Saturday, March 13, 2010

Israel is the textbook worst possible "ally" or client for the United States

Over at The Majlis, which is a US-based blog about the Middle East, a piece examines the commonly made and rarely examined claim that the US relationship with Israel is based on shared values and strategic considerations.

Shared values are difficult to evaluate, according to that essay, because different Americans and different Israelis have a wide range of values, some compatible with each others' values, some not compatible.

I would go further to assert that the claimed founding values of the United States were a radical belief that human worth does not come from membership in any group and state privileges likewise should not be the result of group membership. The founding US belief was not reflected in, for example, the tolerance of slavery by the founders of the country, but even when it was accepted, differential treatment based on group membership has never been a US value. Israel's founding value, the idea that any Jewish person anywhere, because of Jewish ancestry or membership in that religion or ethnic group, has a place where they could come to be in a political majority is completely antithetical to US founding values.

The US operates in opposition to its fundamental values in the case of Israel and Israel's region. The reason for this is largely that small but passionate groups generally have disproportionate power to direct the way things are talked about and perceived in the United States. Evocations of the Holocaust and a background threat that people will be accused of anti-Semitism have shifted the US perception of the region further and further into Israel's favor since the beginning of the modern Zionist movement.

The Majlis does not say much about values except that there is a range, and there clearly are some Americans who disagree fundamentally with some Israelis about values, just as Americans disagree fundamentally about values with other Americans and likewise for Israel.

The Majlis then looks for and fails to find a situation where Israel helps the US strategically. While the essay is correct in not finding benefits to the US commitment to secure Israel, it misses the most important cost.

Broadly speaking, Israel cannot tolerate even moderately powerful neighbors. An Egypt with the economic and/or technological capacity of less-populated South Korea would either be an overwhelming adversary of Israel or contrary to its people's values may be at peace with Israel, but would be one coup or election away from being an overwhelming adversary.

This need to limit Egypt's strength is also the case with respect to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Several neighboring countries, if their power reasonably reflected their population and resources could force Israel to accept refugees and end the Jewish majority status that supporters of Zionism consider Israel's reason for existence.

A US commitment to keeping the rest of the region weak enough that it has to accept Israel is expensive not only in the case of Iran, in which case the US is expending huge amounts of financial, military and diplomatic resources to prevent the country from attaining the status legally attained by Brazil, Japan and many other countries but in many many ways throughout the region.

Israel is a tiny, vulnerable country whose creation and perpetuation is widely seen in its region as an injustice. It could never afford, itself, to execute the policies the US or someone else must pursue on its behalf in order for it to remain viable. It is the textbook worst possible "ally" or client.

But Israel has US domestic support that, through the cumulative effect of persistently distorting the national discourse and through a powerful lobby, effectively does what every lobby does when it distorts US policy goals and perceptions in Israel's favor.

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