Russia Crisis Proves American Jewish Hawks Aren’t 'Israel Firsters'

If the American Jewish right really put Israel first, they would oppose confrontation with Vladimir Putin over Crimea for fear he would arm Iran.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin in November.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin in November. Credit: AP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

I’ve long disliked the term “Israel-firster.” First, because it has anti-Semitic roots. Second, because it’s wrong. American Jewish hawks - at least the ones I know and read - aren’t pro-Israel because they care more about Israel than the United States. They’re pro-Israel because they’re Manicheans.

They see international affairs as a struggle between the “West,” which stands for freedom, democracy and other good stuff—and various anti-Western forces (Islamism, Chinese nationalism, Russian imperialism, Latin American socialism) that menace the values and interests they hold dear. They may know more about Israel than they know about Taiwan, Georgia or Colombia. But they support it for the same basic reason: It’s on our side.

The crisis between Russia and Ukraine illustrates the point. An “Israel-firster” would likely cozy up to Vladimir Putin. For one thing, the vice prime minister of Ukraine’s new government hails from Svoboda, a party deemed anti-Semitic—and thus presumably anti-Israel - by Ukrainian Jewish leaders.

For another, an “Israel-firster” would want to make sure Putin keeps pressuring Iran. Last week, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that if the West punishes Russia too harshly over Ukraine, “we will take retaliatory measures” on the issue of Iran.

What might those measures be? In 2007, Moscow signed a contract to deliver five S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran. Then, under American and Israeli pressure, Russia refused to deliver them, prompting an Iranian lawsuit at the International Court of Justice. Russia could stop defending that lawsuit and deliver the missiles, which could be used to thwart an Israeli attack. From an Israel-centric perspective, that’s a lot more important than whether Ukraine gets to sign a free trade agreement with the EU.

In fact, the real “Israel-firsters”—who live in Israel—have taken exactly this view. After initially saying nothing about Putin’s invasion of Crimea, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, reportedly under U.S. pressure, finally issued an ultra-weak statement saying it “expects the crisis in Ukraine to be handled through diplomatic means and resolved peacefully,” and not condemning Russia at all.

In the United States, by contrast, American Jewish hawks have almost uniformly called for embracing the new government in Kiev and punishing Putin as harshly as possible. To them, Putin poses a threat to the Western-led order in Europe. Thus, he’s the enemy. The Iranian nuclear program is an issue for another day.

It’s not the first time American Jewish hawks have disproved the “Israel-firster” charge. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer famously suggested that the “Israel lobby” influenced America’s decision to invade Iraq. But by 2003, Israel was already far more concerned with Iran, and the Iraq invasion enhanced, rather than undermined, Tehran’s power. American Jewish hawks like Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol and Richard Perle championed Saddam Hussein’s overthrow because, after a decade of war, sanctions and no-fly zones, they considered him the “rogue” leader most likely to threaten, or at least challenge, the United States. The war’s impact on Israel was a relative afterthought.

Similarly, a true “Israel-firster”—eager, above all, to maximize Israel or America’s chances of bombing Iran - would never have supported Barack Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan in 2009. The larger America’s presence on the ground in Afghanistan, the greater the potential for Iranian retaliation in the event of a U.S. or Israeli strike. Yet American Jewish hawks didn’t merely support Obama’s troop escalation, they pushed for a larger one, and opposed his decision to set a date for the beginning of troop withdrawals.

One can question the wisdom of taking an ultra-tough line in every foreign policy dispute without acknowledging the tradeoffs. But it’s not the product of excessive concern for Israel. It’s the product of excessive confidence in American power. It’s got little to do with being Jewish and far more to do with being American, with the intoxicating experience of living at the center of the world’s most powerful empire, and believing the world should bend to its will. Israel has its own delusions. This one Americans must take responsibility for ourselves.

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