How Israel Should Navigate the New American Landscape

by November 2021
US President Joe Biden and Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House, in August. Photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The political landscape in Washington has changed. Israel’s outreach to the Democrats is vital— including to some progressives. Also required is an effort not to bury the prospects for a two-state solution. Israel and others in the region need to adjust to the reasons why America is likely to be far more reluctant today than in the past to use force in the region. This, in turn, makes Israel’s military strength and technological prowess all the more important for her Sunni Arab neighbors.

When progressives in the House of Representatives opposed the inclusion of money for funding Israel’s Iron Dome in the broad budget bill, it received undo attention as if there had been a political earthquake and support for Israel was eroding. With funding for the Iron Dome pulled out of the budget bill and allowed to stand alone, it received a vote of 420–9 in favor. That seemed to arrest the alarm. In truth, the stand-alone vote should not have been a surprise; after all, the Iron Dome is a purely defensive system that allows Israel to defend its cities and towns against Hamas rockets. If Israel had no such defense, it would have no choice but to send ground forces into Gaza to root out Hamas’s ability to fire rockets against Israeli citizens and the price of such a necessary onslaught would be extremely high—especially for Palestinians living in Gaza.

Overwhelming support for Israel’s Iron Dome actually begs a question. Of course, gaining support for a purely defensive system for Israel is still a given. Would it be so for weapons seen as offensive like precision-guidance munitions or more advanced aircraft or more refueling tankers needed for long-range military strikes? Such a question would not have occurred to me, but was raised by a security establishment figure in Israel during my recent trip there. My answer was that these systems would still pass but would probably generate much more debate than in the past. Israel’s support among mainstream Democratic members of Congress remains strong, but the progressive caucus has some weight in the party now and surely its members would challenge the sale.

Does that mean we have a whole new political landscape in America about Israel? It is certainly different. Israel used to be a strongly bipartisan issue; while support among Republicans remains strong, there clearly are fissures in the Democratic Party. Progressives are much more critical of Israel, with some like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar seemingly questioning Israel’s right to defend itself. Even if—as the vote on Iron Dome indicates—they are clearly a minority, the one factor that cannot be dismissed is that Israel is far less of a bipartisan issue than it used to be. Some of that is clearly a response to Donald Trump, who tried to turn Israel into a political wedge issue. His embrace of Israel was likely to taint the Jewish state at a time when he alienated nearly all Democrats in the country, who tended to look at whatever he stood for as something they had to be against. Bibi Netanyahu added to this dynamic by his close embrace of Trump. (As I once told Netanyahu and the Israeli cabinet, no one questions whether any Israeli prime minister should have a good relationship with the American president. You must. But it is a mistake to “hug” this president and appear to support him so completely. Fairly or not, I said, he is a divisive, polarizing figure, and such unmistakable support will come with a cost to Israel’s future standing in the country.)

So is the answer for the new Israeli government to do outreach to Democrats at federal, state, and local levels? Yes. But this is not the whole story. There is something deeper going on in the country. True, progressive causes—and the effort by critics of Israel and supporters of the Palestinians to tap into movements like Black Lives Matter and associate Israeli treatment of Palestinians with it—have had an effect. And here again, Israel’s government must focus on presenting a very different picture of Israel in its outreach. The fact that Israel now has a government with progressives in it must also be showcased. Merav Michaeli, Tamar Zandberg, Nitzan Horowitz, and others who represent the left-wing parties in Israel’s governing coalition should come to America to meet their ministerial counterparts and hold meetings on Capitol Hill—they represent points of view in the Israeli government largely unknown to the members of progressive caucus and would represent a face of Israel that does not fit their caricature of the country.

President Biden deeply believes in the need for American leadership in the world. But how he exercises that leadership clearly needs to take account of the mood in the country.

As important as reaching out to Democrats, including some progressives, may be, something deeper is happening in America—and it needs to be understood. We are in another period of soul-searching about our role in the world. After World War I—what Woodrow Wilson called “the war to end all wars”—and his attempt to promote in its aftermath a new US role internationally, the Senate defeated our entry into the League of Nations. After Vietnam, there was basic questioning of our interventionism, our military, and intelligence establishment. Today, after Iraq and Afghanistan—two wars that proved very costly, yet resulted in Iran having major influence in Iraq and the Taliban regaining Afghanistan—it should come as no surprise that again our posture toward the world is being debated.

President Biden is an internationalist and deeply believes in the need for American leadership in the world. But how he exercises that leadership clearly needs to take account of the mood in the country. His emphasis on a foreign policy that meets the needs of the middle class and the American worker reflects that understanding. Yes, he understands that American support for free trade agreements and globalization failed to consider who would be the losers in a world that created more economic efficiency but also much greater inequalities. So he seeks to address that with altering supply chains and emphasizing more domestic production and taking a lead in the new industries that will foster renewable energy—and produce the rebuilding of the American infrastructure accordingly.

However, the deeper question is whether America can lead and preserve a liberal, rules-based international order at a time when we have real competitors and a diffusion of power. Can it do so without maintaining the significant ability to project power and back its diplomacy with force when necessary? After Vietnam, we still faced the Soviet Union and that tempered the impulse to simply retrench around the world—even if there was more questioning of our role and efforts to limit the powers of the presidency. Today, we are dealing with a rising China on which there seems to be domestic consensus.

Progressives don’t determine policy, but their collective attitudes cannot be wished away.
Protesters against the war in Iraq participate in the ‘March on the Pentagon,’ in 2007. Photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

But there is not a consensus on how active we must be internationally and especially in the Middle East. It is a misreading of history to say that the US has been isolationist. We have not been isolationist; rather, we have a unilateralist legacy in our foreign policy tradition. In his farewell address as president, George Washington warned against “entangling alliances.” Our new country was weak at the time, and he did not want us sucked into the wars in Europe. But he was not arguing against acting unilaterally, including through intervention, when our interests, as we defined them, required it. We fought the Barbary pirates in North Africa at the beginning of the 19th century; we put forward the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, essentially to declare the Western Hemisphere off limits to the Europeans and make clear we would fight any effort to entrench themselves in it. We fought Mexico from 1846–1848. Commodore Matthew Perry led four ships into Tokyo’s harbor to force the opening of trade and commercial ties with Japan in 1853. We had skirmishes over the border with Canada, and we took our first colonies in the Spanish–American war at the end of the 19th century. We sent marines to China during the Boxer Rebellion at the beginning of the 20th century not just to rescue missionaries but to guarantee that there would be no discrimination against American commercial interests at the end of the conflict.

What Wilson was doing was altering the unilateralist nature of our foreign policy. While he did not succeed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was able to do so after World War II to produce not just American leadership but to shape the multilateral institutions of the postwar world. It would be Harry Truman who, with the Marshall Plan and the advent of NATO, produced an alliance system in which the US assumed broader responsibilities in the world.

While Barack Obama may have favored American retrenchment, he was an internationalist. But he saw folly in staying so engaged in a Middle East that for him was beset by atavistic tribal and sectarian conflicts; hence his “pivot to Asia.” It was Donald Trump who spoke of the forever wars and presided over not a peace agreement in Afghanistan but a withdrawal agreement, even saying he bound the hands of his successor. It was also Donald Trump who questioned the value of NATO and all alliances because he did not want the US bound by obligations. When Abqaiq, the most important Saudi oil processing facility, was attacked in September 2019 by Iranian cruise missiles and drones launched from Iranian territory, President Trump said this was an attack on Saudi Arabia not the US. Thus, it required no American response.

Trump’s approach came out of the unilateralist legacy in US foreign policy. That legacy seemingly was reversed in the postwar world of the 1940s, but its roots clearly still remain, especially at a time when a strain of populist nationalism has been awakened in the US. While its various shades, and the language of how it is expressed may be different on the right and the left, the implications for policy are much the same. For both Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul, the US needs to retrench; again the words may be different, but they both want to pull US forces back from around the world. On the right and the left there is an argument that our military presence overseas is responsible for much of the conflict in the world. Read the reports of the Quincy Institute and you would conclude that Iran would not be a threat in the region if there was no US military presence. Pull US forces back and the world will become safer.

It is as if ideology, regional aims of achieving hegemony, or global powers with ambition don’t drive behaviors. Yet, we know they do and the best way to deter those ambitions or predatory ideology justifying expansion is with the certainty that we can impose a price on those who would engage in aggression—and they understand we will exercise our power to do so.

At this point, the left and the right, and the progressives more generally, don’t determine policy. But their collective attitudes cannot be wished away. There is something authentic about them. No doubt the reason for that is that America’s wars in the greater Middle East went so badly. Violating a fundamental precept of good statecraft, there was never a matching of our objectives and our means. The objectives of remaking Iraq and nation-building in Afghanistan were probably never achievable, but they were certainly not achievable with the means we were prepared to employ. Neither necessarily discredits the use of force in circumstances where the threats to the US are more immediate and convincing; but they certainly do raise the bar for military interventions. And, even among those in the foreign policy establishment who believe that American military force and commitments to allies and partners must be credible, there is an instinct to rebalance our policy tools.

The US can withdraw from the Middle East, but we know Israel is not going anyplace.

It is now commonplace to say diplomacy is our first resort and force is only a last resort. But that is a slogan—no administration, even George W. Bush’s, ever made the case that force should be resorted to first. The slogan is understandable but also tends to reflect a genuine hesitancy now to even threaten the use of force in circumstances where its credibility may be the only way to head off its actual use. In making this case to a senior person in the Biden administration, and saying that the Iranian loss of fear was dangerous and actually made miscalculation and war more likely, I was told there is no stomach in the Congress or the body politic for making such threats.

This reality, the sense that America is retrenching, is certainly perceived in the Middle East. Ironically, it is one of the factors that has fostered Israel’s ties with Sunni Arab leaderships. The more the US has been seen to be pulling back in the Middle East—a perception that began under Obama and has continued through Trump and Biden—the more Sunni Arab leaders in a number of states have seen the security value of Israel as a bulwark against threats from Iran and its Shiite militias and ISIS, al-Qaida, and the radical Sunni Islamists. As one senior Gulf official said to me, the US can withdraw but we know Israel is not going anyplace.

That said, any real US withdrawal threatens to create vacuums, and we have seen in Syria, Iraq, and Libya what happens when there is a vacuum. They always get filled and sooner or later make conflict and threats more likely.

Because of the way the Afghanistan withdrawal was carried out, the Biden administration is now unlikely to withdraw from the remainder of the Middle East for some time to come. There is sensitivity to not looking weak. Moreover, after President Biden touted our over-the-horizon capabilities to counter terrorism that might find fertile ground in Afghanistan, it is also far less tenable to think of withdrawing from our bases and presence in the region that provides us that over-the-horizon capability. But the appetite for using force, except in narrow, one-off kinds of operations is low—and reflects where the American public is.

Here is another irony. So long as we realize we have stakes in the Middle East—whether because of the need to fight terror, or manage a transition away from fossil fuels over the next few decades, or to prevent the area from becoming characterized by disorder and refugee flows—the US will depend on regional partners who can help in all these areas. Israel, as the foremost military power in the region— in addition to its tech-driven economy and its advances in water, food, health, and cybersecurity—make it an increasingly valued partner for the US and many of the Sunni state leaders.

In yet another irony, even as Arab states are doing more with Israel, there are progressives in the US who favor the BDS movement, who only see Israel as an occupier, and Palestinians as victims. Israel cannot ignore the Palestinian issue for its own reasons—the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere. But with an evolving political landscape in the US, Israel needs to show it is not deepening occupation and is not acting in a way that makes a two-state outcome impossible, even as an option. Drifting toward a one-state outcome in which Palestinians will demand one person, one vote is certain to extend the influence of progressives far beyond where it stands today.

Thus, as important as it is to do outreach to Democrats and to present Israel’s growing role in the region countering the forces of extremism and helping its neighbors with drought-related water and agricultural problems, Israel must also deal with the reality that how it approaches the Palestinians will affect how it is seen in the US. Israel cannot resolve the Palestinian conflict by itself, and Palestinians are divided and show neither the inclination nor the capability to adjust any of their positions. But Israel must still show it is doing its part to reduce friction, make life better, enhance movement, and preserve an outcome other than a single, binational state.

Israel has the means to manage in a world where the US is less consumed by the Middle East but still understands that basic stability in the region is in US interests.

Dennis Ross
Dennis Ross, former US envoy to the Middle East, served in senior national security positions for Presidents Reagan, Bush Senior, Clinton, and Obama. He is the counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and teaches at Georgetown University. @AmbDennisRoss
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