Haim Malka, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think-tank in Washington, D.C., has published a new study, “Crossroads,” that has gotten some attention. Its central argument is that the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” is constituted to exist between two countries that in fact no longer do exist—rather, Israel and the United States have changed profoundly, and neither side has fully reckoned with this yet. For example: “Today,” he writes, “Israel’s Jewish population is more nationalistic, religiously conservative, and hawkish on foreign policy and security affairs than that of even a generation ago, and it would be unrecognizable to Israel’s founders.” What is called for, he argues, is a re-evaluation of the alliance that sees strong ties maintained but also a decrease in U.S. military aid—for the good, above all, of Israel’s. I chatted with Malka recently about his report.
How has Israel changed?
Israeli society is very different from the Israel most Americans think they know. Most American Jews have this idea of Israeli society that is idealistic and outdated. That’s in part because the Israelis most Americans interact with have been mostly secular, liberal Israelis who speak English well and have similar worldviews. Israel is much more complex and diverse.
The first trend that I pointed out is that in the last generation, once-marginal communities like the ultra-Orthodox and Russian-speaking Israelis are now participating in Israeli public life in new ways, while the secular, liberal elite, the part of Israeli society that most Americans are familiar with, have retreated to some degree.
The second political dynamic that the report raises is the breakdown of the left and the creation of a new center-right political constellation in Israeli politics. The distribution of Knesset seats in the last decade illustrates this clearly. In the 1999 elections, left-wing parties—Labor, Meretz, etc.—controlled a little less than half of the Knesset. In the 2009 elections, that number dropped by half, so they now only control 30 out of 120 seats. Political ideology has always been balanced between the right and left in Israel. Today Kadima has become the political counterweight to the Likud, but with no attachment to the secular liberal values of Israel’s founding fathers.
Could the tent protests of this summer be seen as a reaction to this?
What’s interesting is that so far the social protest movement hasn’t taken on a political agenda that the traditional left or the Labor Party has been able to harness in any way. In fact no political party can claim to represent that popular sentiment.
And how has America changed?
Then there’s the growing frustration of many liberal American Jews with Israeli policies. Peter Beinart did a good job of articulating that estrangement especially among the younger generations. This isn’t a new development—this liberal disaffection started in the ‘80s with the invasion of Lebanon and then the first intifada—but it’s intensifying and threatening to erode Israel’s connection with a large segment of Diaspora Jewry.
Part of this liberal frustration stems from a misreading of Israel, which hangs on to these idealistic notions of Israel as a liberal society.
So what does your report say we should do to address this?
What I’m arguing in the report is that we need to acknowledge these trends and not pretend that there’s no problem. The dramatic events in the Middle East over the last six months highlighted by the ousting of President Mubarak should remind us that there are no certainties in such a fluid environment. Let’s figure out how to strengthen the U.S.-Israel partnership and adapt to the changes.
First is that Israel and the United States need to restore a sense of common mission. Over the last forty years, the U.S. and Israel have always shared a common strategic outlook. Today, it seems that strategic priorities and assessments are increasingly diverging on the most pressing issues, most importantly Iran and the Palestinian issue. And I think neither American nor Israeli officials can articulate their common mission.
It’s hard for me to see any common regional strategy that doesn’t address the Palestinian conflict. Not because the Palestinian issue is the root of all evil or its resolution will transform the region—it won’t—but because as long as it continues, it will be manipulated by political actors across the region to undermine the United States and Israel and cause tension in the relationship. The problem is that a resolution of the conflict seems increasingly unlikely in the immediate future.
At one point, you write, “‘Israel can only depend on itself’ has become a regular refrain both inside and outside of government.” Do you think that strain of thinking is dominant?
There are significant doubts in Israel today about the meaning of America’s commitments to Israel’s security. There’s a paradox, that at a time when many Israelis believe Israel needs to become more self-reliant and that they can only depend on themselves, they are growing more dependent on the United States to address and mediate both their diplomatic and security challenges.
So should the U.S. cut military aid?
It has to come from Israel! The point I raise in the report—and this is consistent with the views of many Israeli officials—is that Israel’s long-term security interests and viability are better-served by being less dependent on the United States. Some level of interdependency is important. But the long term Israeli goal should be to wean itself off U.S. military aid in exchange for greater military-to-military cooperation, joint research and development of new defense systems, and greater Israeli access to American military technology. Essentially maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.
Do you think this is likely to happen?
I’m not predicting anything. What I’ve done is pointed out trends that are affecting the relationship and will likely continue to strain and erode relations in the future. The U.S.-Israel partnership is strong and ingrained in America’s and Israel’s foreign policies and societies. It’s a deep partnership which has weathered many storms. The strength and durability of this partnership has been its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. We need to acknowledge and understand these changes now while there is an opportunity to adapt.
There is more than one area of dependence. Is the United States right to pledge to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution giving the Palestinian Authority full membership?
The United States is in a bind either way. The administration understands that U.N. resolutions declaring a Palestinian state will actually undermine efforts to resume negotiations. Israel is facing international isolation, and the Palestinian strategy will likely deepen the diplomatic assault against Israel. At the same time, the administration is coming up short, with no clear practical strategy to get the two sides talking again.
You write: “While the core argument of the Mearsheimer-Walt tracts—that the United States went to war in Iraq because of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States—was seriously flawed, the authors reignited an old debate over Israel’s strategic value to the United States that had been largely dormant for decades.” You don’t really address the less controversial part of their thesis, which is that the special relationship is frequently contrary to American interests. How do you feel about that?
I point out in the book how Mearsheimer and Walt’s arguments are seriously flawed. Still, there is a perception that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicating American interests in the Middle East which has become widely accepted within the U.S. national security establishment and bureaucracy. More than in the pas,t many American officials see the Israeli government as the biggest impediment to reaching an agreement because Israel holds most of the cards. Look at the Gates statement that recently came out. For several decades, Israel has consistently proven that it’s an asset to the United States in the Middle East. And now that the region is in turmoil, the burden is on Israel to continue proving it is an asset to U.S. interests in the region because Israel has the most to lose from any deterioration in US-Israeli relations.