Friends Forever?

Israeli leaders need to confront their waning credibility in the United States.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Many of Ambassador Michael Oren's observations are grounded in reality, and many of the facts he deploys are incontrovertibly true. Allow me to dilate on several of his points:

Many of Ambassador Michael Oren’s observations are grounded in reality, and many of the facts he deploys are incontrovertibly true. Allow me to dilate on several of his points:

1. It is true that Israel is still the only stable democracy in the Middle East (though we’ll see soon enough whether Egypt and Tunisia, among others, will be joining the club).

2. The members of the Arab League, collectively, create virtually nothing the world, and in particular the West, needs or wants, apart from oil and natural gas. Israel, on the other hand, is a hothouse of technological and medical innovation.

3. Israelis, while not particularly enamored of U.S. President Barack Obama (though his record is, in fact, solidly pro-Israel), adore the country he leads more than any other group of people in the Middle East, save Iraq’s Kurds and, perhaps, the oppressed citizens of Iran.

4. The eastern Mediterranean has been, for the past several decades, a more secure and steady place than, say, the Persian Gulf, because of Israel’s stabilizing power and because of the beneficent effects of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. This stability has brought America large savings in lives and money, especially when compared with the sacrifices the United States has made, with only intermittent success, to keep the Persian Gulf from collapsing into chaos.

5. The Iranian regime’s nefarious dream of regional domination — its goal of supplanting America as the Middle East’s strongest power — is checked to some degree by Israel’s strength.

6. The shrinking camp of foreign-policy realists ("shrinking" because the Obama administration now seems to have moved somewhat in the direction of morality-driven liberal interventionism) has been largely discredited by events of recent days. Several years ago, former U.S. national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, a leading light of realism, told me that support for authoritarian Arab leaders had bought America "50 years of peace." We are learning now the price of that support for anti-democratic forces in the Middle East. One obvious lesson: Stability cannot be achieved in perpetuity through the suppression of the natural democratic yearnings of Arab peoples, who, like Americans, value freedom and dignity.

7. Another lesson, one that deeply wounds so-called realists: It seems as if the Arab masses have been much less upset about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians than they have been about their own treatment at the hands of their unelected leaders. If Israel ceased to exist tomorrow, Arabs would still be upset at the quality of their leadership (and they would still blame the United States for supporting the autocrats who make them miserable); Iran would still continue its drive to expunge American influence from the Middle East; and al Qaeda would still seek to murder Americans and other Westerners.

8. And one more thing, while we’re on this general subject: One of the great mysteries of life to foreign-policy realists is Israel’s continued popularity among average Americans. Some realists have resorted to conspiracy-mongering in order to explain what is otherwise, to them, inexplicable. But these realists fail to understand, as Oren outlines, the historical, ideological, and theological ties that bind Israel and America. They also fail to understand something very basic about the workings of power in Washington: A lobbying group is ultimately successful only if it is lobbying for a cause that is already widely popular.

But: Things change. Israel is in a more precarious position in the United States than Oren suggests. I am reasonably sure he understands this; I am equally sure that his prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, doesn’t. There are several reasons that Israel finds itself on shaky ground, shakier, perhaps, than at any time since 1956, when it alienated President Dwight Eisenhower during the misadventure in Sinai. First: The current occupant of the White House, while understanding that the Arab revolt has been motivated by Arabs’ yearning for enfranchisement, and not by American support for Israel, believes that the creation of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state on nearly all of the West Bank is a vital U.S. national security interest. This has placed Netanyahu on a collision course with Obama.

Netanyahu, to some degree, and to a greater degree his right-wing coalition (including his foreign minister, a man so disreputable he cannot be displayed to the American public) do not seem to understand that Israel, despite its popularity in America, is the junior, dependent partner in this relationship. Yes, Israel is in some ways a strategic ally of the United States, and yes, its scientists create all sorts of products valued in America; but it is impossible to argue that America needs Israel more than Israel needs America. So when an American president who is obviously pro-Israel (no U.S. president has worked more assiduously to maintain Israel’s "qualitative military edge" than has Obama) believes it important to make progress on the creation of a Palestinian state, it is best for Israel to take him seriously. This the Netanyahu government has not yet done. In fact, some of its more truculent officials have disseminated the idea that Obama is trying to do something to Israel, when in fact he is trying to do something for Israel, namely, create a Palestinian state that would ensure the demographic viability of Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy.

It is true that Israel’s many friends on Capitol Hill, and many leading figures in the Democratic Party, would work tirelessly to protect Israel’s relationship with America in case of a collision between the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister, but it is also true that Israel may one day soon find itself with fewer friends in America — in particular on the coasts and among the elites — than it previously had. Already, the Netanyahu government seems to have acquiesced to a Republican scheme to turn support for Israel in America into a partisan issue, which has obvious dangers for Israel. Particularly among liberals, Israel’s reputation is waning dramatically, and the Arab Spring will only accelerate this trend. The Arab revolts have inspired many Americans who will soon look at the West Bank and see unfree Arabs. Then they will look at who is suppressing these Arabs and see Israel; and then they will become confused by this because they have heard many times that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. And then they will ask, why is this so? (And, by the way, the people who will be doing this asking will be disproportionately Jewish.)

The West Bank has been occupied now for 44 years. It is increasingly difficult to argue that the occupation is impermanent. I believe Americans still have a benevolent understanding of Israel — that it is a plucky democratic outpost and a haven for an oppressed people in an inhospitable part of the world. This perception, to my mind, is not wrong. But this interpretation of Israel dissipates with each year of occupation. Israel is popular in America in part because Americans believe, to borrow the most famous cliché in Middle East policymaking, that the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. But more and more — and I hear this every week now — Americans, in particular those who pay attention to these things, believe that it is Israel that is missing opportunities to reach a compromise with the Palestinians. If, over time, Israel becomes unrecognizable to Americans, it will lose.

This is not an argument for a panicked withdrawal from the West Bank, nor an argument that a final peace is possible at the moment. It will be dangerous for Israel to leave large swaths of the West Bank, but it will be existentially dangerous to maintain control over large populations of Palestinians. One of the most obvious reasons is that Americans will, more and more, come to see the occupation the way Israel’s enemies frame it: as an exercise in apartheid. And it will lose the support of the only country that matters to its existence, and one of the few member states of the United Nations predisposed to the Zionist idea.

Perhaps no group will find this situation more unpalatable than American Jews, who have been so historically, morally, and emotionally invested both in the struggle against apartheid-era South Africa and in the American civil rights movement. That latter cause demanded for African-Americans what some of the more clever Palestinian strategists I know are demanding for the Arabs of the West Bank: a vote in Israel. If the Middle East conflict becomes reframed not as a demand for an independent Palestinian state, but as a demand by West Bank Palestinians for the power to choose the leaders of the government that has de facto ruled them for more than four decades, then the idea of Jewish national sovereignty in the historic Jewish homeland is finished. An Israel that formally denies the Palestinians independence, and also denies them the right to vote in Israel, is an Israel that will eventually become a pariah in the United States.

It is true that America and Israel are close allies. It is also true that America does not need Israel to get by in the world. But Israel, more than ever, needs America. Israeli leaders believe it would be impossible for Israel to lose the affection of America. They are wrong.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for the Atlantic and author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.

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