Opinion |

Can Israel Survive the End of the Pax Americana?

The root causes of America's declining global stature are deep, and abetted by a monumentally incompetent president. The consequences for Israel could be disastrous

Chuck Freilich
Chuck Freilich
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The U.S. Capitol building reflected in a puddle at sunrise in Washington, D.C. July 19, 2017
The U.S. Capitol building reflected in a puddle at sunrise in Washington, D.C. July 19, 2017Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Chuck Freilich
Chuck Freilich

American global stature is in decline, abetted by a monumentally incompetent president, but its root causes are deeper. Whether this is a temporary downturn, or the beginning of the end of the American era, is critical for Israel, whose dependence on the U.S. is existential.

Angst is as American as apple pie, a constant theme that has had the salutary effect of leading to recurrent periods of self-examination and a remarkable American capacity for national rejuvenation. Consider the ramifications for Israel, however, should this optimism prove unwarranted this time around.

The root causes of the "Arab Spring" – exploding demography, poverty, oppression – are only growing worse, exacerbated by weak oil prices, and the Mideast will continue erupting for decades. The two other primary driving forces in the region are also likely to intensify; the millennial confrontation between the Sunna and Shia, now embodied in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the intra-Sunni paroxysm, which gave rise to ISIS. How we in Israel successfully navigate these turbulent times, if the U.S. is unable to lead, is unclear.

A mural depicting members of the paramilitary Basij during the Al-Quds Day in Tehran, Iran, customarily marked by chants of "Death to Israel." June 23, 2017Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

A nuclear Iran and the emergence of a Mideast with multiple nuclear powers are the likely outcomes of a weakened U.S. If that’s not enough, here’s another thought that should give readers some sleepless nights.

Imagine, for a moment, that the U.S. had not signed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Imagine Israel now faced the need, as we do, to deal with its growing presence in Syria, but that Iran had since gone nuclear. Netanyahu excoriated Obama, did everything but challenge him to a gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but notice how Iran’s nuclear program has virtually disappeared from Israel’s agenda, and the deal has gone from Netanyahu’s grave danger list, to what his army Chief of Staff calls a strategic turning point?

Let’s be optimistic and assume that we can, if necessary, face a nuclear Iran without the U.S., based on our own purported strategic capabilities. It is, however, entirely unclear how we could handle a Mideast with multiple nuclear states, a truly nightmare scenario. Would France help out, maybe? Ivory Coast? Most Israelis are unaware, but for decades the U.S. has comprehensively blocked international efforts to strip Israel of its purported capabilities, or to impose sanctions. Above all, Israel enjoys a de-facto U.S. security commitment. A weakened U.S. might be unable to fulfill these roles.

Endless conflict and severe diplomatic isolation would also be likely. Among world powers, only the U.S. seeks peace with the Palestinians on terms that are acceptable to a majority of Israelis. It has failed to broker an agreement to date, but no one else has a better chance, unless maybe we wish our new 'friend', Russia, to lead the process. Or maybe Vanuatu could lend a hand? Only the U.S. consistently defends Israel in international organizations and leads the battle against delegitimization.

A weakened U.S. might be incapable of providing Israel with massive aid. This American aid constitutes some 20% of Israel’s total defense budget, 40% of the IDF budget, and almost the entire procurement budget. We could do without it only at the price of a change in our national priorities, which it is unclear whether we, as a society, are willing to do.

President Donald Trump holds up a Channellock locking plier during a "Made in America" event at the White House. July 19, 2017Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

The U.S. is Israel's largest trading partner and much of our vaunted hi-tech sector’s success is attributable to it. Maybe we should, instead, align with Xi’s China, the emerging new global superpower, and beg to be allowed to join the Silk Road initiative. Maybe it will provide aid, and contain Iran.

Here’s a few things we should do that would both promote Israel’s interests and constitute our own contribution to American standing.

Align our policies with Washington’s to the extent possible, and do what we can to further deepen the alliance. Keep disagreements behind the scenes, because that’s what allies do, except on matters of supreme importance, but even then, modulate them and make absolutely sure of our case. The nuclear deal, a positive, if flawed agreement, clearly did not meet that bar and Netanyahu’s public opposition to the Syrian cease-fire deal reflects a similar attempt to achieve the optimum, at the expense of the feasible. Adopt more forthcoming positions on the West Bank and settlements issues, give Trump a win, he could use one. Concurrently, strengthen our relations with a variety of countries, our sole reliance on the U.S. is good for neither side, but remember that we remain unalterably in its camp.

If a post-American era evolves, we will have no choice but to find ways to survive. It will be a far less secure, more isolated and poorer existence. Pray that prophecies of the end of the American era, much like the news of Mark Twain’s death, are highly premature.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security advisor, is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center and author of the forthcoming Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change (Oxford University Press).

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