Say what you will about Israeli political leaders, you can always count on them for one thing: They will do whatever they believe necessary to ensure the security and well-being of the Jewish state.
The same cannot be said of American political leaders, notably so when it comes to US-Israeli relations. There, the interests of the United States routinely take a back seat to other considerations. Chief among those considerations is domestic politics.
“I love Israel.” So declared Donald Trump while campaigning for the presidency. A candidate professing to love Poland or Canada might meet with raised eyebrows. Yet especially during presidential election years, over-the-top expressions of regard for Israel have become de rigueur. Like promising to take care of vets and protect Social Security, it’s what you do to raise money, reassure key constituencies and ultimately win votes.
Of course, love is a sentiment at odds with cold calculation. A lover is in some senses a captive, susceptible to being deceived or manipulated, especially when love is not reciprocal. For that reason, as George Washington wrote when warning against the danger of “passionate attachment,” such sentiments should have no place in statecraft.
The challenges Israel has faced since its founding, powerfully reinforced by the history of the Jewish people, have curbed any Israeli inclination to indulge in passionate attachments. Jewish Israelis love one country — their own. True in the days of Ben-Gurion, this remains equally true in the age of Netanyahu.
From the outset, therefore, self-interest rather than affection governed Israel’s attitude toward the United States. And with good reason: Cultivating warm relations with Washington held the prospect of shelter and protection. So David set out to befriend and indeed to beguile Goliath.
Over time, courting the United States paid dividends. American largesse helped make Israel the military powerhouse that it is today. American diplomatic cover shielded Israel from being sanctioned for actions that Israelis deemed essential to their security but that others saw as needlessly provocative, reckless or brutal.
Benefits accruing to the United States proved more difficult to specify. Even so, both parties concurred on one point: American support for Israel was crucial for advancing the cause of peace. Or to state the matter more bluntly: Absent US backing for Israel, peace became impossible.
Pursuant to this overarching objective, one US administration after another devoted itself to working out the details of a “two-state solution” ending the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. As those efforts proved unavailing, maintaining at least the appearance of a viable “peace process” became an end in itself.
On that score, US policymakers for years on end pressed Israel to refrain from expanding Jewish settlements in territory occupied as a result of the 1967 war. Israeli self-restraint was never going to magically produce peace. Yet unchecked settlement expansion made the “two-state solution” ever more improbable. It also prompted suspicions that David might be playing Goliath for a fool.
Credit Netanyahu with deepening such suspicions. Through words and action, the Israeli prime minister made clear his contempt for Washington’s request that Israel suspend further settlement activity, even while pocketing a $38 billion US aid package. With an audacity that Vladimir Putin must surely admire, a grandstanding Netanyahu inserted himself directly into American politics, seeking to undermine the authority of a sitting president and then ingratiating himself with his as-yet-to-be-inaugurated successor. Yet these qualify as mere slights. Netanyahu’s real offense was to expose the peace process itself — erstwhile justification for US policy — as a complete charade.
By abstaining from a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement policy, the outgoing Obama administration tacitly acknowledges that it has been had. Secretary of State John Kerry’s subsequent headline-grabbing speech directly criticizing Israel elaborates on that admission. In effect, Obama and Kerry concede that in the present-day US-Israeli relationship, David holds the upper hand. Goliath, its love unrequited, foots the bill.
Waiting in the wings, of course, is Trump, urging Israelis to “stay strong” until Obama departs office. To judge by the early indicators, especially Trump’s selection of David Friedman to be US ambassador to Israel, the next administration will loudly celebrate what others whisper with chagrin: The two-state solution is indeed dead. And good riddance. Henceforth, the United States will give Israel what it wants, without even the appearance of expecting a quid pro quo.
However unwittingly, Netanyahu, Obama and Trump have thereby collaborated in radically reformulating the basis of US-Israeli relations. No longer does the relationship rest even nominally on a mutual commitment to a negotiated peace. For Netanyahu, power obviates the need for negotiations, an argument that prior US administrations including Obama’s contested, but one that Trump seems certain to endorse. No longer a partner in the quest for peace, Goliath becomes instead David’s unquestioning enabler.
In return for what? The assumed alignment of US and Israeli interests, so carefully nurtured over decades, has ceased to be self-evident. For an Israeli government that considers peace unachievable, unconditional US support may, at least in the short run, prove beneficial. Whether it will benefit the United States, imperiled by the absence of Middle East peace, remains to be seen.
Will love alone sustain US support for Israel? Perhaps. But a lover who gives without getting may eventually tire of such an arrangement. When love dies, watch out.
As for those who count on Donald Trump to ensure that the United States will remain faithful to Israel, it’s worth noting that Trump himself has been anything but a constant lover. Just ask the first two Mrs. Trumps.