An Alliance In Search Of A Reason To Exist
Noah Millman correctly dismisses Frum’s case for the Israel alliance as a “Cold War relic.” There is almost nothing in Frum’s argument that comes from the last twenty years, and much that has happened in the last twenty years weighs against continuing the alliance in its current form. First, as Millman says, the Cold War is long over, and whatever strategic advantage Israel provided back then disappeared along with the Soviet Union. If the “realist case for a strong relationship with Israel today revolves primarily around the claim that we have common enemies,” as Millman writes, it is not at all clear that there is much that supports this case. As dreadful as they are, Hamas and Hizbullah are not enemies of the United States, and we largely treat Iran as our enemy because our Gulf allies and Israel insist that we do. At present and in the future, the U.S. has many reasons to find a modus vivendi with Iran and to improve relations, not least because one of our most important regional allies, Turkey, has made improved relations with Iran a priority. The claim that “we have common enemies” is based in no small part on the conflation of all Islamic revolutionary, resistance and jihadist groups into one camp in which Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbullah, and the IRGC are all placed regardless of their differences with one another or the threat they pose to U.S. interests. Meanwhile, the cold-eyed realist would not be overly concerned about Israeli policies in the territories unless the U.S. was seen as the enabler and supporter of the immiseration of Palestinians, but of course the U.S. is seen this way, it does damage America’s reputation throughout the region, and it is becoming a greater source of tension with our major allies in the region. There is nothing that the Israel alliance provides that merited taking Israel’s side against Turkey in the wake of the flotilla raid, but that is what Washington did even at the risk of permanently damaging the alliance with Turkey.
Millman also has a very reasonable conclusion:
In truth, I’m not sure what point is served by debating whether we should be “allied” with Israel. I’m not even sure what “ending” our alliance would mean, given that we don’t have any treaty obligations to them and we are hardly going to stop sharing intelligence or what have you. We’re allied with all sorts of countries with whom we have a variety of disputes – we don’t agree with everything our allies do or want to do, and sometimes we take a very hard line on their behavior. We were extremely forceful in getting the British and the French to withdraw from Suez in 1956. Heck, Pakistan is officially a major non-NATO ally and we’ve been dropping bombs on their territory! The real question is not whether America should continue to be Israel’s ally but whether America should be much tougher on its Israeli ally than it is, whether a tougher line would serve American interests or whether it would backfire.
Millman is basically right. We aren’t formally obligated by treaty commitments, so theoretically the alliance could “end” tomorrow if that is what Washington decided, but everyone realistically understands that some sort of alliance will remain for the foreseeable future. In many ways, the Israel alliance is like NATO: a once valuable and even necessary arrangement that served the security needs of all parties, but which now longer has much of a reason to exist. For the last twenty years, people in the U.S. and Israel have been trying to find a new reason for both the Israel alliance and NATO to continue, and each new model that has been tried has led to a dead end. Both of the alliances are largely obsolete, but neither is likely to end.
What does need to happen is to re-balance the relationship with Israel so that the political, diplomatic and financial costs of the alliance are matched by what the U.S. receives from it (which isn’t very much these days). At present, even the smallest moves in that direction are considered unspeakable betrayals. That is one reason why proponents of re-balancing the U.S.-Israel relationship are not interested in arguing for ending the alliance outright. It is difficult enough to argue for conditional reductions in economic aid that calling for a complete break would be rejected out of hand.
That is what makes Frum’s detour about Charles Freeman at the end of the same post especially ridiculous. Freeman outlined some of the costs that the alliance imposes on the U.S., and he may have understated the case, but he then made very modest recommendations for what the U.S. government should do to pressure Israel to halt settlements. My guess is that the “pathetically disproportionate” recommendations reflect Freeman’s understanding of what is politically possible here in the U.S. As it is, Freeman’s proposal to reduce economic aid to Israel to compel a halt to settlement activity is more than anyone in the administration or J Street is willing to advocate publicly. Had Freeman made a more radical proposal, Frum would not be congratulating him on his consistency or his boldness, but would instead be declaring him a lunatic.