Critics may correctly point out that the Iran nuclear deal is technically illegal and hope to eventually reverse it. But such arguments aren’t going to stop the Obama administration from implementing it. That creates a dangerous new landscape for Israel to navigate, especially since it is now faced with an American administration that is avowedly dedicated to creating more “daylight” between the Jewish state and Washington. Many in both countries hope the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister and President Obama in November can help start the process of rebuilding a relationship that has been rocked by the fight over Iran. But, as Shmuel Rosner writes in the New York Times today, it isn’t realistic to think that a meeting or any amount of good feeling can paper over the divide that currently exists between the two countries as the U.S. begins to invest heavily in détente with the Islamist regime. Like many Israelis, Rosner thinks the moral of this story isn’t so much to chastise Netanyahu for challenging Obama as it is to understand that the Jewish state can’t rely solely on the U.S. for diplomatic support as well as necessary military aid. But though there is a superficial logic to this assertion, it is something of a fallacy. The solution for friends of Israel lies not in a realpolitik outreach to increasingly friendly nations like India or dangerous frenemies like Russia. Israel may look for friends elsewhere, but there is no real alternative to the alliance with America and that means working to change the dangerous shift in U.S. policy under Obama.
Let’s be fair to Rosner. Unlike some other Israelis, who sometimes fantasize about Israel being able to pick and choose among the world powers to find a new best friend, he understands that good relations with the U.S. are the cornerstone of Israeli foreign policy. But he also thinks that the reliance on the strong alliance with a friendly U.S. has made Israel “lazy” in the sense that it has acted as if there was only one address for the Jewish state’s diplomacy. He thinks it “sinned” twice. Once by not preparing for the crackup of the alliance under Obama and twice by continually signaling that it sees no alternative to the Americans and doesn’t seek one.
He thinks it’s important for the Israelis to seek friends around the world rather than simply throw all of their eggs into the one American basket. That means improving relations with regional powers that have some common interests such as India and cultivating better relations with nations that do threaten the U.S. like Russia and China. And it also means finding ways to work with Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that used to be Israel’s sworn enemies but now share its fears about Iran as well as the rise of Islamist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. He even believes that Israel shouldn’t give up on Europe where even the friendliest governments have become highly critical of its policies and are increasingly influenced by a rising global tide of anti-Semitism.
There is merit to all these ideas. But there is no reason to believe the current Israeli government is neglecting these options. Netanyahu met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Monday seeking cooperation on Syria as well as other issues. Israel has also had some success cultivating India, a nation that was once hostile to it when its leaders aspired to lead the Third World.
As for Egypt and the Saudis, there’s no question that these Arab powers are now quietly coordinating policy with the Israelis as they seek to squelch the threat from ISIS, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as cope with a new world in which an Iranian regime that seeks regional hegemony is no longer viewed with hostility by the U.S.
But no one in Israel or the U.S. should be under the illusion that Israel can rely on any of these options.
Russia and China may wish to do business with Israel and wouldn’t mind a flirtation that might annoy the Americans. But these are basically hostile governments that Israel can never count on in a pinch. Both are natural allies of Israel’s enemies. Their desire to tweak the U.S. and undermine its influence is as much of a threat to Jerusalem as they are to Washington.
Europe is an even more slender reed upon which to predicate Israeli security. The Europeans have no leverage in the Arab world and are too vulnerable to pressure from elites and Muslim immigrants who are fueling an anti-Zionist campaign that provides a thin veil for resurgent anti-Semitism.
Cooperation with moderate Arab states will also only go so far. As we saw this week, a cynical Palestinian leadership that most Arab nations despise was able to manipulate both Jordan and Egypt into issuing hostile statements about Israeli policy in Jerusalem that will benefit no one but radicals bent on fomenting war. The hate for Jews in the Arab world will always outweigh the benefits of working with the Israelis.
Only the U.S. has what Israel needs as an ally.
Despite the drift of Obama foreign policy that has obscured the decline in support for it among Democrats, the overwhelming majority of Americans are strong supporters of Israel. It is no platitude to point out that the two countries are united by common democratic values. It is the truth. Whereas both the populations and the governing elites of most other potential allies are inveterately hostile to Israel and Jews, even at its recent low point, that cannot be said of the U.S., where sympathy for Zionism is baked deep into the DNA of America’s political culture. Even the Obama administration, with its predilection for picking fights with Netanyahu, has had to restrain itself and has provided a high level of military aid and intelligence cooperation.
Flirting with Putin or the Communist authoritarians in Beijing won’t make Russia help the Israelis. A strong and secure Jewish state is, at best, irrelevant to their foreign policy goals. At worst, it would be an impediment to their desire to make friends in the Arab world. Nor can any other potential ally or combination of them give Israel the kind of help, either military or diplomatic that the Americans can.
If Israel has not tried to pretend it has an alternative to the U.S. it is because no Israeli leader has been delusional enough to believe such a fairy tale. Nor would any American president be dumb enough to think the Israelis could cobble together the kind of international backing to offset a hostile American administration.
What’s more this obsession with finding other allies ignores the fact that when it comes to U.S. demands about the Palestinians, Israel has the strength and the ability to say “no” when necessary to defend its vital interests. That’s something that Obama knows, and it’s why he has refrained from openly challenging the Israelis or embracing the Palestinians more than he has. Doing so would only unite the Israeli people behind Netanyahu. That’s a gambit that he can’t expect Congressional Democrats to support.
The answer to Israel’s problems with Obama is not to bow to his dictates or to seek a foreign alternative but to wait patiently for him to be replaced by a friendlier U.S. government. It’s likely that any of the most likely people to succeed Obama in 2017 will have better relations with Israel. Far from accepting Obama’s tilt on Iran and the Palestinians, rebuilding that alliance means the pro-Israel community must continue to fight it in both major parties. If that means supporting challenges to Democratic incumbents who succumbed to Obama’s pressure on the Iran deal, then so be it. Far from injecting partisanship into an alliance that ought to be above politics, it’s important for politicians to understand that there is still a cost to betraying the security interests of both the U.S. and Israel.
Obama may do a great deal of damage to the alliance in his remaining 19 months in office. But the answer to this problem won’t come from surrendering to him or pretending that there is an alternative to be found elsewhere. It will be found in the same sort of grassroots activism that helped build the bipartisan coalition in the first place. Obama may have temporarily wrecked that coalition, but it is damaged, not dead. With sufficient resolve in Israel and among its friends here, it can be repaired.