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From
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The American Interest

By Martin Kramer

Why realists should applaud an alliance with Israel.


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T
he question of whether Israel is or is not an asset to the United States is one we rarely bother to ask ourselves. Time and again, we see prominent Americans—presidents of the United States at the forefront—emphasizing their special relationship with Israel. In polls of American public opinion, Israel scores very high marks, while sympathy for the Palestinians, never very high, continues to drop. Why should we even ask ourselves whether Israel is an asset or a liability to the United States? Isn’t the answer obvious?
Most supporters of Israel, when pressed to go a bit deeper, will give two prime rationales for why the United States should back Israel. One is a moral obligation to the Jewish people, grounded in the history of Jewish persecution and culminating in the Holocaust. Israel, so this thinking goes, is something the civilized world owes to the Jewish people, having inflicted an unprecedented genocide upon it. This is a potent rationale, but it is not clear why that would make Israel an asset to the United States. If supporting Israel is an obligation, then it could be described as a liability—a burden to be borne. And of course, as time passes, that sense of obligation is bound to diminish.
Another powerful rationale is the fact that Israel is a democracy, even an outpost of democracy, in a benighted part of the world. But the fact is that there are many non-democratic states that have been allies of the United States, and important assets as well. Quite arguably, the Saudi monarchy is an asset to the United States, because it assures the flow of oil at reasonable prices, a key American interest. In contrast, the Palestinian Authority and Iran, which have many more democratic practices than Saudi Arabia, are headaches to the United States, for having empowered the likes of Hamas and Ahmadinejad through elections. So the fact that Israel is a democracy is not proof positive that it is an American asset.
Nevertheless, the Holocaust argument and the democracy argument are more than sufficient for the vast majority of Americans. On this basis alone, they would extend to Israel support, even unqualified support. And there is an important segment of opinion in America, comprising evangelical Christians, who probably do not even need these arguments. Israel is, for them, the manifestation of a divine plan, and they support it as a matter of faith.
But everywhere in the West, there is a sliver of elite opinion that is not satisfied with these rationales. It includes policymakers and analysts, journalists, and academics. By habit and by preference, they have a tendency to view any consensus with skepticism. In their opinion, the American people cannot possibly be wiser than them—after all, look whom they elect—and so they deliberately take a contrary position on issues around which there is broad agreement. In this spirit, many of them view U.S. support for Israel as a prime focal point for skepticism.
In March, two American professors subjected the U.S.-Israel relationship to a skeptic’s examination. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the former from the University of Chicago, the latter from Harvard, published a paper under the title “The Israel Lobby: Israel in U.S. Foreign Policy.” One version appeared in the London Review of Books; a longer, footnoted version was posted on the website of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The paper caused a firestorm.
Mearsheimer and Walt are academic oracles of the so-called realist school in international relations. Realism, in its policy application, is an approach that seeks to isolate the conduct of foreign affairs from sentimental moral considerations and special interests like ethnic and commercial lobbies, and to base it instead on a pure concept of the national interest. Realists are not interested in historical obligations, or in whether this or that potential ally respects human rights. They see themselves as coldly weighing U.S. interests, winnowing out extraneous considerations, and ending up with policies that look out solely for number one: The United States.
Realist thinkers are not isolationists, but they are extremely reluctant to see U.S. power expended on projects and allies that do not directly serve some U.S. interest as they define it—and they define these interests quite narrowly. Generally, they oppose visionary ideas of global transformation, which they see as American empire in disguise. And empire, they believe, is a drain on American resources. They are particularly reluctant to commit American troops, preferring that the United States follow a policy of “offshore balancing” wherever possible—that is, playing rivals off one another.
These were the principles that guided Mearsheimer and Walt when they examined the United States-Israel relationship. And this was their finding: By any “objective” measure, American support for Israel is a liability. It causes Arabs and Muslims to hate America, and that hate in turn generates terrorism. The prime interest of the United States in the Middle East is the cultivation of cooperation with Arabs and Muslims, many of whom detest Israel, its policies, or both. The less the United States is identified as a supporter and friend of Israel’s five million Jews, the easier it will be for it to find local proxies to keep order among the billion or so Muslims. And the only thing that has prevented the United States from seeing this clearly is the pro-Israel lobby, operating through fronts as diverse as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and so on.
This “Israel Lobby,” with a capital L, has effectively hijacked U.S. policy in the Middle East so that it serves Israel’s, not America’s, interests. In one of their most provocative claims, the authors argue that Israel spurred its neo-conservative allies in Washington to press for the Iraq war—a war that served no identifiable U.S. interest, but which was waged largely for Israeli security. And, they continue, the growing drumbeat for an attack on Iran also has its ultimate source in the Lobby. A nuclear Iran would not constitute a threat to the United States, they argue, and military action against Iran would not be in America’s interest, since it would inflame the Arab and Muslim worlds yet again, producing a wave of anti-American terror and damaging the American economy.
 

Martin Kramer is a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center and the Wexler-Fromer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.





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