During his July experiment with international diplomacy, Mitt Romney’s encomium about the Israeli health care system provided a delicious illustration of one of our few remaining bipartisan sports: pandering to all things Israel.
“Do you realize what health care spending is as a percentage of GDP in Israel? Eight percent,” Romney intoned. “You spend 8% of GDP on health care. And you’re a pretty healthy nation. We spend 18% of our GDP on health care. Ten percentage points more.”
To appreciate the pandering, consider that Romney implicitly attacks virtually every component of Israel’s health care system when discussing health policy at home. Israel’s highly regulated system is funded mostly by taxes, and requires all Israelis to carry one of four not-for-profit government-funded insurance plans. A government board decides what is covered, and costs are controlled by comprehensive regulation.
So why would Romney endorse a system so reminiscent of what he routinely denounces? Partly, because of limited knowledge about Israel’s health policy. But more important, if you have national political aspirations in America, you must publicly support all things Israel. Whether it’s health policy or dog-catching strategies, you endorse Israel’s approach.
If you imply nuance or equivocation, you do so at your own political risk. If you suggest that America’s interests may not precisely mirror Israel’s, you fear millions in lost fundraising. And always, you fear voter accusations that you have abandoned an embattled democratic friend.
No other country fits remotely into such a paradigm. When a Lockerbie bomber was released from prison with government acquiescence in Britain, Hillary Rodham Clinton characterized it as “absolutely wrong.” As Canada pursues its Keystone pipeline and Europe its austerity programs, there is pointed debate in American political circles. Nobody suggests that disagreeing with close allies is inappropriate.
But not with Israel! In 2009, President Obama called for a settlement freeze. He subsequently posited the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiation. Although both statements support policies advocated by multiple Israeli governments, they are at odds with the country’s current leadership. So they yield warnings from the Israel lobby and accusations at the Republican convention that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus.”
The result is an asymmetric foreign policy that permits Israel’s prime minister to criticize America for not defining clear “red lines” regarding Iran’s nuclear program but truncates U.S. options because of the fear of domestic political consequences. It doesn’t matter that no Obama action has materially contradicted Israel’s prime minister or that the administration has increased military aid.
It’s of no consequence that when Obama offered 20 fighter planes if Israel would extend its settlement freeze in 2010, the offer remained even though the freeze was permitted to lapse. It doesn’t matter, because Obama’s heresy was suggesting that Israel extend the freeze, the unforgivable crime of disagreeing.
Israel pays dearly for this deference. Its leaders can no longer use the diplomatic tactic of saying “The U.S. made us do it” as a way of overcoming domestic political constraints to achieve national security objectives. And, at the moment, automatic American agreement is validating the most extreme elements in Israel’s governing coalition.
The implicit schizophrenia is illustrated by Jimmy Carter, whose refusal in his post-presidency to defer reflexively to Israel transformed him into a pariah of the Jewish state lobby and of many Israel-centered voters. But, as president, Carter did more than anyone to advance Israel’s security through his hard-won peace with Egypt. He succeeded by pursuing what today would be heterodox policies that earned trust in the Arab world and brought Israel where it could not go politically on its own.
Israel remains a democratic beacon in a sea of authoritarian and often anti-American adversaries. Our commitment to Israel’s security should be inviolable.
But reflexive agreement is the antithesis of genuine friendship. Israel is burdened by a flawed electoral system that produces multiple small parties in the Knesset, unnatural governing alliances and excessive influence among religious extremists who see the West Bank as a biblical province. It’s a formula for political paralysis that cries out for “They made me do it” pressure.
If we are true friends of Israel, we will stop genuflecting before the leadership of the moment by endorsing its every action. We will reclaim independence in our foreign policy and stop using our close ally as fodder for political gain. We will express the widely held but forbidden concern that settlement growth is a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda and sustenance for Hamas.
We must use diplomatic and economic levers to push Israelis and Palestinians toward negotiation, and offer peacekeepers as needed to ensure the security of post-agreement Israel. We must challenge Palestinians to demonstrate that getting to “yes” is feasible using the stick of economic and political isolation and the carrots of Israeli withdrawal, economic aid and viable independence.
If we cannot take such steps, we will remain a mouthpiece for Israel’s government. But we will not be friends of Israel.
Ken Schechtman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis, and a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine.