''The link between Israel and its main strategic partner the United States has weakened,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said as world powers and Iran resumed nuclear talks in Geneva on Wednesday. “You can understand that. The Americans have got too many challenges North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and they've got their own domestic economic problems.”
The chief diplomat did not elaborate on the list of countries but said, that Israel should seek understanding in places “that are not dependent on money from the Arab or Islamic world and who want to cooperate with us in the field of innovation.”
The United States is, in fact, pursuing a policy agenda in the Middle East that is increasingly divergent from Israeli interests. The divergence between the two old allies reflects deep changes in the way the United States sees its role in the world and a mounting sensitivity to the costs of national security. Because of this, the split between the United States and Israel is likely to grow.
For starters, the two nations see the Iranian threat differently. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters believe that Tehran is determined to destroy Israel at any cost. Despite historical evidence to the contrary, Netanyahu believes that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will increase its regional aggression and perhaps even attack Israel directly.
While some Americans concur, the percentage of the U.S. public that considers Iran an enemy is declining and support for negotiations increasing. While most Americans prefer that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons, many accept the idea that sanctions have created an opportunity for a political settlement. Like communist dictators of old, Iran's leaders can be coldly evil but have shown little sign of being suicidally irrational. Containment and deterrence, then, are viable options.
Military action against Iran short of a full-scale invasion and occupation would only delay Tehran's nuclear program and give the Iranian regime a greater incentive to build nuclear weapons. That Netanyahu nonetheless threatens an attack demonstrates a deep divergence in the way Israel and the United States think about national security strategy. Because Israel has, since its creation, faced security threats it cannot resolve or walk away from, the essence of its strategy is to assume that its tolerance for hostility and pressure is greater than that of its opponents. Israel can outwait its enemies. On Iran, for instance, Netanyahu argued that "if you continue the pressure now, you can get Iran to cease and desist."
The United States sees things differently. Because America’s security commitments and challenges are global, it can expend only so much effort on any one of them. U.S. strategy is a form of triage that focuses on problems where American action is likely to have the greatest payoff.
Hence an approach that lowers the Iranian threat and diminishes the strategic costs to the United States makes sense and might allow greater effort elsewhere, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, where tangible U.S. national interests are much greater. Part of Netanyahu's dilemma, then, is that he must rely on the United States to implement his strategy toward Iran, but it is increasingly hard to keep America focused on the issue and willing to bear great strategic costs and risks.
In an even broader sense, U.S. policymakers are searching for ways to lower the costs of America's global strategy and to get more security for the buck. This is likely to raise concerns about the asymmetry of the U.S.-Israel relationship, perhaps the most inequitable alliance in history. The financial costs to the United States include not only direct assistance to Israel, but also aid to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority.
Since the beginning of its war with the United States, al-Qaida has said that America's support for autocratic Arab regimes and for Israel was its primary motivation. If true, the Sept. 11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraqi might never have happened had Washington not been heavily involved in supporting Arab partners and Israel. The trillions of dollars spent on increasing security and countering al-Qaida could have been left in the pockets of Americans and invested in things like infrastructure and education. America's current economic problems would be more manageable if not altogether avoidable.
At least since the end of the Cold War, America's alliance with Israel has been based on moral obligation rather than a cold calculation of strategic costs and benefits. In the halcyon days between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States could lavish money and other strategic resources on policies that did little to augment American security, whether peacekeeping in the Balkans or support for Israel.
But in today's climate of strategic austerity and potential economic disaster, the American people and their elected representatives are questioning high cost/low payoff security policies. Promoting values no longer seems to be an adequate reason to expend strategic resources and incur risk. This too is Netanyahu's dilemma.
However negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program end up, this is only the beginning of a major shift in the U.S.-Israel alliance as Americans question whether the benefits of the partnership justify the costs. The relationship between the two is deep enough to weather this recalculation, but the partnership may have to become more equitable, with the strategic costs borne by the United States coming more in line with the benefits gained. Netanyahu’s dilemma today will likely be a lasting challenge for a generation of Israeli leaders to come.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst
Photo-Credit: AFP-French President Francois Hollande (R) speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu