Heated Israeli Suez rhetoric burden on U.S.?

Israel/Palestine
on 40 Comments

The earth reportedly shook as two Iranian naval boats approached the Suez Canal on Monday morning. For the U.S., though, the building tension over the (delayed, for now) passage could result in diplomatic, not literal, earthquakes.

When the news was first announced last week that the two warships would pass through the canal, Israeli reaction appeared split. Now it seems Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has joined his foreign minister in ratcheting up the rhetoric, saying, “Israel takes a grave view of this Iranian step.”

Following closely on the U.S. veto of a UN Security Council resolution denouncing Israeli settlements, Israel’s blustering approach to the Iranian warships may provide yet another instance where the “special relationship” causes the U.S. to choose between its ally Israel, on one hand, and international law and maintaining regional influence on the other.

Egyptian approval of passage for the Iranian ships was first reported when Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the move amounted to a “provocation” by Iran. “The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations,” he warned ominously.

Covering the comments, the Wall Street Journal pointed to fissures over Lieberman’s blustering and the quieter approach preferred Ehud Barak and the Israeli Defense Ministry.

At the time, Lieberman’s comments seemed to be made for U.S. consumption. Ethan Bronner’s New York Times piece had this nugget (my emphasis):

The first word came from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in an address to a group of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. The speech, which hinted at a possible response, was closed to reporters…

The bellicose comments led National Interest writer Jacob Heilbrunn to comment: “Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman isn’t just a thug. He’s also a moron.” On Sunday, Netanyahu told his cabinet, “Israel takes a grave view of this Iranian step.”

A former State Department senior intelligence official called on Israel “to stand down and avoid any provocative actions.” Middle East Institute scholar Wayne White told LobeLog that Israeli “muscle-flexing” and a perception of “high-handedness” now could be harmful to U.S. (and even Israeli) interests on a wide range of issues. He mentioned the still-developing and fluid situation in Egypt, anti-regime protests in Iran itself, and uncertainty in Jordan, which is facing some unrest and, like Egypt, has a peace deal with Israel.

White’s list of examples gives a taste of just how many crises the U.S. is facing in the region. With protests in several U.S.-allied countries like Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Tunisia, and even Iraq, the U.S. wants to keep things relatively calm. As White points out, another crisis, with Israel and the U.S. pitted against Iran and Syria (whose waters the Iranian ships are reportedly bound for), could easily inject anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli sentiments into the anti-government movements that have been sweeping the region or permit besieged autocrats to divert popular attention and agitation.

The other elephant in the room is the notion of Suez passage itself. So far, the U.S. has taken a measured tone. State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley said on Friday: “If the ships move through the canal, we’ll evaluate what they actually do.” He said the potential issues were the ships’ cargo and destination. Crowley seemed eager to move onto a new topic, repeatedly interrupting the questioner(s).

The lack of U.S. focus on passage itself is perhaps a nod to both the Constantinople Convention (1988) governing Suez Passage and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1983, in force 1994), which allows “innocent passage”through even territorial waters. The Constantinople convention states:

The Suez Maritime Canal shall always be free and of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag.

Consequently, the High Contracting Parties agree not in any way to interfere with the free use of the Canal, in time of war as in time of peace.

One of those contracting parties is, of course, Egypt, which may not interfere or block anyone’s passage. The U.S. relies on this status quo as much, if not more, than any other country. Indeed, if the right of “innocent passage” is questioned in this case, think of all the possible ramifications for the U.S. Navy and its 11 aircraft carrier groups that span the globe, if not always to the acclaim of the natives. It’s not for nothing that the Navy has been the country’s biggest advocate for Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention.

For now, it appears that the passage of the Iranian ships has been delayed, without any reason given. But if the Israelis keep pushing back against Iran, rumblings of the diplomatic sort could soon follow for the U.S. Once again, as when Israel backed ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak until his last days and relentlessly pressed the Obama administration to cast his UN Security Council veto on a resolution that was entirely consistent with U.S. policy since 1967, Washington’s “special relationship” with the Jewish State could become burdensome to broader U.S. strategic interests.

This post originally appeared on Lobelog.

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40 Responses

  1. hophmi
    February 21, 2011, 11:03 pm

    Feel free to put as alarmist a spin on this as you possibly can.

    What is Israel supposed to do, pop a cork and celebrate?

    • Keith
      February 21, 2011, 11:37 pm

      HOPHMI- Do you feel that the use of the Suez canal by Iran is provocative? If so, why? Have Israeli warships used the Suez canal? Was that provocative? If not, why not? Do you feel that the call for Israel “to stand down and avoid any provocative actions.” is unjustified? If so, why?

    • Chaos4700
      February 22, 2011, 1:17 am

      They could respect international law? Or is Israel incapable of anything beyond manic depressive behavior, swinging from hyperactive chest thumping to apocalyptic sulking?

    • pineywoodslim
      February 22, 2011, 1:25 am

      Israel is free to express all the “concern” it wants to about Iranian naval vessels operating in the eastern Mediterranean.

      What is silly, hypocritical, and “alarmist” is for Israel to question Iran’s use of the Suez Canal in accordance with international law, not that such law is not routinely ignored by Israel in most cases.

    • pabelmont
      February 22, 2011, 8:22 am

      Pop a cork? why? That was silly. Why was Israel compelled (or even impelled) to do anything at all?

      Does Israel comment on every vessel that goes through that canal? And what next? Will Israel officials begin to comment on every ship in the Mediterranean Ocean? (I hear echoes of the Israeli attack on the US war-ship Liberty in the Mediterranean in the 1967 war, killing and injuring many USN sailors, which the USA treated as a non-event.)

      “This is MY world, and I control ALLLLLL of it.” (That’s an actual non-quote.)

    • Potsherd2
      February 22, 2011, 11:53 am

      What is Israel supposed to do, pop a cork and celebrate?

      How about – shut up and accept reality.

  2. Philip Munger
    February 21, 2011, 11:38 pm

    Israeli vessels use the canal frequently. In 2010, an Israeli submarine, armed with nuclear warhead cruise missiles transited the canal, enroute to the area around the Straits of Hormuz. I doubt it is still there, unless it is being provisioned with fuel and supplies by the US 5th fleet.

    I despise the Iranian regime far more than I do the Israeli one, but I wouldn’t put it past the Israelis to do something stupid. A bevy of new leaders in their military and intelligence establishments are looking for an opportunity to test their toys.

    • Chaos4700
      February 22, 2011, 1:19 am

      I doubt it is still there, unless it is being provisioned with fuel and supplies by the US 5th fleet.

      And it wouldn’t be, because…?

  3. Avi
    February 21, 2011, 11:38 pm

    The Egyptian government had approved the passage of the Iranian ships well before Mubarak stepped down and before the revolution had started.

    In addition, when Israel sent two submarines to the Persian Gulf — submarines capable of launching nuclear warheads — it seemed perfectly content with such a provocation, so long as it was the Iranians who were provoked. So, now when Iran’s ships are passing through a canal that is a about a hundred miles away from Israel, the Jewish state suddenly considers it a provocation.

    • Antidote
      February 22, 2011, 11:35 am

      “the Jewish state suddenly considers it a provocation.”

      Israel (and , presumably, the US) has considered this to be a provocation since the Iranian Revolution. That’s why this is the first Iranian passage in the past 3 decades, even though the rules for passage haven’t changed and should not have ever stopped Iran from sending any ships through the Suez Canal. No doubt Iran did not waste any time to flex some muscle (not the same as posing an actual military threat or planning an attack). But demonstrating that US and Israel hegemony and control over Egypt as we’ve known it is a thing of the past.

  4. ritzl
    February 22, 2011, 12:34 am

    As Obama’s veto was a clarifying moment, so is this.

    All the pretense is stripped away. There’s no nuclear issue here. There’s no “existential” issue. There is simply a naked “my way or the highway” zero-sum, regional hegemony struggle, from Israel’s POV.

    If Israel loses this game their strategic value to the US will be considerably diminished. Enough is at stake for them that they may up the ante on this before it’s over.

    • Citizen
      February 22, 2011, 4:16 am

      If memory serves, the UN ideal is that all nations can freely use the Suez canal in peace and war. I don’t know if any country has fully ratified that
      goal–I think for the US it’s stuck in the Senate. Has any Iranian ship other than a merchant ship been in it since the Iranian revolution? The US has major navy forces in it and we don’t even live anywhere near the region. Just for the heck of it, here’s a few total conventional military power rankings from globalfirepower.com:

      USA 1
      Israel 11

      Turkey 10

      Egypt 16
      Iran 18
      Syria 34

      Saudi Arabia 24

      China 2
      Russia 3
      India 4
      Pakistan 15
      England 5
      France 6
      Germany 7
      Brazil 8
      Japan 9

      • Citizen
        February 22, 2011, 4:26 am

        Of course the five permanent UN Sec Council members (USA, China, Russia, England, France) have declared nuclear WMD. As do India, Pakistan, N Korea, and Israel (won’t officially disclose).

        And of course, in the longer run, the real base of Military power is any state’s economy.

        Any predictions for what would happen if there was a WW3, which of course would be triggered in the Middle East, and no doubt, by pretext?

    • Leper Colonialist
      February 22, 2011, 8:09 am

      What strategic value? Whatever “strategic value” to the US the Zionist Entity ever posessed faded into history with the demise of the late USSR.

      For strategic value – see Turkey, Pakistan [sigh], and Iran [assuming relations can ever be freed from the US self-destructive support of You-Know-Who.

      • Antidote
        February 22, 2011, 9:36 am

        “What strategic value?”

        Destabilizing the region. Good for arms sales. Brinkmanship. Also provides humanitarian cover for US foreign policy in the ME: No, we don’t like to support dictatorships, and this is not just about oil and petrodollars. We have to prevent another Holocaust and protect (and arm to the teeth) poor little Israel in this hostile and dangerous neighborhood. Please do visit the USHMM, and you’ll see why. Remember the Mufti. Those Arabs are as crazy and inhuman as the Germans were — until we denazified and turned them into democrats and normal people. That’s what we are now trying to achieve in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s all good.

        Profits über alles

        link to historycooperative.org

      • MHughes976
        February 22, 2011, 5:15 pm

        I thought (per my comment on the other, wrong thread) that you were producing a list of harmful, damaging things, including irresponsible profiteering, that some crazy people might think were objectively good for us in the West, or at least for the United States.

  5. yonira
    February 22, 2011, 12:51 am

    I say let em through, Israeli and US subs can shadow them like it was the cold war. it’ll be good practice for the two navies.

    • Chaos4700
      February 22, 2011, 3:18 am

      I suppose it would make a nice change for the IDF instead of flattening chicken farms with tanks or bravely sniping teenagers from hundreds of yards away while enforcing a “kill zone” in Gaza. They will probably want to get used to actual moving targets for once.

    • Citizen
      February 22, 2011, 4:30 am

      Israel’s navy isn’t much compared to Iran’s. OTH, Israel’s air power is much more than Iran’s. It’s not Israel’s navy that concerns Iran–it’s that big chunk of USA navy power sitting in the canal. Gulf of Tonken (sic) anyone?

    • Taxi
      February 22, 2011, 8:27 am

      Soon enough neither the usa or israel will own even a single buoy on or UNDER the waters of the Suez canal.

  6. Koshiro
    February 22, 2011, 3:44 am

    There are a lot of tasks diesel-electric submarines can do well. Shadowing surface vessels over a long time is not one of them.
    (And no, the AIP Dolphins do not have the endurance for this either.)

  7. Citizen
    February 22, 2011, 4:48 am

    The two Iranian navy ships are now being boxed in between the Enterprise and the Kearsarge and they’be been asked to allow their cargoes to be inspected as permitted by the last round of UN sanctions against Iran in the case of suspicious war freights. The date announced for passage is tonight. The power testing moment. Stay tuned for the mullahs’ decision. Don’t forget this would make a nice diverison from current Iranian street unrest, a way to gain Iranian internal solidarity. And a way to clarify further which way the rebellious wind is blowing across the region. The US has diverted some of its navy power from its Bahrain watch to the Suez Canal.

    • Potsherd2
      February 22, 2011, 11:56 am

      No, Citizen, the conventions explicitly forbid ships in the canal from being inspected.

  8. justicewillprevail
    February 22, 2011, 6:15 am

    If a mouse came along waving an Iranian flag, Lieberman and Netty would jump up on their chairs and start shouting ‘help’ very loudly, demanding US assistance – more bombs and planes – while threatening to wipe Iran off the map. And of course they would call in the IDF goon squad to take reprisals against Palestinians for sympathising with the mouse, whilst issuing decrees that all mice must be immediately rounded up and put in camps.

  9. Richard Witty
    February 22, 2011, 6:40 am

    It is as much Iran’s right to use the seas as it is to develop peaceful civilian nuclear power.

    The questions are always what they do with that right. The threats don’t originate when they start shooting.

    The threats start when they puff their way provocatively close, taunts. Syrian and Lebanese ports are very very close to Israel, and the Israeli navy is certainly very present in the same waters.

    A year ago, the Iranian navy offered to escort a subsequent Turkish aid ship to Gaza. If that had occurred with the Mari Mavmara, and not deflected, the likelihood of provocation and actual military conflict would be high.

    WW1 started similarly. We don’t need WW3.

    The world actually needs the Pax Americana, the advocacy for reforms to governance that achieves actual consent of the governed, by elections won by persuasion, facilitating peaceful transfer of executive power with legislative and judicial accountability.

    We don’t need Pax Irania, unless they actually apply it.

    • Antidote
      February 22, 2011, 9:22 am

      “We don’t need WW3″

      WW3 started in 2001.

      • Chaos4700
        February 22, 2011, 10:50 am

        I do think that’s what the history books will document, retroactively, yes.

    • eljay
      February 22, 2011, 11:01 am

      >> The threats don’t originate when they start shooting.

      The Palestinians – who suffer even when the Israelis aren’t shooting – know this all too well.

      Thanks to numerous existential threats made by Israel and the U.S., Iran also knows this, which is why it must acquire a nuclear weapons capability for self-defence. Because the threats don’t originate when Israel and the U.S. start shooting.

    • Colin Murray
      February 22, 2011, 1:26 pm

      The threats start when they puff their way provocatively close, taunts.

      How different is Iranian behavior from Israel sending submarines with nuclear weapons through the Suez Canal to sit right off Iran’s coast? It’s crystal clear who taunted whom first, and with nuclear weapons. Whiny, arrogant, and petulant behavior is par for the course from Israel, but this wild reaction over one decrepit Iranian frigate and a supply ship sets a new standard.

  10. Leper Colonialist
    February 22, 2011, 8:06 am

    By Allah, will the accursed infidels deny Iranian vessels the long-established right under internationall law [the same int'l law which was cited with such ferocious alacrity and approbation to "justify" Israel's "interception" of the Gaza Peace Flotilla] the right of “innocent passage” through the Suez Canal?

    When can we wait for the anguished cries of cretins like Eric Cantor, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Jane Harman, John Hagee, John Bolton, Mark Steyn, Rob Lowry and the rest of the immense swarming mob of yapping Israeli jackals and lackeys demanding that the US retake possession of the Panama Canal? All to protect the US from any Iranian vessels which might care to transit that international waterway [no doubt on their way to recreate the Caliphate, North American subdivision].

    • MHughes976
      February 22, 2011, 11:11 am

      I have family in and great affection for Panama and am aware that there is a considerable Israeli presence there, more or less openly providing personal security for the neocon President Martinelli and more discreetly (Martinelli threatens libel actions against anyone saying so) taking part in the ‘security’ of the beautiful Canal, the country’s main, supposedly neutral, asset. This must in some murky way be connected with the Chinese (the Peking/Taiwan duel is fought out in Panama as well) idea (threat?) to build a ‘dry canal’ or rail link across the comparatively huge bulk of Colombia.

  11. Formerly T-Bear
    February 22, 2011, 8:23 am

    Al Jazeera is reporting today:

    link to english.aljazeera.net

    the two Iranian ships have begun their passage to the Mediterranean sea. They also report Avig do(u)r Lie bermann currently occupying Israeli position of Foreign minister is having a conniption fit and has his knickers in a twist (possibly cutting of blood supply to his brain). Of course Israel is whinging all about international laws that that government deigns not to observe itself. Baby Binyamin Nyet an yahoo has gone into his normal tantrum and is threatening to withdraw Ape-act support from their puppet in the whitehouse.

    or some such …

  12. Taxi
    February 22, 2011, 8:39 am

    Gaza tourism brochures oooh say in about twelve months?

    I say this with tongue-in-cheek as I watch the ‘interest’ gap widen between the two dysfunctional BBF.

    The ousting of the Jordan regime should be an interesting addition to this gap. Coming to your local screens in March 2011.

    • Chaos4700
      February 22, 2011, 10:54 am

      I’d like to think the Jordanian monarchy would do the smart thing and jump on the European model of constitutional monarchy that is more parliamentary than not. My understand is that the current King of Jordan isn’t as crazed or despotic as most of his contemporary autocrats in the region. It would save a lot of bloodshed and a lot of face.

      • Taxi
        February 22, 2011, 11:48 am

        Like father like son in the case of the Jordanian monarchy, chaos. Except baby king is considered a dumber version of his spineless mass-murdering father. Which in a sense makes him more dangerous.

        Under the Jordanian baby king, the Jordanian secret mukhabarat has flourished into a professional instrument of coercion and torture and a major trader of classified/nefarious information on the international intelligence scene. The Jordanian mukhabarat are isreal’s as well as our go-to-guys for organizing renditions and for providing information on leaders of resistance groups, both military and civic, throughout the region. A dirty, dirty, dirty, black-clad organization!

        Just google ‘Jordan, torture’ – plenty to read.

        The inevitable demise of the Hashemites (due to their treachery and alignment with the west against their own brethren and cousins in the wider region), this little regime’s demise will be the flame under the feet of israel turned up to broil.

        Uglier than Libya (whose angry and deluded Qaddafi is right now giving the obligatory rambling and non-nonsensical speech delivered by every dictator before their fall) – uglier and more fierce: I fear we need to brace ourselves for the fall of the Hashemite regime.

        What will Hillary and Barak do for silk-shoed Rania and Adbullah Jr. when there’s a mass peaceful protest outside their palatial compound?

        What will Natanyahu and Saban ask the White(ish) House to do for the besieged regal honeymooners? Will they give Barak and Hillary the usual zio hypocrisy script we’ve seen read out during Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Algiers, Kurdish Iraq, Morocco, Kuwait etc? Will Americans still stand for this desecration of our image and values further to aid mideast despots and colonialists?

        Well I reckon we’re getting closer to the rim of our capacity for collective humiliation at the hands of our own leaders and so called BFF.

  13. thankgodimatheist
    February 22, 2011, 8:40 am

    Off topic but interesting! Writer and pro Palestinian David Cronin attempts a citizen arrest on Israeli bouncer come FM Avigdor Lieberman in Brussels.
    link to elmundo.es
    From David’s status on FB:
    “I attempted to put Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, under citizen’s arrest in Brussels this morning. As he was about to give a press conference, I stood in front of him shouting “Mr Lieberman, this is a citizen’s arrest. You are charged with the crime of apartheid. Please come with me to the nearest police station”. Then the security guards grabbed me….”

    • Taxi
      February 22, 2011, 8:59 am

      Hahahaha oh so very bravo Mr. David Cronin – give that man a cigar!!!!

  14. marc b.
    February 22, 2011, 9:00 am

    egypt should declare that it will not allow the passage of any military vessel through the canal, from any nation engaged in hostilities. let’s see what kind of reaction that will get from israel.

    • Chaos4700
      February 22, 2011, 10:55 am

      Egypt would have to worry about the US’ reaction first. Which country is relying in it the most for engaging in hostilities?

  15. pjdude
    February 22, 2011, 11:38 pm

    personally I think this is a show of force to remind Israel that if things go to hell there are those that won’t back down just because they want them too.

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