U.S.-Israel Relations after the American Midterm Elections

, December 27, 2010

Vol. 10, No. 18    December 27, 2010

 

  • After the end of the Cold War, Tom Friedman wrote that this meant the end of the strategic relationship, that America does not need Israel anymore since the Soviet Union is no longer there. In fact, the dangers from Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism may be greater than those of the Soviet Union. The Islamists seek to change the world, to create a new situation wherein the free Western democratic world will be under the thumb of a revived Islamism.
  • In the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, America has never changed its positions on Jerusalem, borders, and settlements, although over the years there have been different points of emphasis. Even the Bush-Baker Administration never declared the settlements to be illegal. As construction in the territories and Jerusalem continued at full strength, the U.S. and Israel agreed that certain amounts were to be deducted from U.S. loan guarantees – an example of how things can be worked out in spite of the basic position of the United States.
  • In the U.S. 2010 midterm elections, almost all the members of the unofficial Jewish caucus, who are mostly Democrats, were re-elected. This means that their proportionate weight inside the Democratic group in the House of Representatives is actually greater than it was in the past.
  • Israel does not want to see a weakened American presidency, which means a weakened America, especially in the Middle East where the only possible alternative to a weakened America is a strengthened Iran.
  • The Palestinians now want the UN Security Council to adopt a new resolution which will supersede Resolution 242. It will not mention secure borders or that Israel is not required to withdraw from all the territories. If the proposal passes, this would create a new reality and put an end to the peace process, which depends on the agreed formula of 242. If this is done away with, neither peace nor any sort of interim solution is likely.

The Beginning of the U.S.-Israel Relationship

An overview of the relationship between Israel and America must start from before the beginning, when Zionist leaders in Israel (then called Palestine) realized during and after World War II that America was going to be the center of decision-making and they shifted the center of Zionist activity from London to New York and Washington.

Although President Franklin Roosevelt was supported by a large majority of the Jewish community, there were also more than a few downsides – the St. Louis ship affair, for example [when in 1939, 930 mainly German Jewish refugees were turned away from U.S. shores]. There was Breckinridge Long, appointed by President Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of State with jurisdiction over immigration and refugee issues during World War II, until his demotion in 1944 for withholding thousands of visas intended for Jewish refugees.

After the war, and because of the Holocaust and the problem of displaced persons, and the Exodus ship being sent back to Germany, there was growing awareness and pressure in America to support the establishment of a Jewish state. In America, contrary to Europe, paradoxically, there was and still is a certain feeling of moral responsibility for what happened to the Jews during World War II, and as a result their cause was one to be supported.

Not that there were no problems. There was a U.S. arms embargo on Israel. Even after the War of Independence had started, Israel could not legally acquire arms. There was a traditional attitude in the CIA, among others, which also came to the fore on the eve of the Six-Day War, that Israel had no chance of winning against all those Arab armies and therefore America should not get involved. There were others who said that Israel was going to be a Soviet satellite because of Ben-Gurion, who headed a socialist party, and therefore Americans should be wary.

Ben-Gurion was aware of the paramount importance of the relationship with the United States. In 1950 he proposed sending a unit of the Israeli Army to fight alongside the Americans in Korea, not for military but for political purposes. It is often forgotten that until 1967, Israel got scarcely any foreign aid from America. There was Jewish aid and some insignificant funds for agricultural development, but no large-scale civilian or military aid. When Ben-Gurion wanted to buy American planes, looking ahead to a confrontation with Egypt, the U.S. would not sell them. America also put pressure on Canada not to sell to Israel either, so the only source of arms was France, and before that, during the War of Independence, it was Czechoslovakia.

Israel Becomes a Strategic Asset to the U.S.

The U.S.-Israel relationship changed with the Six-Day War, when Israel became a strategic asset, a country which could win wars against all odds. It was a reliable ally in the Cold War, serving America’s strategic interests. This went beyond the military side of the relationship with the growth of political, cultural, and economic relationships. Indeed, even today, the defense-related cooperation between Israel and the Obama Administration is probably unprecedented, in a positive sense.

This so-called special relationship was based on strategic interests, a perception of Israel as a strategic partner, and on shared values. The shared values include democracy – Israel is the only democracy in the region – rule of law, the justice system, and last but not least, the Bible.

After the end of the Cold War, Tom Friedman wrote a column saying that this meant the end of the strategic relationship, that America does not need Israel anymore since the Soviet Union is no longer there. In fact, the dangers which have been growing over the years from Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism and the threat to Western civilization as a whole may be a greater danger than the Soviet Union presented. It amazes me that there is not sufficient recognition in America today of this major threat to itself, to the West, and, of course, to Israel.

There is an attitude in the current administration that al-Qaeda is really something out of the ordinary in the Muslim world and if America eliminates al-Qaeda and kills Osama bin Laden, the problem will be over. But it is a much bigger issue. Of course there are moderate Muslims and moderate Muslim Arab states which have a basic interest in fighting extremism, but their voice is not sufficiently heard. What stands behind the Islamist approach is a drive to change the world, not to reach an agreement but to create a new situation wherein the free Western democratic world will be under the thumb of a revived Islamism. The exclusive concentration on al-Qaeda is counterproductive because Iran is probably at least as bad a factor in international worldwide terrorism as al-Qaeda.

Israel Helps to Stabilize the Middle East

There is the view that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the heart of the problem in the Middle East, that the road to Baghdad leads through Jerusalem, and unless that issue is eliminated – implying pressure on Israel – then America will continue to face insurmountable problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Arab world.

I do not accept the position that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be solved, the problems which America faces in the Middle East will go away. On the contrary, there is quite a distinct possibility that Iran and its supporters will say that was stage one, and now comes stage two. They are not only against Israel being in the territories, but against Israel as a whole. If you listen to politicians in the moderate Arab world, you will hear the theme that if America would put the Iranian issue first, then other issues will be easier to solve. However, the official attitude is still to solve the Palestinian-Israeli issue and then successfully tackle Iran.

One could also make the case that Israel is actually a factor of stability in the Middle East. Without a strong Israel we might not have the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan at this point. Paradoxically, we might not even have a Palestinian national movement because if it had not been for a strong Israel, the Palestinians might have ended up as a department of the Baath Party in Syria. Israel also played a role in changing the attitude of President Sadat with regard to Egypt’s previously close relationship with the Soviet Union.

Learning to Live with Disagreements

In the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, America has never changed its positions on Jerusalem, borders, and settlements, although over the years there have been different points of emphasis. UN Security Council Resolution 242, which the Palestinians are now trying to change, clearly recognized Israel’s need for secure and defensible borders, and certainly not the wholesale withdrawal of Israel to the former “green line.” President Reagan said this is something that Israel should never be asked to do.

Even the Bush-Baker Administration, when Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister, never declared the settlements to be illegal. They went about exploring the question in an orderly fashion by asking the Legal Counsel of the White House to give an opinion, and the opinion was that they were not illegal. From that day onward, the U.S. used the term “obstacle to peace,” but not “illegal.”

Over the years, construction in the territories, and certainly in Jerusalem, continued at full strength. As a result, the U.S. and Israel agreed that certain amounts were to be deducted from U.S. loan guarantees. Both countries lived with that, and it is an example of how, under certain circumstances, things can be worked out in spite of the basic position of the United States.

At the beginning of this administration, it said everything depended on whether Israel does or does not build across the “green line.” Opposing Jewish construction in the “territories” has been the traditional American approach going back to 1967, but it was never, with few exceptions, the only focus of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. By supporting that argument, especially at the beginning, the administration can be faulted for raising Palestinian expectations, so that even Abbas finds it very difficult to back down.

After the U.S. Midterm Elections

Now we are after the U.S. midterm elections. Constitutionally, foreign policy is the domain of the president, not Congress, but the president does not act in a vacuum. Congress has powers to restrain and to expand, and sometimes it does influence administration policies.

Congress is friendly to Israel, however, and this does make a certain imprint on the relationship. Among other things, the members of the unofficial Jewish caucus, who are mostly Democrats, were almost all re-elected. This means that their proportionate weight inside the Democratic group in the House of Representatives is actually greater than it was in the past. In addition, many Republicans were elected or re-elected who are indeed friends of Israel.

Furthermore, the new committee heads of the more important committees are decidedly pro-Israel, though their predecessors were just as pro-Israel. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is going to head the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is a proven friend and supporter of Israel, as was the outgoing chairman, Howard Berman, so I don’t really see a major shift. Some other committees which deal with America’s own anti-terrorist effort or with arms exports are in the hands of people who not only support Israel but understand, from their point of view, the importance of the relationship between the American people and the Israeli people. I do not see a change but rather a continuation under somewhat more favorable terms for Israel.

However, do we really want a weakened American presidency, which means a weakened America, especially in the Middle East where the only possible alternative to a weakened America is a strengthened Iran? Basically, Israel wants and needs a strong American presidency. Israel needs a close relationship with the number one power because there can be no vacuum in international politics. We have seen the attempts by Turkey, Brazil, and others to replace American dominance, which does not work in Israel’s favor.

Even though this president may sometimes have a view of the world and of history which is not necessarily linked to reality, I believe that the basic ingredients of the U.S.-Israel relationship have not been weakened, nor have the common political and strategic interests of both countries.

The Search for Peace

There have been many precedents over the years of American initiatives in the Middle East which did not bring any results. I think one may assume that an American initiative which is not supported by a consensus in Israel does not have much chance of creating a breakthrough. Why should President Obama and his administration court potential failure again? It may also be in Israel’s interest that the approach to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement become more nuanced – that talks will go on, agreements will be made, the economic situation in the territories will be improved, and security measures will be coordinated. Whether this will actually lead to the end of the conflict, I personally have grave doubts.

The Palestinians now want the UN Security Council to adopt a new resolution which will not officially eliminate 242 but supersede it. It will not include the definition of secure borders mentioned in 242 or refer to how Israel should not withdraw from all the territories, but is expected to demand an Israeli withdrawal in order to create a Palestinian state.

If the Palestinian proposal passes, this would create a new reality and put an end to the peace process. The peace process depends on the agreed formula of 242, and the Oslo Agreement is still the legal framework, the result of many previous negotiations. If all that is done away with, then we are not back to square one but before square one. Israel could act militarily against any moves which violate previous agreements. America, which sees itself as the patron of the peace process, should certainly not give its support to something which would do away altogether with the agreed framework of the peace process. If that is done away with, neither peace nor any sort of interim solution is likely.

One issue has definitely been resolved by the declaration of the Prime Minister of Israel, heading a Likud-based government, in support of a Palestinian state – the so-called two-state solution. That is something which is quite different from anything which had gone before. Prime Minister Netanyahu believes he can achieve an agreement with the Palestinians, and wants to move forward. He wants an agreement even if it is a framework or partial agreement, because he, better than many others before him, realizes the grave dangers facing Israel from Iran.

The Palestinian issue is not just a political issue but also a security one. Where will the borders be? How will Israel maintain its security position in the Jordan Valley, especially with a growing threat from Iran inside Iraq – meaning a growing threat on Israel’s eastern front?

Recently Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement to a Palestinian-American group that she is optimistic about the peace process in spite of the problems, and that maybe an agreement will not be reached in our time but in the time of our children. This was quite amazing coming from Hillary Clinton, but maybe those in Washington are more aware than they were a year ago that this is not an issue which can be solved quickly. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama may come to some sort of pragmatic working relationship, because basically they need each other in order to succeed, or at least not to be seen as abject failures.

Therefore, the relationship between the United States of America and Israel will go on with its ups and downs, but it will not break.

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Ambassador Zalman Shoval, a member of the Board of Overseers of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, served as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States from 1990 to 1993 and from 1998 to 2000. A veteran member of Israel’s Knesset (1970-1981, 1988-1990), Ambassador Shoval was a senior aide to the late Moshe Dayan during his tenure as foreign minister in the Begin government, including during the first Camp David conference. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on November 11, 2010.

Zalman Shoval

Zalman Shoval, a member of the Board of Overseers of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, served as Israel's Ambassador to the United States from 1990 to 1993 and from 1998 to 2000. A veteran member of Israel's Knesset (1970-1981, 1988-1990), Ambassador Shoval was a senior aide to the late Moshe Dayan during his tenure as foreign minister in the Begin government.