White House of Cards: Israeli-American Relations Should be Based on Self Interest, Not Love

by GIDON BEN-ZVI February 15, 2017

There is much anticipation in Israel over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's meeting with President Donald Trump this week. The White House talks will take place following eight years of backbiting between President Barack Obama and the Israeli premier, most notably over West Bank settlement building and nuclear talks with Iran.

However, while Trump's pro-Israeli bravado during the 2016 election campaign raised hopes for warmer relations between Washington and Jerusalem, reality has started to set in.

The shift is on, from hyperbolic campaign mode to a more cautious approach to Middle East diplomacy that acknowledges geopolitical realities. As a result, the much-ballyhooed promise to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has quietly been tabled. Moreover, Trump recently threw cold water on the idea of unchecked settlement growth, stating: "I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace." 

While Israel's chattering classes of politicians, academics and media elites debate the developing contours of the Trump administration's Middle East policy, one myth is rapidly being dispelled, that of the staunchly pro-Israeli President of the United States.

A commander in chief sublimating America's expansive national interests in a transcontinental region such as the Middle East to curry favor from one New Jersey-sized country is but a seductive siren song, for decades luring war weary Israelis with enchanting music built around the 'special relationship' theme.

This folklore features its own cast of heroes, with names like 'Truman' and 'Reagan.' However, stubborn history reveals many fissures in the supposedly unbreakable bond between Jerusalem and Washington.

Indeed, while President Harry Truman's recognition of the newborn State of Israel was greeted by a torrent of adulation from American Jewish leaders, he also authorized the institution of an arms embargo that left the fledgling state to fight against five invading Arab armies - without tanks, artillery or armored vehicles. Truman and the U.S. State Department were worried that the creation of a Jewish state in an Arab-dominated part of the world would prove destabilizing and a threat to America's standing in that region.

Ronald Reagan is widely regarded as the most pro-Israel president in history. However, while his administration formalized a strategic cooperation framework that created a network of ties between the Pentagon and Israel Defense Forces, the 40th President of the United States also significantly strengthened Arab governments around the Middle East, by selling them some of America's most sophisticated weapons. Moreover, Reagan's administration frequently engaged in public rebukes of Israel, a country that the Great Communicator never visited.

Louisa May Alcott wrote that "persuasive influences are better than any amount of moralizing." The lingering suggestion that the United States is morally bound to support the Zionist enterprise, primarily because of the Holocaust, is a nonstarter. Beyond paying lip service to the 'special relationship' and 'always having Israel's back,' American foreign policy is in fact guided by self-interest strategies chosen to  optimize ties with countries in the political, military and, above all, economic spheres.

Meanwhile, countering the rise of Shiite-led Iran is making for the strangest of bedfellows, Israel and Sunni Arab states. This quiet revolution in relations has resulted in the Israeli-Palestinian issue being put on the backburner in most Arab Muslim countries around the Middle East. Half-hearted commitments to a two-state solution are ringing increasingly hollow amid growing, if unofficial, cooperation between Jerusalem and governments across the region.

As such, Israeli leaders would be well advised to update their diplomatic playbook, in circulation since 1948. The state built on the ashes of Auschwitz has defied profound geo-strategic, diplomatic and economic odds to become a regional powerhouse. And while the Jewish state will always benefit from fruitful relations with the most powerful nation on earth, Prime Minister Netanyahu may want to remind President Trump that the former's country is no longer dependent on the latter's largesse.

At this point, oft-repeated allusions to 'sister democracies' uniquely connected by 'common Judeo-Christian values' are little more than bumper sticker slogans. For long term relations to thrive between Israel and the United States, diplomacy between the two countries should be based on pragmatic considerations rather than moral premises.   

Gidon Ben-Zvi is an accomplished writer who left behind Hollywood starlight for Jerusalem stone. As a 'returning resident,' Gidon has vivid memories of playing hooky from Rene Cassin High School while strolling through Ammunition Hill. After serving in an IDF infantry unit for two-and-a-half years, Gidon returned to the United States, where he embarked on a twelve-year run of half-baked careers and wholly misguided educational pursuits. Today, Gidon is happily entangled to the prettiest, sweetest girl in Israel. The mildly unhinged Ben-Zvis aspire to raise a brood of children who speak English fluently - with an Israeli accent."


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