In the wake of the attack on the Free Gaza flotilla, comments from two leading strategic thinkers — one Israeli, one American — indicate that a significant reappraisal of the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship may be underway.
The first comes from Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, who told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that “Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden.” Dagan acknowledged that Israel’s strategic value to the U.S. has declined in the wake of the Cold War, saying “Israel’s importance was greater when there was conflict between the blocs, while this year there has been a decrease (in Israel’s importance).”
The second comes from Anthony Cordesman, one of the U.S.’s most highly regarded national security analysts, who — in a new piece entitled “Israel as a Strategic Liability?” — writes that “America’s ties to Israel are not based primarily on U.S. strategic interests… They are a product of the fact that Israel is a democracy that shares virtually all of the same values as the United States.”
At the same time, the depth of America’s moral commitment does not justify or excuse actions by an Israeli government that unnecessarily make Israel a strategic liability when it should remain an asset. It does not mean that the United States should extend support to an Israeli government when that government fails to credibly pursue peace with its neighbors. [...]
It is time Israel realized that it has obligations to the United States, as well as the United States to Israel, and that it become far more careful about the extent to which it test the limits of U.S. patience and exploits the support of American Jews. This does not mean taking a single action that undercuts Israeli security, but it does mean realizing that Israel should show enough discretion to reflect the fact that it is a tertiary U.S. strategic interest in a complex and demanding world.
Israel’s government should act on the understanding that the long-term nature of the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship will depend on Israel clearly and actively seeking peace with the Palestinians — the kind of peace that is in Israel’s own strategic interests.
Like Cordesman (for whom, full disclosure, I interned years ago) I’ve always been skeptical of claims about the strategic benefits of the U.S.-Israel partnership. As Cordesman writes, “At the best of times,” Israel “provides some intelligence, some minor advances in military technology, and a potential source of stabilizing military power.” And even these benefits are contingent on “an Israeli government that pursues the path to peace,” which is not a description I think any reasonable person would use for Israel’s current government.
But I’m also a strong believer in the moral and ethical basis of the U.S.-Israel relationship, in support for Israel as a fellow democracy — an imperfect one, sure, just as the U.S. was and still is in many ways — and as a country that shares many of our values and holds enormous spiritual significance for many Americans.
Whether one supports or opposes the current U.S.-Israel relationship, on whatever basis, the fact is that the U.S. is deeply implicated in what Israel does. But supporting the relationship on the basis of values means recognizing that the U.S. has a unique responsibility to work toward halting Israel’s violations of those values, most obviously its four decade-old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and creation of illegal settlements throughout occupied territory, rather than providing diplomatic cover for them. One can quibble with the manner in which President Obama has pursued the settlement issue, but the fact that he has made it such a central element of his approach to Israel shows how seriously he takes the relationship, and how he understands the threat that the settlements represent to Israel’s future. Though no two countries’ interests are perfectly aligned, I think that U.S. and Israeli interests in resolving the conflict, seeing Israel integrated into the region (and allowing the region to benefit from Israel’s vibrant culture and enormous economic accomplishments) are about as closely aligned as such interests get.
Hopefully, Dagan and Cordesman’s comments will serve as something of a wake-up call to Benjamin Netanyahu, who seems to believe that, as long as he has a compliant U.S. Congress and a network of messaging outlets to shout down and smear his American critics, he can behave as belligerently and intransigently as he wants without paying a price. He may be right — but only up to a point. The world is changing, and so is the U.S.’s role in it. As recent comments from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and CENTCOM Chief Gen. David Petraeus showed, there’s a growing awareness that the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seriously undermines U.S. interests and credibility in the region. When major figures like Meir Dagan and Anthony Cordesman start openly questioning Israel’s strategic value to the U.S., both Bibi and his American cheerleaders need to sit up and take notice.