The intimacy of the U.S.-Israel relationship is so unusual in world politics that it nearly defies explanation. Why should a great superpower lavish so much cash and attention on an eastern Mediterranean nation of barely 5 million souls? In "Dangerous Liaison," Andrew and Leslie Cockburn shed considerable new light on this mystery, though in the end, they fail to penetrate the heart of the region's problems.
The husband-and-wife team of investigative journalists, successful in that endangered television species known as the current-affairs documentary, marshal many of their TV interviews and a mound of newspaper clippings--a few never before translated from Hebrew--to explore the "intangibles" of the alliance.
Their conclusion that the alliance boils down to a Tel Aviv boulevard full of arms merchants, however, misses the true intangibles of the strange but strong link: the mystique felt by many Americans, including members of Congress but also clergymen and taxi drivers, an enchantment reciprocated by ordinary Israelis; and the sense that two democracies with shared values ought to help each other in a world that is basically dangerous.
In the Cockburn universe, Washington's interests are basically evil and Israel ministers to every ugly whim. There is little sensitivity to Israel's unique problems or to the unadorned, though difficult, challenge of creating a haven for Jews in the wake of centuries of oppression. Even today's dramatic exodus of refugees, moving to Israel because they fear glasnost may aggravate anti-Semitism, is cynically characterized by the Cockburns as the fulfillment of an old Israeli ambition "to secure the vast pool of Soviet Jews as citizens."
While Israeli prime ministers, from David Ben-Gurion to the incumbent Yitzhak Shamir, are portrayed as expert manipulators of America's political passions, some of Israel's deadliest foes are made out to be reasonable fellows. Saddam Hussein supposedly never would have been interested in weapons of mass destruction, for example, had Israel not gotten them first--with the connivance of unsavory Americans.
The repeated suggestions that Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose pan-Arab ideology found its expression in a fedayeen guerrilla campaign and other aggression against Israel, was an Egyptian nationalist who would have minded his own business had he not been provoked would be merely annoying, were it not for the fact that CIA agents interviewed by the Cockburns seem to believe it.
It is surprising to find the Cockburns citing the agencies' conspiracy theorists as good sources, not only because they have been antipathetic toward the CIA in the past, but because CIA veterans, while well respected for providing tantalizing tips about operational methods, are generally regarded as very poor judges of political motive, prone to weaving imaginary patchwork plots.
The Cockburns' interviews with many Israeli conservatives--from Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to covert-action veteran David Kimche--reflect well on their attempts to be fair. But they stubbornly hear what they want to hear. Kimche is blasted for not caring about atrocities committed by Israel's secret allies in Uganda, Lebanon and Latin America, for example, but the Mossad veteran's job was to protect Israel's interests, not to reform the planet.
Still, there is no denying the Cockburns' point that Israel has weakened its own moral case by longtime liaisons with brutal dictators and shady operators whose side activities include drug trafficking. Especially damaging is Israel's barely concealed cooperation with the white minority government of South Africa. The Cockburns should be lauded for investigating and exposing new evidence to back up this familiar charge, and for using interviews and published sources to make connections that others have missed. Readers who filter out the hostile undertones will glean much food for thought.
While many of the Cockburns' tangents peter out, some lead to important insights: We learn that cooperation between the CIA and Israel's Mossad is likely to endure despite "shifts in official U.S. policy" and both countries' attempts to spy on each other; that the United States watched but did little to stop Israel's nuclear-weapons program; and that Israel was selling arms to Iran long before Iran-Contra.
Many of the book's boldest assertions, however, are supported by little more than unfriendly speculation: that secrets obtained by Israel's spy in Washington, Jonathan Pollard, were passed on to the Soviets; that the late extremist Meir Kahane planted bombs on Israeli government orders; that Israel has "seeded" the Golan Heights with nuclear land mines.
Many of the authors quoted are identifiable opponents of Israel, while the words of Israelis are twisted to fit the Cockburn view of history. Former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, for instance, is among the unwitting witnesses for the case that Nasser never wanted a war and Israel never faced a serious danger from the surrounding Arab armies. Selective use of quotations can do that.
Stubbornly overlooking the Arabs' early refusal to live in peace with a tiny Jewish state, the Cockburns suggest that Israel could have been great "if the country had invested its productive energies in high-technology civilian industry" instead of weaponry. No, Israel could have been dead.
BOOKMARK: For an excerpt from "Dangerous Liaison," see the Opinion section, Page 2.