Fresh Debate Emerging On U.S.-Israel Strategic Alliance


A relationship built on the notion that Israel is a critical U.S. strategic asset may be weakening as more and more analysts in both countries argue that the Jewish state is becoming more of a foreign policy liability.

So far that view has not penetrated Israel’s overwhelming support in Congress, and all but the most partisan Jewish leaders say it hasn’t affected Obama administration policy. On the contrary, there was evidence strategic cooperation was deepening even before President Barack Obama’s recent Jewish charm offensive.

But the question is being asked more openly, prompting a wave of unease in Jewish leadership circles. Anthony Cordesman, a respected foreign policy analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, summed up the intensifying chorus in a CSIS publication entitled “Israel as a Strategic Liability?”

America’s “moral commitment to Israel,” Cordesman wrote, “does not justify or excuse actions by an Israeli government that unnecessarily make Israel a strategic liability when it should remain an asset. It does not mean that the United States should extend support to an Israeli government when that government fails to credibly pursue peace with its neighbors. It does not mean that the United States has the slightest interest in supporting Israeli settlements in the West Bank, or that the United States should take a hard-line position on Jerusalem that would effectively make it a Jewish rather than a mixed city. It does not mean that the United States should be passive when Israel makes a series of major strategic blunders.”

Genuine alliances are two-way streets, Cordesman asserted. “It is time Israel realized that it has obligations to the United States, as well as the United States to Israel, and that it become far more careful about the extent to which it tests the limits of U.S. patience and exploits the support of American Jews,” he wrote.

In a New York Times story this week, Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, generally seen as hawkish on Israel security issues, was quoted as saying, “I don’t necessarily believe you solve all of America’s problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen by freezing settlement growth. On the other hand, there’s no particular reason for Israel to make itself a pain in the tush either.”

Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University, rejected claims that the Obama administration no longer sees Israel as a vital ally on the international chessboard.

“That’s grossly overstating matters,” he said. Highly publicized comments by some administration officials that seemed to link Israeli policies to U.S. foreign policy crises like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were “misinterpreted.”

At the same time, he said, there are “subtle changes” in the way officials here view the U.S.-Israel alliance, including its refusal to challenge the international move to include a discussion of Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons as part of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty update talks.

Echoing a growing sentiment among American neoconservatives, Lieber argued that a naive Obama administration has given short shrift to all vital U.S. allies, from Israel to South Korea and even Britain.

“To the extent that Israel as a friend and ally is getting the short end of the stick — that’s consistent with what the U.S. has been doing with other allies,” he said.

But he also said some claims that Washington is undermining its alliance with Jerusalem are based on an erroneous view that “alliance” means supporting every decision the Israeli government makes.

“You have to have a more sophisticated understanding of just what an alliance is,” he said. “Israel can’t poke its finger in the U.S. eye and assume there will be 100 percent agreement in Washington.”

The idea of a tight alliance based on shared strategic challenges and goals became a central theme for the pro-Israel lobby in response to a political, not a strategic problem.

“It dates back to the 1970s, when AIPAC was trying to persuade Republicans, who were overwhelmingly opposed to foreign aid, to vote for aid to Israel,” said Douglas Bloomfield, who was the legislative director for AIPAC in the 1980s. “AIPAC’s leaders came up with the term ‘strategic asset,’ and argued that our aid to Israel did more for us, dollar for dollar, than what we were spending for NATO.”

The late Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) were leading pitchmen for the idea, Bloomfield said.

With the end of the Cold War, the focus of the strategic alliance argument shifted to the fight against terrorism and Islamic extremism that targeted both Israeli and American interests, Bloomfield said. The 9/11 attacks only reinforced the view that the two countries shared dangerous enemies.

But the notion of a strategic alliance has become more complicated. Many analysts here — from the mainstream Cordesman to the more extreme Walt and Mearsheimer faction of the foreign policy establishment — argue that U.S. foreign policy goals are often impeded by Israeli policies and missteps.

And some argue that the whole idea of the alliance has become skewed, with Jerusalem demanding unwavering U.S. support for all its policy decisions without a corresponding willingness to factor U.S. priorities into Israeli policymaking.

More and more “there is this unrealistic view that we always have the same interests, and that the United States must always support Israel’s view of what those ‘shared interests’ are,” said Hadar Susskind, director of policy and strategy at J Street, the pro-peace process lobby group. “There’s this idea that you don’t support the U.S.-Israel relationship if you acknowledge differences of opinion.”

Over the years, the sense that there is an imbalance in the alliance has focused on U.S. concerns about settlement building and quality-of-life issues for West Bank Palestinians, and what is seen in Washington as Israeli indifference to those concerns.

Today, it is being refocused on the issue of the Gaza blockade as Washington faces huge international pressure to push Israel to loosening or ending it, and with Israeli leaders and their friends here arguing that any concessions to that pressure will represent a violation of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

“The people who are responding to the flotilla tragedy by circling the wagons, and arguing that Israel was 100 percent right are perpetuating this absolutist myth of a relationship that can’t possibly be met in real life,” Susskind said.

The arrival in Washington of an administration much more focused on multilateral diplomacy that connects the dots between different foreign policy arenas is fueling open debate over the nature and requirements of the U.S.-Israel alliance, if not any change in the actual dynamics of that relationship.

“I don’t see any sign that this administration sees Israel as a strategic liability, but there is almost certainly a decline in the view that Israel is a vital U.S. strategic asset,” said a longtime pro-Israel leader who asked that his name not be used. “The world has changed considerably since the idea of a strategic relationship was first used with respect to Israel; Israel doesn’t recognize that and it’s not adapting.”

Some Israeli officials share that view.

Recently Mossad Chief Meir Dagan told a Knesset committee that “Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden,” according to the Israel newspaper Haaretz.

But for now, there are few signs all the talk about Israel as a liability, not an asset, is shaping Obama administration policy.

“The administration realized that some of its early rhetoric made it sound like Israel was a liability and not an asset, but since then, we’ve seen a change both in attitude and language,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

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