Contrary to popular belief in our region, bilateral relations with the US are in a severe crisis. Many believe that relations between the two countries are at their peak due to the miraculous symbiosis between US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but this symbiosis has deepened a number of trends that threaten the relationship in the long-term. I propose below a number of steps that can be taken to resolve the crisis with US President-elect Joe Biden’s administration on two key issues: the American interest in reducing US involvement in the Middle East and the ruinous damage to the bipartisan relationship with Israel.
From a strategic standpoint, the trend that jeopardizes the great value that the US attaches to Israel is the diminishing strategic importance of the Middle East region to the US. This region was previously the most significant energy supplier of the US, but today the US itself has become an energy exporter. US interventions in the Middle East have recently ended in failure, from the going-all-the-way invasion of Iraq, to “leading from behind” in Libya and ending in helplessness on the Syrian issue.
For Israel, the ability to rely on American support for the region, which has been an important component of our defense, is eroding. As an example, the future of Syria is currently decided by Turkey, Syria and Russia, while the US controls no levers there. As for Iran, the US has found itself in “splendid” isolation in the UN Security Council (alongside the Dominican Republic) in an attempt to extend the embargo on arms sales to Iran.
From a political standpoint, an alarming trend stems from a change happening over the years in what was once a special relationship between the two countries based on bipartisan support and the avoidance of turning Israel into an issue that is politically controversial. Trump and Netanyahu have acted contrary to this, and we are witnessing a very worrying trend in which the liberal public in the US (that has grown demographically in the transition from a white and Protestant majority state to a country of minorities) is moving away from Israel, which is increasingly perceived as conservative and as an arm of the Republican Party.
This distancing is beginning to show its signs among new lawmakers in Congress, who no longer see the special relationship with Israel as an important value and strategic asset of the US. Worse is the impact on the American Jewish community, which is the largest and most important Jewish community outside Israel. There are trends of ambivalence and sometimes even hostility towards Israel, which in recent years has moved away from the liberal values of non-Orthodox Judaism.
What can be done to maintain the US’ strategic commitment to Israel and to restore bipartisan support? The process of the US distancing itself from the Middle East requires Israel to change its traditional policy of opposing the signing of a defense pact enshrined in American law. The Israeli opposition stems from fears such an agreement would reduce Israel’s maneuvering room in the region. However, this argument is eroded in light of the fact that the real threats to Israel today are asymmetric, and our military power cannot prevent them. It is actually through “tying our hands” and refraining from of futile military reactions when provoked, and in parallel generating American motivation to effectively deter our enemies through pulling diplomatic and economic levers, that will achieve much more.
Many of my colleagues from the peace camp will ask themselves why I am in favor of a defense pact that is seen as a right-wing interest, which seeks to increase reliance on our military force. On the contrary, a defense alliance with the US is actually the way to advance non-military solutions. Not only will it maintain effective deterrence against Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, but it will also create a clear American interest in advancing arrangements to avoid getting entangled in wars in the Middle East. In addition, such an alliance would deprive right-wing populist leaders of the ability to use the military irresponsibly, because our security system (which understands well that there are no military solutions to Israel’s major problems) could justify avoiding unnecessary action due to the need for American backing. Furthermore, a defense alliance will oblige the US to advance a process that defines Israel’s borders to determine to which territory the pact applies.
Another step that the agreement will lead to is moving military aid to Israel from the US State Department’s allocations section to the US Department of Defense’s allocations, thus avoiding the prominence of aid to Israel (which is politically harmful to us as it is much larger than US aid to developing countries). The agreement can also assist in cooperation between the two countries’ military industries in joint development, production and marketing, which will prevent unhealthy competition for markets while ensuring that Israel’s qualitative military advantage (QME) over all its enemies is not harmed.
As for the restoration of bipartisanship, the decline of the divisive Trump administration will help. However, it is also desirable to promote connections between Israel and the US around an agenda that is important to the liberal public in the Democratic Party and in the Jewish community. One way to advance such an agenda is to establish a joint bilateral fund for the US and Israel to promote tikkun olam (similar to the existing bilateral funds – BIRD for cooperation in industrial R&D, and BARD for cooperation in agricultural R&D). The fund will finance collaborations between the development agencies of the two countries – Mashav and USAID, and will provide support to partnerships of NGOs and associations for the promotion of social justice and assistance to underprivileged populations. Such a fund will create a platform for cooperation between young American Jews (and non-Jews) and Israelis around a progressive agenda, in contrast to the current trend in which these young people do not see Israel as a goal for promoting these values.
Of course, there is a need for a change in the Israeli leadership’s attitude toward the liberal public in the US. It is a very harmful the religious establishment in Israel now considers members of non-Orthodox denominations as second-class Jews, while we expect them to defend Israel through lobbying and financial support.
Significant change is also needed in relation to promoting a two-state solution with the Palestinians and in the transition to a rational approach to dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue – I wrote about these issues separately.
A change in the White House could lead to a change in the trend regarding long-term relations between Israel and the US, in contrast to the current situation in which relations between the two countries are confined to the short-term political needs of current leaders in Jerusalem and Washington.