The servant is now the master

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By WOLFGANG TREECK*

The US appears powerless in the face of the brazen disobedience of its closest international ally

The Israeli massacre in Gaza is a catastrophe and not just for the tortured prisoners in the city, which has languished for decades under a merciless occupation. The United States in particular, but also Germany, will forever be closely associated with this relentless massacre of thousands of innocent men, women and children, a massacre that both countries continue to underwrite materially and diplomatically.

Two and a half months after the mass murder, the US vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have returned some hope of survival to the Gaza Strip's inhabitants remaining after the inferno of continued shelling and shelling. By then, following Hamas's escape and murderous attack on kibbutzim near the Gaza wall, more than 20.000 Gazans had been killed, 8.700 of them children and 4.400 women, and 50.000 injured, compared to 121 Israeli soldiers killed, one fifth of them victims of friendly fire or traffic accidents. Since the start of the war, the Israeli air force claims to have bombed 22 “terrorist” targets: more than 300 a day, every day, in an area the size of Munich.

As the year draws to a close, 90% of the approximately 2,3 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are now homeless, pursued by the Israeli military from north to south of the Gaza Strip and back. They are instructed to take shelter in supposedly safe areas, which are later bombed. There is hunger bordering on starvation, scarce medical care, no fuel, no regular supply of electricity and no indication that the killing will end anytime soon.

The reason given by the US for vetoing the Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire was that it would be “unrealistic”. Meanwhile, the German government, led by its feminist Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, demands “humanitarian pauses” as an alternative to peace. But after these pauses the murders must continue until “Hamas”, supported still by free meals from the United Nations, but prepared for death, is finally “eradicated”.

What is strange is that in the endless stream of reports and commentaries on the Gaza war, it is almost never mentioned that Israel is a nuclear power – and in no way is it a lesser power. For a small country, Israel is heavily armed, and not just conventionally. Altogether, Israel spends more than 4,5% of its GDP on its military (2022 data), which likely does not include a fair amount of free military assistance provided by the US and Germany.

Before the latest attack on Gaza, Israel was estimated to have at least 90 nuclear warheads and fissile material stockpiles of more than 200. Even more important, Israel has at its disposal the full range of nuclear delivery means, the so-called tripod: land, air and sea. Israel's land-based nuclear missiles are reportedly kept in silos deep enough to withstand a nuclear attack, making them suitable not only for a first but also a second strike.

For nuclear delivery by air, the IDF maintains a fleet of at least 36 out of a total of 224 combat aircraft with an extensive refueling capability. Israel also has six submarines – the so-called Dolphin class – which experts believe can fire nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

The missiles have an estimated range of 1.500 kilometers, providing Israel with a nearly invulnerable platform for nuclear defense or, as the case may be, attack. It can generally be assumed that Israel commands the full spectrum of nuclear capabilities, from tactical battlefield weapons to aerial bombardment of military staging areas, to bombing cities like Tehran.

It is not known exactly how Israel became a nuclear power, probably little by little, step by step. Certainly, there is no shortage of nuclear science in Israel. The US may have helped, some administrations more than others, along with Israel's American friends within the US military-industrial complex. Like other out-of-the-closet nuclear powers, the United States is dedicated to nonproliferation and, in fact, has a strong national interest in it, as do Russia and China.

Espionage may, however, have been a factor; remember Jonathan Pollard, a US defense analyst and Israeli spy who, after his discovery in 1985, narrowly escaped a death sentence? Despite Israel's tireless efforts to have him extradited, Jonathan Pollard had to serve 28 years in prison before being pardoned by the Barack Obama government, against the will of the establishment US military.

There also appears to be a German component and this mainly has to do with Israeli submarines. Angela Merkel's mysterious assertion in 2008 that Israel's security was Germany's raison d'être was met with enthusiasm by the Israeli government. Now, parroted literally every day by the German government and its media, it must be seen in this context.

As mentioned, six submarines were delivered between 1999 and 2023. Of the first three, Germany paid for two of them, while the cost of the third was shared, supposedly as penance for what the US claimed was the participation of German companies in the development of nuclear weapons. Iraqi mass destruction – which, of course, never happened. For the next three submarines, Germany agreed to pay 600 million euros.

If German-made Israeli submarines are equipped for nuclear missiles, not only the manufacturer ThyssenKrupp but also the German government would know about it. This also applies to the US, which would have turned a blind eye to the fact that Germany had violated its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

From 2016 until a few months before the Gaza war, the prospect of three more German-built submarines, also to be subsidized by the German state, was discussed by the two governments. But this time, there were doubts in Israel about whether they were in fact necessary. There was also a corruption scandal on the Israeli side, which involved, among other things, ThyssenKrupp's hiring of Benjamin Netanyahu's cousin as a lawyer.

As the matter was investigated by the Israeli Public Prosecutor's Office, this was carried over into the constitutional conflict between Benjamin Netanyahu's government and the Judiciary. In 2017, the German side was forced to postpone a final decision until Israeli corruption allegations were resolved. Then, in January 2022, the contract for the three submarines was signed. Of the estimated price of 3 billion euros, Germany will pay at least 540 million euros.

Israel has never officially admitted that it has nuclear weapons. Some of its leaders, however, often retired prime ministers, have occasionally left clues to this effect – probably not by chance. Leaving an issue open means there are no inspections or pressure from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Keeping potential adversaries in the dark about the size and exact purpose, or even the very existence, of your nuclear capability can also offer strategic advantages. Nothing is known for certain, in fact, about Israel's nuclear doctrine, for example.

What can be assumed is that Israel is determined to remain the only nuclear power in the region – as indicated by its occasional bombing of nuclear reactors in Syria. But also through overtures to the US to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear bombs, not through a treaty à la Obama, but through military intervention. It can also be assumed that Israel, unlike other nuclear powers, is prevented from using its nuclear weapons first, since the country is surrounded by several nations with which it is in a state of enmity.

This should be especially true in a situation in which the Israeli government considers the survival of the Israeli state to be at risk. It is not known exactly what this survival means, as this must remain open. One could perhaps adopt the definition of both the right-wing extremist government of Benjamin Netanyahu and the government of Germany, for whom Israel's right to exist includes Israel's right to define its borders at will.

As the Gaza war continues, uncertainty surrounding Israel's nuclear strength appears to increasingly govern events on the battlefield, diplomatic and military. Protected by its veil of unpredictability, the Israeli government appears to believe that it can inflict on Gaza, and soon perhaps also on the West Bank, whatever punishment it chooses, without having to fear anyone's outside interference. In recent weeks, Benjamin Netanyahu has acted as if he could tell Washington, in private, that its support for Israel must be unconditional – since, if pressured, Israel could defend itself on its own, relying on its nuclear tripod.

The Gaza massacre risks turning Israel into one of the most hated countries in the world, along with Germany – which, unlike the US, is solidly united behind Benjamin Netanyahu's government; however, there appears to be an established view on the part of the Israeli high command that this does not matter, as no government near or far will dare give in to domestic pressure to support Gaza.

There's another angle to this, and perhaps an even scarier one. In October 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, a conversation was recorded between Richard Nixon, then still president, and his closest advisor, Bob Haldeman. This recording later became known as the Watergate tapes. When Bob Haldeman informed Nixon that the situation in the Middle East was becoming critical, Nixon ordered that American nuclear forces around the world be placed on high alert.

Bob Haldeman, stunned: “Mr. President, the Soviets will think you're crazy. Nixon, in response, said: That's exactly what I want them to believe.” In a nuclear strategic environment, credible madness can be an effective weapon, especially for a government led by someone like Benjamin Netanyahu. As noted, Israel does not have an official nuclear doctrine, and cannot have one, as it does not admit to being a nuclear power. But it seems likely that if Israel's existence were threatened in the eyes of its government, it would not hesitate to make use of all its weapons, including nuclear ones.

This makes it relevant that Israel's current governing coalition includes people who consider Bible a kind of land registry. For many of them, the myth of the mass suicide at Masada in AD 73, after the first Jewish-Roman war was lost, is a powerful source of political inspiration, a fact that cannot be unknown to any intelligence still at hand. of the US government.

In fact, there is an even older model of Israeli heroism, the myth of Samson, which appears to be no less popular among at least some of the nuclear strategists in and around the IDF command. Samson was a ruler of Israel – a “judge” – in biblical times, during the war between the Israelites and Philistines in the 13th or 12th century BC.

Like Heracles, Samson was gifted with superhuman physical strength, allowing him to kill an entire army of Philistines, reportedly a thousand strong, by striking them dead with the jaw bone of a donkey. After being betrayed and falling into enemy hands, he was held prisoner in the Philistines' main temple. When he could no longer hope to escape, he used his remaining strength to collapse the two powerful columns supporting the building's roof. All the Philistines died along with him.

Radical pro-Israeli commentators claim nuclear weapons give the country a “Samson option” – to ensure that if Israel must fall, its enemies will go with it. Again, when this option can be exercised depends on what the incumbent Israeli government would consider a threat to Israel's existence, which for some could include the imposition of a two-state solution by the UN Security Council.

Myths can be a source of power: a credible threat of prolonged suicide can open up a lot of strategic space – enough perhaps to allow Israel to purge the Gaza Strip of its Hamas-infested population, rendering it forever uninhabitable. If one believes one is crazy enough to die for a strip of land, or for not having to make concessions to an enemy like Hamas, a country like Israel may, long before actually exercising its nuclear option, succeed in deterring countries like the Iran, or hostile armies like Hezbollah, from heeding popular calls to end mass eradication by military means.

Has the US lost control over its protégé, servant turned master, master turned servant? It is not inconceivable that the public disagreements between the two hitherto inseparable brothers in arms are simply theater, devices invented to protect the US from responsibility for the Gaza massacre. But this is far from certain, given that the divergence between the two countries' public statements about the legitimate objectives of the Gaza special military operation has deepened almost every day. Is the US, blackmailed by the threat of a Middle Eastern Armageddon, now forced to allow Israel to seek “victory” at any cost?

Does Israel's nuclear war capability give the Israeli radical right a feeling of invincibility, as well as a confidence that they can dictate the terms of peace with or without the Americans, and certainly without the Palestinians? The political costs incurred by the US in not ending the killing – whether unwilling or unable to do so – are likely to be gigantic, both morally, although there may not be much to lose in this regard from a strategic point of view: the “indispensable nation” paraded before the world, powerless in the face of blatant disobedience on the part of its closest international ally. For its place in the new global order emerging after the end of the end of history, this cannot bode well for the United States.

*Wolfgang Streeck, sociologist, is director of research at the Institut Max-Planck. Author, among other books, of Bought time: the postponed crisis of democratic capitalism (boitempo).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally posted on the blog Sidecar da New Left Review


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