Israel's Fraying Image

Israel's Fraying Image

Mini Teaser: There are growing signs of a divergence in American-Israeli relations and interests. 

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

If anything, the hearing seemed to echo many of the accusations leveled at Hagel by neoconservative entities such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, which took out a full-page New York Times ad to paint him as viciously anti-Israel. At the hearing, McCain blasted away at Hagel for his impassioned opposition to the Iraq War and the 2007 troop surge, as well as his denunciation of George W. Bush as the worst president since Herbert Hoover. Ted Cruz of Texas suggested, in the absence of any evidence, that Hagel might have accepted speaking fees from North Korea or terrorist organizations. This didn’t even rise to the level of speculation; it was character assassination pure and simple. In this bill of indictment, no issue loomed larger than Hagel’s stance toward Israel, which, the Washington Post reported, was mentioned no fewer than 178 times in the space of a single day, while Iran got 169 mentions. Meanwhile, Afghanistan, where America is fighting a war that Hagel now has to oversee, was mentioned all of thirty-eight times. During this welter of questions, Hagel might have wondered if he was being considered for the post of ambassador to Israel rather than the defense secretary of a country at war.

Hagel remained on his best behavior, rather like the dead pope Formosus, delivering anodyne responses that were deemed weak and faltering even by his supporters among Democratic senators intent on saving President Obama from a humiliating political defeat. But what if Hagel had responded more imaginatively and offered answers closer to the truth? It’s interesting to speculate on the fallout if he had told the assembled senators something like the following:

“I appreciate your concern about the state of Israel, which is a valuable ally of America. Israel’s security is paramount to America for both strategic and moral reasons. It is threatened by hostile terrorist groups and states, and I can assure you that I have never doubted that Iran and other Middle Eastern states wish it ill. But at the same time, I am not being nominated as secretary of defense to deal exclusively with Israel, which, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, is our twenty-fourth-largest trading party. Nor do we have a mutual-defense treaty with Israel—which, as you know, possesses its own substantial nuclear deterrent and is, moreover, the only country in the region that possesses such weapons. In the context of the Middle East region, Israel enjoys superpower status. I would add that, just as it is important for us to maintain close security ties with Israel, it is also imperative for us to promote a peace process between Palestinians and Israelis that will ease tensions more broadly in the region. Finally, let me say it would be strategically unwise for the United States to devote so much attention to Israel that we neglect our relations with China, Russia, India and other important regional powers. Our prosperity and security depend upon fortifying our relations with a number of countries around the globe rather than predominantly with any single country, even Israel, as this hearing may have suggested. Indeed, our national interests encompass more than the Middle East, a region that may well become less significant relative to other areas of the globe as America becomes increasingly energy independent and new challenges present themselves in Eurasia and the Far East.”

Had Hagel said something along these lines, it certainly would have destroyed his nomination. His detractors would have interpreted such a view as reflecting a thinly veiled hostility to the Jewish state, and it would have provided an opening to muster sufficient opposition to thwart his confirmation. But might the country be approaching a day when it is, in fact, possible to say something along these lines without being vilified or disqualified from high office?

Despite the invective hurled at Hagel, he weathered the hearing and was confirmed. At the same time, former senator John Kerry has become secretary of state. With these two men in the Obama cabinet, the road to bombing Iran faces a new roadblock. Neither man has displayed much enthusiasm for enmeshing America in yet another Middle Eastern war. A good case can be made, as commentator M. J. Rosenberg has suggested, that Obama subtly outfoxed his detractors and adversaries, including Netanyahu, by naming Hagel to the defense post. At a minimum, he signaled that he continues to favor diplomacy over bellicosity—a stance far different from the position espoused consistently by Netanyahu. Beyond that, he challenged the hard-line pro-Israel forces to go after his Pentagon nominee. When some did, they lost.

INDEED, IT seems increasingly clear that Netanyahu miscalculated in his effort to undermine Obama during his first term and throughout his reelection campaign. He relied on a phalanx of Senate and House Republicans to brand as heretical any deviation from reflexive support for his intransigent approach to the Middle East and the Palestinians. Further, he took the audacious step of all but endorsing Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in last year’s presidential election. This was considered by many in both countries to be an untoward intervention in American domestic politics by a foreign leader.

Now, with Obama ensconced in the White House for another four years, it seems inevitable that the president will hold a stronger hand in his dealings with Netanyahu. The Israeli leader may want to consider carefully any decision to repeat his May 2011 effort to humiliate Obama and teach him a lesson by lecturing him in a televised Oval Office conversation about the precariousness of Israel’s security, then continuing the tutorial in a pointed address to a joint session of Congress. The reelected president may be less inclined to tolerate that again.

But it isn’t likely that Netanyahu, who narrowly won another term, will abandon his goals or his effort to enlist America in his country’s strategic cause. Indeed, he seems to be going into overdrive in an effort to push the Obama administration to endorse a military strike on Tehran. Reflecting this sentiment, AIPAC is pushing for the designation of Israel as a “major strategic ally” of the United States—a designation no other country enjoys and one that could serve as a kind of carte blanche resolution potentially embroiling Washington in wars it may wish to avoid. This rush to codify the relationship between the two countries also is based on a calculation that America may be drifting away from involvement in foreign conflicts.

Indeed, AIPAC itself is starting to acknowledge with some alarm this apparent American war-weariness. At its recent Washington conference, AIPAC president Michael Kassen deplored what he described as the “growing allure of isolationism” in America, which is another way of saying that Israel, among other nations, may command less deference and interest among a new and younger generation of legislators. He lamented that “important roles on congressional committees vital to the U.S.-Israel relationship are increasingly held by individuals with little foreign policy experience.”

Kassen’s apprehensions are not misplaced. The conservative backing of Israel has been based on what might be called the GOP’s new Southern strategy—an alliance of convenience forged between two improbable partners: neoconservatives and the Christian Right. But as the influence of Southern conservatives dwindles, this is likely to become a very shaky base. Moreover, as America changes demographically, its relation with Israel may become less cozy, reverting to something closer to the two countries’ traditional state. It may be that in basing his relations with America so heavily on neoconservative influence, Netanyahu has misjudged the state of play in U.S. politics.

Indeed, the relationship between the two countries may have reached its high-water mark. Even if it has, there can be no doubt that the strategic partnership between America and Israel is not under threat and will remain rock solid. The two countries share too many common interests for it to be severed. But that doesn’t mean the relationship can’t take on a different shape and tone. The Netanyahu strategy dates to the George W. Bush era, when the neoconservatives held sway over the administration and congressional Republicans. These hard-line advocates saw Israel and the United States as facing similar threats—menaced by Islamic terrorists, unable to rely upon allies and required to act unilaterally. But this approach now appears dubious. As Francis Fukuyama cogently observed in these pages when first breaking with the neocons in 2004, Israel may be a small state that has difficulty attracting allies (though under Netanyahu it has also been repelling them). But why should the United States, a great power, want to follow suit?

DESPITE THE pious asseverations of mutual interests that resound in the halls of Congress whenever Netanyahu visits Washington, it has not always been so. When Israel was founded, the Soviet Union was one of its biggest backers. The Soviets saw a potential ally in the socialist Jewish state, and one of its Eastern European satellites, Czechoslovakia, funneled weaponry to Jewish resistance fighters battling the British for independence. In Washington, by contrast, the Truman administration was riven by disputes over whether to recognize Israel. Truman, who years later declared “I am Cyrus,” a reference to the Persian king who freed the Jews from Babylon, was unflinching in his support for Israel. Most of his advisers were not. According to Clark Clifford in his memoir (coauthored with Richard Holbrooke), Secretary of State George C. Marshall

Image: Pullquote: Does Israel really want to rely only on the United States, bereft of all other allies, for its security at a moment when Washington’s attentiveness to foreign affairs appears to be waning?Essay Types: Essay