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 –
- What strategic and other big interests have we always shared with Israel? Which one of these are permanent and could never change?
- 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?
- How do changes inside Israeli and American domestic politics affect the relationship?
- 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?
- To start: Let’s stop using the terms “pro-Israel and “anti-Israel” in U.S. domestic debate. Recommended.
- Latest news: Israel pulls plug on peace talks after Hamas joins unity government. [UPDATE: The Obama people are leaking to the oppress that they blame Israel almost solely for the collapse of the talks.]
- Basic primer: How do Israel and the U.S. view their strategic interests?
- The basic case that U.S. and Israeli interests are diverging. (Recommended, but it’s a longish article from CSIS, a centrist think tank) Or, shorter version from J Street.
- Domestic politics: (speaking of divergent views!)
- In the U.S.: Obama is just not as pro-Israel as other presidents.
- In Israel: The radicalization of the Israeli Right.
NEXT WEEK: 60 years after Brown v. Board: Why is the United States still so segregated?