He's Just Not That Into You

Shmuel Rosner is making a lot of sense here:

Regardless of its futility, my sources tell me that an Obama address to Israelis is coming soon. (Joe Klein was first to report this.) If he must do so, I can offer three pieces of advice: First, don’t lecture Israelis like you know what’s good for them better than they know themselves. You don’t. Second, don’t try to do an end-run on the Israeli government like you’ve done in other world capitols by speaking directly to “the people.” Don’t patronize them by saying that the Israel public knows better than its government what needs to be done. The public elected this government; the public you’re talking about is the public of some liberal American Jews, which has little relevance to the current reality in Israel. And third, don’t promise peace within a year or two. History is a better teacher of that lesson than I am.

I, for one, will not be disappointed if Obama chooses not to make the effort. I don’t think that Obama needs the approval of Israelis—nor, for that matter, that it is crucial for Israelis to have the personal sympathies of the American president. In fact, I think those “spoiled” Israelis can benefit from being reminded that not all presidents will be a Clinton or a Bush. Presidents come with different priorities and changing agendas—and Israel should make sure that it is always strategically benefiting the United States rather than relying on intangible romantic notions of shared values and religious sympathies to bolster the relationship. And perhaps more importantly, Israelis need to be reminded that we can live, for a long or short period of time, with a less demonstrably friendly America with no need for hysteria.

That last paragraph cannot be repeated enough, in Israel and in America both. For very nearly a generation, right-wing and left-wing Israelis alike have behaved as if they believed that the special relationship with America would, by its mere existence, solve Israel’s most difficult problems in their preferred manner. But there is very nearly no truth to this belief, and the sooner Israelis come to understand that neither can America secure Israel’s maximal territorial ambitions, nor can it guarantee a secure peace on terms more congenial to Israel’s adversaries, the better.

In fact, the bizarre thing is that there’s so much panic about a supposed cooling of relations between Israel and America at a time when we need each other less than ever. Israel’s economic condition is vastly better than it was a generation ago, and its integration with Europe proceeds apace, so the American connection matters less economically than it ever did before. The gap between Israel’s military capabilities and its major potential conventional adversaries has probably never been larger, and the prospect of major conventional conflict across Israel’s northern border, to say nothing of its southern border, is similarly about as low as it has ever been. Persistent terrorism, meanwhile, is extremely difficult to combat, but also has no chance of leading to an Israeli defeat; there are plenty of other countries that have suffered from but somehow survived persistent civil and inter-ethnic strife, including terrorist atrocities – Turkey, Sri Lanka, Peru, India, the Philippines, etc. And there is essentially nothing the American connection can do to help Israel in this particular struggle. Meanwhile, for America, a superficial distancing from Israel is probably helpful at the margins, and the practical benefits that Israel once provided – for example, combat testing American military hardware against Soviet-armed Arab forces – are no longer really relevant.

I don’t want to overstate my case. There are times the Obama Administration has looked like it wanted to ape the Eisenhower Administration, with Iran playing the role of Nasser’s Egypt, but as I have written before (and will probably write about again) I’m quite pessimistic about the prospects of anything really substantial coming of talks with Iran (which is not to say I favor preemptive military action: I emphatically do not). And, by the same token, there are Israelis (including the current Prime Minister) who have flirted at times with the idea of finding a new patron (e.g., Russia) who would have fewer scruples than the Americans, but this is pure fantasy. It is not at all difficult to imagine a world in which Israel serves as a decidedly useful ally to America, and vice verse – the easiest way to imagine such a world is to imagine a somewhat closer relationship, at least on the military and intelligence level, between Israel and the Gulf States, much as existed in the recent past between Israel and Turkey. Moreover, the affinity between Israel and America is just too strong to imagine any real severing of the connection between our two countries. But in relative terms, we’re going through a cooling period, and this should be neither surprising nor alarming either to American Jews or to Israelis.