Voices in America calling for downgrading US relations with Israel seem to multiply by the day. One of the new voices in the growing anti-Israel chorus is the Atlantic‘s well-respected military affairs commentator, Robert Kaplan. This week Kaplan authored a column for the magazine’s online edition titled “Losing patience with Israel.”
There he expressed his support for the US to downgrade its relations with Israel while pressuring Israel to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and to facilitate the establishment of a Judenrein Palestinian state.
Although Kaplan’s piece adds nothing new to the current pile-on against Israel, it is a relatively concise summary of the so-called “realist” view of Israel, and for that reason it is worth considering his arguments.
As Kaplan sees things, the US’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan in the eight years since the September 11 attacks have transformed America’s interests and goals in the Middle East. The frustrations in Afghanistan and the combat losses in Iraq have rendered “the search for stability, rather than democracy, paramount, and created a climate in which interests are to be valued far more than friends.”
The notion that friends and interests may actually not be in conflict is roundly rejected by Kaplan, particularly in the case of Israel. He gives three reasons why the US’s alliance with Israel no longer serves its interests. First, he repeats the familiar “realist” claim that the only way for America to build good relations with the Muslim world is by distancing itself from Israel.
Second, he argues that after September 11, the US was wrong to believe that it shares common interests with Israel. Whereas Israel’s interests would be served by preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, in Kaplan’s view, the US can afford to look on a nuclear-armed Iran with indifference. On the other hand, an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations can place US forces in Iraq at risk. Hence, as far as Kaplan is concerned, American interests are best served by allowing Iran to become a nuclear power and preventing Israel from doing anything to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
The third reason why Kaplan views Israel as a strategic liability to the US in this new era of “realism” is because it is no longer a strong military power. As he put it, Israel’s failure to defeat Hizbullah and Hamas in its recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza “reduced its appeal.”
LIKE HIS anti-Israel colleagues in Washington, Kaplan claims that his is a “realist” approach to the region. But this is untrue. The realist foreign policy doctrine assumes that all nations’ foreign policies reflect their national interests rather than their sentiments. That is, in determining their foreign policies, states are not motivated by their passions, but by rational choice.
Beginning in the first Bush administration, Arabists like former US secretary of state James Baker began co-opting the realist label. In so doing, they sought to obfuscate their sentimental pro-Arab views of Israel behind the veneer of rational choice. Specifically, they popularized the anti-realist notion that due to their emotional rejection of Israel, Arab and Muslim states will not support America unless it puts the screws in Israel.
The realist foreign policy doctrine rejects this notion out of hand. Given its assertion that states base their foreign policies on unsentimental assessments of their national interests, true realists would argue that there is no rational bar to enemy states sharing the same allies if doing so advances their national interests. And they would be correct. Indeed, examples of such behavior abound.
India and Pakistan are enemies and yet they both ardently seek closer ties with the US. So too, China has massively expanded its ties to the US since 1971 despite US sponsorship of Taiwan.
The same is also the case with the Arabs and Israel. Contrary to the Arabists’ impassioned claims, the waxing and waning of America’s relations with Arab states over the years has borne little to no relation to the state of America’s relations with Israel.
The US and the Saudis have been strategic allies for upwards of 70 years. These ties have been based on their mutual interest in the free flow of Saudi oil. US-Saudi ties have been consistently maintained regardless of the vicissitudes of Washington’s views of Jerusalem, or even of Washington’s views of Saudi Arabia.
In 1972, when president Anwar Sadat kicked the Soviet military out of Egypt and began moving his country toward the US, America was rapidly expanding its strategic ties to Israel. Sadat’s decision to switch Cold War camps was a product of his own assessment of Egypt’s national interests.
In December 2003, Libya paved the way to renewing its diplomatic relations with the US by agreeing to disarm from its illicit nuclear program. Libya’s action came at a time of unprecedentedly warm US-Israel relations. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi made his move because of the US invasion of Iraq, not because of US ties to Israel.
All of these examples disprove the Arabists’ most ardently held conviction. And the fact that this conviction is so easily refuted raises the question of why the belief that the US’s alliance with Israel harms its ability to maintain and expand its alliances with Muslim and Arab states holds such currency today. The fact that President Barack Obama and his senior foreign policy advisers are themselves Arabists no doubt is a significant contributing factor to the increased popularity of fake realism. But their hostility toward Israel doesn’t explain how Israel’s adversaries continue to successfully hide their Arabist ideology behind the “realist” label.
THE SAD truth is that for the past 16 years, the greatest champion of the view that Israel is a strategic liability rather than a strategic asset for the US, and that the US gains more from a weak Israel than a strong Israel, has been Israel itself. Successive governments in Jerusalem, from the Rabin-Peres government to the Barak, Sharon and Olmert governments, all embraced the Arabist view that regional stability and hence Israeli security is enhanced by a weakened Israel.
Ehud Olmert’s much-derided 2005 assertion that “we are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies,” was simply a whiny affirmation of Israel’s leaders’ embrace of the Arabist worldview.
Kaplan cited Israel’s incompetent handling of the war with Hizbullah in 2006 and its bungling of the campaign against Hamas in Gaza this past December and January as proof of the Arabist claim that it is a strategic burden.
What he failed to recognize was that the Olmert government made a clear decision not to win those wars. Doing so would have exposed as folly the government’s central assertion that Israel is better off being weak than strong. In light of this, it is obvious that the Arabist desire to see Israel weakened is not supported by Israel’s performance in Lebanon and Gaza. Israel’s performance in Lebanon and Gaza was a consequence of its leaders’ adoption of the Arabist worldview. Had they rejected it, the results of those wars would likely have been much different.
So too, Israel’s leaders’ adoption of the Arabist view caused the Rabin-Peres government to empower and legitimize terrorists from Fatah and the PLO in the 1993 Oslo Accord. It similarly convinced the Barak government to surrender south Lebanon to Hizbullah in 2000, and it persuaded the Sharon government to surrender Gaza to Hamas in 2005.
In each case, buying into the Arabist view that stability is enhanced through Israeli weakness rather than strength, Israel exacerbated regional instability and imperiled its own citizens by empowering its enemies at its own expense. Most devastatingly, the Sharon and Olmert governments imperiled Israel’s very survival by deciding from 2003 through 2008 to trust
the US, Europe and the UN to prevent Iran from acquiring the means to destroy the Jewish state.
TODAY, WITH Iran on the cusp of a nuclear arsenal, Fatah openly calling for a renewal of the Palestinian jihad against Israel, Hizbullah pointing its expanded missile arsenal at Tel Aviv and Dimona, and the Obama administration, with the help of an ever-expanding chorus of foreign policy “realists,” advocating full-blown appeasement of both Iran and the Palestinians at Israel’s expense, it is clear that the time has come for Israel to end the Arabist charade. The time has come for Israel to stop being an engine of its own demise.
The Netanyahu government has a clear choice before it. On the one hand, it has Defense Minister Ehud Barak calling for business as usual. This week Barak recommended that Israel preemptively surrender to the Obama administration and accept its demand that Israel capitulate to Fatah. On the other hand, Ministers Yuli Edelstein and Yisrael Katz pointed out that at its leadership conclave in Bethlehem, Fatah exposed itself as an implacable enemy of Israel. Both Edelstein and Katz demanded that the government stop pretending Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas is a moderate who is interested in peace and expose him for the fraud that he is.
Edelstein and Katz are right. It is vital for Israel to stop catering its foreign policy rhetoric to the preferences of its Arabist camp. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu must courageously acknowledge that Fatah remains a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s violent demise.
But more important than harsh words about Fatah are actions against Iran. With a growing international consensus that Teheran has passed the point of no return on its nuclear program and will produce nuclear bombs in the next six to 12 months if left to its own devices, it is clear that as far as Iran is concerned, words are of no value today. Only actions count.
Israel’s willingness and capacity to effectively strike Iran’s nuclear installations will be the ultimate proof that Arabists like Kaplan are wrong to castigate Israel as a strategic burden. By freeing itself, the region and the world from the threat of a nuclear armed Iran, Israel will strike a blow not only at Iran’s ability to wipe it off the map, but at the threefold contentions of the false realists.
An Israeli strike would prevent a regional nuclear arms race by freeing Arab states of the need to develop their own nuclear arsenals and so prove that a strong Israel enhances regional stability. An Israeli strike will rebuild Israel’s eroded deterrent posture and put paid to the notion that Israel is no longer a military power to be reckoned with. And the destruction of Iran’s nuclear capacity will weaken its military posture throughout the region and so weaken its terror proxies from Iraq to Lebanon to Gaza to Afghanistan.
In short, a successful Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear installations will demonstrate to real rather than fake realists that a strong Israel is indispensable to regional stability and international security.
In 1995, Kaplan published a critical book about the Arabist elite at the State Department in which he condemned their simplistic foreign policy outlook. No doubt an Israeli body-blow to the Arabist worldview will compel Kaplan and other new members of the anti-Israel camp to reconsider their views.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.