China and Israel may not have much in common, but that hasn’t stopped the Jewish state from working hard to better ties with the world’s most populous nation. The growing connections between the two countries are largely economic, but the fact that two highly placed figures from Israel’s political and military realms spoke recently at China’s military academy was enough to gain the notice of the New York Times’s Sinosphere blog. The piece, which spoke of the visit to Beijing by Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the United Nations and a confidant of Prime Minister Netanyahu and retired general Uzi Dayan, spoke of how the Jewish state is working assiduously to deepen its relationship with China. Given Israel’s relative diplomatic isolation, there’s nothing terribly surprising about it reaching out in this direction. But put into the context of the last two weeks, any discussion of Israel’s efforts to make friends with a potential rival of the United States must be seen as part of an effort to lessen its dependence on its sole superpower ally.
Indeed, the Times didn’t shy away from such a discussion in the piece as it weighed, not unfairly, the advantages of better relations with China for Israel as well as the complications of trying to work closely with a nation that is also doing business with Iran. At a time when the United States seems to have distanced itself again from Israel on both the talks with the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear threat, the frustration level in Jerusalem with the Obama administration is very high. This has led not only to ruminations about whether the U.S.-Israel alliance is doomed, as was the conceit of a recent feature in Tablet magazine, but to suggestions from some Israeli pundits, like the Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick, that maybe “it is time to reassess Israel’s strategic assumptions and for the country to begin the process of exploring “new opportunities” that will enable it to survive without U.S. help if not to completely replace the old alliance.
But while the notion of playing China or Russia off of the United States may seem tempting to Israelis who are sick of being played for chumps by the Obama administration, any thoughts about “alternatives” to the U.S. alliance are fantasies, not serious policy options. It’s not just that neither of those countries should be considered reliable friends of Israel. It’s that any effort to pretend that there is another option outside of the U.S. alliance is as much of a danger to the future of this relationship as the ill-considered actions of President Obama or Secretary of State Kerry.
As for the fissures in the existing alliance, they are serious but should not be mistaken for a fundamental split. Israelis are right to be infuriated about Kerry’s tantrum last week because of his anger about the failure of the peace negotiations he foolishly initiated as well as the U.S. attempt to rush to complete an unsatisfactory nuclear agreement with Iran. Like the spats with Israel that President Obama fomented during the course of his first term, these disputes illustrate the distorted mindset of this administration as well as its willingness to create daylight between the positions of the two allies. But, as both Obama and Kerry understand, there are clear limits as to how far they can go in taking shots at Israel.
Even a reelected Obama who seemingly has little to fear from disgruntled supporters of Israel realizes that picking fights with the Jewish state is a no-win proposition for him. As he showed during the last two years with his election-year charm offensive and the rhetorical lengths to which he went during his trip to Israel last spring, the president is aware of the fact that the roots of the alliance are deep and it can’t be uprooted easily.
The long-term problems that the Tablet piece noted are not to be dismissed. There’s no question that the trends explored by the Pew Report about the decline of the Jewish community and the impact of an increasingly assimilated American Jewry will mean a smaller base of pro-Israel Jews. But that and the growth of anti-Israel opinion, while troubling, should not be mistaken for a fundamental threat to the future of ties between the two countries. Support for Zionism is baked into the political DNA of America and won’t be erased by either Jewish demographics or left-wing activism. The point about the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” myth is that the wall-to-wall bipartisan coalition in support of Israel in Congress and throughout the American political system is wide and so deep as to encompass the vast majority of Americans. As Israeli leaders should have realized a long time ago, the core of that support is not Jewish activism or money but the deeply-held sentiments of American Christians.
Leaders like Obama, who are not in love with Israel, can shake it up. But even he is incapable of altering its foundations, as the growth of U.S.-Israel security cooperation on his watch has proved. It’s hard right now to see past the seeming betrayal on Iran, but pessimists should remember that the intransigent Islamist regime—like the Palestinians—may ultimately push the administration back into Israel’s arms.
But even if one were inclined to despair about the future of U.S. support, neither China nor Russia provides anything like an alternative. Both can be useful at times to Israel and Jerusalem is right to explore how far it might go in those directions, especially when it comes to economic ties at a time when Europe seems to be abandoning the Jewish state. Yet it must be understood not only are these countries not likely to be good or reliable friends of Israel, but flirting too much with them also carries with it the possibility of worsening the far more essential ties with the United States.
There is still only one superpower in the world and neither China nor Russia looks to be catching up with the U.S. in the near future. But if the history of the rest of this century will be read through the prism of China’s drive to attain the status of a global power and Russia’s efforts to reconstitute the old Tsarist and Soviet empires, then there is no question that a small democracy like Israel must place itself firmly on the side of the U.S. in these rivalries. The ties between the U.S. and Israel are based on shared values, not realpolitik. Forgetting that would be an unforgivable error on the part of any Israeli leader and that is a mistake that a savvy operator like Prime Minister Netanyahu is not likely to make.
That’s not just because both are tyrannies that cannot be trusted to deal fairly with Israel, let alone try to protect it against its foes. But also because Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.
Those advocating alternatives to the U.S. for Israel are engaging in magical thinking that will do more harm than good. The fix for the gaps that have been created by the administration’s ill-advised moves on the peace process and Iran is to be found in efforts to restrain the president’s folly in the U.S., not searches for new allies to take America’s place.