How Obama Changed the Paradigm of U.S.-Israel Relations

Avraham Ben-Zvi has been studying Israel-U.S. relations for nearly four decades, and now sums up his research in a sweeping survey. He is convinced that the current White House incumbent has changed the paradigm of those relations.

Reuven Pedatzur
Reuven Pedatzur
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Reuven Pedatzur
Reuven Pedatzur

Mitruman Ve'ad Obama

(From Truman to Obama: The Rise and Early Decline of American-Israeli Relations ), by Avraham Ben-Zvi Yedioth Books (Hebrew ), 303 pages, NIS 89

"Obama is the worst American president that Israel has ever had," said Richard Land at the conclusion of his speech at the conference of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an Evangelical organization, last June in Washington. Land is the president of a Southern Baptist organization, and was one of a series of speakers at the conference who sharply attacked the U.S. president's policy toward Israel. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who is currently vying for the Republican presidential nomination, expressed profound "shock" at the Obama administration's betrayal of "our greatest friend and ally, Israel." Bachmann explained that Obama "does not speak for us on the issue of Israel."

Glenn Beck, the broadcaster-preacher who recently came to Israel to conduct an Evangelical show of identification with it, also feels that Barack Obama is a failed president. Beck claims that because of Obama's call for Israel "to return to the 1967 borders," the United States now finds itself "on the wrong side."

This biting criticism comes, of course, against the backdrop of the political battle inside the United States between Republicans and Democrats, but it also largely reflects the concern of many in the Israeli political establishment. Since Obama entered the White House, Israel has considered him hostile, alienated and mainly different from all his predecessors in his understanding of the alliance with Israel. After one of our "greatest friends," George W. Bush, sat in the White House for eight years, he was replaced by a president who, it is said, doesn't exactly consider the Jewish state his cup of tea. Indeed, there is no question that Barack Obama's worldview is totally different from that of his predecessors in the White House, and it clearly influences his attitude toward Israel and his Middle East policy.

In his book, Avraham Ben-Zvi, a professor of political science at the University of Haifa who has been studying U.S. foreign policy for almost four decades, presents the development of the relationship between Israel and the United States and its patterns during all the administrations ranging from Truman to Obama. He explains that the "American-Israeli partnership, as well as the overall picture of relations between Washington and Jerusalem, grew and were shaped within two separate patterns, which occasionally contradicted one another completely. These two patterns, which included a varied and ramified series of processes, considerations and beliefs, are the pattern of special relations, on the one hand, and that of the U.S. national interest, on the other."

A different alliance

In this sense, the alliance between Israel and the United States differs from most bilateral alliances on the international scene. While those alliances are based purely and exclusively on a series of strategic factors and considerations, that between Israel and the U.S. has the additional component of being anchored in "a broad picture of links, beliefs and attitudes toward Israel, originating in the various layers of U.S. society." The special relations rely basically on "the prevalent belief of various and sundry groups and communities in American society that there is a fundamental and profound similarity between the two nations in terms of their history and their formative ethos, ideology and values system, their social structure and national style."

According to Ben-Zvi, the similarity is reflected in the fact that, like the Americans, with their ambition to conquer the frontier and to overcome a complex series of physical, technological and human challenges, Israel was also seen by the U.S. public as an island of vigorous entrepreneurship, progress, modernization and democracy in the midst of the autocratic, traditional Arab world, which is planted entirely in the past. Not only was the American "frontier ethos" seen as similar to the Israeli "ethos of conquering the wilderness," the ambition to establish a national home in the Land of Israel for the persecuted Jewish minority, thereby fulfilling the idea of national rebirth, was seen as analogous to the American experience in its distilled essence.

First signs of change

Ben-Zvi describes six decades and the presidents who served during them. The first 10 years (1948-1957 ) he calls the "cold decade." This is the period of Harry S Truman and the first term of Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was characterized mainly by a profound and unbridgeable gap between the emotional connection and what was perceived as the national interest. Toward the end of the decade came the first signs of a change in the Eisenhower administration's strategic thinking regarding Israel - even if not in the actual policy.

Eisenhower's second term (1957-1961 ) marks the beginning of the strategic partnership between the two countries. This partnership usually remained hidden from the eyes of researchers, mainly because it was accompanied by quite a few expressions of hostility on the part of the U.S. administration, and even economic sanctions against Israel in 1953 and 1956 (in the wake of the Sinai Campaign ). But at the same time, Eisenhower's administration began to recognize the fact that Israel was a strategic asset, especially in light of a clear decrease in other such assets for the West in the Middle East. Nonetheless, such recognition was not translated into concrete measures when it came to the supply of weaponry.

The era of President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963 ) was when the U.S. began selling arms to Israel, beginning with the Hawk missile deal, and continuing and growing to the present day. Ben-Zvi calls the era of Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969 ) "the golden age of special relations." This is when the U.S. first supplied Israel with warplanes - first the Skyhawk, and later the Phantom. There was also a sale of Patton tanks. The Six-Day War took place on Johnson's watch, turning the Israeli-Arab conflict from a local confrontation into an international crisis.

Ben-Zvi devotes an interesting chapter to an analysis of U.S. policy as it was formulated by Henry Kissinger, who was national security adviser and later secretary of state in the administration of Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974 ) and both Gerald Ford, who replaced Nixon after he was forced to resign. This was the period of the Yom Kippur War, which led to interim agreements, and, in the end, to the peace treaty, with Egypt. Kissinger played a key role during this entire period, and Ben-Zvi enables us to understand the worldview of the Jewish statesman who acted successfully to remove Egypt from the Soviet sphere of influence and to transfer it to that of the United States.

Later chapters look at relations during the terms of the other pre-Obama presidents: Jimmy Carter (1977-1981 ), during whose time Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty; Ronald Reagan (1981-1989 ), whose presidency, according to Ben-Zvi, actually saw the margins of the special relations erode; George H.W. Bush (1989-1993 ) and the "dynamic of applying pressure" against Israel; Bill Clinton (1993-2001 ) and the failure to reach agreements with Syria and the Palestinians; and George W. Bush (2001-2009 ), with the effect of international terror on the close relationship between his administration and Israel. In the book's final chapter, Ben-Zvi looks at the incumbent president.

The code of Obama's thinking

"The starting point for cracking the code of Barack Obama's thinking," writes Ben-Zvi, "which can explain - even if only partially - his ostensibly cool and reserved attitude toward Israel, is his distance from the values and the beliefs that form the core of the pattern of special relations." Obama's initial and formative experiences, in Honololu and later in Jakarta, Indonesia, where his mother moved after marrying a man from there, "were distant both geographically and psychologically from the formative American narrative." And that, in Ben-Zvi's opinion, is the whole story: Obama has not adopted the "pattern of special relations" with Israel, which was the basis of his predecessors' Middle East policy.

In addition, explains Ben-Zvi, Obama's decisions must be examined in light of his experience and activity as a social organizer in South Chicago. As part of his work there, which he began at the age of 23, he was exposed to the poverty, neglect and alienation that typified the lives of the city's African-Americans.

His attitude toward their hardships was more intellectual than ideological and emotional. He preferred to adopt a practical and dispassionate approach in dealing with the problematic social situation to which he was exposed. "In Obama's world," suggests Ben-Zvi, "implementing pure and absolute ideological and ethical dreams was never part of the objectives that he wanted to advance in the public and political frameworks in which he was active." As opposed to presidents like Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who worked tirelessly to establish a new international order, Obama has remained, in his thinking and his behavior, the same community organizer from Chicago, for whom the relative and the possible overshadow the absolute.

In stark contradiction to the foreign policy of George W. Bush, which was anchored in a firm and belligerent ideological worldview, Obama's policy is characterized by "a substantial degree of pragmatism, bordering on opportunism." A good example of this is the president's ambition to improve relations with great powers such as Russia and China, and with small countries such as Syria and Kazakhstan, although the nature of their regimes is far removed from the foundations and basic principles of democracy. Obama has gone further than any of his predecessors in his willingness to blur the ideological dimension in his foreign policy.

The U.S. president has adopted Henry Kissinger's "rewards approach." That means using the "carrot" of such things as benefits, incentives and compensation for key players in the international or regional arena, in order to lead them toward becoming integrated into the existing order while abandoning their radical views. "Obama," claims Ben-Zvi, has demonstrated "in the course of the first 20 months of his term as president, a willingness to implement the rewards approach in any context and any arena, both in the center and on the periphery."

His Middle East policy can also be understood in this light. Regarding the completion of withdrawal from Iraq and the threat of Iranian nuclear power, "the goal of recruiting Saudi Arabia and turning it into a key player in the heart of a broad and moderate inter-Arab coalition became a central objective of Obama's initial policy in the region." The Obama administration is also trying to enlist other countries in the region to support its policy, and in that context Ben-Zvi adds an additional component, which he calls "the strategy of linkage." He is referring to the linkage between the Israeli-Arab conflict - with a greater emphasis on the Israel-Palestinian conflict - on the one hand, and the possibility of stabilizing the Middle East and also receiving the support of Arab countries for U.S. policy vis-a-vis Iran and Pakistan, on the other. That is why the need to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes a supreme American interest, which is related to its global policy. Therefore, writes Ben-Zvi, "Obama's behavior toward the Netanyahu government reflected his confidence that a breakthrough in the Palestinian arena - initiated by Israel - would begin the process of the desired rapprochement between Washington and the moderate Arab camp."

Another version of the "strategy of linkage" was developed by the Obama administration in connection with Iranian nuclear power. In order to recruit the Arab world to the bloc of countries that support intensifying sanctions against Iran, in addition to progress on the Palestinian front, there is a need to bring about the removal, even if only partial, of the curtain concealing Israel's nuclear ambiguity. This was reflected in the American stance during the review conference on the nuclear weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in Obama's own words about the need for Israel to sign the treaty too. The Obama administration also supported the decision of the United Nations review conference calling for the Middle East to become a nuclear weapons-free zone and for placing Israel's nuclear facilities under international supervision.

"From Truman to Obama" presents an excellent historical survey of the long saga of relations between Israel and the United States, combined with profound and enlightening analyses that provide a convincing explanation for the development of such a unique alliance and the strategic partnership between the two countries. But, as Ben-Zvi warns, "The beginning of the Obama era signals that nothing lasts forever." There is a growing erosion, at least in some of the values that lay at the heart of the pattern of special relations. In addition, the Obama administration arouses questions, even if only implied, as to whether Israel remains a strategic asset. Therefore, says Ben-Zvi, the American-Israeli relationship is facing "a critical crossroads."

If there is one important lesson to be learned from the book, it is the destructive influence on the relations with the United States that could result from Israel's rejection of the values system and ideology that Americans see as common to the two countries - and as the basis for the special relations. Legislators who support Knesset votes for laws that erode Israel's democratic image, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who supports the legislation process, should take note.

Reuven Pedatzur is the academic director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, at Netanya Academic College.



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