Hope for the best, prepare for the worst
Complicity in Israeli settlements and occupation carry a heavy toll for America's standing in the region and beyond.
Here's something else to add to an Israeli's menu of worries: The United States presidential elections may produce change in 2009. Or so fear people like Malcolm Hoenlein, the professional head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who said on a recent visit to Israel that all the talk of "change" is an "opening for mischief," and not good for Israel.
Apparently the status quo is so idyllic for Israel that one should wish for nothing more than that it be perpetuated eternally.
Of course not all change is good, but the Israeli-American relationship could benefit greatly from a dose of new thinking - in terms of both the nature and the exclusivity of that alliance.
There are already two storm clouds looming over the blissful American-Israeli landscape, but they are the product of current, not possible future, policies. The first is that reality is forcing more Americans to take a closer look at the Middle East. They see the scorched earth left behind by their government's recent policies, and the investment of U.S. lives and lucre. As they begin to ask questions, the role of the bilateral partnership is inevitably placed under increasing scrutiny. Sometimes the scrutiny is unfair: Israel, for example, did not get the U.S. into Iraq. And sometimes it's more justified: Complicity in Israeli settlements and occupation carry a heavy toll for America's standing in the region and beyond.
The candidacy of Ron Paul, on the Republican side, has been a lightning rod for that sentiment. His campaign broke party records, raising $4.2 million in contributions in one day, mainly in online donations. Paul will not be the Republican candidate for president, but the tendency for people to ask, "What is going on with the U.S. in the Middle East, and why does our ally Israel make things more difficult?" should give cause to reflect. The business-as-usual approach of many of Israel's supporters is not sustainable over time.
Four or eight more years of aggressive, divisive, costly and failed American policies in the region - especially if supported by the so-called pro-Israel camp - will exacerbate this tension, perhaps exponentially.
The second cloud is that Israel is today hitched to an America that is weakened economically, stretched militarily, deeply divided at home and decidedly unpopular abroad. To the extent that the next president continues the policies that have contributed to those trends, Israel too will pay a price. When Israel is so dependent on the U.S., and the U.S. is wounded, we feel it.
The warm rhetoric continues to emanate from Washington, and that feels comforting. The problem is that its utility is diminished, and nice words are no substitute for the smart plans that would actually make the U.S. and Israel more, not less, secure. Israel should hope for and encourage a change that lifts America out of its current morass, while at the same time diversifying its ally portfolio.
Haaretz's "Israel Factor" notwithstanding (and most members of that panel look like the Israeli equivalent of the aging WASPs one tends to find on a platform alongside John McCain), it is Barack Obama who has best positioned himself to reverse these trends and thereby guarantee the U.S.-Israel relationship. An Obama presidency is more likely to be the antidote to further tensions than their source.
The response so far in Israel to the Obama candidacy has split between gevald and hatikva. The former has more to do with email slur campaigns and our own prejudices than with hard policy positions espoused by the Illinois senator. The latter is easily understood when set against the prospect in 2009 of a 1999 election redux, of Bibi (Netanyahu) vs. Barak (Ehud), yawn. Perhaps Obama's ability to mobilize young people and to transcend political indifference, and his audacity to hope, will be infectious here in the 51st state of the U.S.A.
But Israel should be looking beyond the election. Yes, an Obama presidency is more likely to reverse America's decline - internally and externally - and to correct the hubris, incompetence and adventurism of the Bush years. The same might also be true of Clinton and McCain, though it seems less likely. It is what Obama could do to reenergize America that is first and foremost the good news for Israel. And when he talks of "changing the mindset" that got America into the Iraq war, Obama implies a policy of realism and engagement that stands to stabilize the region and even advance genuine peace. Israel could well be a main beneficiary of such a change.
But what if the next president is all about more of the same or something very similar? Israel must plan for the possibility of an America that continues in its decline, that can deliver less, and remains militarily bogged down in Iraq and perhaps elsewhere in the region. Under this scenario, the special relationship with Israel will become an ever-more contentious issue. America itself might increasingly turn its gaze toward Asia.
So while following American developments closely, and hoping for change, Israel should also be more active out there on the dating circuit. Though efforts have been made to strengthen other alliances, results have been mixed so far, and our options will remain limited so long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved.
The preference for a prolonged strategic relationship with the U.S. should not extend to an exclusive reliance on that relationship or preclude placing some eggs in other baskets - in Europe, in Asia, and yes, also in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, is a former adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office and was lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.
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