For more than 60 years, the American-Israeli relationship has by and large been incredibly close. Most of us, on both sides of the Atlantic, assumed that the election of Barack Obama three years ago would assure the continuation of this long-standing friendship. Unfortunately however, American and Israeli supporters of this special relationship quickly began to notice a subtle but noticeable change in the dynamics between the two administrations. This change points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the moral and strategic reasoning behind the relationship. More important, this shift in U.S. policy not only has laced Israel into a precarious position, but also is endangering American interests throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.
During my recent visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, I could not help but notice once again how much attention our small corner of the world continuously receives throughout the United States. Despite an economy in danger of a double-dip recession, European banks on the brink of implosion and a war on al Qaeda that has expanded to the Arabian Peninsula, President Obama felt the need to dedicate a large part of his address to the General Assembly to the seemingly insolvable Israeli-Arab conflict.
This sentiment is not limited to government officials. During my meetings with Americans of all types of political and religious affiliation, the topic of Israel – and concern for the Jewish state’s security – was raised constantly. While this may seem like an obvious topic of conversation with an elected Israeli official, the level of concern that is expressed to me is markedly different from what confronts me during my meetings in Europe. This is a fact that is constantly reaffirmed in public opinion polls.
On an official level, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has been a constant – and some would say rare – point of bipartisanship throughout the decades. It was Democratic President Harry S. Truman who recognized the infant state before any other nation. Republican President Richard Nixon’s nonstop airlift of needed weapons during the 1973 Yom Kippur War ensured Israel’s survival during that pivotal moment. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are two more examples of presidents who agreed on very little domestically but continued to develop and expand the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and well-being.
Many have tried to explain and analyze this unwavering support for Israel. I think this commitment is the result of three important elements: religious beliefs, shared values and basic strategic security needs.
There is no denying the historic and religious ties that result from our shared Judeo-Christian heritage. The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world, so it is obvious that the return of the Jewish people to their historic homeland after thousands of years in exile was an event of much significance to millions of Americans.
Our shared values of democracy, liberalism and human rights also have contributed to the Israeli-U.S. relationship. Even now, while the world hopes for positive results that may or may not follow the Arab Spring, Israel remains the only true democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, where the civil rights of all its citizens are respected and leaders answer directly to the people in regular, free and open elections. The American people recognize and respect this important distinction.
Finally, and I believe most importantly, Israel is a true strategic ally to the United States. It is a known axiom that Israel is the U.S.’ cheapest and most effective aircraft carrier in the region. Aside from a small number of soldiers who were stationed in Israel to operate the Patriot air-defense system, American soldiers have never had to deploy to defend the Jewish state. Israel has never made demands for concessions from the United States in return for strategic assets and access, as so many other allies have done. On the contrary, Israel regularly supplies the United States with anti-terrorism training and know-how and much-needed intelligence that help the U.S. military keep the American people safe. Examples of this type of cooperation are too numerous to list and mainly remain classified and unknown to most. However, one can only imagine the threats that would be posed today to America and U.S. interests from both terrorist elements and belligerent states like Iran if not for the high level of cooperation between these two allies.
The Obama administration claims that it is trying to help Israel by enacting a “balanced” approach to our conflict with the Palestinians. While this new policy may be the result of a genuine belief that it can alter the reality that we have had to deal with in our region for almost 100 years, this is not how it is perceived by many in the region. It is clear that extremist elements are instead emboldened by the distance that has become apparent between the United States and Israel. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is steering Turkey dangerously away from Europe, Israel and the West and reorienting this NATO member as an ally of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, initial hopes for the emergence of a liberal democracy in the most populated Arab country has given way to violent extremism that so far has resulted in the attack on Israel’s embassy and continuous and often fatal violence against women and religious minorities such as the Coptic Christians. These are just two examples of the emerging strength of extremists in our region that are the direct result of the changing U.S. orientation.
While I respect Mr. Obama’s attempts at solving the bloody conflict that has taken too many lives for too many years, I would advise him not to abandon the principle of “zero daylight” between the U.S. and Israel on the core issues we face. This special relationship is not an act of American charity. It is a strategic alliance that greatly benefits two like-minded countries that share common heritage and values. I urge the president to assess for himself whether this can be said of any other country in the Middle East.
By Danny Danon, deputy speaker of the Knesset.