These days, when a couple of bullying white guys gang up on two prominent women of color, they are likely to create quite a stir. This is especially the case when the women are darlings of the liberal media, not to mention Democratic members of Congress, and the bullies are the president of the United States and his ostensibly good friend the prime minister of Israel.
So it has been with the flap pitting President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. The quantity of mud slung on the opposing sides has been most impressive and no doubt a source of joy for the ratings-obsessed executives of our several cable news networks.
But does this controversy have any real significance? Beyond the question of whether Ms. Tlaib will ever be able to visit her nonagenarian Palestinian grandmother on the West Bank, my guess is probably not.
Still, in those circles where a firm, fierce, unwavering, and unquestioning U.S. commitment to Israel ranks on a par with mom, apple pie, and supporting the troops as core American values, any suggestion of a threat to the longstanding, bipartisan pro-Israel consensus evokes panic. With the exception of AIPAC, few institutions are more sensitive to any hints of backsliding in U.S. support for Israel than The New York Times.
To follow the Times’s coverage of this tempest in a teapot is to sense the anguish of editors yearning for the “squad” of which Talib and Omar are members to blossom into a full-fledged army of progressives while simultaneously desperate to prevent any such turn in American politics from undermining American support for Israel.
President Trump, despised by the Times, professes undying love for Israel. Talib and Omar also despise Trump, but don’t even pretend to love Israel. For the nation’s leading newspaper, this poses a serious problem.
The necessary solution to that problem is to prevent the U.S.-Israeli relationship from becoming a partisan issue. For decades now, support for Israel in Washington has transcended politics. Along with raising military pay, it has been one of the few issues on which Republicans and Democrats, with a few brave exceptions, routinely agree. On an annual basis, Congress reaffirms that commitment by mailing another $3 billion check to Jerusalem.
What exactly is the rationale for this largesse? Israel possesses easily the most potent and effective armed forces in the Middle East. The Jewish state has become a powerhouse of technological innovation. Annual per capita income there now exceeds $40,000. In sum, the success of the Israeli experiment in nation building, launched just a few decades ago, is nothing short of dazzling. In regional terms, David has indeed become Goliath.
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Yet how, one might ask, do subsidies provided to this strong and affluent nation benefit the United States? Why are they necessary? And with the Israeli government dissing Democratic House members, why should they continue?
Grannygate threatens to revive these questions, which virtually the entire American political establishment prefers to ignore—as does the Times. So in a piece of putative “news analysis,” the paper has sought to defuse the situation by offering up this pithy assertion: “if Israel is weakened, so too is the United States’ position in the Middle East, which is always stronger when both parties are behind it.”
Let’s take a moment to parse this sentence. It presumably refers to Israel. The Times thereby posits a correlation between Israeli strength (military? economic?) and the strength (viability? sustainability?) of the U.S. position in the Middle East, which is reinforced even further when both American political parties profess their fealty to Israel. Or more succinctly: supporting them is good for us. The U.S.-Israeli relationship is win-win.
But is it? Let me suggest that this claim is on a par with the endlessly repeated and misleading notion that “diversity makes us stronger.” It’s a dodge, a way of concealing the actual purpose. The aim of the diversity project is not to make the United States stronger but to redress a history of discrimination (a perfectly legitimate motivation, by the way). So too with the assertion that the U.S. position in the Middle East hinges on having a strong Israel: it too is a dodge.
I have no doubt that American government agencies benefit from shared Israeli intelligence and technological exchanges. Yet what determines the strength or weakness of the U.S. position in the Middle East is not our connection with Israel but the wisdom or folly of decisions made in Washington. While some Americans—more than a handful, far fewer than a majority—believe that those decisions are made at Israel’s behest, little evidence exists to support that charge. George W. Bush did not invade Iraq in 2003 to please Mr. Netanyahu, but in response to a bout of neo-imperial hubris laced with missionary fanaticism not seen since the days of Woodrow Wilson.
Today, Israel is very strong indeed—so strong that Netanyahu feels free to deep-six the two-state solution and accelerate colonization of the West Bank. Critics complain, but their complaints are without practical effect. The government of Israel does whatever it sees as necessary to ensure its national security. I personally find much to admire in this single-mindedness, even if I find fault with the policy specifics.
Meanwhile, American policies in the Middle East are in a complete muddle. Recent U.S. administrations, not excluding Trump’s, have demonstrated an astonishing inability to discern interests in the region and to act on them. In other words, a strong Israel has not prevented the United States from exhibiting terminally stupid behavior. For evidence, examine recent U.S. policies toward Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Yemen.
Here’s an alternative interpretation of what the U.S.-Israeli relationship signifies. Maintaining the pretense that the partnership is mutually beneficial provides American politicians of both parties—and The New York Times—an excuse to avoid critically reassessing what it is the United States thinks it’s doing in the Middle East and whether ongoing expenditures of blood and treasure will yield real success any time soon.
I have absolutely no doubt that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is good for Israel. Perhaps it’s time to consider whether it’s actually good for us. Now there’s an issue worthy of examination by the nation’s newspaper of record.
Andrew Bacevich, TAC’s writer-at-large, is co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a new Washington think tank opposed to needless “forever wars.”