Israeli democracy and US interests

Netanyahu and Obama at the White House (Reuters/Jim Young)

In Israel, the extent to which the country needs US aid and support is hotly contested between those who fear that the liberal democratic fabric of the Jewish state is eroding in the face of an overwhelming and fast-approaching numerical advantage of the religious and ultra-orthodox in society, and those who believe that the Jewish state should not have to answer to any foreign government, regardless of its power and stature. This latter group consists of the ideological descendants of Israeli revisionist leader, Menachem Begin, who at one point in his career explained to President Ronald Reagan that “the people of Israel have lived for 3,700 years without a memorandum of understanding with America, and will continue to live without it for another 3,700 years!” The urgency of the discussion has gained new ground recently as the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has introduced a series of Knesset laws and debates that leftist leaders feel directly threaten the quality of Israeli democracy. The latest example is “boycott law,” which penalizes people or organizations who call for a boycott on Israel or the settlements.

Two questions therefore beg to be answered. First what is the likelihood that Israel would slip away from its democratic values and ideas? Second, what is the chance that the US would withdraw its political, economic, and strategic support in such an event?

The answer to the first question is quite simple although its implications are still largely hypothetical. Israeli numbers show that in 2035 children from ultra-orthodox and religious Jewish families—groups who decidedly place liberal democratic values second to religious law—will make up a majority in the nation’s elementary school system. While neither the ultra-orthodox, nor the religious, are homogeneous groups, a fact which may contribute to the upholding of democratic values, one cannot expect that a political system supported solely by the rivalry between religious groupings, will be entirely stable, nor committed to democratic principles. But even so, what are the political implications for such a development both in terms of domestic and international policy? Domestically, we can expect less support for a two-state type of solution with the Palestinians, and more emphasis of Israel’s bond to the Biblical Jewish lands of Judea and Samaria (present day West-Bank), and a push for the annexation of the territory without its non-Jewish inhabitants. Internationally, we can expect more Avigdor Liebermans and Bibi Netanyahus, albeit much more unapologetic with an added religious twist. With such politicians at its helm Israel would continue to distance itself from its American “influence,” in the end, Jews have learned throughout history that they cannot trust anyone but themselves.

One question that is beginning to surface in the American international security debate is whether Israel is a vital or secondary interest to US security. In an article on the website of the Center for Security and International Studies earlier this year, Anthony Cordesman argues that Israel is no longer a primary interest for the US; thus, Israel should be more careful how it throws its weight around as well as how it handles its foreign policy, especially with regard to settlements, Turkish flotilla raids and ill-timed diplomatic blunders that embarrass the White House. In a colloquy to Cordesman’s piece, a Jerusalem Post writer, Carolyn Glick, unleashed a long list of historic and contemporary rationales as to why the US relationship and commitment to the Jewish state goes far beyond the moral and the ethical, arguing that is based on a deep historic sense of shared responsibility for common moral and political values.  Such values argues Glick, not only makes Israel America’s only dependable Middle East ally, but also a vital part of its national security since, she notes, “Israel’s enemies are the US’s enemies.”

Only time will tell how US policy will react to changing realities in the Middle East, but chances are that Americans will find themselves increasingly involved in the extension of an entirely Israeli debate over it’s own identity crisis. While this crisis has entertained Israeli intellectuals and political scientists for decades already, little of its content has seeped through to the American non-Jewish public debate. At the 2010 annual conference for the Association of Israel Studies, Israeli political scientist, Zvi Bar’el cautioned that Israel is becoming increasingly undemocratic and that its internal identity crisis between those who see the future of Israel as a democratic state and those who see it as the resurrection of Biblical Israel ruling over all the historic territory is increasingly tying the hands of secular policy makers. As democracy ceases to be an imperative for a majority Israelis, he explained, Israel risks losing the support of its most important ally, the US.

But even more important is whether such a development would matter for the relationship between Israel and the US. In the spring of 2000, I listened as my then dean, Paul Wolfewitz, explained that the US should find a reason to invade Iraq, depose Saddam Hussein, and install a friendly democracy in the Middle East, all of it financed through the country’s own oil production. However, the fact that the US has many friends in the Middle East that are neither democratic nor liberal shows that the democratic argument was the least important in Wolfewitz’s calculations. Hence, in the case of Israel, it would change little. An authoritarian or theocratic Israel would still be under threat from Iran and would thus continue to welcome US strategic and military support. Jewish Israelis would continue to have ties to Diaspora Jews in the US whose financial support would continue to fund social and political causes including many congressional campaigns. Let’s be frank: the US is not about to abandon its most stable and critical military partnerships in the world because of an increasingly authoritarian domestic political climate. But then, is there anything that Israel can do which would change the US attitude or support? While the short answer is no, the long answer is beginning to develop in the present atmosphere in the Middle East. With Israel’s leadership increasingly defiant, and the White House visibly perturbed, it may force Israel to act like a “normal nation” (heaven forbid), and open up “lanes” of communication to its most immediate neighborhood. Although we know from experience that forcing Israel to the negotiation table is no guarantee that negotiations will actually be fruitful, the US politicians may increasingly find that it is in our national interest to resolve the Palestinian problem humanely, if not fairly, so as to increase the chances of a stable and secure Middle East.

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