Choices Facing the United States: Greater Israel or Global Israel?

Daniel C Kurtzer. Israel Studies. Volume 23, Issue 3. Fall 2018.

Zionism is, arguably, the most successful movement of national liberation in the last 100 years, and Israel is, inarguably, one of the most potent states globally in terms of security, economy, and society. Israel has absorbed millions of immigrants from diverse geographical and cultural milieus, built a thriving economy, developed a powerful army and achieved a remarkable degree of social cohesion, all this while living in a neighborhood in which all but two countries still consider themselves in a state of war with Israel.

To be sure, there have been and continue to be problems that Israel has not been able to fix or to which Israeli policy has contributed. Chief among them are the unresolved issue of the territories that Israel occupied in 1967 (the so-called Palestine question), significant and growing inequalities in the distribution of wealth within Israeli society, endemic tensions between religious and secular Jews, and questions about the durability of Israel’s democracy raised by recent legislative initiatives designed to curb activities and funding of those on the political left.

The United States has been a proud and significant supporter of Israel, providing significant resources to fund military and security requirements, participating in joint research and development in advanced defense and related technologies, and, for many years, providing an economic safety net that allowed Israel to take hard decisions related to economic development. The United States has been an active participant and advocate in promoting peace between Israel and its neighbors, has helped Israel build its international ties, and has defended Israel in international fora.

The prognosis for Israel and for U.S.-Israeli ties is excellent, as the two countries continue to find ways to deepen and strengthen bilateral cooperation. However, there are some worrying signs ahead that should prompt significant attention to the fabric of the relationship. A look ahead at the promise and problems would be facilitated by a deep look back at the first seventy years of Israeli sovereignty and of U.S.-Israeli relations.

The conventional method for assessing the bilateral relationship between Israel and the United States has been to look at shared values and shared interests, including shared threat assessments. In the United States, Israel has been popularized as a liberal democracy, committed to openness and the advancement of rights and liberties. The United States and Israel have usually tended to share a similar appreciation of the threats that Israel faces—ranging from terrorism and violence emanating from within the occupied territories; terrorism and incessant missile fire from Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza; and over-the-horizon threats from Iraq (before 2003) and more recently from Iran. While the mutual understanding of threats did not always result in a common policy approach, the two countries benefitted greatly from the intelligence sharing and overall strategic cooperation that was set in place to try to deal with the threats. More tangibly, the United States has made unprecedented long-term commitments to provide Israel with substantial amounts of security assistance plus additional aid that Congress continues to authorize for special purposes such as anti-missile development.

The values aspect of this relationship has come under strain of late, as the attitudes of some American Jews have shifted. For example, large swaths of American Jewry associate with the conservative and reform religious movements; Israel’s religious affairs ministry, under the control of ultra-orthodox rabbis, has set standards for conversion, marriage, and recognition of Jewish identity that place many of these American Jews outside the pale. The dispute over prayer space at the Western Wall has exacerbated this split.

As noted in several recent books, more American Jews have become critical of Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue, especially the continued building of settlements. For younger Jews, the Israel they have grown up with is the Israel of the Lebanon war and of occupation, unlike their parents who grew up with the mythic image of the Israel of Leon Uris’ Exodus.

The United States and Israel also now differ fundamentally about several critical security issues and threats. Most prominent among them is Iran’s nuclear ambitions. While both countries want to see the program halted, the United States has been involved in and supportive of coercive diplomacy as the means of stalling the program, while Israel has opposed diplomacy and would have preferred coercive action. The conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, negotiated by the United States and five other parties with Iran, caused a severe strain in relations between Israel and the Obama administration. Harsh rhetoric on both sides and Israel’s decision to go behind the president’s back and take its opposition to the Iran deal directly to Congress caused very deep strains in bilateral ties and, for the first time, threatened to divide support for Israel along partisan political lines in Washington.

The two countries have also differed regarding the situation in Syria. Whereas the United States has seen the most significant threat coming from ISIS, Israel has argued that Iran’s presence in Syria is far more dangerous, and Israel has threatened military action to try to force Iran to withdraw.

There are several prisms through which to assess both the strengths and potential weaknesses in the bilateral relationship. The most obvious reality is that the United States is a global power and Israel is a regional power, meaning that the two states will always look at problems and threats from different perspectives and through a different lens. The United States has global responsibilities and treaty obligations—for example, NATO—and its strategic purview extends far beyond the Middle East. The United States therefore will always take these global security interests into account when deciding a course of action, including in the Middle East. During the peace negotiations in the 1990s, there was talk about offering Israel membership in NATO as a security inducement to yield the occupied territories as part of a final agreement. But this was unrealistic: It is highly unlikely that NATO members would agree to extend the NATO umbrella and NATO commitments automatically to Israel, and equally unlikely that Israel would want to call into question its freedom of action in responding to perceived threats.

A second prism through which to assess the bilateral relationship involves the personalities of leaders. This issue, always present in the interaction between political leaders, came to the fore as relations worsened between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. As differences of views between them intensified, do did personal animosity, leading to unprecedented personal vitriol directed at Obama from Jerusalem and angry responses coming from Washington. Paradoxically, while this personal relationship soured beyond repair, the measurable aspects of the bilateral relationship—amount of security assistance, funding for joint R&D, intelligence sharing, and the like—steadily increased throughout Obama’s presidency. To be sure, there have been significant other instances of poor relations between Israeli and American leaders: Netanyahu clashed with the Bush 41 administration when he was serving as Israel’s deputy foreign minister, and with President Bill Clinton during the period 1996-99. Prime Minister Menachem Begin famously rejected the Reagan peace plan in 1982 by saying that Israel was not a banana republic that needed to accept an American dictate. The personal dimensions of leadership cannot be dismissed as a factor in the unfolding bilateral relationship.

A third prism for evaluating the relationship is what the Israeli IDF general and academic Yehoshafat Harkabi called the “balance of essentiality”, that is, for which side is the positive outcome—in this case, the benefits of the bilateral relationship—more important. The answer here is heavily weighted toward Israel. Israel is a proud sovereign state that guards its independence in decision making seriously. Its security and survival do not depend on the United States. But its overall well-being is intimately connected to the quality and benefits of the American connection, in ways that do not exist in reverse.

Given these trends and circumstances, the question for policy makers is what direction to take to ensure the continued vitality and mutual benefits of the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship. It strikes me that there are at least four policy questions to consider.

First, the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians plays an important role in the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship. The United States has expended substantial efforts over many decades in the search for peace; the absence of an agreement has carried a cost for the United States in the perception of regional and international actors about American resolve and diplomatic power. Israel has usually been a willing and forthcoming partner in the peace process, witness the policies put forward by Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008. However, this may be changing, as the Israeli political system continues a long-term shift to the right. Substantial numbers of Likud, HaBayit HaYehudi, and Yisrael Beiteinu party members do not support a two-state solution, and they act as a strong brake on the current government’s willingness and ability to advance positions likely to attract a Palestinian partner to negotiate. At the same time, few Americans believe the Trump administration will play a serious, balanced, and determined role in the peace process, notwithstanding the quite active pre-negotiation diplomacy it has undertaken.

If the Israeli government continues activities on the ground that are opposed even by the unusually supportive Trump administration—such as settlement activity outside the major settlement blocs—there will be an impact on the bilateral relationship. Specifically, more politicians in the Democratic Party are publicly voicing opposition to Israeli policies.

A related issue is the assistance relationship between the United States and Israel. For several decades, Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. assistance. Today, the bulk of that assistance is in the form of security aid and R&D support. The two countries have negotiated a long-term assistance relationship that pretty much safeguards the flow of security assistance for the next decade; in fact, the overall number is likely to increase as a result of Congressional earmarks for additional money for missile defense.

Moshe Dayan once said: “Our American friends offer us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, and we decline the advice.” This pithy comment normally evokes a smile from those involved in the bilateral relationship, but today it is one of the worrying signs on the horizon. Israeli leaders were furious when the Obama administration abstained on UN Security Council resolution 2334 in December 2016. The Obama administration was equally furious when Israel absented itself in the General Assembly so as not to have to vote on a resolution critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and when Israel declined to support the administration’s moves toward normalization with Cuba. Both countries remind each other that each is sovereign and free to make its own decisions; at what point, however, will these rather striking differences of view spill over into an American debate about the future direction of foreign assistance?

In this regard, it is not too soon to begin thinking creatively about alternatives to a traditional patron-client aid relationship. Israel is, thankfully, a strong and relatively wealthy state that should be able to pay its own way with respect to what it requires, even for expensive military platforms and equipment produced in the U.S. What Israel needs are iron-clad assurances that it can buy the most advanced weaponry the United States develops, and that it can participate as an equal partner in the research and design of new military and security technologies. A creative approach to the bilateral relationship, therefore, would substitute agreements and U.S. commitments on these critical Israeli requirements for the old practice of making more money available to Israel.

Changes within the American Jewish community are impacting American Jewish attitudes toward Israel. These changes cannot be swept under a carpet of denial or attributed to “leftist” or “liberal” agitation. Israeli policies affect American Jews across the board, and the views of American Jews need to be taken into account in certain aspects of Israeli policy.

Specifically, a distinction needs to be drawn between Israeli policies that reflect the interests and ambitions of a sovereign state—policies on which American Jews may voice opinions, but which should remain the prerogative of the Israeli government and people to decide—and between Israeli policies that relate to the Jewish people worldwide. Israel cannot be the sole arbiter of “who is a Jew” or of matters relating to conversion, marriage, and divorce. These are Jewish issues, not solely Israeli issues.

Indeed, Jews in the United States face a number of crises that are unrelated to Israel but which could be exacerbated—perhaps unintentionally—by decisions taken by Israeli institutions. For example, intermarriage rates among American Jews remain high, but conversion rates are also increasing. The question is whether decisions on Jewish law taken by the orthodox and ultra-orthodox rabbinate in Israel will foreclose the options for converts to assume a place of equality within the Jewish community.

Perhaps most important, Israeli leaders must reverse course and rebuild bipartisanship in American political views toward Israel. The experience of the past few years has not been positive, as the Israeli leadership have taken a sharp turn toward the Republican Party. Partisanship in the U.S.-Israel relationship cannot be good for either country.

None of these issues is too challenging to deal with. There are any number of ways to ensure the vitality and continued strengthening of relations between the United States and Israel.

First, change the tone and build bridges. Americans generally, and American Jews in particular, need to be far more sensitive than they are now to Israel’s sovereign, independent decision making. Americans can surely have a view about Israeli policy but must also be respectful of Israeli policies with which they disagree. By the same token, Israelis and Israeli officials in particular must recognize that they do not speak for world Jewry on Jewish issues. Matters of personal status—conversion, marriage, divorce, rules of worship at holy sites—must be discussed broadly within Jewish councils worldwide, and decisions must flow from a consensus reached through mutually-respectful dialogue. Israelis also are not the best judge of how to deal with criticism of Israeli policies on American college campuses or in local communities.

Second, especially on issues of greatest contention between Israelis and Americans, including American Jews, the debate must seek consensus, rather than intensify divisions. The most pressing issue in this regard is Israeli government policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the peace process. When Ariel Sharon admitted that “Keeping people under occupation… is also bad for Israel” and that “[it] is something that cannot last indefinitely”, it was an opening for serious reflection and dialogue about matters relating to peace.

Third, most importantly, the bilateral relationship must not be taken for granted, however strong and enduring it appears today. Any bilateral relationship between two strong states will always be beset by problems and differences of view. The U.S.-Israeli relationship is no exception. Thus, this relationship must be tended, mended, and amended: tended to with respect to the daily interactions that take place between diplomats, politicians, and ordinary citizens; mended, when problems arise that threaten to disrupt the relationship and get out of hand; and amended at those times when enhancements can be made or outdated programs can be shed. In this manner, the strength, depth, and breadth of relations between the United States and Israel will remain vital, vibrant, and healthy.