by Ivan Ciment – Delivered at Limmud Conference, Wednesday 25 December 13:20 in Birmingham, England
For reasons such as demographics, policy decisions, national politics, geopolitics, and changing attitudes, the relationships that sustained the past half century as we knew it are changing, no matter whether Trump stays. This reality is complex. Examine the gamut of elements at play and try to make sense of what will be hugely important for Jews.
I have a question for you – how do you know who your friends are? Are they people who trade favors with you? Are they people who share your values? Now, let’s be honest here. We’re talking friends, not acquaintances or Facebook Friends. Somebody once said a real friend is someone who would lend you $10,000 he didn’t have extra. Would a real friend take a bullet for you or is that asking too much? Let’s say you really get along as friends, but you know that this person wouldn’t do a thing for you, would you still say you’re friends?
People have friends, and countries have allies. America and Great Britain have something their leaders have called a “Special Friendship.” Allies expect each other to spend billions of dollars and send young adults off to die for them. At least they expect that. Can people count on anything these days?
The reason I’m asking the question is that right now Israel is asking itself a question – can it really count on America as its so-called ally to really be there for it? To all appearances, Donald Trump is a fair-weather friend who talks a good game but isn’t there for his friends. When the Kurds needed him, he said that they never really fought for us anyway in World War II and were just a bunch of mercenaries, and just left them stone-cold after they gave over 14,000 lives to help the US fight ISIS. When Iran hit Saudi Arabia’s oil fields wiping out 50% of their production for at least a couple of weeks, Trump said well, we’re not being attacked, so who cares? If Trump can’t deliver for Saudi Arabia, a country that he has totally otherwise sucked up to in expectation of future benefits, where does that leave a country like Israel?
Trump will probably be gone in a year replaced by a Democrat but you can’t underestimate the Democrats’ ability to blow an election just like Labor did here. Worse comes to worse, you get 4 more years of him but then he must constitutionally be gone. If past is prologue, you can then expect a Democratic president. But the Democratic party doesn’t talk about Israel like it used to. None of the major candidates except Biden, who may or may not be a viable candidate, are particularly friendly to Israel. Bloomberg is friendly to Israel but we don’t know if he will win his party’s support. In the past, you could expect that between AIPAC and Jewish voters, the Democratic party would be mindful of Israel and Jewish voters and of Jewish money. According to a recent study by the Ruderman Foundation for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa, 50% of Democratic and 25% of Republican money in 2016 came from Jewish sources. And that 25% figure was calculated before Sheldon Adelson started putting in his money behind Trump which was huge. But today’s Jewish money is not like the Jewish money of a generation ago. There are quite a few Jewish billionaires like Mark Zuckerman at Facebook but they don’t necessarily care about Israel; Pete Buttigieg was getting the most Jewish contributions so far this year and he is not particularly friendly to Israel, and neither is Bernie Sanders.
And the attitudes of Jews and non-Jews in the US are quite different along generational and partisan lines. In the last midterm election, according to a poll taken that day, only 4% of American Jews said that Israel was one of their top 2 most important issues. 65% said they were somewhat or very emotionally attached to Israel; I don’t know much of that figure was “somewhat” but it is also clear that 35% said they were not emotionally attached to Israel at all. This is in line with another survey a year earlier by the American Jewish Committee that found that only 25% of Jews listed Israel as one of their top 3 issues, although more than 70% agreed strongly or somewhat that caring about Israel was a very important part of being Jewish. Again though, 30% did not care. We know that the number of people who don’t care or who feel less supportive of Israel goes up drastically the younger they are and it matters which party they support. According to a recent Pew Research poll published in many major publications, only 27% of Americans under the age of 30 think favorably of the current Israeli government. 61% of Republicans and just 26% of Democrats had favorable views of the Israeli government. A generation ago those partisan percentages would have been flipped. Let’s see how this plays out with Bernie Sanders, who has a good deal of Jewish support. He has been extraordinarily critical of the Israeli government by the standards of American politics, even suggesting that some of the US aid to Israel should instead go to Gaza. But at the same time, he insists that he is pro-Israel and criticizes those on the left who would deny its right to exist as a Jewish state. Those two positions were designed to meet the threshold of what it takes to get the support of the majority of American Jews. If you are Israel, that’s not a heck of a lot to bank on for your future support if you favor Likud or even the Israeli Center, but it is enough to keep you out of the cross-hairs of being considered Anti-Israel for the majority of American Jews.
The odds are that a new government will not look all that much different than the present government, even if Benny Gantz has a softer edge than Bibi Netanyahu. Today’s American young voter is much more apathetic toward Israel, Judaism and progressive or liberal in their politics. Even the younger generation of Evangelicals is less pro-Israel than their parents, and the truth is that Trump cares more about pleasing evangelical voters than Jewish voters because Republicans know that whatever they do, at least 70% of Jews will never vote Republican, but Israel is an important issue for evangelical voters, of whom there are many more and who reliably vote Republican when they vote so Republican leadership have to keep them engaged. For the past 20 years, Israeli leaders knew this and put their eggs in the evangelicals’ basket. I once asked someone who was close to Prime Minister Sharon’s spokesman why they wanted to get in bed with all these evangelicals who were only really interested in Israel in the hopes that someday the Judgement Day will come, that this kind of government would hasten the end of days, and that at that time all the Jews will either become Christians or die and go to hell. He told me that they figured that if and when Jesus comes back from the dead we can talk about it, but meanwhile we’ll take whatever support we can get. That’s a practical approach but it was one thing to be friendly with them and to play up to them – and beyond paying Sheldon Adelson back, the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem was meant to suck up to Evangelicals — and yet another for Bibi Netanyahu to side with Republicans in American domestic politics, particularly when he came to Congress to make a speech directly challenging Obama’s deal with Iran. Democratic leadership have not forgiven him for that intervention. It would be naïve to say that America doesn’t try to influence Israeli politics but secretly funding non-governmental organizations that supported the Labor Party is different than having a prime minister making a speech in front of Congress contradicting a major presidential initiative.
For the next 45 minutes or so, I’m going to discuss this in much more detail now and some of what I say will be very direct, extremely cynical and perhaps disturbing to those who have strong feelings about Israel, but I want you to know that I’m not taking sides here and I’m trying to point out what I see as a strategic issue and you have to be brutally honest in order to be strategically wise and not get caught with your pants down. I am not trying to make a moral argument here. I am fully supportive of the country of Israel, whatever kind of country it turns out to be. I want Israel to succeed and have visited the country and contributed only to non-ideological, non-religion-promoting and non-political charities for over 30 years, but I won’t shy away from facts that I think matter to fully and hopefully you will feel honestly analyze a subject of interest.
Just so we understand where I’m coming from, here’s where I’m going to wind up at the end. I’m going to say that Netanyahu, who for the past several years was more interested in his own political career and ideology than he really cared about the country’s long term future, made many moves that were in the country’s or HIS short-term interests but that clashed against the kinds of values that serve as the basis of a lasting friendship between America and Israel. It might get him plaudits on Fox News and Israelis might be blocking out other news networks such as the BBC that they don’t like to watch, but it has meanwhile alienated roughly 90% of the American Jewish community as well as Americans in the Democratic leadership and even in the military and intelligence communities. He has done things that make Israel seem unreliable as an ally. Fox News looks important but it is increasingly talking to a demographic that is disappearing and it knows it because it is making changes in its board of directors that reflect an American that is not white and over age 70. Right now those people vote more than younger people do and so that demographic matters and is of great financial success to the owners of Fox who literally create and shape news to addictingly appeal to this demographic, but it is not America’s future and it will become clear all of a sudden at some tipping point that this is true. You will literally wake up one morning the day after an election and realize that America has changed.
America has also changed its values as its demographics change and doesn’t see Israel the same way its parents did. There is no chance today that if Israel were under Iranian nuclear attack that people would run to emergency prayer services in their synagogues and buy huge quantities of Israeli bonds like they did in the 1973 Yom Kippur war which I still remember. Just getting a whole generation of increasingly agnostic Jews into a synagogue even on Yom Kippur would be a major project today. Israel’s demographics are also changing – here are some disturbing figures from the Shoresh Institute for Socioeconomic Research in Israel. For every university graduate who leaves the country, 4.5 didn’t come back in 2017; in 2012 that figure was 2.5. This is important because there are 130,000 graduates a year in a country of over 8 million people and something like 20% of the population pay over 90% of the taxes and 50% pay no income tax at all. The less education, the more right-wing the population will be and the less interest there is in being a democracy. The mortality rate from infectious disease in Israel has doubled in the past 20 years because there are fewer doctors and the country’s hospitals are congested at the highest rate in the developed world. The numbers are not going to get any better as Israel puts more money into paying off coalition partners and to its defense than to research and development, education and health care, and these kinds of priorities are obviously not making its best performers feel that they have a future there. Israel is great at start-ups but then the companies get bought up or move abroad as they grow. Earlier generations of Israelis were more European Ashkenazi in nature that had more in common with their Jewish brethren back in America and wherever they were dispersed after World War II; the future of Israel is going to be more Russian, Mizrachi, Haredi Ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arab, and the Ashkenazim are not having nearly as many kids and are angling to get outta there – who exactly are we going to be supporting in Israel anyway? They are not going to be people who have a lot in common with us. Yes, they’re Jewish but increasingly the question will be, what do we Jews in America have in common with them and do they care about us the same way they want us to care about them? Later I’ll talk about some of those statistics and they are also worrying.
By the way, these demographics are also changing similarly in Arab countries. Arabs in the Middle East are also less into religious parties and religion, especially among the young. Participation in religious parties is down by a third in the past 5 years in the region; more specifically, down 50% in Tunisia, 25% in Algeria and 20% in Egypt. Egypt is particularly striking because it is a place where religion is really part and parcel of ordinary people’s lives. Participation in Friday prayers in Iraq is down by a third. So some of these changes are universal to all 3 monotheistic religions.
Obviously, the reason we are sitting in this room today is that you too can see the writing on the wall. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince MBS went out on a limb with Trump saying he would obliterate Iran and now the prince can’t say anything even though Trump is a paper tiger and it is obvious that Iran is emboldened and going to attack Saudi Arabia again, next time worse. Netanyahu put up posters all around the country showing him buddy-buddy with Trump. Neither Netanyahu or MBS can say anything against Trump for fear of making themselves look like idiots. Since Netanyahu failed twice in putting together a government, Netanyahu’s phone calls to Trump are not being returned at this point and Vladimir Putin won’t release an Israeli being kept in a prison as a bargaining chip on a trumped up charge because he doesn’t want to give Netanyahu anything to crow about in an election campaign at this point now that Bibi is damaged goods. Netanyahu must be mighty disappointed because he ran off to Moscow almost 2 dozen times to sidle up to Putin. Netanyahu’s whole foreign policy revolved around the idea that he was a master player that would keep the country safe because he could play everyone else off so skillfully. Well, the gig is up but meanwhile Bibi has left a whole mess behind for the next guy to clean up.
- He’s embraced anti-semites and leaders of autocratic countries such as the Philippines, Hungary and Brazil. They used him to say how anti-semitic can we be if we are friendly with Israel. I’m not sure what Israel got in return from these countries other than that both Bibi and the leader of Hungary don’t like George Soros who was operating in Hungary and has been thrown out. All these stories that show Israeli companies selling spyware to dictators around the world spying on their own citizens from Mexico to Saudi Arabia plus the embrace of all these dictators causes people to wonder which side Israel is on when it comes to the good guys in the world versus the bad guys.
- He’s passed various legislation in the country that sticks it to Israel’s Arab citizens saying that it is a Jewish state and that they are not co-equals as citizens. It may have been done in practice for all these years, but passing a law that says so to get the support of racist coalition partners to shore up a failing government is a great way to show the world that Israel is not practicing what it preaches about being a democracy with equal rights for all its citizens when in fact Israeli Arabs have lots of nice things to say about being Israelis and most of them certainly don’t want to be citizens anywhere else in the region.
- Israel has been harassing and denying entry to Jews who say or write liberal opinion pieces that the government doesn’t like. This did not used to happen. We are not talking about crazy liberals; we are talking about people who are respectable members of the Jewish community except that they are journalists, which as you know rate even lower than lawyers. I see one of them in an Orthodox shul he regularly attends and his kid is in my kid’s class at a Jewish day school. Israel denied entry to two elected Democratic members of Congress because it did not like their opinions about Israel. It used to be that Israel’s strategy was to say come and visit and see for yourself, and people would often reconsider after doing so. Now it’s just stay away. And it was not lost on observers that Bibi did this as a sop to Trump who didn’t like these Democrats.
- Bibi had a deal with Reform and Conservative Jews to use the Robinson’s Arch area near the Western Wall as an egalitarian prayer space. Right now you cannot have a Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel and 90% of American Jews are not Orthodox and even quite a few Orthodox want to be able to attend an egalitarian service or participate in a celebration where women are not stuck behind a partition as spectators and where a girl can perform in a Bat Mitzvah ceremony such as to read from the Torah. Under pressure from the ultra-orthodox to keep his coalition intact, he welched on the deal. The area is now under “renovation” expected to last forever. Try to tell 90% of American Jews that you can’t find a single place near the Kotel for them to have a bar or bat mitzvah where they feel comfortable and nobody else has to notice them?
- Israel’s ultra-orthodox rabbis have been really on the warpath, telling prominent Orthodox rabbis in America that they don’t recognize their conversions. People such as Rabbi Lookstein of KJ on the East Side who has led over 100 missions to Israel were told they were not good enough. At least El Al bought a full page ad in a dinner journal honoring him. There is a constant stream of disgusting statements coming from religious authorities in this government that blame the Holocaust on non-religious Jews and use very insulting imagery to refer to non-orthodox streams of Judaism. When the terrorist shot up the synagogue in Pittsburgh, the religious authorities in Israel who put out a press release about the news called it a “community center” because they didn’t want to call a conservative synagogue a place of prayer.
- Trump has backed anti-semites, such as the neo-nazis who did things in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Netanyahu has given them respectable cover. When Israel sent officials to pay their respects to that synagogue in Pittsburgh, locals viewed Israel as instigators to the terrorism and refused to accept anyone from the Israeli delegation. The only person who greeted the Israeli cabinet minister who visited Pittsburgh was another Israeli official. Digest that for a second – somebody shoots up a synagogue in America, the Israelis are viewed as having been part of the cause, and are told in no uncertain terms that their condolences are not welcome.
- Israel’s politics have become so cynical that Jewish and governmental agencies abroad are never quite sure who really represents what in Israel. For instance, Knesset members will approach foreign governments to try and cut side-deals in order to claim credit for it for themselves as they jockey for position within the party. The government will ask for more money given for a line item and then cut the budget that it used to use for that line item to make up for the extra money. It’s very embarrassing when governments around the world have to deal with Israel and find themselves being used as pawns for domestic political purposes. Israel’s politicians used to fight each other at home but have a unified front abroad. Its leaders put the country first; not any more. Now it’s every person for themselves right up to Numero Uno at the top. I’m not naming names and giving examples, but in real life what is going on is worse than you can ever imagine using Holocaust survivors as pawns, for example in negotiations with Germany and in the US.
- AIPAC used to be pro-whatever government was running Israel. Now it only supports governments that agree with what you would call right-wing policies. But most Jews don’t agree with those policies and people with plenty of money have had enough of this. So they are backing other groups such as J Street which are too far left for many people’s comfort. It used to be that almost every politician showed up to the roll call at AIPAC’s annual dinner because it was the place you had to show up and be counted. Now, Democrats will avoid AIPAC as a badge of honor and you can be sure they will show up at J Street to prove their progressive credentials. AIPAC makes noise with its 18,000 attendees but it’s a distorted picture because it is really small potatoes against the whole of American Jewry. This is a bad thing because a divided American Jewish community can be played off against each other and it won’t be good for Israel. Half a century ago, the Jews formed the Conference of Major Jewish Organizations to make sure they spoke to official Washington and the rest of the world with one voice. Jews by themselves are not so powerful that they can afford to put themselves in a position to be divided and conquered. For the past several decades, Malcolm Hoenlein was executive director of this Conference of Presidents and he ran a tight ship and was a really good player of the game. He is retiring and the new guy is a technocrat from a small-fry organization and not of the same political suavivity. Jewish community Federations around the country used to send a lot of funds to the United Jewish Appeal which gave its money to Israel. Most of that is gone because Jews can’t agree on what they want to fund in Israel. Now people send their monies to various causes on the left and right that they agree with; the government though is trying to shut down causes that they don’t agree with. So Jewish money going to Israel ain’t what it used to be and the degree to which Israel was an emotional issue for people is going out the door. Yes, the Orthodox support Israel 110% but it was not their money that helped build the country and a couple thousand people visiting on frequent flyer and Starwood points on Jewish holidays and during vacation periods is just not moving the needle for Israeli businesses that rely on tourists year round as the number of missions going to Israel decrease overall.
- Chinese companies have been buying a lot of Israeli companies. All kinds of companies. Russia has also been interested but Israelis have been circumspect about taking Russian money because they know that Russia wants to get inside Israel’s political system to destabilize and corrupt it. Meanwhile, if you accept Israel’s explanation, some idiot supposedly decided to give the Chinese a huge contract to build and maintain Haifa’s new port for 25 years. The American military docks nuclear submarines there and so does Israel. The Chinese dug the Carmel Tunnels in Haifa a decade ago. Everyone knows that the Chinese are making moves all around the world to acquire technology, spy on people, get control over commodities and impose their policies on governments around the world through creating debt traps, inserting military assets into strategic places, planting moles inside governments, companies and universities, and stealing technology. The US and Europe, after a quarter century of trying to engage China and hoping that constructive engagement would lead to a more open China, has become disillusioned and realizes that China is playing dirty and won’t stop. Russia might be annoying and clever at making trouble using few resources, but they are pipsqueaks economically. China threatens to become the world’s #1 economy and they are not fighting fair to get that dominance. China is now becoming Public Enemy #1 in America on a bipartisan basis, meaning both Democrats and Republicans are very concerned about China. I’m not saying this is correct or the best way to manage the problem, but this is the current climate and China for its own part is whipping up nationalism in its country to cover up for its own shenanigans. The Americans went to Israel and said if you give the port of Haifa to China, they are going to spy on our submarines and we’re not going to dock there anymore. The Israeli cabinet met about it over the summer and decided to do nothing about it except to study the matter. They are supposed to meet around now to decide what to do and I don’t know what they did, but the damage is mostly done.
- The contract was signed a long time ago and evidently Israel must have known exactly what it was doing because just last week it was announced that Israel’s first private power station will be built by Chinese companies. A Chinese firm is digging the underground section of the Tel Aviv Light Rail which runs only dozens of meters from the General Staff and Military Intelligence headquarters. This project is considered by most Israeli military and intelligence experts a major security risk. I want to assume the Israelis are not idiots but I’m not sure I can say that – Yossi Melman, one of the country’s top journalistic experts in intelligence matters, writing recently in Haaretz quotes a Professor Shaul Horev, the director of Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center at the University of Haifa. Last year he criticized having the Chinese get a concession to build and maintain the Haifa port. He is also a retired rear admiral who was in charge of the submarine fleet, managed the construction of submarines in Germany and headed the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. When Melman asked him why he didn’t object to the Chinese going into Haifa port while he was in charge of all these things, he said “I didn’t know. It was a project run by the Transportation Ministry.” So you really do have wonder if anyone is really on top of what goes on in that country? If we want to think that it is not chaos and that the Israelis have a method to their madness, then in the overall context of things, Netanyahu probably figured that looking forward to the next generation, China is a better bet than the US. China is winning the war on 5G technology and the US is fighting a losing war at trying to get countries to line up and boycott it, China’s economy is growing and the Americans are not investing in anything like infrastructure or promoting immigration and all America has done for 40 years is experience political gridlock and argue among itself. China is not a democracy with a bunch of liberals that can never be pleased; you know who to talk to in order to get what you need and the Chinese are capable of getting stuff done quickly and thinking 20 years ahead whereas America runs in 4 year spurts with each president rewriting history and Congress never agreeing to a budget from year to year. He probably figured that China was the future for Israel more so than America. Or perhaps the Chinese paid people off and we’ll find out only in another 20 years about that.
If you take a deep breath and think about this strategically, it all makes sense. The wind is blowing in the Chinese direction and the Chinese couldn’t care less about Palestinians, they are all business. The Russians are filling the void in Syria and the region that America has created; Putin is like a mafia don and so is Bibi. Evangelicals are solid supporters of Israel while American Jews are increasingly simply not interested and not worth the political capital or anything beyond lip service. A recent Federation convention in Israel was called “It’s Time To Talk” and attendees there said that nobody actually spoke about anything controversial, partly because they know that nobody on either side wants to listen. Millennials on social media talk about geting paid junkets to Israel to meet leadership and write about them, but the ground rules are such that no controversial questions are to be raised. There is no evidence that the Birthright Trips make a long-term difference to people and the trips themselves have been discredited by a vocal minority as propaganda missions and a good number of kids don’t even want the trips now for nothing because they think they are being used to manipulate them. A recent poll in Israel published in Haaretz shows that a majority of Israelis feel that American Jews should not be consulted with regard to their country’s policies. 46% said their government should not consider the concerns of American Jewry; 31% said they should and 23% had no opinion. So the feeling is mutual. American Jews increasingly don’t care about Israel, and Israelis don’t care much about American Jews, let alone Americans. What I said about the Federation conference is important – in a marriage, it is one thing to have an argument with your spouse. But when you have contempt for each other and you don’t feel it is even worthwhile to talk about what you disagree about, you know it’s over.
So why am I dredging up all this stuff? You probably know a good amount of what I just told you, except that I packaged it up nice and neat. There is a point here that goes beyond raising the evidence to prove a point.
Think back to the first thing I said when I started this talk. I raised the question about what makes people friends or allies and whether or not you could really count on them these days. I talked about trading favors and shared values, but the operative terms being used being these days as to foreign policy is about transactional relationships as opposed to shared value relationships. Most people think that Israel and America have a relationship based on shared values because there are wealthier countries such as the Gulf States that can have transactional based relationships with America that are much more monetizable than Israel can ever be. Presidents of the US know they will get paid $25 million to make speeches in the Emirates after they leave office; Bill Clinton’s fee to the Jewish Federation was maybe $200,000 and even that amount made headlines. Much of Europe has favored the Arabs over Israel because that’s where the money was. Even when it comes to Israel, whenever money really counted, Israel always loses the argument even if it means military consequences. In the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia wanted to buy an air defense system known as AWACS. Israel was dead set against it because it would enable Saudi to see everything going on around it and Israel felt its air advantage was the element of surprise. But that sale was big money to America and we were in a recession. Boeing is America’s largest exporter. And cheap oil was necessary to get us out of it. So the Israeli lobby in the US was shut out and the sale went through. Ronald Reagan was president and considered friendly to Israel even if several people around him such as defense secretary Caspar Weinberger were not. The Republicans were in control of Congress at the time. Pat Moynihan, a famous NY senator who is now dead, said to me at the time that the Israeli lobby was over-rated and needed to know its place – that it was only powerful if it did not push up against America’s vital interests and that America would always put itself first. He said diplomatically what Trump says openly. Now, to be fair, Israel has a lot to offer America. It is a good place to invest in technology, the Israeli military tests and improves American military technology – for years it was more active than America’s military in battle and could give feedback the Americans were not getting themselves. And for all its faults, virtually every Arab would rather live in freedom in Israel than in their own country where almost nobody has any rights under corrupt monarchies.
So here’s the question – is America’s relationship with Israel value based or transaction based? Are we friends because we share values? Maybe we used to, but maybe we increasingly don’t. Netanyahu might have been prime minister but he was there because a majority of the country agreed that he should be there and supported his policies. Public opinion in Israel has moved further to the right over the last generation; the liberal side of Israel counts for next to nothing these days if you judge it by Knesset seats. But America has moved further to the left and doesn’t agree with the majority of Israel’s view of what it wants to be and in the direction it is heading. America has stood for a two-state solution and the majority of Israel is moving away from that vision. Israel’s point of view is that it needs better propaganda; America’s view is that Israel needs better policies. It’s not just a matter of how you feel about Arabs; most educated Americans on the mainstream on this subject believe that a one-state solution just means endless war and a loss of a democratic country as Jews become a minority as they try to govern an Arab majority. The problem may not be solvable now, but that it is reckless to take steps in the meantime that make it impossible to later consider a two-state solution, steps which this government is taking. So there is disagreement both as to the ends and the means.
On the transactional side, Israel’s usefulness as an ally is really in question. Is Israel pivoting toward China just as America is going into a cold war with it? As America tries to withdraw from the region because it is simply sick of sending people to die for oil or intervening in civil wars that America doesn’t really care who wins (ie: do you think we care what happens in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen) – get it? Well, should Israel rely on the idea that if it were attacked by Iran that America would actually do anything for it? The answer is that American troops will not go to the Middle East to fight for Israel, but that’s why America has allowed Israel to get nuclear superiority. Nukes in place of troops. This is why there is no defense treaty between America and Israel.
And Israelis are willing to fight and risk mass casualty events which may eventually happen, although I think the cause will not be Iran’s nuclear program but its Precision Guided Missile Program which hardly anyone talks about but which is Israel’s military’s most immediate fear and one for which they are absolutely willing to go to war over – because it is a conventional threat convertible to nuclear capability, which means that the likelihood of conflict is greater, so we are not talking theoretically. Israel has made at least 1,000 strikes against developing missile sites abroad in the last few years and the Iranians have not stopped their program and it is very scary what these new missiles can do – they can hit something within 3 yards of accuracy as opposed to previous technology which could hit within 200-300 yards of accuracy which means you can strike a target so much better using just a few percent of the arsenal you had to use until now. At least the Arabs around it know that Israel is the only country in the world that is actively using its military to fight Iran. This is good transactional stuff for the makings of an alliance of convenience with the Gulf states, but the moment the threat from Iran is negated, that alliance goes up in smoke because Israel and the Gulf States have nothing else in common except perhaps the desire to trade, and so far the Gulf States have not really been all that much into business. They talk a lot but they don’t do much. Israelis are not going to go out and fight or finance America’s wars and you can see that the Kurds got nothing for putting up their fighters for a decade. They get consistently screwed by America every other decade or so and that’s not going to stop. So if I were Israel, I wouldn’t count on America as an ally in the sense that we would lend them our last $10,000 or send people over there to die for their country. I have wondered for about 20 years whether or not Israel could actually destroy Iran’s nuclear capability and have recently concluded that they cannot; they can delay it and drive it further underground, but they cannot stop it. Trump does not have a strategy for the Middle East and after a year or two of hoping that he did have a strategy that was simply not appreciated by the regional players, the conclusion all around the region is that he has no idea what he’s doing. Three US presidents, Bush Jr, Obama and now Trump have all passed the buck on Iran. So Israel is striking Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Sudan and whatever else it thinks is required to keep Iran at bay, but it is a battle the Israelis cannot win in the long term. Iranian drone technology used against the Saudis was just about as good as Israeli technology and 85% of their missiles hit their targets and each tanker was hit within one meter of the target precisely at the center. The Iranians have shown that they can accurately hit a target from hundreds of kilometers away. At this point the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona is proven to be vulnerable to a direct hit and the potential damage from an airstrike could be worse than the benefit of keeping it running. You can’t keep Iran down forever and you can’t win in this region alone.
The Saudis are talking to the Russians about buying arms after the American air defenses didn’t work and the Emirates and Saudis are both engaging in talks with Iran. They are backing down from their earlier bombast against Iran because they see they are being left exposed. The Chinese are strictly into business and are too smart to get their hands dirty. The Russians want to get their fingers dirty enough to draw everyone else into the mud. Europe is a talking shop without any responsibilities or consequences for its actions. It’s not really a good situation for Israel to be in strategically without any real friends who can do anything for them. Netanyahu talked a great game but has been caught with his pants down with an American paper tiger having his back. It’s not a good place to be and he is going to need the other half of America to be there for him knowing that he staked his and Israel’s future on Trump’s vision of America. Only America has the possibility that it could help; it cannot afford to alienate the future power brokers of America and even then I don’t know if America would ever actually do anything. But just imagine how vulnerable Israel would be if America abandoned it or if some Democratic president who fundamentally disagrees with Israel’s positions had to be counted on in times of need. The best defense is a defense you never have to use but which at least looks credible. We’re going to find out sooner than later what this alliance is made of because Israeli military intelligence keeps saying that Iran is going to strike at it and Iran has every reason to believe it can get the better of those around them.
Actually, I can’t think of hardly anyone we in America really care for these days. Even Britain, our so-called Special Friend. Have you dealt with British Airways customer service or Heathrow Airport lately? When I have to deal with them, I start to wish that the Germans would have won the war and I could deal with Lufthansa or the German airport authorities instead. They are infinitely more pleasant to deal with and I can’t imagine sending my kid to fight for a country with its two top parties run by Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum that seems to be committing national suicide figuring out how to handle this Brexit thing that was not exactly started by the smartest or most responsible people in the land. Or turn the camera the other way: Would you want to send your kids to fight a war started by Donald Trump against North Korea?
Let’s be real and cut to the chase and state that friendships or relationships between countries are mostly transactional on a day to day basis because people run countries and people respond to incentives, but that having similar values helps keep those relationships in a decent place when two parties go through ups and downs. Think again of a marriage – there are good times and bad times but if husband and wife respect each other and feel their interests are in line with each other, they will get through the bad times. But if there is contempt, it’s usually over or on the rocks even if there are shared interests or they have to live together to pay the rent, because at one point anyone who feels they don’t need to be in that relationship (ie; they can pay the rent on their own) will bug out. This is why Israel and America have potential in their relationship that Saudi Arabia and Egypt don’t have, even though they are also American so-called allies. America doesn’t need Saudi oil as much as before, and it’s not going to bomb Iran when the price of oil is not as affected as it was 30 years ago. After Iran attacked a few months ago, the price spiked for a bit and went down soon after. The transactional nature of the relationship is not what it was, and the values are certainly not there. Hardly anyone in the US wants to be friends with MBS, a guy who cuts people up into pieces inside an embassy in a Western country. Even the recent IPO of Aramco which should have been really tempting since it is a hugely profitable company was a bust because everyone knows that the shareholders will be subject to the whims of a dictator; almost all the international funds stayed away and the Saudis were bribed with 10% bonuses to invest and were made to understood that they would be seen as disloyal if they didn’t invest.
I’m not in the business of trying to save Israel from itself and I don’t contribute to political causes either on the right or on the left. I can pass along some innovative strategic suggestions such as Israel offering to give back the Sheba farms to Lebanon which are strategically insignificant but would remove Hizbullah’s stated reason for being in Lebanon and would certainly call their bluff. The Israelis might have a stronger center and get behind a party with an absolute majority in the Knesset instead of being dependent on five-percent swing kingmakers such as Avigdor Lieberman. Likud and Blue/White are really indistinguishable and together would create a stable government. Another possible way to do this is if they would bring Israeli Arab parties into their government; all indications are that a good deal of them are responsible parties who very much want to be Israelis and not part of a Palestinian state and they represent 20% of the population. These kinds of things, which I believe would make the country more stable and strengthen its strategic position, won’t happen. But Israel could learn from the UK which realized that for better or for worse, a divided parliament was exacerbating stalemate over Brexit to the point that people couldn’t make plans or do business in this country, and that the country had to go forward one way or the other, even if many Johnson voters were against Brexit.
I see dangers to the American-Israeli relationship because on a transactional basis, some of the incentives are losing their luster and on the values side, both countries have rising demographics that don’t share the same values of democracy, pluralism and desiring a peace that will be a win-win for both sides. If Israel wants to give China entrée into its country it runs the risk of making itself an unreliable ally to the US. If Israel wants to cozy up to dictators around the world and lessen its own commitment to pluralism and democracy inside its country, it will alienate progressives in the US who see Israel as an increasingly authoritarian country. If Israel doesn’t care what American Jews think and that it is more important to maintain coalitions with ultra-orthodox Jews who are in positions of power to lock out 90% of American Jews as illegitimate, then they shouldn’t expect that 90% to be supportive of them. They’re not going to want to visit, contribute money or write letters to congress or their editors in support of policies they don’t agree with. Jewish newspapers for one thing are going out of business, which is a reflection of a more apathetic community. The Jewish Week of NY in a city of a million Jews has at most 10,000 paid subscribers including anyone who gives $50 a year to Federation. They will be more susceptible to BDS-type arguments on college campuses the more Israeli policies show itself to be a country that appears to be the kind of country the BDS supporters say it is. I’ve been predicting BDS for years; Israel has become the South African bogeyman of this generation of college students. BDS is bothersome and it offends us, but fortunately for us Jewish money does disproportionately fund colleges and so far it is just student council resolutions that are mostly being ignored by the people in charge.
A little bit of cynicism is also in order here. BDS is out there and some of its leaders and campaigns are being funded by insidious groups that hate Israel for merely existing, but the people fighting it are also using BDS to whip up a frenzy to pay for propaganda to counter it. Fighting BDS and anti-Semitism is great for fundraising; after that march in Virginia and several other anti-Semitic incidents, the Anti-Defamation League raised tons of money. Politicians from the Israeli government are making a big deal about their fight against the threat of BDS, but that publicity campaign covers up the underlying reasons why BDS is gaining traction – it’s not about winning a propaganda war, it’s about the policies being pursued by Israel that not everyone else agrees with. If it were not BDS, it would be something else. It is a rule of propaganda that in order for it to be effective, it has to be enveloped by a kernel of truth. And if 70% of Americans under 30 think that Israel is on the wrong side of history, then it’s up to Israel to either pay attention or to say they don’t care. But it’s not productive to think that all Americans are naïve and simply need to be explained better. People know Israel is in a difficult position and that its problems with the Palestinians may not be solvable in this generation. But there are good and bad ways to deal with people who don’t agree with you and there are steps that are being taken that don’t need to be taken that don’t win arguments and just make people angry. Israel used to be good at faking it and talking about peace even if it weren’t happening but at least it provided a hope for a positive future. The current vision of endless conflict and saying it’s all the other side’s fault just doesn’t wash anymore – my 12-year-old son has visited Israel several times and calls it “the freaky place of death.” He doesn’t like seeing people walking around with guns and a bunch of people wearing black all over the place and knowing that everywhere he goes he might be attacked. I don’t think the next generation of educated Israelis wants this future either. My son has been to Jordan and the Emirates and he views those places as fun places he can’t wait to go back to. Visits don’t include constant reminders of Holocaust, Jewish martyrdom, wars and impending terrorism. Indoor skiing, roller coasters at Ferrari World, a choice of water parks, scenes from Indiana Jones movies, an outpost of the Louvre and taxi drivers who turn on their meters and don’t try to rip you off is so much more inviting, even though what you see in the Emirates can also be lots of glitz that runs very shallow. He’s not stupid or naïve – twice this week he corrected his social studies teacher for making historical misstatements of facts while teaching about the American and French revolutions. He’s been to 25 countries by now and he can compare apples and oranges and we don’t avoid difficult issues in our dinner table discussions. There is something wrong with the picture he sees and he can tell.
Bib Netanyahu made a lot of trouble for Israel by aligning himself with the Republicans and it will be up to a future prime minister to reset relations with America from top to bottom. Ron Dermer who has been right-hand close to Bibi for all these years and was the ambassador to the US, was mentored for years by Frank Luntz, a Republican operative through and through and helps explain why Bibi chose sides in America. AIPAC has to either go back to its roots as a pro-Israel bipartisan entity or see the pro-Israel lobby get irrevocably split with J Street and run the risk that American Jewry will be set up for divide and conquer as a lobby and that Israel will become a partisan issue in America where the other side of the political fence will see the worst in everything it does as just another sideshow in American political theater. Eventually all this will threaten to bring down the house on this alliance. Israel has to look at its geopolitical strategy and decide how it is going to position itself in the world; if it is willing to risk some of its relationships in the world selling anything to anyone who will buy it but stand for its principles and decide what those principles are. Two decades ago it had to cancel a big contract with China over the Lavi fighter and risk Chinese wrath because it involved American technology that America did not want to share with China. Maybe now it’s decided that was a mistake it doesn’t want to make again and that business with China comes first. Maintaining strictly transactional relationships is short-sighted because it doesn’t withstand the loss of the incentive that perpetuated the transaction itself China is not as stable as you think and taking sides there is dangerous because the minute power shifts, the guy who was in power before winds up in jail or dead. Arab countries are subject to revolutions; Israel, America and Europe at least have stable political systems where people vote and leaders represent citizens. It’s easy to ignore that in the search for quick solutions and a guy at the top who can make decisions for a country, but it really does count in the long run.
I just want to add why the future of the American-Israeli relationship is a problem for everyone. Many countries see relations with Jews and Israel as a pathway to getting what they want from America. Call it the myth of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to our advantage, and Jewish leaders of international stature know it. Lose that leverage and Jews and Israel are much more dispensable to the rest of the world.
There are good reasons for America and Israel to be friends and allies. There are both transactional and value-based elements to that relationship. It is reasonable to admit that both transactional and value elements are at play, and it is naïve even if it is politically correct to think otherwise. The question is what kind of strategy is Israel really pursuing and, post-Netanyahu and post-Trump, what needs to be done to put the relationship back on a track that is more sustainable through ups and downs that is based on what each side truly needs, wants and has to offer – and can reasonably expect from the other.
Ivan has presented at four Limmuds and travelled to over sixty-five countries. He has been the host of globalthoughts.com for twenty years where the wide range of political, social and travel commentary tends to be more pragmatic than ideological. Ivan lives with his wife and two children in NYC.
IVAN NOTE: I got various reactions to this speech, some positive and some negative. One Israeli in the audience mentioned that there were nice water parks in Israel too. Another said that if they hadn’t contracted Chinese firms to do the various infrastructure projects, they would be waiting another 20 years for them to be finished.