- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Throughout the political campaign Barack Obama argued that he was a staunch friend of Israel. In Cairo, in his ground-breaking speech to the Islamic world, he asserted America was committed to the security of Israel. Wherever he goes he says he is committed to upholding America’s long history of supporting the Jewish state.
So how come a Jerusalem Post poll conducted late last month says only six percent of Israelis think the Obama administration is pro-Israel, down from almost five times that in the early weeks of the administration? This is such a low number that it clearly cuts across all parties, demographic and social groups within Israel. It effectively says that something that Obama has done in his first six months in office has convinced virtually all the Israeli people (at least to the extent the poll is truly representative of the people of Israel) that he’s not what he said he was.
Could it be that they believe the Obama Administration is likely to take a harder line with Israel on freezing settlements than it is with Iran to stop its nuclear program?
What’s more, they’re right.
Not coincidentally, the shift in Israeli public opinion corresponds with a shift in U.S. public opinion. A mid-June Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll indicated that only 46 percent of Americans think Israel is committed to peace, down 20 percent from the level just before Obama took office. The poll also found that only 44 percent of those questioned thought the U.S. should support Israel, down from 71 percent a year ago. Less than half those polled called themselves supporters of Israel down from over two-thirds before the election. (For more on how some in Washington’s policy community are becoming emboldened in this respect, see Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece on the outrageous behavior of Human Rights Watch in Saudi Arabia. It’ll give you a sharp sense of where the left is on this.)
A related problem for the Israelis is that some senior American military officials seem to discount the idea of the "existential" threat Prime Minister Netanyahu and others assert would be created by the continued development of Iran’s nuclear program. They feel that America offers sufficient deterrent to keep Iran in check. Further, U.S. political and military leaders argue that it would take months of bombing to eliminate the Iranian program, an option not available to Israel. This view neglects to take into account the fact that Israel might not act to eliminate Iran’s efforts, just to deter them. In fact, it seems to be forgotten that when Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in Iraq, the objective was simply to set back Iraqi efforts by a year (although the real effective turned out to be many times greater). Setting the Iranians back a year could be done with actions well within the capabilities of Israel.
Clearly this is a relationship in flux at a time when the stakes are high all around. And while there are no doubt many in the U.S. (and in the FP audience) who welcome the apparent changes, be careful what you wish for. One does not achieve "balance" in the U.S.-Israel relationship by off-setting the perceived "pro-Israel" slant of the past with a broadly "anti-Israel" stance today. Indeed, as any realist will tell you, we don’t need balance for balance’s sake. We need what will work to advance U.S. national interests.
Despite the endless and baseless propaganda to the contrary, getting tough with the Israelis on settlements or on other elements of the Israel-Palestine agenda will actually do precious little to address our greater concerns in the region while accepting a nuclear-capable Iran because we don’t have the will to stop them from getting will damage U.S. interests in great and lasting ways.That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek to actively advance a two-state solution for the Israelis and the Palestinians. It doesn’t say we should agree with Israel on everything and we shouldn’t pressure for change where we disagree. But as a potentially unprecedented rift looms and as a shift in the politics of the relationship seems to be taking place, it’s probably worth taking a deep breath and asking ourselves if we have fully thought through the consequences of what might come next.