Our Kind of Realism

The strategic case for supporting Israel.

Getty Images
Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, asserts rightly that in view of the current political upheaval, America has no better or more trustworthy friend in the Middle East than Israel. Looking at the region’s strategic map, one sees mostly instability and uncertainty. Who is going to rule Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia five years ahead? What will happen in Iraq if and when U.S. forces leave? And will Iran prevail as the new regional superpower under its current leadership, or will it go through regime change and return to the pro-Western camp?

While no American analyst or policymaker can answer these questions with any degree of confidence, they can be certain that Israel will be around with its democracy, developed economy, strong military — and deeply rooted pro-Americanism. No doubt, backing Israel’s policies in the international arena and supplying it with generous military aid and top-notch weaponry might lose you some points in the Arab street and in Western Europe. Still, it remains a stubborn fact that the only serious force standing up to Iran and its proxies in the Middle East is the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces. The West, with all its big talk about promoting its values and going after the bad guys, simply doesn’t have either the strength or the will to fight, as NATO’s poor performance in Libya has shown. Against this backdrop, Israel is still "the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk," in the words of former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, as quoted by Oren.

Since the 1950s, Israel has shared the West’s concern about pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism, while encouraging particular Arab states’ nationalism (wataniya) through wars and diplomacy. Israel fought Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, the pan-Arab prophet, alongside France and Britain in 1956 and with American backing from 1967 to 1970, but made peace with his successors Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, who favored Egyptian interests over wider Arab or Muslim causes. Today, Israel and the United States are fighting a life-or-death cold war with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the bastion of pan-Islamism, which replaced their former ally the shah.

Even in its rocky relationship with the Palestinians, Israel aims at limiting Palestinian aspirations to the West Bank and Gaza, while ignoring the wider Palestinian diaspora and its theme of refugee return to pre-1948 Palestine. Again, this policy is shared by the West through its declared support for a two-state partition of the land, rather than acceptance of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s latter-day Nasserite vision of doing away with the Jewish state and bringing back the millions of 1948 refugees and their descendants to their nonexistent towns and villages.

A realist approach, then, would subscribe to Oren’s analysis of Israel’s strategic importance to America — and to Israel’s self-description as a Western outpost in a hostile Muslim neighborhood. But Oren does not contain himself to the mutual strategic worldview shared in Washington and Jerusalem. He argues that Israel reflects America’s fundamental values and the Zionist beliefs of its Founding Fathers. In his narrative, John Adams and Abraham Lincoln preceded Theodor Herzl, the recognized father of political Zionism, with their dreams of a resurrected Judea. These romantic visions have been underlying America’s support of Israel through thick and thin.

According to Oren, then, Israel is a mini-America in the Middle East, with identical values and policies. He acknowledges some disagreements between the two allies, but minimizes their importance or influence. In his view, Israel’s settlement enterprise in the territories it occupied in 1967 is only a minor nuisance, which does not impede peace, nor fuels the conflict.

Alas, Oren ignores the deeper disagreement over values caused by Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians, which runs against America’s anti-colonialist tradition. Like the former British and French rulers of India and Africa, Israel preserves its democracy at home, but not among its subjects across the Green Line — where Jewish settlers enjoy superior rights over their Arab neighbors. This visible injustice, more than any misunderstanding over practical policy or succumbing to pro-Arab propaganda, explains U.S. President Barack Obama’s evident aversion to Israel’s settlements and to Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government and its policies.

Oren does allude to the dispute. "[E]ven the warmest friendships are never disagreement-free," he writes. "This was certainly the case with the Anglo-American relationship during World War II, modern history’s most celebrated alliance, but one that was riven by disputes over military planning and postwar arrangements." Indeed, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill could barely stand one another, disagreed over war priorities, and represented mismatching powers — a rising global leader and economic powerhouse lending its hand to a declining, bankrupt empire that barely escaped defeat. But apart from their personal and practical disagreements, Roosevelt and Churchill were deeply divided over their values. The American leader hated Britain’s colonialism, a policy his British counterpart stood staunchly behind throughout his career. Roosevelt’s price for joining the war after the Pearl Harbor attack was eventual independence for India.

The same disagreement clouds the present-day relationship of Obama and Netanyahu, who style themselves as the modern protégés of Roosevelt and Churchill. It’s not the practice — Netanyahu has allowed less settlement building than his predecessor Ehud Olmert — but the conflicting ideals that matter. In Obama’s view, Israel is protecting an illegitimate colonial enterprise. To Netanyahu, Obama is a naive leftist whose ideals are divorced from harsh Middle Eastern realities. Giving up the settlements, argues the Israeli prime minister, will only concede the strategically important Judean and Samaritan hilltops to Iranian control. So far, this argument has prevented Obama and Netanyahu from repeating their late mentors’ deal, with America saving Israel from Iran’s nukes in return for Palestinian independence in a settlement-free West Bank.

In international relations, however, interests and power calculations usually prevail over values and ideals. That’s why America’s long-held opposition to Israel’s settlements was rarely more than pro forma lip service. In the seesaw of U.S.-Israel relations, each side deferred to the other on matters of crucial strategic importance. Thus, the United States banned Israel’s arms sales to China, but allowed Jerusalem to lead the way in the Middle East peace process. And that is why despite the gap over the occupation and settlements, America keeps funding and arming the IDF, whose units garrison the West Bank and enforce the siege over Gaza. This is not some unique "double standard" toward Israel: Successive American administrations have supported oil-rich Saudi Arabia despite its lack of democracy and its rampant human rights abuses.

As long as the Middle East suffers from political instability and radiates anti-Western feelings, Israel can count on continued American support. The United States has no credible alternative to protecting its assets in the region than a strong, dependent Israel. But to broaden the base of its American alliance and support, Israel should match its values and behavior to its backer’s — and rid itself of the occupation and settlements, just like Churchill’s successors did with Britain’s imperial possessions after the war. After all, if there’s one lesson to learn from the current Arab upheaval, it’s the fragility of purely interest-based alliances. Just look at what happened to Mubarak.

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