Major essay written for POLS5160: The Middle East in Global Politics at the University of New South Wales, Semester 2 2015. Final mark: 88% (High Distinction)
Over-reliance on the United States is a potential long-term weakness for Israel. Discuss this argument.
“Without support from the US, we are weak and isolated,” Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni said in May 2015. “Without US support, we cannot fight as long in war, nor achieve our aims so that the post-war situation will be better.” (Bob 2015). Though as dramatic as one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tirades, Livni’s comments were not without basis. Israel is increasingly isolated in the world; at odds with its Arab neighbours, and facing more and more vitriol from European countries who no longer bother to conceal their distaste for the only Jewish state. The United States, since Israel declared independence in 1948, has been its constant – and only ‘true’ – ally over the years in economic partnership, strategic cooperation and diplomacy. But this “special relationship” has come at a cost: orchestrated over-reliance on the United States, which is a weakness for Israel in the long term. Although US-Israeli relations have been troubled for years now, the tense relationship between President Obama and Netanyahu is not the main cause. Israel and the US are politically diverging and indeed have never been as close or as beneficial to Israel as is commonly believed; the US is war-weary and wants to reduce its military presence in the Middle East, and in fifty years the US may no longer be the major global economic power. Israel’s continued reliance on the US has come at the cost of meaningful relationships with other countries. This paper looks at the “special relationship” and over-reliance Israel has with the United States, which leads to an analysis of how the US’s future interests and pivot to Asia present as a weakness for Israel in the long term. It then concludes with a discussion of alternatives for Israel, including greater independence and possibilities of the future of its increasing ties with China.
The “Special Bond”
For a bilateral relationship that is supposedly the sole support Israel is utterly dependent on, the summary of US-Israel relations on the Embassy of Israel to the United States’ website is remarkably short, summed up in a mere four paragraphs. “The strength of the relationship between Israel and the United States is a testament to our friendship, partnership and alliance,” it reads. “The friendship between Israel and the United States runs deep, in shared values, economic partnership, strategic partnership, strategic cooperation, humanitarian assistance and cultural ties. Only eleven minutes after Israel declared its independence in 1948, President Harry Truman recognised the new Jewish State.” (Embassy of Israel to the US, 2015).
It is a relationship that has been subjected to analysis, debate, and extreme criticism over the years. Love it or hate it, the US-Israel relationship is unique, and yet there is very little consensus on just how strong the “special bond” is or who is driving it. Does the US unreservedly support Israel, even at a cost to its own national interests? Mearsheimer and Walt (2009) and Jerome Slater (2009) believe this, the former two of the scholars suggesting that a pro-Israel lobby is responsible for the US’s support. Is Israel nothing more than a slave to America’s superpower string-pulling? Prominent Israeli politicians seem to believe this point of view. Whatever the stance one takes, there is no doubt that the sixty-year, “near-unconditional support of Israel by the United States is one of the most remarkable and unprecedented phenomena in the history of American foreign policy.” (Slater 2009:4). The largest recipient of US military assistance – more than US$3 billion per year – is Israel, and its defence and intelligence dealings with the US are “even closer than those between the United States and the United Kingdom.” (Indyk 2015).
The relationship does not exist in a vacuum where Israel consumes American resources and gives nothing in return. Nor has America’s “unwavering” support of Israel in its various conflicts with its Arab neighbours “undermined crucially important U.S. national interests.” (Slater 2009:4) Until (arguably) the Iran nuclear deal was finalised, Israel has been the United States’ most valuable ally in the Middle East region; strategically situated, and the provider of vital intelligence. Israel is, essentially, America’s foothold in the region. The United States would not support a nation so steadfastly as they have over the years if they were not receiving something very valuable in return, nor if they did not have most of the power in the relationship. Quoting that US$3 billion number does not always take into account the many stipulations that come with the receipt of that money – primarily, it is provided to Israel on the condition that it is then used for US projects. The funding is not provided on a blank cheque.
If there is any example that could effectively sum up the balance of Israeli-US relations and the US’s agenda in the region, it would be the US’s actions during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. For at least five days, Nixon and Kissinger deliberately held back a full scale resupply effort and military aid for Israel (Quandt 2005) because of concerns that immediate support for Israel would allow them to fight back too quickly and effectively and emerge as a victor. As a result, Israel was reluctantly forced to accept a cease-fire plan, which Anwar Sadat refused. The US has no qualms in keeping the region in a stalemate with no clear regional power; if Israel becomes too powerful, then their own influence is lost.
In an interview in 2013, Eitan Haber – former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s closest aide – stressed just how reliant the State of Israel is on her strongest (and perhaps, only) ally. “The people who make it to the [Prime Minister’s Office]… [understand] to what extent the State of Israel is dependent on America. For absolutely everything – in the realms of diplomacy, security, even economically – we are dependent on America.” (Horovitz 2013). If the people in the Prime Minister’s Office believe this is the truth of Israel’s “special bond” with the US, it speaks volumes to how they view Israel if it were forced to stand on its own. Israel’s over-reliance on the United States isn’t just a long-term weakness; it is already a weakness. “…Without the spare parts [from the US], your entire air force is grounded,” Haber also said in the interview. “And when you have no air force you have no defences. You can barely do anything without America. Her diplomatic support, defensive support, economic support. We are in America’s little pocket.” (Horovitz 2013). Certainly without the US’s veto power in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Israel’s national interests would have been quite severely damaged numerous times over the years.
No country in the world stands on its own. All states have allies – all states surely have the right to have allies. Mearsheimer and Walt concluded in their book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (1995) that the special relationship is now harmful to the United States and Israel alike and that a “more normal” relationship would be more beneficial to both countries. Of course, in their book they also propose the driving force of the “special relationship” is because of the work of the mysterious “Israel Lobby” rather than Israel’s strategic importance to the United States. Even if the relationship is not as strong as the “mythology would have us believe” (Ebinger 2015), it is generally agreed that Israel has received “special treatment” from the United States – at great costs to Israel’s independence and freedom. Unlike the UK or Australia or other US allies, Israel relies almost solely on the US because it has no other choice – by both circumstance and the US’s own hand. Unfortunately, it is a situation that is increasingly appearing to be a long-term weakness. The United States is Israel’s most important ally, but Israel may not be the US’s.
Although Israel is the US’s most valuable ally in the Middle East, US and Israeli interests have, according to Charles Ebinger of the Brookings Institute, “been diverging for many years.” (2015). A future US administration may be more favourable to Israel than the present one, but the blame cannot be solely laid on the personality clashes between Netanyahu and Obama. One needs to look no further than various aligned comments made by both Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, and Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel. “Oren is correct in noting that Obama believed in putting some distance between the United States and Israel,” wrote Indyk (2015), in his review of Oren’s book Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.
…the deterioration in the special relationship has little to do with these supposed violations of principles that have been regularly breached by both sides. Nor is it about bad chemistry, even though Netanyahu’s mercurial personality – Oren describes Bibi’s rage as “monumental” – did not mix well with Obama’s legendary detachment. The problem is more fundamental: Obama and Netanyahu disagree on matters of war and peace in the Middle East. And that problem is not just between leaders; it increasingly divides the people they represent as well. (Indyk 2015)
By Indyk’s account, Michael Oren did not have an easy time of things as Israel’s ambassador to the US – precisely for the reason that the “special relationship” is far from rosy.
“America is with us, with a limited guarantee, as long as she wants to be with us,” Haber said in his interview (Horovitz 2013). This is looking increasingly true, and it divulges Israel’s dependence on America as a weakness – without even taking into consideration the number of other factors that expose Israel’s over-reliance on the US as a long-term weakness beyond the troubled relationship between the two countries.
The most telling example of the US’s dwindling interest in the Middle East is the Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia”. Syria and the devastating impact of ISIS on the region will, again, hold the US’s attention in the region, as will Russia’s intervention. Israel is too valuable an ally in the region to part ways with them during this precarious time in the Middle East. But the United States is war weary and its people, by and large, have no interest in becoming involved in yet another war that, while may have come about due to America’s previous interventions in the region, has otherwise little to do with them. The resolution of the Iran nuclear deal would “take one of the most pressing Middle East security challenges to the United States off the table. Doing so would likely hasten America’s retreat from the region and its ongoing pivot to Asia.” (Cohen 2014). That process, though slow, has already started. “You keep hearing from everyone in the Israeli community – both publicly and privately – that the Americans are less engaged in what’s going on in the region,” said Amos Harel, national security reporter for Haaretz, quoted in an article by Michael Cohen (2014). No doubt the concern in Israel is that US support for the state will weaken as a consequence.
Taking a step back from the US’s dwindling interest, another reason why Israel’s reliance on the US will become a weakness is, in the near future, it is entirely possible that the US may no longer be the major global economic- or super-power. Politically, the United States may well remain a global power in the future. But with the rise of China and Russia’s borderline aggressive assertiveness, America’s global hegemony is at risk, and in the globalised world money speaks just as loudly as military strength, if not more so. “There has been a long-term decline of American power,” writes Sper. “No action or wishful thinking on Israel’s part is going to reverse this dynamic. It is best she adjust her policies accordingly, and the sooner the better.” (Sper 2015).
The over-reliance Israel has on the United States is, in the long-term, not feasible; it is already a weakness for them in that the politicians feel they are paralysed without the green light from America, something that has been historically present since Israel’s independence. Other opinion pieces suggest that the dependence on the US is “at least in part self-imposed and unnecessary” (Sper 2015). Either way, the two countries have been politically diverging for years and have less and less in common – regardless of leaders. The US is trying to wean itself from being too heavily involved in the Middle East, though of course the “pivot to Asia” may take some time yet. It is unlikely the US will ever truly leave the Middle East alone, nor will they ever abandon Israel – Israel is too valuable a strategic asset in the region for them and too tightly under their control – but if they do not have the same stakes in the Middle East as they had during the 20th century and early 21st century, they will not have the same stakes in their regional ally. And finally, if there is a chance the US will not remain the global economic power (or the sole superpower) in the long-term, there seems little point for Israel to invest so much in a relationship that will only turn out to be a liability in the long run. Perhaps it is time for Israel to seek another ally in addition to America – possibly one geographically closer.
Alternatives to the United States?
There is little point in only arguing that Israel’s reliance on the US is a weakness if an alternative cannot be presented. Israel’s over-reliance on the United States is a weakness; it has both isolated it in the region and rendered the future of the relationship uncertain because of the US’s changing interests – but it is a weakness that Israel must endure if Israel cannot or will not form meaningful relationships with its neighbours or other countries. Unfortunately, the surrounding Arab countries have no particular love for the Jewish state – fewer still showed any love for their Jewish populations before they were largely purged during the 20th century – and demonstrate no signs they even desire to pursue a better relationship with Israel.
Devin Sper, in his opinion piece earlier this year in The Times of Israel, wrote that “in some respects, the United States is irreplaceable, but in others, Israel has real alternatives” (2015). This is true. The United States is invaluable to protecting Israel’s national interests on a global scale; Israel is otherwise alone without the US’s veto power on the UNSC, and even though the military aid is provided with strict stipulations, it is aid nonetheless and it is a sum they are unlikely to receive from any other nation in the world. Sper does not advocate that Israel end its partnership with the US. (If the relationship were to end, it would undoubtedly end on the US’s terms, not Israel’s.) Rather, Sper suggests that Israel should seek ways to end the exclusivity of the relationship which has hindered so much of Israel’s freedom of action and prohibited it from forming meaningful ties with other states (2015).
It is surprisingly difficult to find material on Sino-Israeli relations – especially since as of May 2015, China has become Israel’s third-largest trading partner (Uniyal 2015). Although Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to recognise the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1950, it was also the last to establish formal diplomatic relations – something that did not occur until January 24, 1992 due to a variety of factors, including (but not limited to) the Cold War and the “US factor in Sino-Israeli ties” (Pevzner 2015). Even after 1992, the relationship between the two countries experienced a “crisis” following a US demand that Israel cease security ties with China, according to Alexander Pevzner, the founding director of The Chinese Media Centre in Rishon (2015).
Important things have been occurring in Sino-Israeli relations lately, the future of which cannot yet be predicted. Beijing is working to renew relations with Israel (Evron 2015). Meanwhile, cultural and economic ties flourishing. Two-way trade volume between Israel and China increased “almost 200 times since relations were officially established” – in 1992, trade was only a little more than $50 million. In 2012, it was $9.91 billion in 2012 (Jewish Virtual Library 2015). The most telling sign that high diplomatic relations were resuming was Netanyahu’s visit to China in May 2013; high-ranking Chinese ministers have visited Israel since then (Evron 2015). China is re-engaging its relations with Israel and no longer hiding it. According to Dr Yoram Evron of the Haifa University’s Department of Asian studies, the main reason for this is China’s growing self-confidence and its desire to step up to become a regional – and possible future world – leader (2015). The present instability of the Israel-Palestinian conflict aside, Beijing appreciates Israel’s general stability in comparison in the region – and, like the US, appreciates its regional strategic importance. In the future, China could very well step up to become a world power, and to become an effective world power good relations with strategic regional actors is vital – “especially when those powers are the traditional allies of its main rival” (Evron 2015).
Despite the US’s apparent declining interest in the Middle East and diverging diplomatic paths with Israel, circumstances will not allow Israel to immediately replace its close alliance with the America with an equivalent relationship with China. At any rate, to call China a viable, realistic alternative to the US as an ally to Israel is presumptuous at this stage. Can Israel really expect – or for that matter, trust – China to veto UNSC resolutions that would otherwise be harmful to Israel’s national interests, despite the surprising economic and cultural cooperation? China, like the US, will have an agenda in forging tight diplomatic ties with Israel. And the United States is not about to stop intervening on Israel’s behalf on the global platform, regardless of personality differences between the present political leaders and diverging interests. But the US is Israel’s only steadfast ally; unless Israel can form meaningful relationships with other states, the over-reliance will become a liability in the future.
Over-reliance on the United States is more than just a potential long-term weakness for Israel. It is already a weakness, and it is not necessarily a weakness they have had much say in. Israel is dependent on the US in almost all areas of diplomacy, and that level of sole reliance is surely not sustainable in the future. It is a bilateral relationship that has come at the cost of certain freedoms and independence, as well as restrictions on forming partnerships with other states. If the US does indeed want to withdraw from the Middle East, Israel’s main support base may not have the same stakes in it – and there is no present alternative to the US’s support, which exposes just how isolated Israel is. Although it is unlikely the United States will ever abandon Israel – since Israel is too valuable for them as a foothold in the Middle East – there is no guarantee that the US will even be the global superpower in the future, considering China’s rise and Russia’s assertiveness. Until or if Israel can find another state to forge ties with to take pressure off deep (and conditional) relationship with the United States, Israel has no choice but to continue its reliance on them, even at cost to itself and its interests.
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