Back in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party have run a campaign ad reminding voters of another time when the U.S. and Israel differed. That was 1948, at the very creation of the state. Harry Truman was the U.S. president, and George C. Marshall was the secretary of state. Truman was being lobbied to recognize Israel.
Marshall, not to put too fine a point on it, thought that was dumb. Truman did it anyway, but Marshall, if I may be so bold, had a point — and it is one that Netanyahu himself has lost sight of.
To be clear, Truman did the right thing — and he did it with commendable alacrity. (The U.S. was first to recognize Israel.) Truman acted for a number of reasons.
He was an inveterate Bible reader, and he thought that Jews had a powerful moral claim to what was then Palestine. He was aware that Israel was not some sort of post-Holocaust compensation package for worldwide Jewry but a necessity for their survival. And last, Truman needed the Jewish vote, particularly in New York state.
Nowadays, Marshall would be called a foreign-policy realist. He argued that the U.S. was risking its position and prestige in the Middle East to placate a domestic lobby. He insisted that the beneficiary of Truman’s Palestine policy would be the Soviet Union.
To put it concisely, Truman took the side of a tiny people with no oil against a plenteous people with lots of it.
Nothing much has changed since then. Israel has some offshore energy, but it’s hardly an emerging Saudi Arabia. It still is loathed by its neighbors and, to complicate matters, it persists in a settlements policy that the U.S. opposes and much of the world abhors.
Nonetheless, Americans by and large support Israel, and Washington, even under the supposedly cool Barack Obama, maintains a very special relationship with it. That, now, is in danger.
But the fault line in the U.S.-Israel relationship is hardly the current clash of personalities. It’s that the relationship is based mainly on affection.
Americans like Israel. They like its democratic values; they like its spunky underdogness. Conservative Christians like Israel for reasons of religious dogma, but they, too, have come to admire it for its secular values.
Still, none of this is based on self-interest — the underpinning of a successful foreign policy. In power politics, it’s usually not enough to be liked. A nation has to be considered essential. Israel may be beloved, but for American security, it is not essential.
The fact is that America does not need Israel. Our relationship was not forged, as it was with Britain, in two world wars, not to mention a common language and, in significant respects, culture. It is based on warmth, emotion, shared values — and, not to be dismissed, a potent domestic lobby.
But these ties are eroding. Support for Israel remains strong, but where once it was universal, it has increasingly drifted from left to right. In much of the liberal community, hostility to Israel is unmistakable. Some of it is openly expressed, some of it whispered.
Netanyahu has made matters worse. He has tethered Israel to the Republican Party. He was criticized for seeming to prefer Mitt Romney to Obama in 2012 and now has been enlisted in the Republican House speaker’s partisan effort to embarrass the president.
In doing so, he dissed an American president who happens to be black, hardly a way to shore up support in the African-American community. (Many African-American members of Congress say they will boycott the speech.) Netanyahu has started — or exacerbated — a process in which support for Israel may become not just a partisan issue but a liberal-conservative one.
Iran may or may not be the existential threat to Israel that Netanyahu insists it is. But a lessening of American support for Israel would be.
With an indifferent America, Israel would become a lonely, frightening place. Its chief export would not be high tech but Jews looking to get out. This is hardly the settlements policy that Netanyahu intends.
When Netanyahu hearkens back to 1948, he hearkens back not only to a different America but to a different Israel as well. It was not yet an occupation power, and it did not mistreat Palestinians. Israel was a small country with a huge and convincing moral argument. If it loses that, it’s simply lost.