Nations don’t have friends, they have interests. Thanks De Gaulle! Such an idea underpins much in foreign relations. Nobody out there is friends with your country, much as you might think they are. And yet, quite stubbornly, the U.S.-Israeli relationship continues to be categorized not as a strategic one but one based on fraternal bonds of whateverness.
I was fascinated to watch the comments section of George Friedman’s most recent post descend into chaos. The post was about how it made a great deal of sense to improve American relations with Iran, even if that hurt relations with Israel. The comments accordingly went after Friedman for a variety of sins – from being naive to incomprehensible. Meanwhile, peppering the board just to keep it interesting was someone bashing Israel for even existing while being bashed by Israel supporters in return.
Why does Israel, a small state of only 8 million or so, get people so hot and bothered so quickly? The answer is less about religion and more about people misunderstanding how states behave.
Nobody is friends with your country, and nobody ever will be
Friendship is an equitable relationship that involves give or take, trust and love, history and decency, etc. None of this applies to foreign relations. States establish relationships to gain advantage, power, and security; they reduce or break relationships for the same reason. Despite that sticker I saw in Jerusalem in 2011, Israel would not send forces to save New York from an alien invasion out of loyalty and fidelity but only if they believed it would guarantee them further security in the future. This is not to slag off Israel. Rather, this is to say that this is the completely reasonable and acceptable thing to do.
States are collections of elites who, combined with their middlemen, organize large groups of people into countries, governments, and societies. They cannot act like your best friend because the psychology is vastly different. They can’t keep promises and they can’t be trusted to be the same after just a few years, let alone a generation, because elites in most states are constantly being cycled out and replaced by either death, coup, election, or internal wrangling. Each elite group brings with it its own set of priorities which always seek more advantage, power, and security. How a state can accomplish that is based on its geography, demography, ruling system, and cultural psychology.
Israel is in the same position all states have been that base themselves out of Canaan
All states – from ancient to modern – have the same geographic problems securing themselves in that portion of territory. It’s not very big, and so can’t support populations as large as neighbors in Syria, Egypt, or Turkey. It’s natural barriers aren’t very good, so it can’t play the Greek card and hold up behind mountains should those larger and more powerful neighbors get an itch to conquer it. It must always seek a qualitative advantage over a quantitative one. If you can’t have ten soldiers, you’d better arm one so well that he can kill at least nine of them.
And so all successful states in the region survived because foreign powers supported them with such an edge. Israel has found the absolute best one in the world – the lone superpower. So long as that relationship survives, Israel believes its security is assured.
But what does America get from it (besides its flag being burned alongside the Israeli one)?
Israel once served a vital strategic interest for the United States – it tied down Soviet-backed Arab states. The defeats Israel inflicted on Egypt forced Egypt to reevaluate its partnership with the Soviets, culminating in their about-face to the Western camp in the 1970s. That in and of itself was worth all the hassle of supporting Israel in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1980s, Israeli forces continued to keep Syria, still Soviet-backed, busy, and ensured no communist force emerged in Lebanon.
After the end of the Cold War, however, and the collapse of communism, Israel’s usefulness has waned. Because of all the blowback America has gotten and will continue to get, American elites talk openly of changing the current relationship to one that burns fewer bridges.
That rightly worries Israel
Israel knows its most secure with its superpower patron. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon have all, one by one, de jure or de facto, accepted that Israel is going nowhere because to attack Israel means to go up against superior American military technology (and most likely lose). Anything that threatens access to those weapons is a threat to Israel’s security.
Thus Israel has long focused nearly its entire diplomatic effort on keeping American support. Israel loudly supports the United States in many of the efforts it undertakes in hopes that this will keep American friendship alive.
A lot of this effort involves myth-making and distorted histories
Like all states, Israel selects facts and stories that serve state interests first. (No state will ever start its school history book with a paragraph describing why its such a shitty place for doing nasty things to people in the past). Israel has successfully tied its creation to the Holocaust, in spite of the fact that Zionism is almost older than Hitler. Ariel Sharon tied Israel’s security operations in the West Bank in 2002-5 to America’s War on Terror. Israel reminds people that it’s the only democratic state in the Middle East.
All of this tries to undermine the emerging geopolitical reality that’s been coming along since 1991. America no longer needs Israel to counterbalance anyone. Syria’s dissolution takes them off the threat map; Egypt remains firmly pro-American, and if they do slip out of it, where will they go for military goods? Lebanon is hopelessly divided and Jordan’s king rules partially because he keeps Western aid coming.
Alas, a lot of people mistake international relations for friendships in school
Shortly after the American Revolutionary War, America fought a Quasi-War with its former ally France. Why? Because alliances shift and relationships change based on interests. Why is Britain one of America’s closest allies, despite being the former colonial overlord? For the same reasons.
Israel’s diplomatic efforts have not been wasted, but are increasingly less effective. As they become less effective, supporters become more shrill – hoping that if they shout loud enough they can keep the crowd from wandering away (the right part to start is around 4:45). American elites used to be unified in the knowledge that Israel served American purposes, but that’s no longer true. Only Iran and Syria remain outside the American camp (and Syria probably shouldn’t count anymore). Their government forms, religions, and cultures are irrelevant to American interests, which are hinged on energy and international security (the House of Saud continues to get American cooperation by keeping the oil spigot going and smashing up Al Qaeda).
Israel can’t serve much of a purpose against Iran because they share no borders. America can’t use Israel as much to tie down Iranian resources in expensive arms races or bloody proxy wars. Year by year, the bang for each American buck that goes towards Israeli security delivers smaller and smaller returns.
This is not to say America will totally abandon Israel
The U.S. desires a divided Middle East underneath an American security umbrella. It wants powers unable to challenge one another without American permission and would like, eventually, to see the region turn into a proto-EU – toothless but economically vibrant and willing to trade with the U.S. There’s no reason that Israel can’t fit into this American-drawn map. But there’s increasingly less and less use for Israel in the process of drawing it.
The shouting will get louder
Each election cycle in the U.S. will weaken support for Israel as the years go by. This will cause those who are emotionally or religiously attached to the state to grow louder in their condemnations of Americans who, by accident or design, reward politicians who vote this way. Israel will continue to believe it must have a special relationship with America for years to come. But America will increasingly believe that Israel’s existence will not be threatened should it reduce its military support.
This will be because America will start to believe it will have sorted the Middle East’s border problems that have plagued it since 1917. This won’t mean the Middle East won’t have many, many problems, but it will mean that no states will attempt to absorb or destroy one another. (Likely, the U.S. will encourage further Balkanization).
The final hinge will be bringing Iran into the American camp. Should this happen, Israel’s relationship will be accordingly downgraded, because the final piece of the map will be in place and America will have no need for any one national army to be stronger than any other. On that day, expect the shouts to be loudest – but expect the crowd to wander away just the same.