Monday’s Mtg: Are U.S. and Israeli Interests Diverging?

It’s pretty hard to argue that Israel isn’t Americas’ closest ally. Even though we have no formal treaty commitment to come to its defense, we have been Israel’s unofficial protector and advocate since it was founded in 1948. Most of you know this history and pretty much anybody can list the many reasons for this ultra-close relationship. We share with Israel strategic and national security interests and Americans have a moral and cultural affinity for the Jewish state, which adds a domestic electoral component to the alliance. More broadly, the United States has always hoped that Israel could someday be an example to the Arab world of the many benefits that accrue to a modern, democratic, capitalist country at peace with its neighbor.

No one in the American mainstream questions the need for our continued commitment to Israel’s survival or to continued close cooperation on many security matters, especially intelligence-sharing and counter-terrorism. (In fact, the latter are perhaps the real linchpin of the relationship, meaning that the biggest benefits of our alliance with Israel are classified and thus hard to evaluate and weigh against other costs and benefits of the relationship.)

However, in the last 15 years, changes inside and outside of Israel arguably require us to consider anew whether our two countries’ strategic interests align as closely as they once did – and what to do if they don’t. These changes include a hardening of Israeli attitudes towards peace with the Palestinians since the last major peace process exploded in terroristic violence in 2000. Benjamin Netanyahu, an outright opponent of Palestinian independence and a 2-state solution to the conflict, is now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Among the Palestinians, Hamas is now a permanent part of Palestinian politics and just became an equal partner in a unity government with Fatah, and this government is seeking unilateral independence through U.N. recognition.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Arab Spring and other developments also may call into question whether what’s good for Israel automatically is still good for the United States. Israel and the U.S. may legitimately desire different outcomes, especially in Egypt and Syria. Then there’s Iran and its nuclear ambitions, which Israel considers more an existential threat than we do. Turkey, Africa, and so forth.

You all don’t need a lecture on the history of the Middle East or the dynamics of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. I don’t follow the region that closely, anymore anyway. So, I’ll just open the meeting by listing the big changes roiling the strategic landscape and some of the questions being asked about whether our two nation’s interests are starting to separate.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What strategic and other big interests have we always shared with Israel? Which one of these are permanent and could never change?
  2. Have any of the big changes roiling the Middle East caused any of those shared interests to begin to diverge? What, specifically, do Israel and the United States want that now conflicts?
  3. How do changes inside Israeli and American domestic politics affect the relationship?
  4. Okay, so should the United States be doing anything differently vis a vis Israel? Any change would have to come from the Democratic Party, since the Republicans support anything Israel does. Is it worth it for Democrats to press for any reevaluation of U.S.-Israeli relationship?

Links –


NEXT WEEK: 60 years after Brown v. Board: Why is the United States still so segregated?


3 responses

  1. I would argue that the US has paid a big price, in terms of its position in the Arab world, for its unquestioning support of Israel.
    When we get to 2017, I am thinking of scheduling a meeting in our World War I group, “The Balfour Declaration: A Big Mistake” or “The Balfour Declaration: 100 years of war” or something along those lines.
    In any case, our policy in the region, since Harry Truman decided to recognize Israel on the advice of his old Kansas City business partner, has been guided by anything but the US national interest.

  2. Jim, I’m going to take strong exception to that. If you are demanding that Israel accept Palestinian nationalism as legitimate, then you have no reason, IMO, not to accept Israel’s sovereignty as legitimate, too. It is this attitude of denying a people’s basic right to exist as a sovereign nation that we need to move beyond.

    As you know from history, national consciousness can develop very quickly in a people. No matter what happened in 1917 – or 1948- after 60 years, both sides have a claim to parts of Palestine. Two states: the only solution.

    Of course, it does not follow from this that we must uncritically support everything Israel does, which is my point behind this mtg. So, you have a point there.

  3. I do accept Israel as a fait accompli, at least. We have to move forward, if we can, on the basis of current political realities. My point is simply that the Balfour declaration was probably a poor idea, since it has produced 100 years of conflict. Debatable, of course, and Zionists would maintain it has been worth it to have their own state.
    Two states, yes, but what is left of Palestinian territory with which to form a state? That’s going to be a problem, I think.

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