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Is Israel Really America’s Ally?

Maybe it's time for them to see other people.


Many of Michael Oren’s observations are grounded in reality, and many of the facts he deploys are incontrovertibly true (“The Ultimate Ally,” May/June 2011). But Israel is in a more precarious position in the United States than Oren suggests. I am reasonably sure Oren, as ambassador to the United States, understands this; I am equally sure that his prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, doesn’t.

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 the United States, 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 a U.S. president who is obviously pro-Israel (no U.S. president has worked more assiduously to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” than has Barack 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.

Israel may one day soon find itself with fewer friends in America — in particular on the coasts and among elites — than it previously had. 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. 

Israel is popular in the United States 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 Americans 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. Israeli leaders believe it would be impossible for Israel to lose the affection of America. They are wrong.

Jeffrey Goldberg
National Correspondent
The Atlantic
Washington, D.C.

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.

Oren repeats, for example, the familiar claim that the United States and Israel share identical democratic “values.” But there are fundamental differences between these countries’ systems of government. 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. Just as importantly, Israel’s democratic status is undermined by its occupation of territories that denies the Palestinians their basic human rights, as well as by its effort to colonize these lands with Jewish settlers.

Oren also suggests that unconditional support for Israel makes Americans safer at home. 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. Israel’s assault on Lebanon and its occupation of Palestinian territories (which led directly to the first and second intifadas and the brutal 2008-2009 war on Gaza) have created enormous popular blowback in the region. None of these events was in America’s strategic interest, and they belie the claim that Israel is somehow spreading “stability.”

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 both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq war.

Oren also ignores or denies the special relationship’s 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.” Oren also maintains that the special relationship between the United States and Israel has nothing to do with anti-Americanism in the Arab world, though there is an abundant supply of evidence to the contrary. 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.

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. There is little question that a just peace would make it much easier for Washington to pursue its other interests in the region.

Stephen M. Walt
Professor of International Relations
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.


ZIPFLASH: The U.S. should be a Switzerland to the Arab/Iran/Israeli morass, providing no economic, military, or diplomatic aid to anyone in the region. We have nothing to gain, everything to lose by taking sides.

BLUM: Ambassador Oren, for the sake of our alliance, please push for the resignation of Avigdor Lieberman. You do your job with honor, but your boss is one who spits on democracy, diplomacy, and all that is respectable about Israel.

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