Pox Americana

The real damage to Israel has come over the years from the special relationship itself.

Yonatan Touval
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yonatan Touval

Is America's special relationship with Israel coming to an end? If so, and contrary to the concerns of many, that would be a good thing for all.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting in the U.S. in January 2010.Credit: (GPO)

It would be good for the United States, whose top officials are increasingly convinced that their ability to secure their country's strategic interests in the Middle East is being hampered by an overly sentimental posture toward Israel. And good for Israel, whose proximity to Washington has provided it with a false sense of well-being that, on balance, may have weakened rather than strengthened its resolve to make peace with its neighbors.

Finally, it would be good for the relationship itself, which has never really reconciled the two essential components of special diplomatic ties - strategic interests and cultural sentiments. Instead, the relationship has shifted over Israel's 62 years from strategic distance to passionate attachment, while never settling on a healthy diet of both.

Except for that fleeting moment in May 1948 when president Harry Truman insisted that the U.S. be the first country to recognize the Jewish state, America's approach to Israel during its first two decades was nothing less than frosty. Regarding Israel as a strategic liability and its socialist political system as tinged by Bolshevism, president Dwight Eisenhower considered any gesture of sympathy to it as detrimental to America's objective of consolidating a broad Arab security alliance against Soviet expansion in the region.

Several developments led the United States to change its strategic perception of Israel, the most significant of which was Israel's military victory in 1967. Already disillusioned by its efforts to forge an Arab front and wary of the rise of Arab nationalism, Washington began to view Jerusalem as a strategic asset that could advance American interests in the region.

And emotions followed interests. Thus, by the 1970s president Richard Nixon could wax sentimental and assert that "Americans admire a people who can scratch a desert and produce a garden."

And while occasional crises continued to erupt, these were exceptions that only proved the new rule: Israel and America were bound in special ways.

So special were these ways that as the Cold War's end changed the geostrategic lay of the land, the interests themselves were not re-examined. In fact, save a chilly breeze that blew from Washington under its first post-Cold War president, George H.W. Bush, America's passions have since only grown warmer.

Enter President Barack Obama, who has moved against the tide by reconceptualizing Washington's attachment to Israel in the context of America's wider strategic interests. That many Israelis are apprehensive about the policy shift is understandable but also ironic: The real damage to Israel has come over the years from the special relationship itself.

Put simply, the relationship has damaged Israel by turning it into an adolescent state that doesn't take responsibility for its own actions. And why should it take responsibility, when America's uncritical embrace allows it to behave with the certainty that no action would ever be too costly - America would always save it from military, economic or diplomatic ruin.

To the extent, moreover, that this certainty has weakened Israel's resolve to settle its conflict with its neighbors, the country has been further damaged by the loss of faith that the conflict could ever end. Hence the powerlessness to stop the occupation. This has had a terribly corrosive effect on Israeli life - from the high level of stress in everyday living, to the distorted allocation of national resources (Israel's 2010 state budget allocates $14.4 billion for defense, a figure equal to 6.7 percent of the country's GDP - the highest of any developed nation ), to the psychological adjustments that Israelis must make in the face of the deepening erosion of democratic values and growing doubts about the future prospects of the country as such.

Israelis have become accustomed to living under such anomalous conditions because, in many respects, the cushion of the special relations with the United States allows them to. But being habituated is a mixed blessing - which is also to say, a mixed curse.

Indeed, rather than habituation, Israel needs rehabilitation. And to those on the other side of the ocean who would disclaim responsibility, by placing the onus on Israel alone, we Israelis can only respond: "Where have you been all this time? It is you, America, that has turned us into what we are.

"Blinded by your imperial powers and sense of right, O America, you have acted as if anyone who was your special friend should suffer, let alone could do, no harm. In the process, you have allowed us our every whim and fancy, leading us astray from our most pressing need to resolve the conflict with our neighbors. Forgetting who the more powerful party was - who the uncle, who the young nephew - you have indulged us, America, to the point of abuse."

As we look ahead, therefore, more tensions in U.S.-Israel relations are inevitable. But shorn of their emotional excesses, they can still be re-established on a surer ground of mutual happiness. This, let us hope, is what Obama is up to. If Israel's government responds well, the tensions we are currently experiencing might yet prove to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Yonatan Touval is a foreign policy analyst with several Israeli NGOs dedicated to advancing final-status agreements between Israel and its neighbors.