The Special Relationship with Israel: Is It Worth the Costs?
(Middle East Policy Council) -- by Scott McConnell --
In December 1962, President Kennedy hosted Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir at his family home in Palm Beach. Mrs. Meir opened their conversation by speaking of Jewish history and the threat of another Holocaust. The president responded with an effort at reassurance. “The United States,” he said, “has a special relationship with Israel really comparable to what it has with Britain over a wide range of issues.”1 Perhaps Kennedy was engaging in diplomatic flattery; he would go on to stress that America’s ties to the Arab world were of critical importance as well. Still, his words marked a landmark of sorts. The Eisenhower administration would not have used “special relationship” to describe its generally chilly ties with Israel. And Kennedy would inaugurate the sale of advanced weapons to Israel, an important early step in the development of a strategic relationship between the two countries.
The British comparison had then, and retains, a powerful and favorable resonance with Americans. Britain was our closest ally in America’s last “good” war. Recently, former Israeli ambassador Dore Gold would resurrect Kennedy’s statement in an effort to dismiss John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s essay, “The Israel Lobby.” Look, Gold was saying, this is what one of the most beloved American presidents thought about Israel. The implication is that the relationship is intimate, based on powerful bonds of shared values and interests.
But if one delves deeper into the special relationship, a more complex portrait emerges. The Anglo-American tie was based on the readiness of much of America’s ruling establishment reflexively to take Britain’s side, and more: to see the world through Britain’s eyes. If this sensibility was laudable in a world with an aggressive Nazi Germany, it had been seeded by Britain long before, in the decades preceding World War I. Americans were the audience for Kipling’s call to “take up the white man’s burden.” Rhodes Scholarships prepared Americans for leadership. Before America was Britain’s ally, it was Britain’s pupil. Or, as Christopher Hitchens would describe it in Blood, Class and Empire: “[T]his relationship is really at bottom a transmission belt by which British conservative ideas have infected America.”2
Two generations later, the special relationship with Israel has almost completely supplanted the British tie. But like the earlier special relationship, the new one is at bottom a transmission belt, conveying Israeli ideas on how the United States should conduct itself in a contested and volatile part of the world. To a great extent, a receptive American political class now views the Middle East and their country’s role in it through Israel’s eyes.
An early step in the relationship’s evolution was the development of an American taste for Israeli political intelligence. As the Franco-Palestinian scholar Camille Mansour puts it in Beyond Alliance: Israel and U.S. Foreign Policy (a book published nearly 20 years ago, when the relationship was less mature than today),
The Israelis are seen as the experts, the ‘Orientalists’ of the Middle East in the sense defined by Edward Said: they are at once knowledgeable about the terrain and imbued with Western civilization. They are the ones who can claim to understand Arab mentalities, their political processes, their ‘irrationality.’3When the Cold War ended, traffic on the transmission belt grew apace. Radical Israeli strategies for dominating the Middle East, which might once have been scoffed at, were repackaged by newly empowered American neoconservatives and eventually found a receptive audience in a White House reeling from the shock of 9/11. As Israel’s list of potential enemies grew to include wider and wider swaths of the Muslim world, Islamophobia made inroads into the United States, nudged along by pro-Israeli funders and intellectuals.
A new level of the special relationship was signaled only days after 9/11, when Congress invited former (now current) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak. The Israeli leader presented guidelines for what should be America’s strategy in the “war on terror.” No statesman from any other country was similarly honored, and it is unimaginable that another could have been. In terms of political symbolism, the Netanyahu address signaled that the special relationship had reached a plateau that John F. Kennedy (and Golda Meir) could not have imagined.
How did the relationship reach this height? America’s tie with Israel has grown through three relatively distinct stages. During the first, roughly from Israel’s founding to 1967, many Americans were fond of Israel, admired its achievements, wished it well. But Israel wasn’t really considered an ally, and whatever strategic ties existed were of little consequence. The second stage ran between the Six-Day War in 1967 and the end of the Cold War, when American military and financial aid to Israel accelerated sharply, and the country came to be considered by Washington, in the context of a battle for regional influence with the Soviet Union, as a valuable regional ally. The third stage began to germinate in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and came into full bloom after 9/11. Built upon the foundation of the relatively beneficial strategic relationship of the second stage, it was often justified by similar rhetoric. But it is actually a more profound and consequential relationship than existed between 1967 and 1990.
Washington’s early discussions about the strategic value of Israel took place before the state was founded, in the years after World War II. Foreign-policy professionals could see no benefit from it. They were focused on the beginnings of the Cold War, on finding their bearings in a postwar world that was both fluid and menacing. Then, as now, they saw America’s major strategic interest in the Middle East as unfettered access to oil from the Gulf, which was essential to the rebuilding of Europe and to the supply of American armed forces globally. No foreign-policy professional believed a Jewish state in Palestine would do anything but complicate that goal. They regretted that President Truman seemed to be making his Palestine decisions with an eye to domestic politics. Secretary of State George Marshall, Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett, Policy Planning Staff head George F. Kennan, the regional specialists from the department’s Near East Division and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal all feared the creation of Israel would prejudice and harm American interests throughout the Muslim world. They worried that Israel would require American military forces to protect it — troops America couldn’t spare. Even worse was the prospect of a UN or international peacekeeping force, giving the Soviet Union an entry point into the region. Some worried that Israel itself might lean towards the Soviet bloc.
The “wise men” of Truman’s cabinet, most of whom were WASPs, the American elite at that time, were correct in many of their predictions, though off the mark in others...MORE...LINK