Dispatch August 2009

Losing Patience with Israel

More than democracy, Washington wants stability in the Middle East. That means leaning against the interests of the Jewish state.

Not since the days of Henry Kissinger’s Mid-East shuttle diplomacy in the 1970s has America’s foreign policy toward Israel been characterized by such an attitude of unsentimental realism.

After eight years of fighting, the stalemate in Afghanistan and the loss of 4,000 American troops in Iraq – not to mention the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis – has rendered the search for stability, rather than democracy, paramount, and created a climate in which interests are to be valued far more than friends.

Indeed, having sacrificed so much for the sake of the Middle East’s future, America will not think twice about asking its friends—especially the one it bankrolls, and which is occupying densely Arab-populated land—to sacrifice, too. Many, both in the Administration and in the wider Washington establishment, have simply lost patience with what they see as Israeli intransigence over settlements in occupied territories. This may not be fair, or even wholly logical, for the issue of settlements is highly complex. But the reality is that Washington’s quiet passions have turned decidedly against Israel.

Israel’s supporters believe that because both the U.S. and Israel are democracies, the two countries share identical national interests. But Israel is half a world away from America, virtually surrounded by enemies on land, while America is an island nation bordered by two vast oceans. Because a nation’s interests are governed to a great extent by its geographical situation, it’s simply impossible for the two countries’ interests to neatly overlap. Take the dilemma of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran threatens Israel much more than it does America. It may very well be in Israel’s best interest to attack Iran. But it is probably not in America’s for Israel to do so, given America’s exposure in Iraq. And an Israeli attack could destroy President Barack Obama’s efforts to reach out to the Muslim world. If you think the tension between the U.S. and Israel is high now, just wait until there’s a significant spike in casualties in Iraq following an Israeli strike on Iran.

In the weeks after 9/11, there were a number of terrorist attacks in Israel, which inspired a certain sympathy in Washington. That’s why, at the time, calls for Israel to make concessions as a means of fixing America’s relationship with the Muslim world fell on deaf ears. But terrorist attacks in Israel are rarer now, and Israel’s incompetent war in Lebanon in 2006 and its inconclusive one in Gaza last winter have made it look like the boorish regional aggressor. Moreover, in the past, America’s military establishment admired Israel for its military innovation and derring-do. But Israel’s inability to cope sufficiently with unconventional enemies in Lebanon and Gaza has reduced its appeal.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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