Perhaps a week when the U.S. secretary of state told a Senate committee to “stop listening to the Israelis” and to ignore their concerns about the existential threat from the Iranian nuclear program wasn’t the best timing to write about the importance and the permanence of the U.S.-Israel alliance. But bad timing or not, my post about the rumblings from some in Israel about an alternative to their ties to the only true superpower in the world has provoked some interesting comments and led me to think a bit more about the topic as well. In fact, weeks such as the one we’re currently experiencing may be the best time for those who care about the relationship to explore how to shore it up and the stakes involved for both countries. Even as Kerry seems to be doing everything to downgrade the relationship, it’s important to point out that not only is there no rational alternative to it from Israel’s point of view but that it is of vital importance to the United States as well.
First, let me address the question of whether it is wise to inextricably link Israel’s wellbeing to America’s standing in the world. Martin Kramer wrote here that he agreed with me that it is dangerous for anyone in Israel to even consider trying to play China or Russia off the United States in a vain attempt to outmaneuver Washington when it comes to questions like the nuclear peril from Iran. But he disagreed with this passage from my post:
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.
Kramer believes that American power, like all power, “waxes and wanes.” He goes on to write the following:
More than six years ago, before Obama even declared his candidacy, I told the Conference of Presidents that “America’s era in the Middle East will end one day,” and that “it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?” Obama accelerated that timetable, but the long-term trend has been clear for years. And one doesn’t have to be a “declinist” to realize that the United States can lead the free world and still write off the Middle East, which isn’t part of it. That’s precisely the mood in America today.
That’s a sobering thought and the possibility can’t be entirely discounted, especially with figures such as Senator Rand Paul rising to prominence in a Republican Party that has become a bulwark of the alliance in the last generation. Moreover, he’s right when he says that the history of Zionism teaches us that in order to survive, the movement has had to be flexible in its alliances with world powers. A century ago, many Zionists were looking to tie their future to that of the Ottoman Empire. A few years later, after the sick man of Europe collapsed, they cast their lot with a British Empire. But after a few short years when London seemed ready to make good on the promise made in the Balfour Declaration, they were abandoned. Gradually America became the focus of Zionist diplomacy, but until that alliance became a reality after the Six-Day War, Israel relied on a brief yet crucial period of Soviet friendship during the War of Independence and after that a fruitful friendship with France that lasted until 1967.
Israel’s leaders must, as Kramer says, be prepared for all eventualities and they should not, as I wrote, be blamed for seeking to foster ties with other countries. But the problem with planning for a theoretical period of American withdrawal from the world is that the answer to his question about a “Plan B” is that there isn’t one.
Though he is right to assert that the point of Zionism is, to the greatest extent possible, to make sure that Israel can defend itself, no “agility” or ability to “read the changing map of the world” can substitute for an alliance with America. Without a strong United States that is engaged in the world, Israel will not disappear. But it will be weaker and far more vulnerable. For Israel there is not and never will be—at least in the foreseeable future—a viable alternative to the alliance with the United States.
But the key question here is not so much whether Israel appreciates how important the U.S. is to its future—and there’s every indication that Israel’s leaders understand that—but whether Americans understand how important the Jewish state is to it.
The flip side to this discussion is that for all the talk from anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists like those who promote the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” in which the Jewish state is supposed to be the tail that wags the American dog, we don’t talk enough about how Israel is a valued ally of the United States.
After the end of the Cold War, the value of having what many consider to be a regional superpower allied with the United States has been largely ignored. But the notion that the U.S. doesn’t need strong allies in an era in which it is challenged by Islamist terrorism as well as rogue states like Iran is farcical. Moreover, the traditional meme of critics of the alliance—that Arab states are hostile to the United States because of its friendship with Israel—has been exploded both by the Arab Spring and the regional concerns about Iran that have made it clear that they fear Tehran more than they do the Jewish state.
Israel’s intelligence capabilities have long been a boon to the U.S. But its technological resources—both in terms of military and commercial applications—are now just as if not more important. Israel, the “start-up nation,” is a vital partner for the U.S. economy.
But even if we ignore the utilitarian aspects of this friendship, it should be remembered that the core of American foreign policy has, contrary to the slanders of the left, always primarily been moral rather than a nation bent on conquest or empire. As such it needs nations that share its democratic values. That means Israel remains part of the select few countries that will always be natural allies. It is true that Israel cannot always count on the U.S. to do the right thing at the right time. Nor can the U.S. assume that Israel will disregard its interests in order to serve American convenience. But the relationship is both mutual and rooted in something stronger than Lord Palmerston’s famous dictum about permanent interests. Support for Israel is part of the political DNA of American culture. The same is true of Israel’s affinity with its fellow democracy.