Strategic Horizons: U.S.-Israel Divergence Goes Beyond Obama, Netanyahu

Strategic Horizons: U.S.-Israel Divergence Goes Beyond Obama, Netanyahu

Today the U.S.-Israeli relationship, long a bedrock alliance for both nations, is rancorous and tense. Americans on the political right attribute this to the weakness or even incompetence of President Barack Obama, particularly concerning Iran. Portraying the problem as one of personalities or political inclinations may keep pundits employed, but it misses the bigger and more important picture. The United States is, in fact, "pursuing a policy agenda in the Middle East that is increasingly divergent from Israeli interests," but this reflects more than just a predilection of the Obama administration. The divergence between the two old allies reflects deep changes in the way the United States sees its role in the world and a mounting sensitivity to the costs of national security. Because of this, the split between the United States and Israel is likely to grow.

For starters, the two nations see the Iranian threat differently. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters believe that Tehran is determined to destroy Israel at any cost. Despite historical evidence to the contrary, Netanyahu believes that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will increase its regional aggression and perhaps even attack Israel directly. While some Americans concur, the percentage of the U.S. public that considers Iran an enemy is declining and support for negotiations increasing. While most Americans prefer that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons, many accept the idea that sanctions have created an opportunity for a political settlement. Like communist dictators of old, Iran's leaders can be coldly evil but have shown little sign of being suicidally irrational. Containment and deterrence, then, are viable options.

Military action against Iran short of a full-scale invasion and occupation would only delay Tehran's nuclear program and give the Iranian regime a greater incentive to build nuclear weapons. That Netanyahu nonetheless threatens an attack demonstrates a deep divergence in the way Israel and the United States think about national security strategy. Because Israel has, since its creation, faced security threats it cannot resolve or walk away from, the essence of its strategy is to assume that its tolerance for hostility and pressure is greater than that of its opponents. Israel can outwait its enemies. On Iran, for instance, Netanyahu argued that "if you continue the pressure now, you can get Iran to cease and desist."

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