strategic interests are tied at the hip is no longer shared by many citizens.
The collective amnesia and failure to remember this event, where thirty-four crew members, including naval officers, seamen, two marines, and one civilian, were killed and 171 crew members wounded as the USS Liberty sat in international waters in broad daylight, flying a large American flag, is a national disgrace.
While the official inquiries by both nations found the attack to be a case of mistaken identity of the Liberty, there is a long paper trail of reports and articles by distinguished officers and journalists who take strong exception to this view, believing that the attack was deliberate. While Congress examined the attack on the Liberty, no formal full-scale Congressional investigation ever has taken place. Furthermore, although Captain William McGonagle of the Liberty was awarded the Medal of Honor, he did not receive it at the White House from President Johnson, as was done traditionally. Instead, the ceremony was performed at an unpublicized event with the Secretary of the Navy presiding.
While few would dispute that the United States and Israel share vital strategic interests, all too often the relationship has been clouded by Israeli domestic policies, rather than on real US interests. As a global superpower, the United States has strategic interests in the Middle East that go far beyond bilateral relations with Israel, including: regional political stability, access to oil, control of sea lanes, eradicating ISIS and other terrorist organizations, halting the proliferation of chemical and nuclear weapons, and so on. However, the bilateral relationship with Israel has become so lopsided that even after scandals, like when Jonathan Pollard was caught spying for Israel in the 1980s, high level officials in Tel Aviv and Washington went out of their way to downplay the significance of the information passed to Israel and the Soviet Union. This is despite a joint statement by four former Directors of Naval Intelligence that Pollard’s revelations were devastating to US national security and any premature release would be irresponsible. Despite former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet’s threat to resign if Pollard were released, because he believed the information acquired by Pollard had caused severe and enduring losses to US intelligence, far too few leaders in government and industry have publicly questioned the fundamental nature of the US-Israeli relationship.
Similarly, over the last several years, while the world was riveted on how the P5+1 might slow or stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, only a handful of scholars, media pundits, and think tank regional specialists have mentioned the fact that Israel first introduced nuclear weapons into the Middle East through a process that began with the presumed theft of weapons grade material from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) in Pennsylvania. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, with assistance from France, Israel avoided International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its fledging weapons program at Dimona, while lying to successive US presidents about the real nature of its activities. This record is rarely mentioned in the United States, even as it weighed heavily on Iranian policy. It does not require an iota of sympathy for the repressive regime in Tehran to accept the fact that just as Prime Minister Netanyahu sees an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat, Iran might logically believe that Israel’s possession of a nuclear arsenal should also be seen as an existential threat. While Israel was not directly involved in the P5+1 negotiations, no one on the US team ever considered pressing Israel to symbolically reduce part of its nuclear arsenal as a bargaining chip towards Iran during any phase of the negotiations.
Since the attack on the Liberty, there have been provocations by both the Palestinians and the Israelis, and their affiliated allies throughout the Middle East. There have also been lost diplomatic peace opportunities caused by ill-tempered rhetoric from leaders on both sides, as well as outright efforts by Arab allies and regional adversaries to sabotage all peace opportunities.
The issue of who bears the brunt of responsibility for this impasse can be argued; what is clear from nearly forty-five years’ experience in the Islamic world is the fact that the Arab men and women on the street do not believe that the United States is an honest broker for peace, nor that it will ever abandon the tyrants in the region who repress them.
It is time for America to take a sober look in the mirror and critically assess this relationship. Instances where successive presidents and other high ranking officials have asked Israel not to expand settlements, including when Vice President Biden was in the country, should not be tolerated.
Why in the wake of a humiliation for a US vice president was there hardly a public utterance of opprobrium let alone a real act of disapproval, such as a cut in military aid or rescinding favorable trade provisions? Why in the wake of US inaction to take any meaningful action in response to the snub of the Vice President should the Islamic world believe in the evenhandedness of US policy?
The same can be said when Prime Minister Netanyahu was invited to speak before Congress without prior White House consultation and used the occasion to assault President Obama’s Middle East policy, with no serious diplomatic response. With the appointment of Mr. Lieberman, who, as defense minister, has called for blowing up the Aswan Dam in the event of a war with Egypt and the saturation bombing of Gaza, what message is being sent to the moderate leadership in the region, as well as the extreme Islamic radical fringe? Finally, as the world recently witnessed Israeli troops shooting desperate young people in Gaza along a border fence, there was little support for a UN resolution condemning Israel for the excessive use of force, even though sixty Palestinians were killed and many more residents of Gaza seriously injured.
As we remember the anniversary of the attack on the Liberty, it is worth reflecting on whether the United States can again be an honest broker. The United States can do this by making clear that while Israel will always have US support if it faces an existential threat, continued opposition to serious talks on full implementation of a two-state solution is no longer acceptable and it must get serious about the removal of illegal settlements on the West Bank. The United States needs to make it categorically clear that if Israel continues to make demographics on the ground impossible for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, there will be no choice but to join the growing chorus for financial divestment in Israel and the move in the United Nations to support the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Charles Ebinger is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.