Paul Pillar

The Debasement of U.S. Support

There was a disturbing scene in New York on Sunday, with former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert speaking at a conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Post. When Olmert called for more respect for, and less confrontation with, the president of the United States, he was met with boos along with shouts of “Naive!” and “Neville Chamberlain!” Revulsion is the appropriate response to that scene, in two respects. One, for what it says about those doing the shouting and booing, regardless of their citizenship or their loyalties. Two, for how degenerate it shows the U.S.-Israeli relationship has become.

In the non-booable circumstances of an interview following his speech at the conference, Olmert made another noteworthy point. In saying that “America is not a client state of Israel,” Olmert asked:

Why should we want America to be put in a situation where whatever they do will be interpreted as if they obeyed orders from Jerusalem?

Good question. One that should have been asked long ago, given that the United States already finds itself in that situation on many matters involving Israel. Any time the United States is perceived to be in effect obeying someone else's orders—let alone orders from the government of a much smaller state on which the United States has showered largesse for many years—the words of the United States become less credible and its actions less respected. Anyone who has the interests and influence of the United States at heart ought to be concerned about that.

Then there is the rest of Olmert's point, which is that Israelis ought to be concerned about that as well. A less credible and less respected America is less able to do things in Israel's region that are in Israel's interests. For Israelis who want to achieve peace with their neighbors, a United States that is Israel's lawyer is less useful than a United States that has the respect of an honest broker.

Even for Israelis interested not in peace but only in minimizing short-term pressure and embarrassment, an America seen as acting as if it were obeying orders from Jerusalem is less useful than one that is not. Think of those United Nations Security Council resolutions on which Washington has cast lonely vetoes on Israel's behalf. Whatever significance most of those resolutions have is moral, perceptual and political. Whatever moral opprobrium involved will be present whether or not the United States casts a veto, because everyone realizes that veto is not an honest and independent judgment on the merits of whatever issue is on the table. Exercising the political muscle required to get that veto only underscores Israeli isolation from the mainstream of world opinion.

This whole unfortunate process is somewhat in the nature of killing a golden-egg-laying goose, except that it involves not sudden death but instead a long-term weakening of the goose.