Why Israel is an awkward fit in America’s current foreign policy divide

Daniel W. Drezner
July 29
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Smoke and fire from the explosion of an Israeli strike rise over Gaza City, Tuesday, July 22, 2014,  (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

So when we last left off, I had divided American foreign policy thinkers into Reality Creators and Zen Masters. The former category is big on forcibly changing facts on the ground.  The latter category is dubious about the utility of force in revising the status quo.  Reality Creators use admiring words like “master strategist” when describing Russian President Vladimir Putin, whereas Zen Masters disdainfully talk about Putin’s overreaching.  To be clear, I don’t think either side of the divide has the monopoly on foreign policy wisdom — if that was the case, it would be a pretty stupid divide.  The very fact that both Reality Creators and Zen Masters can point to instances that support their worldview is why there’s a schism in the first place.

Which brings us to American foreign policy in the summer of 2014.

See, it’s worth stressing that these two camps actually share almost identical preferences about the desired ends of American foreign policy:  a secure United States, strong allies, open markets, spread of democracy, preservation of U.S.-created order, yadda, yadda, yadda.  And what drives the Reality Creators crazy is the perception that the United States is on defense in preservation of global order.  The U.S. is trying to preserve Ukraine’s independence and territorial sovereignty — and, in the case of Crimea, failing.  The U.S. is trying to thwart China’s encroachment in the Asia/Pacific — and, in the case of the South China Sea, failing.  As for Iraq, the U.S. is trying to preserve some measure of stabili– HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!  Sorry, I couldn’t type that sentence with a straight face.  But in all of these cases, both the Zen Masters and Reality Creators are primarily looking at getting back to, say, a status quo-circa-2008 world.

The one hotspot that doesn’t fit is Israel.  Because this is a case where it’s the U.S. ally that’s trying to change the facts on the ground.

The modern history of Israel might be the textbook case to support the Reality Creators perspective of the world.  No one in the Middle East wanted to see the creation of a Jewish state, and yet it happened.  In a region swimming in natural resources, the Israelis (until recently) didn’t have any, and yet over the past 20 years became the most dynamic and entrepreneurial economy in the region.  And the Israelis are masters at changing the facts on the ground, whether it’s building a wall security barrier to stop terrorist attacks from the West Bank, expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or periodically “mowing the lawn” with respect to Hamas.  Israel’s policies since the start of the second intifada have led to greater economic growth and housing for Israeli citizens, and, thanks in no small part to Iron Dome, a perception of greater security.  For the Reality Creators, Israel is the exemplar of how a state navigates in an unsafe world.

The problem is that the Zen Masters disagree, and they’re the ones in charge of American foreign policy right now.  Obama administration officials might not say it on the record, but when John B. Judis writes, “Israel is one of the world’s last colonial powers, and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are its unruly subjects,” they’ll nod their heads.  They think that the only viable long-term path for Israel going forward is a two-state solution, and that the chances of that going forward have migrated from slim to none.  

This is, at the root level, the reason why John Kerry badly wants a cease-fire, why Bibi Netanyahu doesn’t, and why they are sniping at each other.  Kerry thinks that only a longer-term peace deal is the only way to permanently deal with Israel’s very legitimate security concerns, and that the first step is to start with a cease-fire.  He sees this war as further isolating Israel diplomatically and in the court of world opinion (not to mention young Americans).  This can cause Israel to, in Jeffrey Goldberg’s words, lose a war that it’s won on the ground.

Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t agree.  He thinks that Hamas’ tunnel complex was much larger than the IDF realized and that proceeding with a ground offensive can eliminate that threat.  He doesn’t care all that much about the court of world opinion, because among Israeli voters,  he’s pretty damn popular now.  He’s upset with Kerry for trying to broker a cease-fire that empowers Hamas and its state sponsor, Qatar.  He’ll take the new short-term reality created by Operation Protective Edge over any amorphous long-term damage to Israel.  

Walter Russell Mead did a fine job dissecting these dynamics last week.  His solution is not one that will please the Zen Masters:

Unhappily for the Obama administration, the best way for the U.S. to hasten the arrival of a durable cease fire in Gaza is to promise a more robust and hawkish policy in the rest of the region. The Israelis will be more willing to make concessions on a Gaza cease fire if they believe that the U.S. will back them more effectively against Iran, and the Saudis and Egyptians are more likely to give ground in Gaza if the U.S. offers real support in the rest of the region.

I’m not sure I agree, but I suspect the Israelis do agree.  In other words, the reason Israel is an awkward fit in American foreign policy right now is that the pathway out of this bloodshed will require the Zen Masters currently in charge of American foreign policy to act a little more like Reality Creators.

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Frank Jacobs · July 29