Israel Needs New Friends – Shmuel Rosner/The New York Times
TEL AVIV — Now that the Iran nuclear deal is a fait accompli, it has become a well-established belief that relations between America and Israel are at a low point. Most Israelis argue that this is mainly because of President Obama’s policies.
Opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tend to point their finger at the Israeli prime minister. But the two camps agree on the way forward: the kind of relations the countries used to have must be restored, they say. The first step in this healing process is supposed to occur when Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu meet in Washington in early November.
But Israel would be wiser to have realistic expectations, and make do with less. There is no substitute for America and American friendship, but Israel has developed an unhealthy overreliance on that friendship alone. This needs to change.
Relations between Jerusalem and Washington were not always wonderfully close. The Eisenhower years were icy. France was an ally In the 1950s, mostly because the United States was uninterested at that time. The Kennedy years were an improvement. The Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush years were tense.
Yet with time, complete reliance on American support for Israel became a habit of sorts that merited little debate or consideration. It has been a cornerstone of Israel’s national security strategy — a deterrent against enemies. And the price for it has usually been tolerable. Prime Minister Menachem Begin had to contend with an ultimatum from Ronald Reagan to cease bombing Beirut. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had to agree to participate in the Madrid peace summit in which he had little interest.
The close relations have been highly beneficial for Israel — diplomatically, financially and psychologically. But it also made Israel somewhat lazy. When in need, or in trouble, the only address it had installed in its diplomatic navigation device was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Israel didn’t invest enough in making other friends. Israel didn’t prepare for a crack in the alliance. Israel sinned twice: It smugly took American support for granted while meekly communicating to Washington that it neither seeks nor sees any alternative to America’s domination.
This process culminated under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, when terms such as “no daylight” became common. The interests of the two countries were usually compatible. And in the few cases they weren’t — for example, when Israel wanted to sell reconnaissance planes to China — the countries managed to resolve their differences and move on.
But that dramatically changed when Mr. Obama decided that it was in America’s best interest to sign a nuclear deal with Iran. Suddenly, for the first time after many years of a relatively comfortable, relatively effortless alliance, the countries found themselves at odds regarding an issue that is a major priority for both.
The Iran agreement is now a done deal. And the instinctive response is to pretend that things can go back to how they were before. Once the nuclear accord is implemented, Mr. Obama said a few weeks ago, he expects “pretty quick” improvements in American-Israeli relations. In Israel, members and opponents of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition argue that restoring the relations with Washington is the most important next step.
But maybe Israel shouldn’t strive to bring relations back to their exact former state. This crisis is an opportunity to reduce our excessive reliance on Washington and think creatively about a way to achieve our goals even in the rare cases when they stand in contradiction to American policy.
Improving Israel’s ties with emerging powers, such as India, is key to advancing such a cause. Cooperation between the two countries on defense and other matters is getting closer, and there are other states in Asia with which Israel can cautiously find common cause. China is an obvious choice, provided that relations with it are managed in a way that would not be detrimental to Israel’s ties with America.
Strengthening regional cooperation with countries like Saudi Arabia, which also opposed the Iran deal, is another way forward. The agreement with Iran endangers Israel but also presents an opportunity: Many countries in the Middle East also see Iran as a threat. They might finally decide that the time has come for them to cooperate with Israel. (Relations between Israel and Egypt are already improving because of mutual threats from Islamist groups.)
Nor can Israel dismiss its relations with Europe. Many European powers are highly critical of certain Israeli policies — especially toward the Palestinians. But Europe is nearby and an important commercial partner. Israel should creatively develop possible alliances with like-minded European countries, especially in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region. And it should strive to independently improve its relations with Western European states, rather then relying on Washing-ton to counterbalance their biases whenever there is trouble.
It’s no coincidence that Israel was more entrepreneurial in its foreign relations when its ties with America were weaker. It bought arms from Czechoslovakia, when Washington wouldn’t sell Israel weapons, and it conspired with France, leaving America in the dark before the 1956 war. It was close to Iran and to Turkey, independently of Washington; it collaborated with South Africa on matters the United States did not want to discuss; and it even went to Oslo to negotiate with the Palestinians without approval from the White House.
For the foreseeable future, the United States will likely remain Israel’s main ally. But it must not be Israel’s only ally.
It can no longer be the “no-plan-B” type of ally or a “no daylight” ally. The Obama administration now believes that the United States has certain critical interests, and Mr. Netanyahu’s government believes that Israel has certain critical interests — and they are not the same. As a result, the policies of the two countries are no longer compatible on several key issues. For Israel, finding a way to supplement its ties with Washington is therefore not a luxury; it’s an urgent necessity.
Shmuel Rosner is the political editor at The Jewish Journal and a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute.