Israel: Stop Alienating U.S. Over Iran

Without American help on Iran, Israel could face catastrophe. But Israel's leaders seem determined to alienate the most important strategic partner the country has, by seemingly interfering in the U.S. elections and abandoning the forceful but quiet diplomacy that have characterized her relations with America for two decades.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaking at a White House reception
U.S. President Barack Obama speaking at a White House reception honoring American Jews on May 27, 2010. Natasha Mozgovaya

Israel has made a mess of her relations with America, and in doing so has compromised her own security.

As a supporter of Israel who believes that military action against the Iranians will likely be needed soon, I am dismayed by these developments.

Israel is a small, democratic country in a dangerous neighborhood. She depends for her well-being on a rock-solid alliance with the United States of America, which supplies weaponry, economic aid, and political backing. Her leaders may proclaim with bravado that “we can only depend on ourselves,” but Israel’s security rests on the certainty that despite inevitable differences, on matters of consequence Israel and America act as one.

But let us look at what has happened to this alliance.

The United States has said that a military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities must wait until next year. Israel has countered that it must be done now. In these circumstances, the only option open to Israel is to undertake quiet, honest, behind-the-scenes diplomacy with her closest ally and work to change America’s mind.

The course of discrete and direct talks with America was followed by former Israeli prime ministers Olmert and Sharon—and they did so for the simple reason that Israel’s relationship with America is her most important strategic asset.

But now a dispute that should have been handled privately has become public, and Israel is engaged in a public relations war with her American patron. Israel’s leaders, on or off the record, proclaim their defiance of American wishes.

Michael Oren, Israel’s brilliant and immensely talented ambassador to the United States, is quoted as saying that if an attack on Iran comes, Israel will have the support of the American public. What possible good can come of Israel’s representatives declaring that the American people will support the State of Israel over their own government and President?

And far worse, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, announced at a press conference that Israel did not have the capacity to destroy Iranian nuclear capacities. It is a disaster when such statements are made publicly rather than behind closed doors. Dempsey’s words are a proclamation that allies who should be working together are not; and when America’s military chief makes reference to the limitations of Israel’s military reach, it is a blow to the Jewish state’s deterrence capacity. Should not Israel have foreseen that by taking on the American government, it was inviting such a response?

And then there is the question of whether Israel is taking sides in the American presidential election. Americans are rightly suspicious: Sheldon Adelson, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s supporter and friend, is an outspoken critic of Obama and the largest donor to Governor Romney’s campaign; furthermore, an Israeli attack on Iran in October would arguably—although not certainly—benefit Romney.

Israel’s task, therefore, is to demonstrate emphatically that she does not intervene in America’s internal affairs. For example, the Romney visit to Jerusalem would have been the perfect opportunity for the Prime Minister to thank President Obama for the military cooperation pact with Israel signed by Obama a few days before. Yet bizarrely, this did not happen. Netanyahu’s words of praise were devoted solely to Governor Romney, and Israel—despite denials—has been seen as favoring Republicans over Democrats. Needless to say, this kind of side-taking violates the fundamental rule of political non-interference that governs the Israeli-American relationship.

Yet the tensions between Israel and America go beyond partisan politics. In the post-Iraq era, American policy on Iran is likely to be cautious, and both Romney and Obama will face tremendous pressure not to attack Iran.

For some American Jewish conservatives, this is why Israel should push ahead with an attack no matter what America thinks. But such thinking totally misreads the situation. If the sanctions do not work and the United States will not lead an attack, then Israel will need to act on its own. But unless the Israeli military can be certain of a quick and decisive victory—and it cannot—ongoing American support of Israel’s actions will be critical in every conceivable scenario. There can be no assumption that once the bombs are falling, America will be “forced’ to back Israel’s efforts.

True, if Israel attacks, emergency aid will be forthcoming from any American administration. But what if Saudi Arabia, responding to the Arab street, attempts to shoot down Israeli planes making their way to Iran? What if Israel’s attack is not successful and the Iranians try to get sanctions lifted? What if Israel faces isolation not only from the Muslim world but from America’s allies in Western Europe? What if Hezbollah and Hamas launch thousands of rockets and Egypt makes noises about cutting ties with Israel? Without American help, Israel could face catastrophe.

These weighty matters cannot be put aside until after the jets take off from Israeli bases. They must be worked out with American leaders well in advance. The Americans must be on board, even if they do not participate in the military effort. And this will only happen if Israel refrains from public confrontations and acts like the reliable partner that she has traditionally been. This will only happen if Israel scrupulously avoids even the hint of involvement in America’s election. This will only happen if Israel returns to the ways of forceful but quiet diplomacy that have characterized her relations with America for two decades.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.