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Israel and the U.S.: A lopsided relationship

The United States today finds itself in the position of a suitor proffering his beloved ever more munificent gifts while receiving in return ever more perfunctory tokens of affection.

December 05, 2010|By Andrew J. Bacevich

The widely reported deal negotiated by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — Israel committing itself to a nonrenewable 90-day freeze on settlement activity in return for 20 F-35 fighters and a U.S. promise to block anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations — illuminates with startling clarity the actual terms of U.S.-Israeli relations.

What impresses above all is the gaping disparity between the American offer and the Israeli response. The United States today finds itself in the position of a suitor proffering his beloved ever more munificent gifts while receiving in return ever more perfunctory tokens of affection. You don't need Dear Abby to tell you that something's gone amiss.

For decades, U.S. policy regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict has pursued two objectives. First, Washington has sought to cajole Arabs into accepting Israel's existence. Second, it has sought to allay Israeli security concerns. Assured that their survival is not in jeopardy, the Israelis might thereby become less quick to reach for the gun.

Progress toward the first goal, if hard-won and incomplete, has been real. Progress toward the second goal remains nonexistent. Peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have barely dented Israeli apprehensions that destruction lies just around the corner. The transformation of the Palestine Liberation Organization into the defanged Palestinian Authority has similarly provided little reassurance. Generously subsidized by the American taxpayer, the Israeli military remains today, as it has been for decades, far and away the most lethal and capable in all the Middle East. Still, to judge by statements coming out of Jerusalem, Israel teeters on the precipice of extinction. As one consequence, a pronounced Israeli penchant for using force — hit hard and never apologize — persists.

Along with superior power, Israel enjoys unique privileges, as exemplified by its nuclear posture. As a general principle, U.S. officials decry nuclear proliferation as a looming threat to all humankind. So the very existence of Iran's nuclear program, whatever its actual purpose, elicits demands from Washington for transparency and strict compliance with international norms. Yet when it comes to Israel, Washington pursues a policy of "don't ask, don't tell."

One might expect the United States to find an arsenal consisting of an estimated 200 nuclear warheads worthy of notice. One might also expect Israelis to take comfort in the knowledge that, alone among nations in the region, they hold at the ready such massively destructive power. Instead, Washington pretends that the Israeli arsenal doesn't exist, thereby opening itself to charges of entertaining a double standard. Meanwhile, Israelis nurse feelings of vulnerability as if the Jewish state were still David surrounded by a host of Goliaths.

Among a people for whom Auschwitz is not merely a memory but seems a looming prospect, this sense of insecurity is deeply entrenched. Whether such anxieties reflect collective paranoia or a sober appreciation for the persistence of anti-Semitism is beside the point. What Americans have yet to recognize is this: Nothing that the United States can do will put Israeli fears to rest. Indeed, by offering ever more weapons and by conferring ever more privileges, Washington ends up validating those fears.

So, although a gift of $3 billion worth of combat aircraft might boost profits for American arms manufacturers or buy President Obama some votes come November 2012, it will not make Israel appreciably safer. There is no looming threat to which the F-35 provides an essential response.

Nor will shielding Israel from criticism in the United Nations lead it to abandon its peculiar approach to deterrence, based on expectations that kicking adversaries in the teeth wins respect. It will not persuade Jerusalem to take U.S. concerns into account when Israel next feels threatened by Hamas or Hezbollah or by a convoy of relief supplies headed toward the Gaza Strip. Rather than curb Israeli inclinations to strike first and ask questions later, it will affirm that disposition, with the United States saddled with the consequences.

Furthermore, cheapening the coin of American friendship gives Israelis reason to question how much U.S. professions of friendship and support are worth.

"I know what America is," Netanyahu said in 2001, in a video released last summer. "America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction."

Of what value is the support of an ally that is so susceptible to manipulation?

As in love, so in politics: The only relationship worth having — or likely to last — is one based on mutual respect. To save a love affair gone awry, the abused suitor needs to wise up. A first step toward restoring U.S.-Israeli relations to health is to withhold further gifts unless fully earned and fully deserved.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War."

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