Debunking myths on Israel and U.S. foreign policy

Nowhere are the urban legends and mythologies more enduring and destructive than those that currently surround Israel and U.S. foreign policy.
September 7, 2012

Nowhere are the urban legends and mythologies more enduring and destructive than those that currently surround Israel and U.S. foreign policy.

Here are five of the most popular myths that are worth unpacking and discrediting.

Myth #1: Obama is Hostile to Israel

Obama’s critics and Romney’s supporters have to get real on this issue. So does Mitt Romney himself who recently declared at the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus.”  That’s ridiculous. No American president ever has or would.

That the personal relationship between Netanyahu and Obama isn’t good and that Obama lacks an instinctual pro-Israeli sensibility shouldn’t mask the deepening institutional bonds, particularly on the security side, that have occurred during the Obama presidency.

The Administration has delivered to Israel unprecedented levels of foreign military financing – covering roughly one-fifth of Israel’s budget; it has provided the Israelis with advanced technology; deepened counterterrorism cooperation; and equipped the Israelis with sophisticated weapons such as the fifth generation stealth joint strike fighter.  And nowhere has cooperation been closer than on missile defense. The Administration has helped fund Iron Dome, a component of a more comprehensive approach to help the Israelis develop a multidimensional missile defense system including maintaining an advanced U.S. X-band long range radar system and positioning American Aegis BMD ships in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Administration has also worked closely with Israel on various initiatives to counter Iran’s capability to create nuclear weapons by imposing some of the toughest sanctions ever and cooperating intimately on cyber warfare. It has also worked hard to prevent efforts by the PLO to push the statehood issue at the UN, to oppose one-sided resolutions there, and to counter efforts to isolate Israel in the international community.

Myth #2:  Barack Obama is just as pro-Israel as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush

Obama’s supporters have to get a grip and stop pretending too. Obama isn't Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to Israel – he’s not even close. Those guys were frustrated by Israeli prime ministers too; but unlike Obama they also were moved and enamored by them (Clinton by Yitzhak Rabin, Bush by Ariel Sharon). They had instinctive, heartfelt empathy for the Israeli narrative and, as a consequence, they could make allowances at times for Israel's behavior, even when it clashed with their own policy goals.

Obama really is different. Part of it is generational. He grew up after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in a university environment where the Arab-Israeli conflict wasn’t portrayed by Paul Newman in the movie Exodus and where the Arabs were the Indians and the Israelis were the cowboys.

Combined with a tendency to see the conflict through the more detached unemotional filter of American national interests, Obama doesn’t have the instinctive emotional attachment to Israel of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. He’s not in love with the idea of Israel as the others were.

If Obama is emotional when it comes to Israel, he's hiding it. Netanyahu obviously thinks he's bloodless. But then again, the U.S. president can be pretty reserved on a number of issues. Obama doesn't feel the need to be loved by the Israelis and perhaps not by American Jews either. Combine that with a guy who's much more comfortable in gray than in black and white, and you have a president who sees Israel's world in much more nuanced terms, which is clearly hard for many Israelis and American Jews to accept. In Obama's mind, Israel has legitimate security needs, but it's also the strongest regional power.

As a result, he believes that the Israelis should compromise on the peace process, give nonmilitary pressures against Iran time to work, and recognize that despite the uncertainties of the Arab Spring, now is the time to make peace with the Palestinians.

If Obama had a chance to reset the U.S.-Israel relationship and make it a little less special, he probably would. But I guess that's the point: He probably won't have the chance. If he gets a second term, he'll more than likely be faced with the same mix of Middle East headaches, conflicting priorities, narrow maneuvering room, and the swirl of domestic politics that bedevils him today.

If the U.S. president fails to get an Israeli-Palestinian peace, it will be primarily because the Israelis, the Palestinians, and Barack Obama wouldn't pay the price, not because the pro-Israel community in America got in his way.  

Myth #3: A President Romney is Israel’s Salvation

No American president is. And while there’s no doubt that the personal relationship would improve and the rapport between Romney and Prime Minister Netanyahu would be much warmer, there’s no guarantee that the relationship would be tension free or all that different in substance.

On certain issues, Romney would clearly not push the Israelis. In particular, he’d probably give more slack on the issues of settlements and the peace process. But who’s to say – assuming there were legitimate opportunities to be pursued – that a hands-off policy actually serves either Israeli or American interests.

On Iran, Romney would be personally sympathetic to the notion of bombing before accepting an Iranian bomb. But he’d also be a new president who would have to listen to his security, military, and intelligence experts who’ll be much more cautious. Still, regardless of who becomes president, the U.S. will face a big decision later this year, or early next on what to do about the Iranian nuclear program.

Let’s also not kid ourselves here. Republican presidents have generally been much tougher on Israel than the Democrats. Even Ronald Reagan —who was instinctively as pro-Israel as any America president ever was — wrestled with Israeli Prime Minister Begin on Lebanon and the peace process. He actually withheld the delivery of F-16 fighter aircraft over Israel’s decision to extend administrative law to the occupied Golan Heights. Nixon threatened sanctions too and Bush 41 denied Israel loan guarantees because of settlements.

The fact is, with the exception of the peace process that isn’t right now, Romney’s policies toward Israel would be much more rhetorically supportive but not that much different than Obama’s. The tone of the relationship would change — more warmth and good cheer — but I would bet that within a year Netanyahu would find some way to begin to annoy even his best friend Mitt Romney.

Obama may have wanted to reset the US special relationship with Israel, or at least make it less exclusive. He couldn’t. Romney may want to become the most pro-Israeli American president ever. That’s not going to happen either. Chances are Romney would follow in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps on this one: A combination of strong pro-Israeli sentiments and convictions on Romney’s part will confront regional realities, Israeli willfulness and the need to protect American interests. And in the end, it will be a close relationship with more than a few large potholes and bumps in the road.

Myth #4: The Peace Process is Dead

True, it’s in really bad shape. But it’s not beyond being revived.

What keeps the peace process alive isn’t the American government, the pleading and persuasion of the Jewish community or some idealized desire for peace; instead, its durability lies in reality. Israelis and Palestinians are living on top of one another. The current status quo will come apart at some point. Sadly, there may well be an explosion or some event that changes the calculations of both Israelis and Palestinians. Until such a game-changing development occurs, the parties aren’t likely to be convinced of the urgent need for a settlement.

The Iranian nuclear issue is sucking up every bit of oxygen in the room. And it’s hard to imagine any Israeli government pursuing a conflict ending accord until there’s more certainty on that front. There’s no mystery here. Israelis and Palestinians can achieve an accord if they have leaders who are willing to pay the price, some urgency that impels them to do so, and a mediator that has the trust and confidence of both sides. Trying for an end game solution without these things will almost certainly fail.

Myth #5: Israel is Doomed

If you listen to many American Jews on both the left and right, you get the sense that Israel is all but doomed. Let’s recite Kaddish now and get it over with. On the left, the trope is that Israel will be overrun by Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox; on the right, Israel’s end will be delivered by an Iranian nuke and/or facilitated by American perfidy.

I, for one, certainly don’t want to trivialize the threats and challenges the Israelis face.  The Israelis have major demographic, security and political problems. It’s even possible, without worst casing matters, to worry about the future survival of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

But states just don’t disappear and collapse. The risk in worst-casing the Israel story is that we infantilize the country – assume that it’s a transient entity headed for a disaster and that there are no options to divert the terrible end.

Life just doesn’t work that way.  If I would have told you thirty years ago that Israel’s GDP per capita would be in excess of $21,000 a year; that it has more start-ups per person that anywhere else on the planet; that by 2017 it might be a net exporter of natural gas as result of massive finds in the Mediterranean; and that the peace treaty with Egypt would still be intact after the murder of the man who signed it and the election of a president aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, who would have believed it?

Jews worry for a living; their history impels them to do so. But if you asked me the bottom line, I’d conjure Dickens: it will be both the best and worst of times; Israelis will keep their state, prospering in certain areas, but not in others. And the Arabs will probably never let them completely enjoy it.

Aaron David Miller, an Israel Policy Forum contributing fellow,  is distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  He was an advisor on Arab-Israeli affairs for six Secretaries of State and is the author of the book “The Much Too Promised Land.”

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