If Israel Attacks Iran: Threat to the Special Relationship

Can the U.S.-Israel relationship survive if Israel drags Washington into a war that's not in U.S. interests?

The underlying question surrounding the relationship is whether the interests of the two countries can or actually do diverge significantly. That was the essence of the controversy that surrounded publication of the 2007 book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (an expansion of an earlier magazine article). They argued that those interests can and do diverge and that some U.S. groups supportive of Israel have undermined American foreign-policy interests, particularly in nudging America into the Iraq War. Such arguments threaten the concept of the U.S.-Israeli "special relationship," and that’s why they get furious pushback from many staunch supporters of Israel.

But if Israel were to draw America into a war it didn’t want and for which the cost ended up being politically untenable, then this debate could enter an entirely new phase. The American electorate, which has not been particularly engaged on the matter so far in any emotional way, would almost inevitably enter the fray with a new degree of attentiveness. Then it would become much more difficult to press the argument that the special relationship rests upon an ongoing and unbreakable convergence of interests.

Already, there is more debate on the matter than was seen before the Mearsheimer-Walt book appeared. As Newsweek’s Justine Rosenthal, former editor of The National Interest, told writer Robert D. Kaplan recently, that article and book "changed the debate on Israel, even if it did not change the policy." The authors were attacked at the time as lousy scholars and (by some) as anti-Semites. And yet, barely five years later, the respected Kaplan produced a highly favorable profile of Mearsheimer for the impeccably liberal Atlantic (though Kaplan’s piece was not without criticism). As Kaplan wrote, "The Israel Lobby contains a fundamental analytic truth that is undeniable: the United States and Israel, like most states, have some different interests that inevitably push up against any enduring special relationship."

Now consider the brouhaha that ensued after New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman tossed off a line raising questions about the twenty-nine standing ovations received by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an address to Congress last May—following a clear effort by Netanyahu to diminish President Obama during a White House meeting. Friedman wrote that he hoped Netanyahu "understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby."

This was heresy, and the reaction was swift and harsh. Former government official Elliott Abrams said Friedman owed an apology to "hundreds of members of Congress who spoke for their constituents." New Jersey’s Democratic representative Steven Rothman said the expression should be seen as "aiding and abetting a dangerous narrative about the US-Israel relationship." A Commentary writer named Jonathan S. Tobin noted that, because Friedman disdains the uncritical attitude of some Republicans toward Israel, he has to justify his views by "having to paint Israel as being intrinsically unworthy of any support." Tobin also said Friedman represented what he called "the new anti-Semitism."

Leaving aside Tobin’s seemingly purposeful misrepresentation of Friedman’s view of Israel (he is, after all, consistently and ardently supportive), these expressions reflect the almost desperate desire on the part of some Israel supporters to protect at all costs the concept of the special relationship. Note Abrams’s insistence that those standing and clapping members of Congress were acting in behalf of the equally emphatic sentiments of the American people. Note Rothman’s concern about the "narrative" of the U.S.-Israel relationship. And note Tobin’s zeal in employing the hoary "straw-man" approach to discourse (not to mention his resort to the anti-Semitism ploy against a pro-Israel Jew). All this reflects an ongoing ideological necessity on the part of some to protect and preserve the underlying assumption of the special relationship—convergence of interests.

But suppose the already war-weary American people were to find their country in a beleaguered situation—beset by economic woes wrought by a global recession; pulled into further Mideast hostilities that generated growing numbers of U.S. casualties without an end in sight; grappling with an enflamed Middle East that threatened to fray the global order at various points around the edges of its stability. And suppose all this could be attributed to an Israeli military action undertaken over the objections of the American president.