Fifty-five years ago this month, Israel declared war on the United States of America. Unofficially and not in so many words, of course, but what else can it be called when Israeli armed forces launched a two hour sustained attack on a clearly marked US Navy ship in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Six Day War?
The USS Liberty was attacked by Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats off the coastline of northern Sinai and the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip, in international waters. According to the surviving crew members, it was easily identifiable as an American ship and, as an intelligence-gathering vessel, it was only lightly armed. It was on station to monitor events in the region, particularly in and around Egypt and Syria which were the front lines of the war.
The Israeli attack killed 34 US sailors, and wounded 171. As the casualties mounted, Israel blocked the ship’s distress signals. When communications were eventually possible, US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara ordered twelve fighter jets and four tanker aircraft to abort their mission to defend the Liberty and return to their aircraft carrier.
As napalm and armour-piercing rounds were fired at the ship before torpedoes were used to try to sink it, survivors were shocked when they saw that it was Israelis who were attacking them. Their allies were killing them, but they did not know why.
To this day, the exact reason for the Israeli attack is not entirely clear, but some US officials and survivors believe that the Israelis were attempting to stop the ship’s listening devices overhearing that Tel Aviv was planning to seize and occupy Syria’s Golan Heights, which happened the next day.Others theorise that Israel aimed to draw the US into the war by conducting the attack while posing as Egyptian or other Arab forces. Israel and its supporters, of course, claim that it was a friendly fire incident after the Israelis mistook the USS Liberty for an Egyptian ship, despite the fact that it was flying the American flag and had clear identification on the hull. The survivors insist that it would have been impossible for the ship not to be identified as a US Navy vessel during the many waves of the attack.
Israel later apologised – as good friends do after killing allies – and offered $6.9 million in compensation. With suggestions that the Israelis and US colluded to create a casus belli against President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, and survivors insisting that there has been a US government cover-up of the incident, it has been revisited countless times over the past five decades.
In all that time, however, the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv, with the latter receiving unqualified and unquestioned support from the former, has also been revisited. An unprovoked attack on a naval vessel is, after all, a very serious issue. Enough, indeed, to be classed as a declaration of war.
While this “special relationship” continues officially, cracks have appeared in the narrative in recent years and mainstream perceptions are shifting. This shift is currently taking place on multiple fronts. First of all, there is open and growing scepticism – and at times public opposition — about Israel’s policies among US citizens. This is obvious from polls and studies. There has also been increasing condemnation of Israeli actions by members of the US Congress, which is surprising as they are far from the usual lip service paid to “concerns” about human rights violations.
There is also a shift on the media front, albeit it on smaller but influential platforms. Many were surprised a few months ago, for example, when retired Navy Seal officer and author Jocko Willink hosted veterans and survivors of the USS Liberty on his podcast. Even for a former and well-connected member of the armed forces this was a bold move; viewers joked that it might be the last episode he would host. It was duly censored by YouTube with a warning about “context”.
In an even bolder move, Foreign Policy magazine – viewed as a reflection of and advisor to policymakers in Washington and beyond – published an article last year written by Harvard Professor Stephen M. Walt, which questioned why the US still has a special relationship with Israel. Walt proposed demoting it to a normal relationship alongside other allies.
In a normal relationship, wrote Walt, “The United States would back Israel when it did things that are consistent with the United States’ interests and values and distance itself when Israel acted otherwise. No longer would the United States protect Israel from condemnation by the UN Security Council, except when Israel clearly merited such protection.”
That treatment would extend to the public discourse on Israel, too: “No longer would US officials refrain from direct, plain-spoken criticism of Israel’s apartheid system. US politicians, pundits and policymakers would be free to praise or criticise Israel’s actions — as they routinely do with other countries — without fear of losing their jobs or being buried in a chorus of politically motivated smears.”
The discourse about the US-Israel relationship is also an enduring topic of America’s political left and right divide in the ongoing culture war. Decades ago, criticism of Israel and its interests was a trademark of right-wing conservatives and Republicans – unknown to many, and not in a neo-Nazi sense – while the left and Democrats were unflinchingly pro-Israel. Over time, due to drastic geopolitical changes, demographic shifts within and between the two parties, and significant pressure and influence by the pro-Israeli lobby, support for Tel Aviv has become a bipartisan trait and necessity for any politician wanting to stay in office.
Many imagine that politicians and figures critical of Israel are in the Democratic Party and its newly “progressive” elements, and they are mostly right in thinking that. However, the elements critical of Israel on the right wing have also been re-emerging gradually, albeit largely at the grassroots level; they recognise the contradiction of “America first” rhetoric while advocating for an alien state upon which US interests apparently depend.
Such logic will be resisted by political leaders and intellectuals, with the potential for a serious ideological clash in coming years. This dichotomy was seen two years ago when conservative activist Charlie Kirk was asked why the US continues to provide massive military aid packages to Israel every year despite the USS Liberty attack. Kirk silenced the questioner and accused him of peddling a “conspiracy theory”.
In short, the Israel-sceptic elements on the American right – much like the Democrats – will soon be rejected by the mainstream and their views will be suppressed by the political leadership. Open criticism of Israel, though, is also unlikely to make its way into US government departments and the White House any time soon.
The result is that 55 years after the killing of American sailors on the USS Liberty by Israel in its direct attack on a US Navy vessel, and even though Israel is building ties with powers like China as a potential future patron, Washington is still committed to its special relationship with its “greatest ally”. So when will Washington put its special relationship aside? When the people of America wake up to the reality of their government’s slavish devotion to the occupation state and demand change.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.