America has no better friend than Israel. So says Israel’s ambassador to the US Michael Oren in an essay in Foreign Policy entitled “The Ultimate Ally.” Claiming that a teeny country of 7.7 million could possibly be of great import to a continent-sized superpower with 300 million people is risible. The US is indispensable to Israel, not the other way around. But does Oren’s assertion, however grossly overstated, have any merit?
Oren’s case largely rests on the notion that the US and the Jewish state share core values. “In Israel alone,” he writes in reference to countries in the Middle East, “the United States will not have to choose between upholding its democratic principles and pursuing its vital interests.” But really, are such choices ever all that fraught? Hardly. Countries have interests, not friends. Trotting out values in matters governed by ruthless amorality only obfuscates reality.
(The centrality of national interests in guiding state behavior makes Obama’s speech this past week in which he asserted that democracy in the Middle East will be a “top priority” for the US is as patently absurd as Oren’s argument. US diplomats in Riyadh surely reassured their jittery opposite numbers that the president’s remarks were purely for domestic consumption).
Let’s take a moment to entertain Oren’s whimsy by privileging values as the basis of bilateral bonhomie, however. By that standard, should America and Israel be bosom buddies? If Israel’s commitment to liberalism is judged against its authoritarian neighbors, then Oren’s got a point. But that’s not a high bar. How does Israel fare against a more rigorous standard that Americans would recognize (if not always practice)? Perhaps not as well as Oren would care to admit. Israel, of course, is a democracy, yet it also an occupying power. This is no niggling detail—not least to many Jews in the Diaspora.
Jewish-Americans have long closely identified with Israel. But that sentiment is waning, at least partly as a result of the country’s four decade-plus occupation of the West Bank. The Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson writes: “By every measure, American Jews remain intensely committed to liberalism and universal and minority rights. As a democratic state rising on the ashes of the Holocaust, Israel once embodied those values to its supporters, but [44 years] of occupation have rendered Israel a state that tests those values more than it affirms them.”
Disillusionment with Israel is particularly acute among younger, non-orthodox Jewish-Americans, a salient fact concealed by the political heft of the doctrinaire American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobby. The message in this should be clear: Israel cannot take its allies for granted. If Jews in the Diaspora can peel off, so can others. And however inconceivable, so could the US, especially since there is no compelling strategic reason for its close alliance with the Jewish state. (Keep in mind that at one time France was probably Israel’s closest ally. Circumstances change).
While Oren’s contention that the US and Israel are natural partners for a variety of reasons, his case’s reliance on the notion of shared values, as if that mattered all that much were it even true, reflects a presumption by Israel’s governing elite of unwavering American fidelity based on some imagined ideological meeting of the minds. This misreading gives license to callously disregard Israel’s other allies (because America will always have its back) and, for the same reason, take its close US relationship for granted.
The latest example of Israeli’s galling chutzpah came with Prime Minister’s Netanyahu’s impolitic request that Obama clarify American support for the Jewish state after the president gave a speech on the Middle East that essentially reiterated longstanding US policy on the overall parameters for a final settlement. Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, a journalist not unsympathetic to Israel, observed that he listened to the Prime Minister’s “lecture” to Obama on Jewish history with a “mixture of shock, amusement and bewilderment.”
How can Israel flout its one remaining loyal ally? How long can it continue to build settlements against US (and the world’s) wishes? How long can it hector its vital patron that it continues to rely on for its very existence? Oren claims that shared values ensure that US-Israeli bilateral relations will remain robust. But others know better. Noted Israeli historian Ze’ev Sternhell is one. He glumly observes: “Israel is on a collision course with all of our allies and supporters. And at the end of this road, it is liable to become a pariah state.”
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