In an extraordinary piece in Foreign Policy, the Israeli ambassador (and highly regarded historian) Michael Oren mounts a defense of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. The lengthly column should be read in full, but in essence he argues that the U.S. garners significant benefits from the relationship. He first identifies the naysayers:
Rather than viewing Israel as a vital American asset, an increasingly vocal group of foreign-policy analysts insists that support for the Jewish state, including more than $3 billion in annual military aid, is a liability. Advocates of this “realist” school claim that the United States derives little strategic benefit from its association with Israel. The alliance, they assert, arises mainly from lobbyists who place Israel’s interests before America’s, rather than from a clearheaded assessment of national needs. Realists regard the relationship one-dimensionally — America gives Israel aid and arms — and view it as the primary source of Muslim anger at the United States. American and Israeli policies toward the peace process, the realists say, are irreconcilable and incompatible with relations between true allies.
And then he rebuts the notion that Israel is a burden:
Following Hezbollah’s recent takeover of Lebanon and the political turmoil in Egypt, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf, Israel is the only Middle Eastern country that is certain to remain stable and unequivocally pro-American. In Israel alone, the United States will not have to choose between upholding its democratic principles and pursuing its vital interests.
After detailing the historic, economic, strategic and values-based ties he concludes:
Israel is the only Middle Eastern state never to oppose America on major international issues. Its fundamental interests, like its values, are America’s. For the price of annual military aid equaling roughly half the cost of one Zumwalt-class destroyer, the United States helps maintain the military might of one of the few nations actively contributing to America’s defense. It reinforces the only country capable of deterring Hamas and Hezbollah and impeding the spread of Iranian hegemony. According to published sources, the Israel Defense Forces is larger than the French and British armies combined. The IDF is superbly trained and, when summoned, capable of mobilizing within hours.
These benefits of the U.S.-Israel relationship are of incalculable value to the United States, far outweighing any price. Americans know that Israelis have always stood by them, ready to share technology, intelligence, and innovation — ready to aid them in conflict and to make the painful sacrifices for peace. Israel may be one of a handful of countries that fully fits the definition of ally, but its willingness to support the United States unwaveringly makes it the partner par excellence, America’s ultimate ally.
There are a number of noteworthy aspects to Oren’s argument.
Most important is the necessity of making the argument. After all, the U.S. and Israel have enjoyed a vibrant friendship since the founding of the Jewish state, and an overwhelming percentage of Americans (the vast majority of whom are not Jewish) support Israel. But at no time have the voices of the de-legitimizers been as strong, and never before have we seen so many anti-Israel canards repeated as fact.
Moreover, a lot of the anti-Israel nonsense is coming from the American government. It’s no coincidence that Oren sites this example:
The surveys prove that most Americans do not accept the argument that U.S. support for Israel provokes Islamic radicals or do not especially care even if it does. In a Senate hearing last year, Gen. David Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command, testified that the Arab-Israeli conflict “challenges … our ability to advance our interests.” Critics of the U.S.-Israel relationship seized on the remark as evidence of the alliance’s prohibitive costs — an interpretation Petraeus strenuously rejected — but the incident wrought no change in popular opinion. In fact, a CNN survey taken later that week showed that eight out of 10 Americans still regarded Israel as an allied or friendly state.
Oren is a diplomat, so he chose not to highlight an even more egregious comment. This one came from the president:
Mr. Obama said conflicts like the one in the Middle East ended up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure” — drawing an explicit link between the Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Mr. Obama’s words reverberated through diplomatic circles in large part because they echoed those of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the military commander overseeing America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent Congressional testimony, the general said that the lack of progress in the Middle East created a hostile environment for the United States. He has denied reports that he was suggesting that soldiers were being put in harm’s way by American support for Israel.
The problem, then, is not some crackpot group of scholars or even the NGOs that attempt to drive a wedge between Israel and the U.S. The real issue here is that the Obama administration has to be reminded that Israel has consistently been on our side. As Oren recollects:
Israel has always sided with the United States on major global issues. At the United Nations and in other international institutions, the two countries’ voting patterns are virtually identical, as are their policies on human rights and international law. Beginning with the Korean conflict and throughout the Cold War, Israel backed America’s military engagements, and it has maintained that support in the struggle with radical Islam. In times of danger, especially, Israel has responded to America’s needs. Acceding to Richard M. Nixon’s request to intervene to save Jordan from Syrian invasion in 1970, Israel mobilized its army, and in 1991, in spite of missile attacks from Iraq, Israel honored George H.W. Bush’s request not to retaliate.
Israel is not, of course, situated in some geographical backwater, but at the junction of paramount American interests. Its prominence on the eastern Mediterranean littoral, at the nexus of North Africa and Southwest Asia, has enabled the United States to minimize its military deployments in the area. In the Persian Gulf, by contrast, the absence of a dependable and sturdy ally like Israel has impelled the United States to commit hundreds of thousands of troops and trillions of dollars. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig’s observation 30 years ago still resonates today: “Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security.”
Such is the state of U.S.-Israeli relations that what has been an unquestioned assumption ( e.g., the U.S.-Israel relationship is a mutually beneficial relation) is now routinely questioned, and by the U.S. government no less. Oren’s reminder is timely, given that nearly all of the region’s “pro-American” Arab allies ( Morocco and Jordan being the most obvious exceptions) are in flames, in turmoil or in danger of falling into the grip of Islamic fundamentalists. And just today a new Pew poll shows how unpopular the U.S. is in a so-called friendly Muslim country:
Anti-Americanism has only gone up: 79 percent of those surveyed say they have an unfavorable opinion of the United States, and 49 percent of those hold that sentiment intensely. There was a 9-percentage-point increase since spring 2009.
President Obama doesn’t fare much better. Two in three (64 percent) Egyptians have little or no confidence in him, a 5-point increase in his negative rating since last year.
Current anti-Americanism and anti-Obama sentiment in Egypt predated this year’s Arab Spring. But Washington’s handling of the recent democratic upheaval in the Middle East did little to improve the U.S. standing.
When Pew asked about the American response to the political situation in Egypt, a plurality (39 percent) of Egyptians said the U.S. has had a negative impact, while just 22 percent said it has had a positive effect. Moreover, half (52 percent) of Egyptians disapprove of how Obama is dealing with the calls for political change in nations such as Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Libya. And a plurality of those who disapprove say Obama has shown too little support for protesters in the Arab street who are calling for change.
Given this sentiment, it is little wonder only one in six (15 percent) Egyptians want closer ties with the United States and 43 percent want a more distant relationship.
None of this seems to resonate with the current U.S. administration. But the good news is that despite the mindset of the Obama administration, Americans continue to regard Israel with respect and deep affection, and Israelis show the same feelings for America. Those who agree that the U.S.-Israel relationship is a valuable one cling to the hope that not even Obama can do permanent damage to the alliance.