Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to cajole or shame the United States into adopting a more realistic strategy on Iran have earned him some poor reviews in the American press. The very idea that an Israeli leader should publicly seek to influence U.S. policy strikes some people as shocking. That he would do so in the midst of an election campaign has opened him up to criticism that he is seeking to influence the choice of the voters. The election tampering charge isn’t very plausible. Netanyahu knows America well enough to understand that any perceived intervention on his part would be a disaster and wouldn’t help Mitt Romney beat Obama. If anything, as Jeffrey Goldberg, a supporter of the president and critic of the prime minister, wrote on Friday in the Atlantic, Netanyahu seems sure Obama will beat Romney so he isn’t trying to change anyone’s vote so much as attempting to pressure the president into a policy shift.
But this argument isn’t so much about what will happen in November, as it is a not-so-subtle effort to silence a reasonable critique of American foreign policy by both Israelis and their American supporters. In doing so, some on the left are seeking not so much to bolster President Obama as they are to delegitimize the notion that the United States ought to be listening to Israel’s warnings about Iran in a manner highly reminiscent of the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theories.
That was the point of Eric Lewis’ opinion piece published in the New York Times this past week that accused Romney of “outsourcing” decision making about making war to the Israelis. Lewis did not merely assert an absolute right of veto on the part of the United States over Israeli measures of self-defense against the Iranian nuclear threat. He also disparaged Romney’s criticism of Obama’s disdain for Israeli views as marking him as being somehow in thrall to Netanyahu or pro-Israel Americans. From this point of view, it isn’t just that Israel should shut up about a U.S. policy that seems guaranteed to result in a nuclear Iran. It’s that Americans who share Netanyahu’s belief that Obama’s continued reliance on failed diplomacy and ineffective sanctions are, in effect, manipulating U.S. policy to suit Israeli rather than American interests.
The conceit of The Israel Lobby by academics Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer was an attempt to label the vast bipartisan pro-Israel coalition in this country as a conspiracy. It traded on traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews manipulating the great powers from behind the scenes and ignored the basic fact that Americans back the Jewish state not because of any lobby but because they are deeply sympathetic to the country and believe its battle against deadly enemies is one in which the United States must take a side.
By pointing out Obama’s mistakes, such as the years wasted on engagement with Tehran, the delay in enforcing sanctions as well as the president’s seeming to have a greater interest in restraining Israel than in pressuring Iran, Romney isn’t undermining U.S. sovereignty. Nor is his willingness to allow Israel the right to defend itself a case of the tail wagging the dog.
In doing so, Romney is merely reasserting a traditional American position. Israel has, after all, often ignored American requests to adopt a passive stance toward its enemies. Rather than waiting for Arab armies to attack in June 1967, Israel struck first and prevented a catastrophe. The Israelis didn’t get American permission to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 nor did it do so in 2007 when it took out Bashar Assad’s nuclear project. Though some American leaders didn’t understand it at the time, those decisions enhanced rather than diminished America’s security. While Iran is a much bigger and more dangerous target, does any serious person really expect Israel to stand by and merely wait passively for the ayatollahs to reach their nuclear goal while President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton continue to pretend that diplomacy has a chance?
The U.S.-Israel alliance is strong enough to withstand such disagreements. But that is because most Americans understand that contrary to Lewis’s formulation or the assumptions of Walt and Mearsheimer, Israel is itself a sovereign power and not an American protectorate solely dependent for its life on the whims of an indifferent president.
Iran is just as much of a threat to the U.S. as it is to Israel. Americans who respect Israel’s right of self-defense, as well who think that our president ought not to be snubbing our sole democratic Middle East ally the way Obama has done, are not doing Netanyahu’s bidding so much as they are standing up for a more rational U.S. foreign policy.
President Obama came into office proclaiming that the closeness with Israel that hallmarked the Bush administration’s attitudes in the Middle East was a mistake. He has carried out his promise to create more distance between the two countries on a host of issues and the result has been the utter collapse of the peace process and no progress toward stopping Iran. The current breach with Israel is a result of the breakdown in trust that Obama has caused. Romney is right to assert that we need to return to greater cooperation with Israel and restore that trust. Pointing this out doesn’t show his weakness but common sense that the president clearly lacks.