It is not easy to see how Israel’s friends can help divert it from the isolating and self-destructive policies it has pursued in recent years. The senseless assault by Israeli commandos on a Turkish ship trying to break the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza, which resulted in the deaths of nine political activists, is only the latest disproportionate Israeli response to the security threats facing the Jewish state.

Israel’s actions have been widely, and rightly, condemned. However violently the “Free Gaza” activists on the ship reacted to the commandos, the outrage throughout the Middle East and Europe at Israel’s use of lethal force is justified. Turkey, once the Jewish state’s staunchest Muslim ally in the region, has withdrawn its ambassador and pressed for UN sanctions against Israel. Increasingly it looks as though Israel will lose Turkey as a strategic military and diplomatic partner, which will seriously weaken Israel’s security. U.S. efforts to win support for stronger sanctions against Iran—which could truly threaten Israel’s existence if it acquired a nuclear weapon—have also been seriously damaged. To the extent that the U.S. government fails to moderate Israeli actions, other countries in the region are unlikely to join an effort to punish even a rogue Iran. Ongoing U.S. efforts to mediate “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have also been set back. More perversely, the popularity of Hamas—the radical Islamic group that seized complete power in Gaza in 2007, considers itself at war with Israel, and oppresses the Palestinians under its rule—has been strengthened. Why would Israel risk these easily foreseen consequences to enforce what is at best a porous and morally questionable blockade? Israel’s political leaders, especially the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seem to have lost touch with both the moral foundations and the real security interests of the Jewish state.  

Is there anything the United States can do to help steer Israel away from this dangerous path? While expressing concern over the incident, the United States has not joined in the condemnation of Israel’s actions or its blockade of Gaza. At the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Israel to rethink the blockade policy, which she has called “unsustainable.” As Israel’s most steadfast and powerful ally, the United States must measure its words and actions carefully while at the same time pressing Israel to take prudent risks in pursuit of a stable peace.

Since it took office, the Obama administration has been trying to get Israel to the negotiating table with the Palestinian Authority to hammer out steps toward the elusive “two-state solution.” Netanyahu has rebuffed the United States at every turn, not hesitating to use the considerable influence hard-line American supporters of Israel have with Congress to make things difficult for the president. It is unlikely that this familiar political stalemate is going to change dramatically in the near future. For that to happen, American and Israeli Jews who recognize the perilous course Israel is on must become more vocal in supporting a forceful U.S. diplomatic stance toward Israel. President Barack Obama has been clear about America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security. That should not mean, however, that the United States supports every action taken by every Israeli government. U.S. and Israeli interests are inseparable, but they are not identical. Israeli governments have long recognized this fact and acted on it, often to the dismay of the United States. What has been clear for a long time—as General David Petraeus forthrightly noted in recent testimony before Congress—is that progress toward a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian question is in the vital interest of the United States. To the extent that the plight of the Palestinians continues to generate support for radical Islamic groups in the region, the lives of American soldiers and the goals of U.S. policy are put at risk. Stonewalling on Israel’s part only damages its most reliable ally.

Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has called on Israel to change its ways: “It is time Israel realized that it has obligations to the United States, as well as the United States to Israel, and that it become far more careful about the extent to which it tests the limits of U.S. patience and exploits the support of American Jews.” In short, Cordesman writes, “Israel’s government should act on the understanding that the long-term nature of the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship will depend on Israel clearly and actively seeking peace with the Palestinians—the kind of peace that is in Israel’s own strategic interests.”

Sometimes only one’s best friends dare to speak an unwanted truth. Israel needs friends like that now.

June 8, 2010

Related: Holy Land, by the Editors
Israel in Gaza, by the Editors

Published in the 2010-06-18 issue: View Contents
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