Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has revealed what members of his country’s national security elite have been chatting about behind closed doors for quite a while.
“The United States has been, and will always be our best friend,” the Israeli PM said in a speech delivered before the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. Then came the big “but”: “Washington has its own set of interests, which we must honestly admit do not always overlap with ours.”
“We are speaking honestly and understand one another,” Bennett elaborated. America’s “interest in the region is dwindling. The United States is currently focused on the Russian-Ukrainian border and it is in a strategic conflict with China.”
“This is the reality,” he stressed. “There is no point whining about it. We must act within the existing circumstances, not in a world we wished existed.” In this, he reflected the foreign policy outlook that has guided Israeli policymakers since the state’s establishment in 1948: realpolitik.
During much of the Cold War and the war on terror, American neoconservatives have made it sound like American and Israeli interests were not only compatible, but that Israel owed its existence to the United States and that the ties between the two countries were similar to the “special relationship” between the US and Great Britain.
This narrative disregarded, well, history. It was the Soviet Union that had backed the newly established Jewish State, providing it with military assistance and at one point even proposing to send the Israeli Czech “volunteers” to help it fight Egyptian military forces that were assisted by a declining British empire trying to preserve its eroding position in the Middle East.
The United States, on the other hand, imposed a strict military embargo on Israel and helped prop up the Arab regimes in the Middle East. Facing the American cold shoulder towards Israel, Jerusalem reoriented its foreign policy towards France (and Germany) that against the background of the war in Algeria, shared Israeli concerns that the Americans were trying to align themselves with Egypt’s nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Israel’s affair with France manifested itself in major military cooperation between the two countries, including in the campaign against Nasser in 1956, aka the Suez War, and later in France’s assistance in building Israel’s nuclear military reactor, which has become central to the country’s national security doctrine (a development that was denounced by President John F. Kennedy).
That Israel would later ally itself with the United States for the duration of the Cold War was inevitable against the backdrop of rising Soviet hostility and the presence of a large American Jewish community.
But the interests of the two countries were never compatible, considering America’s close ties with the Arab oil-producing states and concerns that Moscow would exploit anti-American sentiments in the Arab world. Which it did.
And with the end of the Cold War, the notion of Israel serving as America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the Middle East had lost its luster, while Israel re-established ties with a geographical neighbor, Russia, and absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from that country.
The war on terror and the perception of Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) and Iran challenging US hegemony in the Middle East helped sustain Israel’s role as America’s deputy in the region for some time.
But then while the Israeli government did not publicly encourage the United States to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, it opportunistically went along with the ambitious goals set by Washington’s neoconservatives. After all, why stand in the way as the US tried to get rid of its Iraqi arch-enemy?
In retrospect, the US military adventure in Iraq, seen by supporters and critics of the Jewish state as advancing its interests, removed the main regional power blocking Iran’s expansion in the region and posed a direct and long-term threat to Israel.
Moreover, it was the catastrophic outcome of the Iraq war and disastrous American efforts to “remake” the Middle East that were in part responsible for the American backlash against these interventions. Call it Iraq Syndrome, and eventually it led to the withdrawals from Iraq and later Afghanistan, and to the decision to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.
Economists refer to a recognition lag as the delay between when an economic shock occurs and when economists, central bankers, and the government realize that it has occurred.
In a way, a similar recognition lag may explain why it has taken decision-makers in Israel, or for that matter in Egypt and the Arab Gulf States, some time to figure out that the American approach to the Middle East was changing and that it had to do with shifting American interests, from lessening dependence on Middle East oil, the rebalancing of geo-strategic priorities to East Asia, and an American economy that sets constraints on military overstretch. Add to the mix the growing hostility towards the Jewish State among a large segment of Democratic leaders and activists.
Or to underline Bennett’s point, this is the reality, not the world that Israel wished would have existed. America’s disengagement from the region does create a “vacuum” or a “void” that needs to be filled, he stressed, as Israel would have to adjust to the evolving American strategy towards the region.
It is interesting to point out what Bennett did not say after referring to America’s clashes with Russia and China. He did not express support for the US position in Ukraine. In fact, Israel has no dog in this fight and maintains excellent relations with Moscow and Kiev.
Israel, which has annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and is worried about the presence of hostile military forces across its borders, may also empathize with Russia’s own concerns in its backyard.
Moreover, President Vladimir Putin has allowed the Israeli air force to operate in Russia-controlled Syria against Iranian and Hezbollah targets and has underscored his friendship with Israel and the more than one million Russians who immigrated there. To put in in historical terms, Putin is probably the most philo-Semitic and pro-Israel leader in Russian history.
Similarly, Israel has resisted American pressure to reassess its relationship with Beijing. China is increasingly interested in Israeli technology, and Chinese companies are operating in Israel today in deals that reach more than $20 billion. Moreover, Israel and China are negotiating a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that could be signed as early as late this year.
Israel did notify the Biden administration that it will keep the White House in the loop regarding deals it strikes with China and is prepared to re-examine such agreements if the United States raises opposition. But unlike Washington, it does not regard China as a hostile strategic global power.
That does not mean that Israel sees China and Russia, who maintain diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran, as strategic allies.
But then the main challenge facing Israel these days has to do with US policy, specifically the expectation that Washington will restore its nuclear deal with Tehran. That would give the Iranians access to huge economic resources that could help it expand its influence in the Middle East and threaten the national security of Israel as well as those of the Arab Gulf States.
Indeed, as Bennett proposed in his address, strengthening Israel’s military and economic ties with those Arab Sunni countries, a process that has been highlighted with the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, and more recently by the visits by the Israeli president and PM to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), would allow Israel and these Arab governments to begin filling the void created by America’s disengagement from the region.