Calling the Shots: Should Politicians or Generals Run Our Wars?
Is the U.S.-Israeli relationship in serious trouble? Do the public disputes of the past few years—over Iran, the Palestinians, and the state of Israel’s democracy—represent nothing more than the latest round of a long-standing family feud, or do they amount to a more fundamental breach? And is there anything the next U.S. president can do to repair the relationship?
Three new books, each in its own way, help answer these questions. Dennis Ross’ survey of U.S.-Israeli ties since the Truman administration reminds readers that crises in the relationship, even serious ones, are hardly new. Ross contends that common interests and values still bind the two countries together, and with sound management by both sides, the partnership can continue to flourish.
Dana Allin and Steven Simon are not so sure. They argue that powerful demographic, political, and cultural trends in both Israel and the United States are changing the relationship in fundamental ways. In their view, the tensions between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu constitute symptoms of more serious, underlying problems—ones that portend real trouble in the future.
Dov Waxman, focusing on shifting attitudes among American Jews, also has his doubts. He argues that the American Jewish community is increasingly divided and that its support for Israel—or at least certain Israeli policies—can no longer be taken for granted.
Together, these excellent studies provide a deep understanding of the historical, strategic, and political roots of one of the closest and most enduring bilateral partnerships in the world. They also make clear, however, that the circumstances that have sustained the relationship in the past are changing. Jerusalem and Washington still share many basic interests, but it would be naive to assume that the partnership can automatically withstand future challenges. Without real effort by both sides, the divisions of the past eight years will likely intensify under the next U.S. administration and beyond—to the detriment of Israel and the United States alike.
Doomed to Succeed offers a comprehensive overview of U.S.-Israeli relations since Israel’s founding in 1948. A prominent scholar-practitioner, Ross has played a key role in managing this portfolio for decades, serving in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, most recently as Obama’s Middle East adviser from 2009 to 2011. (Full disclosure: I have worked closely with Ross both inside government and out; I have also worked with Allin and Simon and, in my capacity as a former official, spoke to them for their book.) Part scholarly history, part anecdote-infused memoir, Ross’ book powerfully demonstrates the continuities in the relationship, regardless of who holds power in Jerusalem or Washington. Indeed, there is a certain Groundhog Day quality to the countries’ shared history, with many of the same assumptions, debates, and mistakes appearing again and again. Ross digs up quotes from Americans and Israelis from the 1960s that, with different names attached, could easily have come from 2016.
In other words, although the spats between the Obama administration and Netanyahu may have felt unprecedented to those living through them, they were not. Yes, the two current leaders clashed bitterly and publicly over the Iran nuclear deal, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the peace process more broadly. But compare these disputes to previous ones. In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower forced Israel into a humiliating military retreat from Suez, threatening a total U.S. aid cutoff and sanctions unless Israel backed down. In the 1970s, President Gerald Ford grew so frustrated by Israel’s refusal to conclude a disengagement agreement in the Sinai that he announced a “reassessment” of U.S. policy in the region, “including our relations with Israel.” In the 1980s, in response to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s extension of Israeli law and administration to the Golan Heights, President Ronald Reagan suspended F-16 deliveries and halted a newly concluded defense agreement, leading Begin to complain about being treated like “a vassal state.” In 1991, President George H. W. Bush froze $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel to pressure Jerusalem over West Bank settlements and peace negotiations. He privately fumed about Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s refusal to halt settlement construction after what Bush thought was a promise to do so. In 1996, President Bill Clinton, after his first meeting with Netanyahu, angrily asked Ross, “Who does he think the superpower is?” (Other eyewitnesses have reported that Clinton added an unprintable modifier before the word “superpower.”)
As the longtime U.S. official Robert Gates has observed, “Every President I worked for, at some point in his presidency, would get so pissed off at the Israelis that he couldn’t speak.” The myth that prior to Obama there was a tradition of “no daylight” or “no surprises” in the U.S.-Israeli relationship does not remotely survive a reading of Doomed to Succeed.
That is not the only myth that Ross sets out to destroy. He also targets the notion that close cooperation with Israel costs the United States support in the Arab world. Time and again, Ross shows, senior U.S. officials have argued for distancing the United States from Israel in order to avoid provoking the Arabs. Yet time and again, he argues, their dire predictions of the consequences with the Arabs if Washington failed to do so were proved wrong. Arab states have long had bigger things to worry about—namely, their security and survival—and it is these national interests, not U.S. relations with Israel, that determine their dealings with Washington.
Ross makes a similar argument about the alleged centrality of the Palestinian issue to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Whereas many U.S. officials have long argued that progress on the peace process is key to resolving the rest of the region’s challenges, Ross shows that they have often overstated the linkage. Ross find little evidence for what James Mattis, a former commander of U.S. Central Command, in 2013 called the “military-security price” that the United States pays for its perceived bias toward Israel. An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would of course provide huge benefits to most Israelis and Palestinians, but it would have little impact on the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Iranian expansionism, or the civil wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
Finally, Ross pokes holes in the notion, widespread among Israel’s critics, that domestic lobbies drive U.S. policy toward Israel. Yes, he admits, groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) wield influence, especially in Congress. But he points out that whenever U.S. interests have called for polices that have diverged from the preferences of the Israeli government—selling arms to Arabs, blocking loan guarantees to the Israeli government, or passing the Iran nuclear deal—U.S. presidents have always managed to get their way. History also demonstrates that the same principle holds for Israel, which does not compromise on what it sees as its core interests for the sake of its relations with the United States.
Ross marshals considerable evidence to support these arguments, and his demonstration of a resilience in the U.S.-Israeli relationship that has lasted for nearly 70 years is compelling. By focusing on the continuities in that relationship, however, Ross risks downplaying the growing threats it faces. This is especially true when it comes to the Palestinian issue, the most consistent source of stress on the partnership. After all, U.S. policy on the question has never been driven exclusively by a desire to placate the Arabs or by the notion that a peace deal would magically cure all of the region’s woes. Rather, every single U.S. administration since Israel entered the West Bank in 1967 has acted out of a belief that continued occupation and settlement expansion threaten both peace and Israel’s own future as a democratic, Jewish state. As the other two books make clear, the conditions that have enabled the partnership to prosper despite such differences may no longer obtain.
Like Ross’ book, Allin and Simon’s study blends scholarship and memoir. Simon draws from his time in the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations, and Allin offers the perspective of a pro-Zionist American liberal who has participated in debates over Israel since his college days in the late 1970s. The two also provide a well-informed history of U.S.-Israeli ties, with a particular emphasis on the development of U.S. attitudes toward Israel over time. But their real focus is on the changes they see taking place, changes that leave them concerned about the relationship’s future. That concern stems from several trends that “will be impossible to stop and difficult to manage.” On the Israeli side, these include a population that is growing increasingly right wing, religious, security-focused, and antidemocratic—developments that could push Israel away from the United States culturally and strategically. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, population is growing faster than any other segment of its society, and it is expected to rise from 11 percent today to nearly 20 percent by 2030. The Israeli settler population is also booming, less due to Israelis moving into new construction in the West Bank (although that is happening) than due to growth within the settlements themselves. Between 1991 and 2012, the number of people living in settlements increased by 240 percent—four times as fast as the overall Israeli population grew. There are now well over half a million Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, leading many, including Allin and Simon, to wonder whether a two-state solution remains possible. Like other liberal Americans, they fear that an Israel that continues to expand settlements and hold on to the Palestinian-majority West Bank will necessarily be an illiberal Israel, undermining the cultural affinity that has long bound the American and Israeli democracies together.
Allin and Simon also identify other political changes in Israel that are distancing it from the United States. In Israel’s 2015 election, right-wing parties won every district apart from Tel Aviv and Haifa, allowing Netanyahu to form the most conservative coalition in the country’s history. (It moved even further to the right after the book was written, with the inclusion in May 2016 of Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—a man who himself lives in a West Bank settlement and who has compared the Iran nuclear deal to the Munich Agreement.) Allin and Simon present a wealth of data showing how Israeli voters, especially young ones, identify less and less with Israel as a democratic state and more and more with it as a Jewish state.
Trends in the United States, Allin and Simon write, are equally troubling. The embrace of Israel among American liberals that explained Allin’s early admiration of Israel and Simon’s travel there as a civilian war volunteer in 1973 is fading as their cohort ages. In the United States, they write, “four generations of intermarriage have weakened both Jewish identity and the visceral attachment that many Jews have felt since the establishment of the State of Israel.” Younger Americans, and especially the liberal Democrats among them, no longer back Israeli policy as solidly as they once did—a phenomenon underscored by the remarkable sight of Senator Bernie Sanders, himself an American Jew, making the defense of Palestinian rights a core pillar of his presidential campaign.
For a time, this gradual “liberal disillusionment” was counterbalanced by the vision of Israel as a strategic asset, especially on the American right. But Allin and Simon argue that even that pillar of the relationship is weakening. Although Israel still serves as a valuable military and intelligence partner in the Middle East, “it is difficult to conjure the scenarios in which Israel would facilitate the projection of American power or the pursuit of American purposes in the region.” If nothing is done to save the relationship, they conclude, Israel and the United States will end up as “a dysfunctional couple in a loveless marriage, moving inexorably in separate ways.”
Waxman has a narrower focus, but his argument strongly reinforces that of Allin and Simon. A political scientist at Northeastern University, he explores the place of Israel in the American Jewish community, and his thesis is simple: the age of unquestioning support for Israel is over.
Waxman traces the evolution of American Jewish thinking about Israel through the same set of historical developments recounted by Ross and Allin and Simon. He sees the period from 1967 to 1977 as “the golden era in American Jewish support for Israel,” a time when the community viewed Israel, in the words of the historian Steven Rosenthal, as an “object of secular veneration” and stood ready to provide it with strong political support. Since then, however, and in particular over the past decade, political and cultural changes in both Israel and the United States have divided American Jews. Once a source of unity in the community, support for Israel has become a driver of discord.
The argument should not be overstated, of course. AIPAC remains by far the biggest and most influential political voice for American Jews, and it remains strongly committed to unstinting U.S. support for Israel, including for the policies of the country’s current government. Waxman describes how AIPAC evolved from a small lobbying group with a handful of staff into an independent national organization with over 100,000 dues-paying members, hundreds of employees, a large pool of wealthy donors, and revenues that grew from $14.5 million in 2000 to about $70 million in 2013—hardly a sign of American Jews’ declining commitment to Israel. But he also describes the emergence of other, alternative voices for American Jews, such as Americans for Peace Now and J Street, the latter of which describes itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.” Since its founding in 2008, J Street has grown from a tiny start-up into a real player in Washington, with a staff of 65, an operating budget of $8 million, and a fundraising apparatus that gives it increasing influence in congressional elections. AIPAC has lost its monopoly as the political outlet for American Jews who consider themselves pro-Israel—and the community is increasingly divided over what “pro-Israel” even means.
Waxman’s bottom line is that Israel will have to change its policies if it wishes to retain the support of American Jews. He concludes his book with a dire warning:
Growing numbers of American Jews, even a majority now, are dissatisfied with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and deeply worried about Israel’s ability to remain a Jewish and democratic state if it continues to effectively rule over Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. . . . They face the frightening prospect of Israel becoming increasingly illiberal, and increasingly isolated in the international community. As this happens, many liberal American Jews, especially younger ones, will turn away from Israel in despair, or even disgust.
Can the relationship be saved? Ross offers several useful suggestions for how it can. Acknowledging the changing demographics and politics in the United States, he urges Israelis and their supporters to reach out directly to American minority communities, and also to avoid politicizing the relationship, as Netanyahu did by planning his Iran speech to Congress only with Republicans. He also calls on them to “elevate Israeli democratic values” and put an end to right-wing efforts in the Knesset to stifle human rights groups and discriminate against Arab citizens. “The last thing Israel needs now is to have its basic democratic character called into question,” he rightly argues. Finally, Ross calls on Israel to “make its settlement policy consistent with its two-state policy by declaring that until it can reach agreement with the Palestinians on the border . . . it will no longer build in what it thinks should be part of the Palestinian state.” Such modest (if still politically difficult) measures may well prove too weak to counter the negative trends all these authors recognize, but policymakers should listen when such a prominent and long-standing supporter of Israel as Ross warns that they are needed.
Allin and Simon, by contrast, go big. They call for the United States to put forward a peace plan as part of a grand bargain that would include “a defense treaty that would bring Israel under formal American protection and that would extend the U.S. nuclear umbrella explicitly and formally.” The ambition is admirable, but it is hard to see Israel making painful concessions on territory and security in exchange for a defense guarantee that it has not asked for and likely would not trust. Moreover, such a treaty would prove impossible to implement. Although NATO-like defense guarantees deter traditional invasions well, it is not clear how one would apply to Israel’s primary security threats: Hezbollah rocket attacks, Hamas killings and kidnappings, and Palestinian knife attacks. Ironically, the implausibility of the proposal serves to justify the pessimistic analysis that precedes it. If the prospect of diminishing U.S. support or the risk of eternal occupation of the West Bank is not enough to get Israel to change course, then perhaps nothing will.
Waxman prefers analysis to advice, but he also has a message for Israelis: “Israeli policymakers, foremost among them Prime Minister Netanyahu, should recommit Israel to the goal of establishing a Palestinian state as quickly as possible. Otherwise, American Jewish support for Israel, at least among the non-Orthodox, is bound to erode.”
Many Israelis—and no doubt the current Israeli government—will likely reject all these suggestions and others. After all, if the steps were easy or popular, then Israel would have taken them long ago. But it would be dangerously complacent to ignore the demographic, political, and cultural changes discussed in all these books at a time of enormous geopolitical upheaval in the region. If the governments and people of Israel and the United States no longer see eye to eye on the Palestinian issue or how to contain Iran, and if the next generation of decision-makers no longer feels as culturally close or politically aligned as earlier generations did, then the bonds between the two countries will weaken. Perhaps the structural changes taking place in the relationship cannot be prevented, but they can be managed, and the upcoming presidential transition in the United States presents an opportunity for a fresh start. Leaders on both sides will have to decide how much they care about the relationship, and whether they are willing to do anything—however politically painful—to preserve it.
Israelis like to remind their American friends that in the Middle East, history is measured in millennia, centuries, and decades, not merely in years and months. By this standard, the U.S.-Israeli alliance described in these three books represents a mere blip. Taking it for granted, while ignoring some ominous trends, could allow it to wither away.
CORRECTION APPENDED (October 19, 2016): An earlier version of this article misidentified the university where Dov Waxman is a political scientist. It has been corrected and updated.