Israel and the United States have a close and vital strategic relationship that constitutes a pillar of Israel’s security. Israeli leaders are aware that any major new regional policy departure not closely coordinated with Washington is liable to be a nonstarter and to cloud American-Israeli relations. Any smart Israeli aspirant to a political leadership post knows that the Israeli public wants to be reassured that he or she is persona grata in the White House, Congress and among the American Jewish community.
Yet there was a time when Israeli leaders were not afraid to disagree publicly with American leaders and even act against an American policy line if they judged that Israel’s vital interests warranted such a step. Yitzhak Rabin did so in his first term when he took issue with Henry Kissinger’s “reassessment.” So, too, did Menachem Begin, declaring that “we’re not a banana republic.” Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu also clashed publicly with American presidents over settlements and the Palestinian issue.
Dissenting from American policy priorities for the Middle East has not always been politically sound for Israeli leaders. Sometimes, however, it has been, and instructively so. Begin and Moshe Dayan’s secret initiative to bring Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem, and Rabin and Shimon Peres’s clandestine talks in Oslo with the Palestine Liberation Organization, were embraced by Washington once it became aware that Israel had successfully implemented a radically different strategy.
But rightly or wrongly, when Israel takes its distance from American policies, this at least reflects a capacity on the part of the Israeli national security leadership to independently assess and act upon the country’s vital strategic interests. This capacity seems to be dangerously absent of late.
An obvious case in point is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent assertion that Israel can’t talk to Syria because doing so would betray President Bush’s policy line. It doesn’t matter that the Democratic majority in Congress might lean toward a dialogue with Syria, or that the Iraq Study Group report recommended such a step, or that the beleaguered Bush is a lame duck with whom Israel can risk disagreeing.
Nor does Olmert appear to be influenced by the advocacy of negotiations with Syria by many in the Israeli security establishment. That he actually invoked Bush as his rationale for ignoring Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s offer to reopen peace negotiations portrays the Israeli prime minister as an amateur on strategic issues.
Olmert’s predecessor, by contrast, was anything but an amateur in Israeli-American relations, and more broadly in dealing with America’s policies in the region. When it came to Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq and to democratize the Arab Middle East from within, Ariel Sharon took a far more sophisticated position.
Publicly, Sharon played the silent ally; he neither criticized nor supported the Iraq adventure. One reason for his relative silence was Washington’s explicit request that Israel refrain from openly backing its invasion of an Arab country or in any way intervening, lest its blessing damn the United States in Arab eyes.
But sometime prior to March 2003, Sharon told Bush privately in no uncertain terms what he thought about the Iraq plan. Sharon’s words — revealed here for the first time — constituted a friendly but pointed warning to Bush. Sharon acknowledged that Saddam Hussein was an “acute threat” to the Middle East and that he believed Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Yet according to one knowledgeable source, Sharon nevertheless advised Bush not to occupy Iraq. According to another source — Danny Ayalon, who was Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the time of the Iraq invasion, and who sat in on the Bush-Sharon meetings — Sharon told Bush that Israel would not “push one way or another” regarding the Iraq scheme.
According to both sources, Sharon warned Bush that if he insisted on occupying Iraq, he should at least abandon his plan to implant democracy in this part of the world. “In terms of culture and tradition, the Arab world is not built for democratization,” Ayalon recalls Sharon advising.
Be sure, Sharon added, not to go into Iraq without a viable exit strategy. And ready a counter-insurgency strategy if you expect to rule Iraq, which will eventually have to be partitioned into its component parts. Finally, Sharon told Bush, please remember that you will conquer, occupy and leave, but we have to remain in this part of the world. Israel, he reminded the American president, does not wish to see its vital interests hurt by regional radicalization and the spillover of violence beyond Iraq’s borders.
Sharon’s advice — reflecting a wealth of experience with Middle East issues that Bush lacked — was prescient. The American occupation of Iraq has ended up strengthening Iran, Israel’s number-one enemy, and enfranchising militant Shi’ite Islamists. A large part of Iraq is slipping into the Iranian orbit. Iraq’s western Anbar Province is increasingly dominated by militant jihadi Sunnis who could eventually threaten Syria and Jordan, the latter a strategic partner and geographic buffer for Israel.
All these developments harm vital Israeli interests. This past summer, Israel fought a war against two militant Islamist movements supported by Iran — Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza — that were enfranchised and legitimized in their anarchic countries thanks to Bush’s insistence on hasty and ill-advised democratic elections “in this part of the world.”
Had Sharon made his criticism public, citing the dangers posed to vital Israeli interests, might he have made a difference in the prewar debate in the United States and the world? Certainly he would have poured cold water on the postwar assertions of critics, like professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, who have fingered Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and pro-Israelis in the administration for instigating the war. Ayalon, incidentally, was directed by Sharon to warn all Israelis visiting Washington not to encourage the American scheme for war in Iraq, lest Israel be blamed for its failure.
There were, of course, neoconservative types in Israel who did encourage the United States to occupy Iraq and advocated democratic elections wherever possible in the Middle East. But there were also many Israelis, this writer included, who spoke out openly and publicly against the American scheme.
Even Aipac officials in Washington told visiting Arab intellectuals they would rather the United States deal militarily with Iran than with Iraq. And pro-Western Arab leaders like Egypt’s Husni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdallah were outspoken in their criticism of Bush’s war plans, even though they could fall back on far less credit and lobbying support in Washington than in Israel.
As a faithful ally of the United States, Israel is morally obligated to tell Washington when its policies are not only mistaken but also harmful. Many American Middle East policy initiatives since 2003 have indeed been detrimental to Israeli interests. When Bush ignored his advice about Iraq, Sharon should have found a respectful and friendly way to make his reservations public.
It’s not too late for Olmert to put Israel’s case to Bush — first discreetly, then, if necessary, publicly. He should start with the issue of negotiating with Syria and the harm that Israel will suffer from the emergence of militant Sunni and Shi’ite Islamist states in Iraq following an American withdrawal, unless Washington takes urgent and radical steps to install a tough and friendly regime in Baghdad.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.