Paul Pillar

Allies and Interests

The Republican presidential candidates who are determined not to be out-Israeled by their opponents are misguided in two basic respects about how they are trying to show their support for Israel. (And this is apart from whatever disgust anyone is entitled to feel in observing such blatant fawning over any foreign government.) One respect is that what the candidates are supporting is not really Israel but rather the policies and views of a particular segment of the Israeli political spectrum: the segment on the right that happens to dominate the current Israeli government. Republicans, of all people, ought to understand the difference. To equate being pro-Israel with support for policies of the Netanyahu government is equivalent to saying that being pro-American requires support for policies of the Obama administration. An op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post by J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami does a good job of exploring the differences involved. Ben-Ami explains how self-declared friends of Israel are doing it no favors by supporting policies that condemn Israel to perpetual conflict and hostility and to a status in which it cannot be both Jewish and democratic.

This observation ought to be the principal basis for discussing political and security issues involving Israel and its neighbors. It is an observation to which the most genuine friends of Israel can relate as much as anyone else can.

There is also a second respect in which the candidates' fawning is misguided. I would like to think that anyone running for the highest office in the United States would have the interests of the United States at heart ahead of anything else—and certainly ahead of the interests of any foreign state. U.S. interests never will be identical with the interests of any foreign state, no matter how close an ally that state might be considered to be and no matter how properly the interests of that other state are conceived. Tom Friedman alluded to this fact in connection with U.S.-Israeli relations in a column the other day. This allusion was not the line in the column that got the most attention. That distinction went instead to Friedman's statement that the standing ovation Netanyahu got in Congress earlier this year “was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” The lobby reacted in the vehement way it usually reacts when anyone draws attention to its work: to deny that the lobby exists and to accuse anyone who says otherwise of being prejudiced.

As for the non-congruence of allies' interests, Friedman made this comment about one of Mitt Romney's stand-by-Israel-no-matter-what statements: “That’s right. America’s role is to just applaud whatever Israel does, serve as its A.T.M. and shut up. We have no interests of our own. And this guy’s running for president?” The fawning, in other words, fails to recognize that U.S. interests differ from Israeli interests—and that is true no matter which Israeli politicians get to define Israel's interests.

This fact is true not just of Israel but of any foreign state. Take, for example, Canada. It would be hard to make a case that the United States has any closer ally or one whose values and culture are any more similar to those of the United States. But the two countries do have some significant differences of interests, whether it involves exports of softwood lumber or sovereignty over Arctic sea lanes. 

The nineteenth-century British statesman Lord Palmerston famously said that Britain had no permanent allies (or enemies), only permanent interests. The same is true of the United States. Too many American politicians, who not only grovel to try to collect votes from constituencies they associate with certain foreign governments but also like to simplistically divide the world into good guys and bad guys, seem to forget that.