The U.S. and Israel: From Allies to Neighbors

If you haven’t seen it yet, click through and take a look at Mark Perry’s Foreign Policy article on some recent shifts in the U.S. military’s strategic framing of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Although the story ran in the aftermath of Vice President Joe Biden’s disastrous trip to Israel, the events it reports took place beforehand, and give some background for where Biden’s alleged “This is getting serious for us” quote came from.

Laura Rozen smartly places the “meta” narrative in the context of a pre-emptive White House defense against any Israeli efforts by way of congressional supporters to limit the fallout. She then asks what the “meta meta” might be. I’ll venture this as an answer. Whether or not every bit of what Perry writes is true (and according to an FP update, the military has already denied some of it), it seems like the broader narrative was inevitable the minute the U.S. committed not just to underwriting regional security in the Middle East, but to a long-term skin-in-the-game military-diplomatic presence. Yes, this has to do with the 110,000-odd troops still in Iraq, and probably as much with the roughly 4,400 that have already died there. But remember, too, that the U.S. Embassy in Iraq would be the biggest such structure in the world, were it not for the projected size of the one in Afghanistan.

The timing of the East Jerusalem construction announcement during Biden’s visit is actually not that extraordinary in the historical context of U.S.-Israel relations, that is, between the two countries as allies. Israeli obstructionists have long used such visits to toss a wrench or two into the gears of whatever latest peace initiative the visiting U.S. emissary was peddling. But what it seems like the Israeli obstructionist camp has been slow to realize is that we’re no longer just allies. We’re now neighbors, too. So it’s no longer just a question of American interests at stake. It’s a question of American lives.

Now, there are all sorts of structural reasons that mitigate against radical shifts in the U.S.-Israel relationship, and as Walter Russell Mead has been making clear on his blog recently, the role of the Likud-AIPAC axis is not as monolithic as many critics of the U.S. policy toward Israel — and Israeli policy in general — might claim.

But it still strikes me as very shortsighted on the part of Israeli strategic planners to not realize the significance of the fact that, for the time being, the U.S. has moved in next door.

Update: As an afterthought, I think a lot of this could have been avoided had the Obama administration made opening up Gaza to humanitarian aid the initial goodwill gesture it demanded of the Netanyahu government, instead of the public commitment to a settlement freeze. Humanitarian aid in Gaza would have had a significant, immediate impact on the lives of Palestinians, while not necessarily creating a coalition-breaking condition for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. By contrast, the settlement freeze approach involves in immediately suicidal step from Netanyahu on projects that are in fact slow-moving, and that can be held up in litigation and bureaucracy as need be. In addition, the Obama could have brought real pressure to bear, in the form of a (private) threat of unilateral U.S. humanitarian action in Gaza, something that’s not possible with announcing a freeze on settlement construction.