The Israeli Government Is a Threat to U.S. Interests, Not Just Values
The very fact that such a close ally openly and defiantly violates American core values means the United States could suffer strategic setbacks in other parts of the world.
Since the establishment of Israel’s hardline government last December, U.S. foreign policy experts have expressed increasing concern over the future of their countries’ special relationship. Citing the extremist ideologies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partners, they have warned that the countries' sense of “shared values”—one of the twin pillars of this relationship—is under threat.
These warnings have taken on greater urgency since the Netanyahu government began pushing plans for a radical overhaul of the country’s judiciary—a plan that, if implemented, is widely expected to provoke a constitutional crisis and possibly spell the end of Israeli democracy.
Unfortunately, these warnings are based on a dangerous misconception: namely, that while Israeli-American “shared values” are at risk, the other pillar of this special relationship—the countries’ “shared interests”—remains intact; that while the far-right agenda of the current Israeli government may bode ill for Israel's liberal democracy, it does not threaten to undermine U.S. strategic interests.
Remarkably, the U.S. administration appears trapped in this same misconception too.
In the most high-profile remarks so far, Secretary of State Antony Blinken used a joint press appearance with Netanyahu in Jerusalem in late January to frame his concern about the trajectory of Israeli politics by talking about the importance of democracy. Invoking truths that should have been self-evident, Blinken reminded the Israeli leader of their countries' shared commitments “to defend and bolster the pillars of our democracy.”
A couple of weeks later, President Joe Biden followed suit. Weighing in on the emerging constitutional crisis in Israel, Biden chose to underscore his view that at stake are first and foremost Israeli and American shared democratic values. “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary,” Biden noted. “Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
If American and Israeli democracies can be described as genius, that is more than can be said for the administration’s view on the current Israeli government and its anti-democratic turn. Indeed, judging by the public rhetoric used by the Biden administration, Washington is failing to appreciate the extent to which the present Israeli government is putting not merely Israeli-American shared values at risk but also the countries’ shared interests.
The Palestinian front is only the most obvious area where the present Israeli government is undermining U.S. interests. Expansionist policies and escalating violence is already demanding significant American attention, as reflected in the convening of an emergency security summit in Aqaba late last month and the number and frequency of visits by top U.S. officials in recent weeks, including the apparently spur-of-the-moment one by General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Yet on security issues, too, Washington’s public rhetoric seems stuck in the register of morals and values. For instance, in response to Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich’s call to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the words as “irresponsible, repugnant and disgusting”—terms that, strong though they are, evoke deep moral (and bodily) distaste rather than political or diplomatic outrage.
Such rhetoric is perplexing, given that political and diplomatic interests are no less at stake than moral values. After all, any instability in the occupied territories is in danger of spilling over into Jordan, a solid majority of whose population is Palestinian by origin and deeply identifies with the Palestinians on the west bank of the Jordan River. Jordan is defined as a key U.S. partner, and anything that endangers its stability undermines U.S. strategic interests.
And while Jordan, next to the Palestinians, is poised to be the most immediate casualty of Israel’s extremist government, other neighboring states of strategic importance to the United States would likely be affected as well. Certainly, the regimes of such countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states are strong enough to weather any storm in the Palestinian-occupied territories, yet the impact on them could translate into policies and practices that are inconsistent if not outright contradictory to U.S. interests (as well as, of course, values). These might include a crackdown on street protests and suppression of freedom of speech against anyone who might use the situation to criticize the complicit or explicit relations between any of these regimes and Israel.
When it comes to Israel’s plans to eviscerate the judiciary, moreover, by the very fact that such a close ally openly and defiantly violates American core values the United States could suffer strategic setbacks in other parts of the world. After all, Washington continues to use democratic and liberal values as yet another tool in its kit for advancing its interests across the globe, from Latin America to Asia and even Iran. Israeli policies in Palestine already expose the United States to charges of double standard from a wide variety of global actors; the wholesale implosion of Israeli democracy is bound to create for America new challenges across multiple frontiers, such as in its engagement with China on Hong Kong or Taiwan, or in its efforts to leverage popular unrest in Iran to force the Tehran to compromise on a revised nuclear deal.
The damage of Israel's current government, in other words, is as much to U.S. interests as to its values. It is time for Washington to confront this fact and consider the damage that the Netanyahu government is about to inflict on American strategic interests in the Middle East and beyond.
Yonatan Touval is a senior foreign and security policy analyst with Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.