One of the debates simmering just below the surface this week is the question of whether Israel is a strategic asset or burden to the United States. Pro-Israel advocates have maintained for decades that it is an asset, and a darned valuable one. This view has been emphatically restated in the past few days by, among others, the Anti-Defamation League (here), AIPAC and 334 members of the House of Representatives in (a letter) to President Obama.
The view of Israel as a burden is usually identified with folks like “Israel Lobby” authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer and others who would like to see America cut Israel loose.
This week the Israel-as-burden crowd was joined by none other than Meir Dagan, the ur-hawkish director of Israel’s crack Mossad intelligence agency. He explained it on Tuesday in a fraught appearance before the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee. It’s no less than a bombshell, though it got only minor coverage in the Israeli papers (here’s how Haaretz, Ynet and the Jerusalem Post covered it) and was almost entirely ignored over here.
Dagan’s take is that with the end of the Cold War, Israel is no longer a forward base for U.S. interests in the Middle East. He also claims that the Obama administration’s turn away from imposing its will by force and seeking negotiated agreements is “perceived as weakness” and this weakens Israel’s ability to maneuver. Dagan seems to miss George W. Bush. He also knows Bush isn’t coming back any time soon.
What are the implications? Well, the worst-case scenario, which we got a glimmer of this week, would be serious Israeli isolation. That hasn’t happened yet, despite all the bombast. Israelis can still vacation in France, import oil from Kazakhstan and Egypt and buy tank carburetors from Germany. That’s the sort of thing Dagan and his colleagues worry about losing if Israel’s international support continues slipping. That is, if Israel actually comes to be perceived as an apartheid state.
How to maintain alliances? One way is to prove yourself an essential asset, so the other guys need you. That, Dagan says, is what’s declining.
The other way is to win their respect and admiration. Also, avoid being a major annoyance.
Here’s an example of useful action: Keep tensions with the Palestinians and the Muslim world on a low flame. Explore every possible opening to ending or reducing the conflict. When radical provocateurs try to sucker you into overreacting and giving them a photo op, don’t fall for it.
Here’s a perfect example of what not to do: Storm a foreign flotilla laden with food and wheelchairs, put yourself in a situation where you end up killing civilians and stir up worldwide outrage. The outrage might be unfair and hypocritical, but it’s entirely predictable.
Watch how Prime Minister Netanyahu does things. That, children, is how not to run an embattled Jewish state.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).