By George Friedman
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel on March 8 in the wake of another meaningless crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations. Diplomatic circles are agog with the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only declined an invitation to visit Washington, but leaked his decision to the press before formally informing the White House. To the cognoscenti of U.S.-Israeli relations, this flows from the deep mutual dislike between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. And from their point of view, that dislike is driving U.S.-Israeli relations.
It is possible that the two leaders dislike each other. The leak may have been a deliberate insult by Netanyahu or just a typical leak, which is as common in Israel as it is in the U.S. But whichever it is, it is not driving U.S.-Israeli relations, and a new president and a new prime minister would be experiencing the same tensions even if they loved each other. The tension is not personal. It comes from fundamental shifts in U.S. and Israeli interests.
It must be remembered that the United States and Israel were not close prior to the 1967 war. France provided most of Israel’s weapons, and the U.S. hardly provided any. It was after the 1967 war and France’s break with Israel that the U.S. became Israel’s major benefactor. And the flow of arms and aid only became substantial after the 1973 war between Israel, Syria and Egypt. I point this out to make clear that the intimate relationship between Israel and the United States did not exist for the first quarter-century of Israel’s history. The relationship is not a given, and it should not be surprising that it is fraying.
There were two parts to the relationship. Israel had security requirements that outstripped its financial and industrial capability. It could defend itself only if it had a great power underwriting its national security. In order to entice such a power, Israel had to be prepared to be useful to the great power, but also prepared to trim its foreign policy to fit within the framework of the great power’s interests. France saw value in Israel until 1967 and then broke with it because the war was not in France’s interest. Israeli foreign policy was then built around being of value to and aligning with the United States.
The American interest in Israel as a strategic asset doesn’t arise until a major shift in the Cold War. In the mid-1960s, there were pro-Soviet coups in Syria and Iraq. Turkey, the critical American ally in the region, was being pressed from the north by the Soviets. If pressure arose from the south as well, Turkey might buckle. Iran served to tie down the Iraqis. Israel tied down the Syrians and, as a bonus, served as a strategic threat to pro-Soviet Egypt. Under these circumstances, aid to Israel was an investment in U.S. national security. Israel threatened Soviet assets in a cost effective way and, along with the Shah’s Iran, was a foundation of U.S. strategy in the region.
The Cold War has been over for a quarter-century and for most of that time, the relationship continued. This was in part out of habit and in part out of other interests they shared. But over the past decade, the foundations of the strategic relationship have weakened, and as they weakened, a constant drum beat of mutual dissatisfaction emerged.
From Israel’s point of view, it no longer requires a major power to underwrite its national security. Egypt is officially neutral and cooperates with Israel on an array of security issues. Syria is in chaos. Israel has a close relationship with Jordan, and even Hezbollah has greater concerns in Syria than fighting Israel. Israel has a notional enemy in Iran but it is far away, and its nuclear capability is still theoretical at best. With the diminution of a strategic threat, Israel does not need the United States as it once did. It does not want to break the tie with the United States, but U.S. aid is now a very small percentage of Israel’s GDP, where it was once a huge part. It is valued, but not to the point of allowing it to keep Israel contained in U.S. foreign policy.
The United States’ interests in the region have shifted as well. The experience in Iraq taught the United States that occupying a hostile country is difficult, expensive and may not achieve the fundamental aims. The U.S. saw Iraq as an opportunity to fight terrorism. The pacification of Iraq failed, but even if it had succeeded, it is unlikely that Islamist terrorism would have disappeared.
The United States understands that without a massive commitment of forces – many times the number of troops sent to Iraq and more than the U.S. military has available – the probability of both defeating the Islamic State and winning the resulting insurgency is unlikely at best, and probably impossible.
So the U.S. could let the Middle East take its own course, or try to manage its course through relationships with the major powers in the region: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. Iran is already engaged in Iraq supporting the Baghdad regime, as is the United States. Saudi Arabia is deeply weakened by the collapse of oil prices. Turkey is more focused on the Kurds and has little appetite for incurring the cost of fighting IS. Israel’s standing army has 160,000 troops, of which a small fraction are combat forces. It has a large reserve, but like all reserves, the quality is highly variable. Plus, Israel is fairly distant from IS and its logistical ability to sustain a force for an extended period of time at that distance is limited.
If the U.S. decides to allow the region to proceed on its own, Israel’s strategic value drastically diminishes. If the United States decides to create a coalition with other nations prepared to bear the primary burden of the fight, Israel has minimal military relevance to that force and would be a political hindrance. Israel’s presence would destroy any coalition the U.S. would try to build. Saudi Arabia is not a major military force, which means the United States’ prime focus would be Turkey and Iran. And that moves us back to thinking about disengagement.
Israel cannot be a surrogate for the United States if it chooses to wage this war. Where it was invaluable in the Cold War, its impact on this war would be negligible to negative. It is therefore no surprise that U.S. tolerance for some Israeli actions is minimal. Israel, on the other hand, is not threatened by regional powers and for now is not as dependent on a great power patron. It just doesn’t need the U.S. to the extent it once did. The U.S. is an insurance policy, but it can’t carry a high premium.
Focusing on Obama and Netanyahu’s personal relationship is missing the crucial point. The tension is rooted in shifting national interests. As the interests shift, the tolerance for various demands on both sides declines. And as it declines, the background noise in the relationship shifts. But it is only background noise. The real events are taking place silently, but in full view. Israel and the United States were close when they needed to be and are drifting apart when they can afford to. This does not mean they are enemies. But then they aren’t friends. Nations have no permanent friends or enemies. Only permanent interests.