The fragility of ‘unbreakable bonds’
The United States’ veto on Friday of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning settlements in the West Bank presented a difficult moment for Washington. The resolution, written to mirror much of the language used by the United States over the years, left the White House with a dilemma of whether it should blindly stand by its friends in Israel or stand behind its long-stated position that settlements are illegal and a serious obstacle to a two-state solution. Additionally, by vetoing the resolution, the Obama administration defied nearly every country represented in the UN and took a risk of isolating itself alongside Israel. While the US continues to provide unwavering support for Israel, it is a mistaken assumption that there is an “unbreakable bond” between the two states. If Washington becomes increasingly isolated (economically or politically) as a result of its support and defense of Israel, the relationship may be in trouble.
Since the late 1960s, the “unbreakable bond” between the United States and Israel has been based on four main points. Firstly, Israel was one of the only Middle Eastern states allied to the Western Bloc during the Cold War. Secondly, in a region dominated by dictatorships and theocracies, Israel shared the US’s basic democratic values. Thirdly, Israel provided valuable counterterrorism experience and intelligence information on the Arab world with its North American ally. Lastly, there has always been an extremely deep bond between Israel and powerful American streams of fundamentalist Christians, a point that current Israeli Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren thoroughly explains at length in his 800-page book, Power, Faith and Fantasy. Today, however, all but one of those points have lost much of their relevance.
The first and primary factor that pushed the United States to become Israel’s strongest supporter in the late 1960s was its fear that the Middle East would become a homogenous Communist bloc. Nearly all of the Arab countries on the Mediterranean and in Western Asia had become, or were rapidly becoming, Soviet client states and the US was desperate to maintain a foothold in the region. The Cold War, however, has been over for 20 years; the Iron Curtain is no longer a factor in US foreign policy, let alone in its support for Israel.
The second foundation of the US’s unwavering support for Israel, it being a bastion of democracy in a sea of repressive regimes, is also at risk of disappearing. In the first two months of this year, a wave of democratization began sweeping through the Arab world. Should the revolutions taking place in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and Libya result in budding democracies throughout the region (in addition to the already semi-democratic states of Iraq and Lebanon), a democratic Israel will not be as unique as it once was. Additionally, Israeli democracy is being actively challenged by legislation moving through the Knesset in recent years chipping away at civil liberties, freedom of speech, due process and freedom of conscience. The most central threat to Israel’s democratic exceptionalism, however, is its continued 40-year military rule over the Palestinians. Although Israel can still be considered democratic, it would be foolish to believe that this foundation alone is enough to maintain such a strong relationship with the US indefinitely.
The third basis of the strong alliance Jerusalem enjoys with the world’s last superpower comes from its unique counterterrorism expertise and intelligence capabilities in the Arab world. However, Israel’s value in this regard has passed its peak in recent years and is in a state of decline. The US now faces more terrorist threats than Israel does and with its own experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington could probably teach Israel a few things at this point. Additionally, there is distrust of Israel in US security institutions. From deceptive intelligence reports on Iran, a 1996 GAO report that accused Jerusalem of conducting “the most aggressive espionage operation against the United States of any US ally,” to the CIA and US Navy’s grudge about the Jonathan Pollard affair, Israel has lost some of its stature on the Potomac over the decades. Its role as an important security partner certainly continues to exist, but its important is not what it once was.
The fourth point bonding the two countries together is an uncomfortable one for Israel. Christian Zionism has existed in one form or another in the United States for centuries. Masses of Americans embraced what they called “restorationism” from early colonial days. In the mid-1800s, New York University Professor Rev. George Bush (very, very distant relation to the later Bush presidents) called for “’elevating’ the Jews ‘to a rank of honorable repute among the nations of the earth’ by re-creating their state in Palestine,” Ambassador Oren writes. Now known as Zionism, “resotrationism” is stronger than ever in 21st century America. Justifiably, Israel is very uncomfortable with support that is based on the eventual conversion of Jews and the second coming of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, considering the strong role that Christianity plays in US politics, this factor alone ranks among the most important building blocks of the American-Israeli friendship today.
The deep friendship between the US and Israel is multifaceted, but as Henry Kissinger once said, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” How will the US position change as the world continues to demand an end to the occupation and the immediate creation of a Palestinian state? Will the White House shift its position as Israel’s defiance to those calls grows stronger, more stubborn and defensive in the coming months and years?
Last year, the world got a rare glimpse into the beginnings of such an instance. Asked (politely) by Washington to extend a settlement freeze for a mere 90 days, Israel rebuffed its strongest ally. The refusal was embarrassing for the US but despite being aired out in the international media, it was nonetheless a dispute between two old friends. The scenario that began unfolding last Friday in the UN’s Security Council chambers is of a much larger caliber; the White House, in a much less hegemonic world than it is comfortable in, may itself face growing isolation for refusing to accept the growing international consensus that Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians are unacceptable in the modern world.
Hopefully, for Israel’s sake, any change in Washington’s behavior towards Jerusalem will be dominated by the brutal honesty and ensuing pressure that only a friend can provide. If the United States does not quickly begin behaving like a true friend by seriously pushing Israel to end the occupation, it may no longer find itself in a position to be able to defend it. Even worse, Washington may one day decide that friendship with Israel is not worth the cost of international isolation and hostility.