Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday he was committed to working with U.S. President Donald Trump to advance peace efforts with the Palestinians and with the broader Arab world.
Netanyahu made the pledge in a speech to the largest U.S. pro-Israel lobbying group at a time when the Trump administration is seeking agreement with his right-wing government on limiting settlement construction on land the Palestinians want for a state, part of a U.S. bid to resume long-stalled peace negotiations.
But why is his statement both a ploy and bankrupt? It has less to do with the morality of the situation – though that is also shaping Israel’s alliance with America in a way Tel Aviv does not like – and more to do with Israel’s vanishing usefulness to the superpower.
Netanyahu is a uniquely irrational, and uniquely successful, leader of the Israeli state. He has indulged all the worst traits of Israel’s body politic for short term gain while undermining the viability of Israel to survive once America tires of sponsoring it. It is a geopolitical borderland and has spent most of its history ruled by forces from Persia, Anatolia, or Egypt. It naturally slides into the orbit of whichever of this powers is greatest. Most recently, that was Ottoman Turkey, based out of Anatolia.
Israel is locked into a small, though productive, patch of land that cannot survive without outside help. It is a geopolitical borderland and has spent most of its history ruled by forces from Persia, Anatolia, or Egypt. It naturally slides into the orbit of whichever of this powers is greatest. Most recently, that was Ottoman Turkey, based out of Anatolia.
Yet Israel’s unique spiritual and cultural significance has long outstripped its geopolitical usefulness. Ambitious elites have long leveraged the country’s holiness. Stewardship of Jerusalem is a powerful prop to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, who can shield their other failures with a holy aegis. Christian European powers went so far as to wage the geopolitically irrational Crusades trying to grab the prestige of Jerusalem.
There is a pattern here: far away Western powers see Jerusalem as a prize in and of itself. They use their superior military technology to overpower weak local states. But they then discover that Israel is more costly to defend than it is to conquer. On a long enough timeline, all distant sponsors of Holy Land states come to this realization and abandon their spiritual projects.
The British did this. They went from the euphoria of liberating Jerusalem to Christian hands in 1917 to despondency over Palestinian unrest in 1948, abruptly abandoning the mandate to civil war.
Now, slowly, the Americans are repeating the pattern. Israel used to be a very useful proxy state to balance Soviet-sponsored Egypt and Syria in the Cold War. But Egypt is in the American camp, and Syria has almost erased itself from wider geopolitical calculation. Israel has desperately tried to portray itself as a useful anti-jihad base, but Israel’s jihadist foes like Hamas and Hezbollah have wisely avoided antagonizing the United States. In fact, Hamas arrests more al-Qaeda than Israel does.
This hard reality is seeping into the American body politic. Obama routinely criticized Israel’s Netanyahu, both publicly and privately. Netanyahu fought back. These spats were impossible to imagine even ten years ago. Yet they reflect the reality that Israel needs America far more than the other way around.
Netanyahu is gambling that a change of personality in the White House will save the special relationship he needs to keep his career. He will doubtless get some traction for a while. Yet even a huge personality like Trump cannot overcome brute interest. Sooner or later, Israel will have to recognize it cannot exist without peace with its Arab neighbors.