By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
The United States is a virtual island. Bordered by two oceans and with nothing to its north except a thin band of middle-class Canadian settlements, its only geographic challenge is with a burgeoning Mexican population to its south. Israel, by contrast, lies half a world away and is a small and claustrophobic country bordered by enemies on three sides. Because the geographic situations of the United States and Israel are so utterly different, the idea that their geopolitical interests must always and completely overlap is just plain silly.
True, both countries are democracies. Israel's democratic system, with all its flaws, is more stable than perhaps any regime in the Middle East. Furthermore, Israel's pro-Western orientation and the relative talent of its security forces have provided both tangible and intangible benefits to the United States over the decades. Nevertheless, while these factors mitigate the vastly different geographic situations of both countries, they do not overcome them.
On a range of issues, the United States and Israel will simply have different points of view and different interests. The notion that there is "no daylight" separating the two countries' positions, as U.S. officials periodically proclaim in order to appeal to pro-Israel voters, is factually dishonest. It clearly does not reflect the thinking of the many officials at various levels of the bureaucracy in the different governing departments in both Washington and Jerusalem.
Therefore, it is perfectly legitimate for any academic or policy analyst to proclaim that Israeli actions are harmful to U.S. interests. Precisely because the two countries must have different goals periodically owing to their vastly different geographical situations, Israeli actions must, perforce, from time to time be inimical to U.S. interests, just as American actions are from time to time inimical to Israel's. This is all to be expected.
It follows that it is also legitimate to argue for a substantial change in the terms of the U.S.-Israel relationship: It may well be in America's interest to demand more concessions from the Israelis in exchange for the aid they receive.
However, to go a step further and state that America's overall relationship with Israel is inimical to U.S. interests — while it may still be a legitimate argument — is also very naive. It is naive because the U.S.-Israel relationship over the decades has become such a feature of U.S. policy in the Middle East that to disrupt it would be seen as a diminution of U.S. power itself. You simply do not desert a prominent ally without reducing your reputation for power. In the mid-1970s, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger proved that obtaining disengagement accords between Israel and its Arab neighbors, while requiring substantial Israeli concessions, did not require a fundamental weakening of the bilateral relationship.
Kissinger proved something else: The key to getting Israeli concessions in the first place is to make it clear that Washington was fully committed to Israel's defense as a matter of preserving America's own reputation for power. Sentiment should have relatively little to do with America's support for Israel; it should mainly be about national interest. Late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, himself every inch a realist, indicated as much.
In sum, Israel is more likely to bend to America's interests when it feels fully confident that the American administration in question is itself fully committed to the projection of American power in the Middle East. For a Middle East dominated by the United States is one in which Israel can subsume some of its own geopolitical interests within those of America's.
Clearly, the highpoint of Washington's stewardship of the American-Israeli relationship came during the administrations of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. The administration of Jimmy Carter was also quite successful in obtaining Israeli concessions — witness the Camp David Peace Accords — even though the Carter administration was less noted for conveying a sense of American power abroad. But the Carter administration — as well as the others mentioned — had an advantage that current administrations do not: a more conducive media environment.
The fact is that the kind of overt pressure that secretaries of state like Kissinger and James A. Baker III (under the elder Bush) exerted on Israel is hard to imagine in today's media and public policy climate in Washington. Kissinger and Baker clearly communicated that U.S. and Israeli interests were not necessarily synonymous, and, therefore, U.S. support for Israel at current levels required commensurate Israeli concessions. And they got them. But today, with a 24-hour electronic media, encompassing blogs and tweets, themselves issuing from even more far-reaching sources of pro-Israeli sentiment — both organized and spontaneous — it is frankly difficult to believe that any president, especially any president committed to his own re-election, would risk making ultimatums to Israel of the kind made by Nixon, Ford, Carter and the elder Bush.
Making this situation even worse is that Israel's own politics have evolved, to the point where right-wing majorities — in most instances less committed to territorial compromise — appear to be permanent features of the local political landscape. Then there is the divisive Palestinian political climate, in which no moderate Palestinian politician of any note is capable of making concrete and sustained peace gestures to Israel that would confront Israeli leaders with real constructive choices — for fear of losing his own credibility within the movement.
Now geography has stretched U.S.-Israeli relations to a new level of tension. Israel, a small country whose population is clustered in the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv-Haifa corridor, has no strategic depth. Therefore, it cannot tolerate the possibility of a hostile Iran with nuclear weapons only a thousand miles away. The United States faces little or no direct risk from a few, low-grade Iranian nukes. The threat to the United States is indirect: A nuclear Iran threatens U.S. allies, including Israel — and, thus, threatens America's reputation for power in the Middle East and the world. This is a substantial risk, but not one of the same magnitude that Israel faces. It is from this differentiation of risk that the tension arises between Washington and Jerusalem. Washington can attack Iran only if it faces literally no other choice. Of course, Jerusalem would describe its own policy likewise, but Jerusalem's red line is closer and more acute than Washington's.
I believe that the real reason Israel has not attacked Iran yet is less because it lacks the military capacity than because its leaders have felt utterly lonely in regard to support from Washington over the past few years, and thus completely vulnerable in the event that they launched such an attack. And this very fact is itself proof of the heightened tension defining the Washington-Jerusalem dialogue.
The middle- and long-term future looks worse for Israel, barring a dramatic political upheaval in Iran that brings a more reasonable regime to power. Nevertheless, as Shiite militancy remains undampened, Sunni militancy intensifies across the region. Furthermore, beginning in a decade or so, the United States will have relatively little need of energy from the Persian Gulf, reducing measurably its geopolitical interest in the region. This will make Israel even lonelier.
A combination of such strategic loneliness, demographic vulnerability vis-a-vis the Arab population under its nominal control and lack of credible Palestinian interlocutors will, I believe, necessitate on some future date an Israeli unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and the accompanying closure of Jewish settlements in these areas. Withdrawing from substantial amounts of territory — while keeping other substantial parts — will prevent Israel from becoming an Apartheid-like state, even as it grants Israel more strategic depth when compared to a total withdrawal. True, the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 has not gone well. But would Israel's strategic and demographic situation be better if Israeli troops still had to police the Strip? I don't think so.
Such a bold withdrawal by Israel would leave other fundamental problems unresolved, like those of an Iranian nuclear power and relations with its Arab neighbors. But Israel's strategic peril may, in fact, have no solution. And that means it will have to manage its partnership with Washington ever more adroitly.