Whiff of Desperation

Michael Oren's unconvincing argument for the U.S.-Israel special relationship.

Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

It is an ambassador’s job to burnish his government’s image; fidelity to the usual canons of logic and evidence are neither required nor expected. It is therefore unsurprising that Michael Oren’s portrait of Israel as America’s "ultimate ally" is a one-sided distortion of reality.

The main targets of Oren’s hasbara — Hebrew for public diplomacy — are some unnamed "realists," meaning anyone who questions the net benefits of America’s so-called "special relationship" with Israel. All of the realists I know support Israel’s existence and do not deny that the United States derives some modest benefits from its ties with the Jewish state. However, they point out that many of these benefits (e.g., trade, scientific exchange, etc.) do not require a "special relationship" — one in which Israel gets extensive and unconditional economic, military, and diplomatic support — and they maintain that the costs of the current "special relationship" outweigh the benefits. Unconditional U.S. support has also facilitated policies — most notably settlement building — that have undermined Israel’s global standing and placed its long-term future in jeopardy. Accordingly, realists believe that a more normal relationship would be better for the United States and Israel alike.

Not surprisingly, Oren would prefer that the United States continue backing Israel to the hilt no matter what it does. His first line of argument is the odd suggestion that Americans have been Zionists ever since the Founding Fathers (i.e., even before modern Zionism existed). Some early U.S. leaders did have biblically inspired notions about "returning Jews to the Holy Land," but that fact tells us nothing about the proper relationship between the United States and Israel today. America’s Founding Fathers also opposed colonialism, for example, so one might just as easily argue that they would oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and support the Palestinians’ efforts to secure their own independence. George Washington also warned Americans to avoid "passionate attachments" to any foreign nations, in good part because he believed it would distort U.S. domestic politics and provide avenues for foreign influence. Thus, Oren’s highly selective reading of past U.S. history offers little grounds for unconditional support today.

Oren’s second line of argument is the familiar claim that the United States and Israel share identical "democratic values." Yet this argument cannot explain why the United States gives Israel so much support, and gives it unconditionally. After all, there are many democracies in the world, but none has a special relationship with the United States like Israel does.

It is true that both states are formally democratic, but there are also fundamental differences between the two countries. The United States is a liberal democracy, where people of any race, religion, or ethnicity are supposed to enjoy equal rights. Israel, by contrast, was explicitly founded as a Jewish state, and non-Jews in Israel are second-class citizens both de jure and de facto. To take but one example, Palestinians who marry Israeli Jews are not permitted to become citizens of Israel themselves. This may make sense given Israel’s self-definition, but it is wholly at odds with deep-rooted American values.

Just as importantly, Israel’s democratic status is undermined by its imposition of a legal, administrative, and military regime in the occupied territories that denies the Palestinians there basic human rights, as well as by its prolonged, government-backed effort to colonize these conquered lands with Jewish settlers. Like all colonial enterprises, maintaining Israeli control of the occupied territories depends on heavy-handed coercion. Such behavior is at odds with core American values — as U.S. administrations of both parties have said repeatedly, if not forcefully enough.

Oren’s third line of argument is that Israel is a unique strategic asset, implying that unconditional support for Israel makes Americans safer at home. For example, he claims that Israel maintains stability in the eastern Mediterranean. But that is not true. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 made the region less stable and led directly to the creation of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia. The United States eventually had to send troops into Lebanon because Israel had created such a mess, and that decision led to a suicide attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in which 241 American servicemen died. Similarly, Israel’s assault on Lebanon in 2006 killed more than a thousand Lebanese (many of them civilians), inflicted billions of dollars of property damage, undermined the U.S.-backed "Cedar Revolution," and enhanced Hezbollah’s political influence within Lebanon. Finally, Israeli control of the occupied territories led directly to the first and second intifadas and the brutal 2008-2009 war on Gaza — all of which created enormous popular blowback in the region. None of these events were in America’s strategic interest, and they belie the claim that Israel is somehow bringing "stability" to the region.

Israel’s limited strategic value is further underscored by its inability to contribute to a more crucial U.S. interest: access to oil in the Persian Gulf. Israel could not help preserve American access to oil after the Shah of Iran fell in 1979, so the United States had to create its own Rapid Deployment Force, which could not operate out of Israel. When the U.S. Navy was busy escorting oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War, Israel did nothing to help, and it remained on the sidelines in the 1991 Gulf War as well. In fact, after Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel in a failed attempt to provoke it into joining the war and disrupting the Gulf War coalition, the United States had to divert military assets from that fight in order to protect Israel. As historian Bernard Lewis (a strong supporter of Israel) remarked afterward, "The change [in Israel’s strategic value] was clearly manifested in the Gulf War…. Israel was not an asset, but an irrelevance — some even said a nuisance."

Israel was also no help during the more recent war in Iraq. Although prominent Israeli politicians such as Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Shimon Peres all endorsed toppling Saddam (and Barak and Netanyahu published op-eds in U.S. newspapers to help convince Americans to back the war), Israel was not an active member of the "coalition of the willing" and has remained on the sidelines for the past eight years while U.S. troops have been fighting and dying on the streets of Baghdad and Fallujah.

In addition to overstating the benefits of the special relationship, Oren also ignores or denies its obvious costs. He is silent about Israel’s extensive efforts to spy on the United States, which the U.S. Government Accountability Office has described as "the most aggressive espionage operation against the United States of any U.S. ally." And he says nothing about Israel’s arms sales to Iran in the 1980s, its transfer of sensitive U.S. defense technology to potential adversaries such as China, or its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He makes much of the supposedly valuable intelligence information that Israel provides to the United States, but says nothing about Israel’s tendency to manipulate Washington by hyping external threats. Since the early 1990s, for example, Israeli officials have repeatedly warned that Iran was on the brink of getting a nuclear bomb, a series of false forecasts that were mostly intended to elicit greater support from the United States.

Oren also maintains that the special relationship between the United States and Israel has nothing to do with anti-Americanism in the Arab world or the motivations of terrorist groups like al Qaeda. In his view, there is no linkage whatsoever between U.S. support for Israel, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and the widespread hostility that the United States faces in the Arab and Islamic world. Not only does this claim fail the common-sense test, but making it also requires Oren to ignore a mountain of evidence to the contrary and leads him to make up stories that are simply untrue.

For example, Oren claims that "[Osama] bin Laden initially justified his attacks on America’s profligacy and only later, after his setbacks in Afghanistan, linked them to Israel." This assertion is false. Bin Laden’s first public statement intended for a wide audience — released in December 1994 — directly addressed the Palestinian issue. According to terrorism experts Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, the "most prominent grievance" in bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa against the West was what he termed the "Zionist-Crusader alliance." In 1997, bin Laden told CNN’s Peter Arnett, "We declared jihad against the U.S. government because … it has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous, and criminal, whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation of [Palestine]." Needless to say, these and many similar statements predate 9/11 or the "setbacks" in Afghanistan to which Oren refers.

And bin Laden is hardly the only example. The 9/11 Commission reported that 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s "animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experiences there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel." Other anti-American terrorists — such as Ramzi Yousef, who led the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center — have offered similar explanations for their anger toward the United States.

Despite Oren’s denials, therefore, it is clear that one major cost of the special relationship is a heightened risk of anti-American terrorism. U.S. support for Israel is not the only source of anti-American extremism, of course, but it is an important one and it makes no sense to try to deny it.

There is also abundant survey evidence confirming that the special relationship is a powerful source of anti-American feeling throughout the Arab and Islamic world. In 2003, the State Department’s Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy found that "Citizens in [Arab] countries are genuinely distressed at the plight of Palestinians and at the role they perceive the United States to be playing." In 2004, the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the Pentagon, concluded that "Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states." As the 9/11 Commission acknowledged that same year, "it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world."

More recent surveys of Arab opinion confirm strong Arab disapproval of U.S. support for Israel and of U.S. handling of the Palestinian issue. According to the 2010 Brookings Institution/University of Maryland survey of public opinion in six Arab countries, the most frequently cited source of disappointment was the Obama administration’s "Arab/Palestinian-Israeli policy." And when respondents were asked to name two countries they regarded as threatening, the top two answers were Israel (88 percent) and the United States (77 percent). It is perhaps worth noting that only 10 percent of respondents mentioned Iran.

Oren tries to explain this away by saying that Arab leaders are far more worried about Iran, and he quotes Saudi King Abdullah’s request (as revealed by WikiLeaks) that the United States "cut off the head of the snake" (Iran). There is no question that some Arab leaders are concerned about Iran, but it does not follow that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of little importance to them or to their subjects. As the Center for American Progress’s Matthew Duss documented in a previous Foreign Policy article, the WikiLeaks cables contain abundant statements by Arab leaders highlighting the importance of the Palestinian issue to them, and U.S. officials are repeatedly told that ending the occupation is critical to improving America’s position in the region.

Moreover, even if Iran is a growing concern, the combination of the special relationship and Israel’s continued colonization of the West Bank makes that problem harder, not easier, to address. Iran exploits the Palestinian issue to put its Arab rivals on the defensive because Tehran knows that it resonates with Arab publics. By championing the Palestinian cause, Iran makes it more difficult for Arab governments to form a united front against Tehran or collaborate openly with the United States. That is one reason why both former Centcom commander David Petraeus and his successor, Gen. James Mattis, have told Congress that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a serious liability when trying to address major problems elsewhere in the region.

Oddly enough, Oren seems to be partially aware of this fact, though he fails to draw the right conclusions. He correctly notes that protests about Israel have been "[c]onspicuously absent" in the upheavals that have been convulsing Arab states over the past few months. He then warns "emerging Arab governments might in the future … seek to gain legitimacy by harnessing anti-Israeli sentiment." But if the Palestinian issue did not resonate strongly with Arab publics, how could Arab rulers "gain legitimacy" by highlighting it?

The bottom line is that the special relationship with Israel makes it much more difficult to achieve America’s main strategic aims in the Middle East. This is not to say that the challenges Washington faces would disappear if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were resolved or if the United States had a more normal relationship with Israel. That’s a straw man to which few serious analysts subscribe. But there is little question that a just peace would make it much easier for Washington to pursue its other interests in the region.

Finally, Oren denies that the "so-called Israel Lobby" has anything to do with the current special relationship and claims it has no impact on U.S. support for the Jewish state or American policy more generally. To support this fantastic claim, he quotes longtime Mideast advisor Dennis Ross saying that the United States has never based its actions on what the "lobby" wanted or refrained from doing something because it thought groups in the lobby might be upset. To put it politely, this is fatuous. For one thing, Ross is hardly an objective source on this matter, having previously worked as counselor to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (a spinoff of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and as chairman of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank. Ross is just about the last person on the planet who is going to admit that the lobby exerts a powerful influence on U.S. Middle East policy, and the fact that Oren relies on his testimony tells you just how weak his argument is.

Furthermore, Ross’s claim is belied by testimony from other equally experienced observers. For example, Ross’s former deputy, Aaron David Miller, has described how the United States acted as "Israel’s lawyer" during the Oslo peace process, a role that contributed significantly to Oslo’s failure. Miller’s subsequent book, The Much Too Promised Land, acknowledged the power of the lobby but said it was not all-powerful (another straw-man view that few serious analysts hold); yet he also admitted "those of us advising the secretary of state and the president were very sensitive to what the pro-Israel community was thinking and, when it came to considering ideas that Israel didn’t like, too often engaged in a kind of preemptive self-censorship."

And that is why former U.S. President Bill Clinton referred to AIPAC as "better than anyone else lobbying in this town" and why former Rep. Lee Hamilton said, "There’s no lobby group that matches it…. They’re in a class by themselves." Barry Goldwater, the late Arizona senator, said he was "never put under greater pressure than by the Israeli lobby," and former Sen. Fritz Hollings once said, "You can’t have an Israeli policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here [i.e., on Capitol Hill]."

Even a staunch defender of Israel like Alan Dershowitz admits, "My generation of Jews … became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy." I can understand why Oren wants to deny all of this; what I don’t understand is why he thinks anyone will believe him.

Moreover, as John Mearsheimer and I documented in our book, "pro-Israel" groups in the United States use a variety of methods to encourage public support for Israel and make sure that the special relationship remains firmly in place. These tactics include making sure that individuals deemed insufficiently sympathetic to Israel do not get important government positions; attempting to silence, smear, or marginalize anyone who questions U.S. support for Israel or criticizes the policies of the Israeli government; and trying to shape discourse so that the pro-Israel arguments that Oren touts in his article are treated as received truths. Just ask Chas Freeman.

In the end, it is hard not to see Oren’s article as a sign of desperation. A more open discourse about Israel is beginning to emerge in the United States, and that will gradually make it harder for American politicians to continue their craven subservience to the lobby. Furthermore, younger American Jews are less enchanted with an Israel that is drifting steadily rightward and whose political system is increasingly dysfunctional and ridden with scandal. Autocracies like Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt actively colluded with Israel, but future Arab leaders are likely to be more responsive to popular sentiment and less tolerant of Israel’s brutal suppression of Palestinian rights. If the United States wants these countries’ policies to be congenial to its core interests, it will have to make its own policies more congenial to Arab peoples, not just their rulers.

Given these trends, Israel ought to be doing everything in its power to help create a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza before it is too late. Obama was right when he said that a two-state solution was in "Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest." Unfortunately, the government that Oren serves is more interested in expanding settlements, and its vision of a Palestinian "state" is a set of disconnected and impoverished bantustans under full Israeli control. This is called apartheid, and it is contrary to the position of the past three U.S. presidents, not only because it is not in America’s strategic interest, but also because it contradicts core American values.

As then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned in 2007, "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights," then "the state of Israel is finished." If this regrettable event were to occur, future historians will render a harsh verdict on anyone who helped derail or delay those peace efforts, including official propagandists like Ambassador Oren.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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