The Changing Political Calculus of U.S.-Israel Relations

I thought I’d dash off a quick and breezy morning post on an issue that’s about as quick and breezy as a hand grenade. Any trouble I get myself into is entirely Matt Eckel’s fault:

So, we’re now in a position where if the Israeli government does whatNetanyahu is hinting it might do [i.e., bomb Iran’s nuclear installations], the Obama Administration will have toeither be blamed by association and throw its whole Middle Easternagenda to the dogs, or publicly and severely sanction Israel and openup a political s%&! storm in Washington that could derail anynumber of other projects. Support for Israel’s actions has become soenmeshed within Washington’s political culture that Israel, I wouldargue, has more leverage over us on key strategic issues than we haveover it.

As long as the Israeli strategic calculus focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on Israel’s immediate neighbors, the conflict’s political calculus meant that Likudnik extremism played into the hands of Palestinian extremism and vice versa, with the vicious spiral of escalation and violence in turn playing into the hands of U.S. Likudnik extremism.

Now the removal of Iraq as a firewall has unleashed Iran’s influence in the region, and the potential consequences of Tehran’s expanded influence have become more substantial (if not as alarming as alarmists would have us believe).

As a result, Israel’s strategic calculus has now shifted to Iran, and correctly so. But so far, the impact that has on the political calculus of the conflict has gotten short shrift.

In particular, I have a hunch that Likudnik extremism — especially of the sort suggested by Netanyahu’s remarks — will no longer play into the hands of U.S. Likudnik extremism in Washington. Instead it will strengthen the hand of American advocates for Israel who argue that a more balanced U.S. policy that meaningfully pressures Israel towards restraint and conciliation will much better serve Israel’s long-term prospects for both security and peace. But more importantly, it will much better serve long-term U.S. interests in the region.

Israel might not go along with that policy. But the kind of exagerrated flouting of American interests that an ill-advised airstrike on Iran represents would probably hasten the policy’s arrival, notwithstanding the “political s%&! storm in Washington” that Eckel mentions.

In other words, the leverage Eckel imparts to Israel functions like the old saw about freedom of speech in the Soviet Union: you can say anything you want — once. In this case, Israel can bomb anything in Iran that it wants, but it will only be able to do that once. (For obvious reasons, bombing Syria and Sudan gets a pass.)

So for the time being, its leverage is more potent as threat than as deed. And if I’m right about the new political calculus of U.S.-Israeli relations, even that might diminish.