Israel and the U.S.: No more 'business as usual'
The old platitudes of the U.S. and Israel's 'unshakeable' relationship don't resonate with the America which re-elected Obama. Now Israel has to show why it's a strategic asset for Obama's powerful 2012 coalition of support.
In the aftermath of the U.S. Presidential elections, two eminently silly and annoyingly self-centered questions are being asked by Israelis. The first one is: "How does this affect us?" or, in its cruder form, "Is it good or bad for us?" The second: "Will Obama now exact revenge against Netanyahu for years of animosity and for his perceived support of Mitt Romney?"
The short answer to the first question is: It does not affect us Israelis. Would you believe it? We may be the center of the universe, but not necessarily at the center of the 2012 U.S. election. Furthermore, there is no answer to the question of Obama's re-election being "good or bad" for Israel, since the premise of the question is both hollow and flawed: Who defines what "good" or "bad" for Israel is?
The short answer to the second question is: No, President Obama will not seek vengeance. The peculiar thing is, that the premise of this question suggests the fallacy that Israel has a problem with President Obama or vice versa. The record irrefutably suggests that exact contrary, in both the diplomatic umbrella and the security assistance and cooperation this administration has extended to Israel.
But one monumentally important result and projection of these elections should alert Israel and cannot be ignored. The 2012 "Obama Coalition", consistent with the 2008 coalition that first got him elected, is not merely a product of a great campaign or a simple and clear choice voters had to make. The coalition of women, the college-educated, Latinos, Blacks and Asian-Americans is a durable coalition, and constitutes a possibly permanent majority.
The two common denominators this coalition shares, as it may pertain to Israel, are also unequivocally clear: One, they voted on domestic issues, looking inwards to try and fix America and redress its ills. No one voted on foreign policy.
Two, there is a generational transformation. These are people who grew up parallel to a strong, powerful and rich Israel. This is not the Israel their grandparents knew in the 60's, 70's and 80's. They do not remember 1967, they do not feel threatened by the Soviet Union and they are not familiar with the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and its derivatives. It is easy to ask a 34-year-old nurse from Cleveland, Ohio, or a 28 year-old lawyer from Portland, Oregon, to support a democratic ally in a dangerous and unstable region where American interests are involved. It is far more difficult to ask them to materially support and unequivocally stand by a country with a $30,000 gross domestic product per capita, whose policies are not always compatible with those of the U.S.
Yet this is not really about the $3 billion budgeted by the U.S. in military aid for Israel in 2013. This is about the very fundamental tenets of the US-Israeli alliance. The support and commitment for maintaining this alliance may erode among the new majorities that make the American electorate. This is not an overnight development, and it was not unleashed by these elections. Rather, the winning coalition accentuates the challenges the US-Israel relationship may have to face and sustain.
For three decades the US-Israeli relationship has been characterized and defined by repetitious platitudes and catchy cliches used in millions of speeches, statements and conferences. The relationship is "unshakeable"; America's commitment to Israel is "unwavering"; we are "brothers-in-arms" and we share "common values" and a "manifest destiny"; Israel is a "strategic asset" and we are, after all "the best and strongest of allies". I should know about these, I helped perpetuate many of them.
The good news is that for the most part it was true. These platitudes, before they became just platitudes used for ad nauseam grandstanding, reflected a perception of reality in both countries. The bad news is that it now needs to be redefined, and the "what we share" requires an adjustment. More of the same speeches will not generate enthusiasm or support among the 2012 coalition. American and Israel interests have diverged somewhat on various issues, stemming from a different strategic and geo-political landscape. The modern U.S.-Israel alliance is truly based on shared values and mutual affinity, but it is essentially a product of the Cold War. The Soviet Union no longer exists, and the U.S. is the sole superpower both in general and in the Middle East in particular. As such, it no longer defines its interests and develops policy based on Soviet containment, nor is the patron-client relationship that marked U.S.-Israeli and Soviet-Arab relations still valid.
The U.S. now has to draft a set of flexible and agile policies in light of different and indigenous challenges: Instability in the Arab world, Iran's nuclear ambitions, Pakistan's faltering state, Turkey's resurgence, Jordan's future and post-Assad Syria. While the U.S. has no allies in the region except for Israel (and Saudi Arabia, with all the obvious qualitative differences between the two), that fact alone does not necessarily mean that U.S. and Israeli interests are identical any longer.
The American public by and large supports Israel. The U.S. Congress supports Israel. The Obama administration supports Israel. But Israel has to win that support and nurture it and not take it for granted, based on truisms that are not familiar to many in America. Business is not going to be "as usual" and the platitudes should be re-framed. Israel is not and never was the "strategic asset" it perceived itself to be. Nor is it the "liability" our detractors claim it to be. Israel is an American ally. Israel was and remains a reliable and important American ally but with whom relations clearly cannot be symmetrical.
It is worth remembering that as "strategic assets" go, relations with the U.S. are Israel's greatest strategic asset, not the other way around. The America of 2012 still needs to be sold on this.
Alon Pinkas was Adviser to four Israeli Foreign Ministers and was Consul General of Israel in New York. He is currently a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum.