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

firmly opposed American recognition of the new Jewish state; I did not. Marshall’s opposition was shared by almost every member of the brilliant and now-legendary group of men, later referred to as “the Wise Men,” who were then in the process of creating a postwar foreign policy that would endure for more than forty years. The opposition in-cluded the respected Undersecretary of State, Robert Lovett; his prede-cessor, Dean Acheson; the number-three man in the State Department, Charles Bohlen; the brilliant chief of the Policy Planning Staff, George F. Kennan; the dynamic and driven Secretary of Defense, James V. Forrestal; and a man with whom I would disagree again twenty years later when we served together in the Cabinet, Dean Rusk, then the Director of the Office of United Nations Affairs.

In sum, the WASP foreign-policy establishment was pretty much united in its rejection of close relations with Israel.

This approach was followed by the next administration under Dwight Eisenhower. His mantra was that America should be an honest broker in the Middle East, pursuing a strategy of being “above politics.” His approach was tested in the 1956 Suez crisis, when Great Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt on a pretext to recapture the Suez Canal from Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Eisenhower forced all three powers to retreat. “I gave strict orders,” Eisenhower said, “to the State Department that they should inform Israel that we would handle our affairs exactly as though we didn’t have a Jew in America.” Given the makeup of the State Department, his admonition was hardly necessary. But his handling of Suez was, as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has observed recently, the genesis of the Eisenhower Doctrine, which offered direct American military assistance to Middle East nations threatened by Communist aggression. America was now an independent power in the Middle East.

But it wasn’t always easy to act as an interlocutor between the restive Arab states and Israel. A turning point arrived during the Kennedy administration, and it started America’s embrace of Israel. An early JFK effort to establish warm relations with Egypt’s Nasser proved fruitless. During Egypt’s invasion of Yemen in 1962, America intervened to safeguard Saudi Arabia from any Egyptian incursions. That’s when Israel began to look more attractive as an ally, though America harbored deep reservations about its attempt to develop nuclear weapons. According to historian Warren Bass in his book Support Any Friend, when Kennedy supplied Israel with Hawk missiles, it was, more or less, the start of a new special relationship. “What began with the Hawk in 1962,” writes Bass, “has become one of the most expensive and extensive military relationships of the postwar era, with a price tag in the billions of dollars and diplomatic consequences to match.” When Israel defeated the Arab coalition that sought to destroy it in 1967, American Jews were jubilant. Jerusalem was united. The West Bank was liberated. In short, the humiliation of 1956—Eisenhower’s diktat—had been reversed. Almost overnight, Labor prime minister Levi Eshkol approved what were euphemistically described as military defensive settlements in the West Bank.

Over the next decades the links between America and Israel steadily strengthened. Richard Nixon rescued Israel with arms shipments during the Yom Kippur War, primarily at the behest of his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, while Jimmy Carter brokered the 1978 Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel. Still, the U.S.-Israeli relationship was viewed in traditional terms—as one in which interests could diverge without undoing the alliance.

No one ever questioned the Reagan administration’s commitment to Israel, for example, but the country was not the recipient of any kind of diplomatic carte blanche. Through very strong entreaties, Reagan forced Likud prime minister Menachem Begin to cease the bombing of Lebanon in 1983. And, over strenuous objections from Israel, Reagan sold high-tech AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. When the Senate sought to thwart the sale at AIPAC’s behest, Reagan personally and tirelessly lobbied senators to kill the blocking maneuver. He won.

Furthermore, multiple efforts were made to get Israel to curb its settlement drive in the occupied territories of the West Bank. It was during the George H. W. Bush administration, and in the aftermath of the Gulf War, that the last serious attempt took place. It failed. Then with the George W. Bush administration, Israel was given a degree of American support that it had never previously enjoyed. This was the golden age of the Likud-neocon partnership. The credulous Bush came under the spell of the neocons, who dazzled him with a ready-made plan for action to triumph over terrorism. He now had a mission to pursue, and he pursued it with zeal.

It is true that Bush was the first American president to call for the creation of a Palestinian state, but he voiced no criticisms of Israeli settlements and, indeed, may have embarked upon the Iraq War partly in the conviction—most notably championed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz—that the road to Middle East peace led through Baghdad, not the West Bank. Not until the end of his presidency did the sway of the neocons begin to abate. In Elliott Abrams’s new memoir of the Bush years, Tested by Zion, the former deputy national-security adviser and leading neocon hard-liner records his distress that, by July 2007, even the sainted Bush began to come around to the idea of a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s when Bush announced that he would convene an international meeting that fall of “representatives from nations that support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and commit to all previous agreements between the parties.” Bush’s tepid effort went nowhere.

So did Obama’s subsequent effort. He tried to follow in the footsteps of the elder Bush by insisting that Israeli settlements had to stop as a precondition for peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis. He was rebuffed by Israel amid stark criticism at home from Israel supporters. Netanyahu was hailed as a conquering hero, a new Winston Churchill, when he spoke at the May 2011 session of Congress. Since then, a cold peace has settled in not just between the Israelis and Palestinians but also between Netanyahu and Obama. Will it thaw in the wake of Obama’s March visit to Israel? As successful as Obama’s visit may have been in terms of reassuring Israelis about his enthusiasm for the Jewish state and in boosting his personal popularity, it seems unlikely that either the Israelis or Palestinians will engage in real compromise. Netanyahu may view his ability to stymie a peace process as a political victory for himself and a diplomatic one for his country. But in the long term it may be more of a victory for American lassitude born of frustration. And that can’t be good for Israel or its longtime leader. It’s conceivable that America’s interests in Israel’s fortunes could wane in coming years.

This is not to say that America will become antipathetic to Israel. Israel is not a luxury that America can no longer afford. It can and must invest in the relationship. But the relationship could evolve into a more clinical one, particularly if the Republican Party pursues the course advocated by Senator Rand Paul. Such a development, which appears possible, could spur the GOP toward a less interventionist foreign policy abroad and a greater willingness to trim military budgets. Paul himself is a persistent critic of foreign aid, a theme that is most uncomfortable for Israel, which receives some $3 billion a year from Washington.

THUS, THE longer Netanyahu waits to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians, the more precarious Israel’s position becomes. That’s because the biggest threat Israel faces is not external. It is not Iran, any more than it was Iraq under Saddam Hussein. It is the demographic and religious challenges that the country confronts internally. As Yuval Elizur and Lawrence Malkin outline in their new book, The War Within, the traditional aspiration to create a secular democracy along European lines is jeopardized by the haredim, or ultra-Orthodox. In their refusal to integrate into the wider society, the haredim rapidly are becoming something of an economic and cultural time bomb inside Israel. “If one-fifth or more of all pupils in Israel schools do not learn mathematics, English, and civics,” write Elizur and Malkin, “part of an entire generation will be dependent on handouts for the rest of their lives.” As Israel’s situation becomes more dire—manifest in the fact that it is now almost entirely surrounded by walls—the solutions that are being advanced to break the stalemate are becoming more radical. In 2003, the late, distinguished historian Tony Judt argued that it could become a binational state, which would entail the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state. He said the country risked becoming a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state.” Not surprisingly, this proposal evoked a furor in America, with Judt being dismissed widely by critics as a “self-hating Jew.”

Now Yehouda Shenhav, a professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, suggests in Beyond the Two-State Solution that Israel should become what is sometimes called a “consociational democracy.” He audaciously maintains that West Bank settlers are no more illegitimate than the Israelis who settled the country after 1948. The two-state solution, he says, is a bogus mythology cooked up by the Israeli Left. The only path is for everyone to live where he or she wants, Palestinian and Israeli alike.

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