A New Pivot for Israel?

For much of its modern history, Israel has been a Western/European State with a Middle East address. Israel, born of Europe after the Holocaust, was to provide the Jewish people with a national identity. For almost 70 years, Israel maintained alliances with nations that shared its democratic political process or was a future home to Jews still within a diaspora. The continuity of these relationships has always been assumed but may prove neither protective nor permanent.

The United States is, by size and distances, a nation that has a reflex for isolation. Despite its 20th century role in global conflict and its 21st century penchant for regional or sectarian wars, its political default is to be averse to entanglements and ambiguous regarding what is or is not a vital national interest.

Such insularity runs deep in our history. Immediately after the outbreak of the First World War, President Wilson promised U.S. neutrality between its warring factions. During his election campaign of 1940, President Roosevelt assured the nation that he would keep it out of foreign and European wars. It was only dramatic triggering events, e.g., the sinking of the Lusitania or Pearl Harbor that changed public opinion.  

For last twenty years we have endured misadventures in a part of the world that is unsatisfying and unforgiving. These are places with wars without end, waged by people who defend what we often find indefensible. The roster expands to places we neither understand and with whom we do not have a readily visible identity. I wonder how many Americans can locate Yemen on a map. In a March 2015 Pew Foundation poll, over 70% of Americans had heard little or nothing about talks with Iran. These are hardly Super Bowl numbers but very relevant to Israel’s future.

Within this context, I am sure the president has read the new cards dealt in the game of Jewish poker. The political and demographic weight of U.S. Jews is diminishing. Numbers are declining in the U.S. and Jews constitute 0.2 % of world population. Jews are just about an anachronism of American history and, as such, may become less protected from the perennial social forces that marginalized them in the past.

Jeff Goldberg in the Atlantic and David Brooks in the New York Times recognized the homology between anti-Jewish and anti-Israel rhetoric. Some Jews imagine they can the parse this difference so that one (Israel) is condemned while the other (Jews) protected. This is a fragile distinction, as just yesterday, an anti-Israel march in Vienna was soon flavored with chants to “kill the Jews”.

These old enmities now occur in a changing strategic context. The president’s policy appears to be one of minimal engagement which calibrates how little involvement in regional events is good enough. Thus, the U.S. is increasingly comfortable with allowing hegemons, as Iran, to seek domain but not dominion. It is a kind of realpolitik trying to ride both Sunni and Shia horses but likely to fall off both.

We are beset with an Ottoman Middle East with few permanently integrated nation-states and with borders which are no longer boundaries. There are active wars between the polarities of Islam, and latent ones, when the currently warring factions reconfigure to confront the common enemy, Israel. Even now, there is progressive encirclement of Israel from Gaza, Golan, Sinai, and the West Bank. Moreover, whether by stealth or the fruition of the Lausanne framework, Iran retains the capacity and the theocratic mindset to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon. As was said by a senior Tehran official the day of the agreement, “the annihilation of Israel is non-negotiable.”

Within this evolving landscape, Israel is no longer firmly anchored to the old shores. The United States has moved from absolute support, based on a moral bond, to a relative one. For an increasing number of Americans, and especially younger people, Israel is the pariah du jour. Soon enough there will be Security Council resolutions decrying its subjugation of the Palestinians and International Court accusations of Israel as a war criminal. It is hardly likely that any American president will risk a Middle East war over this Israel’s fate. This has not been misunderstood in Tel Aviv.

In many ways, China is the modern natural ally for Israel. As compared to Europe, there is no substantial history of overt persecution of Jews and China ranks quite low on scales that measure current anti-Semitic attitudes. China, as are the Jews, is an old civilization and many social values are similar. Intellectual currencies and common interests in advanced technologies make them both viable trading and investment partners.

China has made Africa a crucial part of its outreach development and is strategically close to the Middle East.  It too has a difficult interface with its own Islamic populations and, for self-serving and not wholly admirable reasons, is keenly aware of its vulnerability to aggressive Islamic geopolitics of any stripe. Finally, a positive relationship in the Middle East would constitute its own Western pivot similar to Obama’s to Asia.

Israel was protected by the West for only as long as there was memory and guilt about the treatment of Jews. It is becoming again acceptable and fashionable to see Jews as part of the problem. As Netanyahu said before Congress, Israel is willing to stand alone or, as I believe, may soon stand with someone else.