Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

America and Israel Must Remain Strong Allies

Photo by Samuel Heilman
Photo by Samuel Heilman

Much commentary has been stimulated by a new book, Steven Simon’s The Grand Illusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East (Penguin Press, 2023). In it, Simon reviews the policies of recent American Presidents and their administration’s approach to the Middle East and Israel. As an advisor in the Obama administration, he can serve as a good barometer as to where the Obama and Biden Democrats may be headed in their attitudes toward the Middle East and Israel.

As an American Jew, he also offers a view of how far American Jewry may have moved from its once powerful concerns about Israel. Indeed, as Ben Samuels reports in Haaretz, that view is essentially “Israel is not America’s problem and that “American support for Israel no longer serves strategic U.S. interests.” While as an Israeli and an American I share a sympathy with those who would like to walk away from an Israel under the control of this extremist right-wing government that is sliding away from democracy and undermining the values that have shaped the Israeli state and society, I nevertheless would like to argue why Simon’s assessment is poor judgement and ill-advised.

For starters, why should we listen to his thoughts? As Simon himself admits in the opening pages of his new book, he “participated in the planning of two ill-fated interventions in the Middle East.” To call these interventions “ill-fated” is a self-serving and not-too-subtle way of avoiding saying the interventions were ‘mistaken, poorly planned, badly executed and ill-advised.’ Given both the problematic interventions and Simon’s apparent unwillingness to admit the extent of his mistakes, it makes me wonder why this man’s counsel is necessarily worth following.

As for his specific advice and its drawbacks, let us begin with a central part of his argument: America has “no control over” the current political crisis, so why wander into the political thicket of a problem that is so deeply entrenched in Israeli history and has been a divisive element of Israeli politics for years. If Israelis cannot agree, why should Uncle Sam butt in? Walking away is the best strategy. Let them fight it out themselves, because we cannot control things. But does America really have no control here? I think not.

My argument has several points. For starters, although Simon lightly dismisses the fact that Israel and America have had shared values and parallel patterns of history. But these should not be dismissed given how powerful they are. Both countries are nations of immigrants, many from the same countries of origin, who from the outset imposed their values and a pattern of settlement on a native population living on the land for generations that ended up as second-class citizens, many of who were subsequently ejected from their native lands and put in reservations or refugee camps. For the Americans this treatment of native peoples was called “manifest destiny” while for the Israelis this was the mythic and biblically justified return to the ancient Jewish homeland. Both shared a desire to be a democratic state, even though in the case of the U.S. this initial democracy did not include Blacks or women having the right to vote or equal protection under the law for a long time and for the Israelis this did not always include Arabs and other non-Jewish minorities (though women could always vote). Both engaged in wars after their establishment in which the conquered and occupied additional native populations and did not give them full rights as citizens: the Americans most recently the Chamorros in the Pacific (including until recently the people of Guam), and the Israelis in a series of wars since 1967 that enlarged the numbers of people under occupation. While Americans eventually gave the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, both of which were occupied, freedom, the latter are citizens but lack voices in the legislature and the others in the Pacific still have second class status. Israel’s occupation is more recent and still fraught.

Regarding democracy, both Israel and America are now having their commitments to it severely tested. The U.S. has always served as a model for its democracy, its declaration of independence, and it remains the single most important nation whose support for Israel and that support and alliance is what makes Israel defenses appear stronger than they really are. Were it to walk away, the sense of Israel’s power to defend itself would be severely crippled, especially during this time of turmoil. Everyone in the world realizes this, and most clear-thinking Israelis do too – that is why Netanyahu appears on American media and in the Congress and makes so much of an invitation to the White House.

Simon and many American Democrats question why they should walk into a political minefield when President Biden is in a tight and possibly momentous re-election campaign against a Trumpist Republican party whose commitment to democracy and the truth is tenuous at best? I believe that they must not only because of our shared values and parallel history but because if the U.S. drops one of its most important allies and the recipient of so much aid, what will all other important American allies conclude about the value of American alliances? Taiwan, South Korea, the Baltic states, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or India – to name but a few – are watching this American-Israeli alliance carefully. Should America ‘walk away’ they will begin to doubt American dependability as an ally and necessarily look to other less democratic friends for help and as models to emulate. An America without its allies will be a shadow of itself and its power. A world where democracy is on the decline will be a much more dangerous place for all of us to inhabit.

No matter how great a state is, once it loses allies and trust, defending democracy and itself becomes difficult at best. The unraveling of the alliance between Israel and America is like that loose thread which when pulled unravels the entire woven cloak. The world is the cloak.

Moreover, if as a result of the Biden administration loosening its concern about Israel the Middle East explodes because Israel is seen as a deserted U.S. ally, it will be far more damaging for U.S. interests than maintaining the close ties even with the complex and troublesome Israel. President Reagan’s 1982 claim that “the whole world will be a safer place when this region, which has known so much trouble, can begin to know peace instead,” I believe is still true. Countries in this neighborhood are dangerously combustible.

The Biden administration may be focused now on China and Russia but its loyalty to the alliance with Israel will undoubtedly feature greatly in the thinking of Russian and Chinese heads of state. Drop Israel and they will likely assume that the commitments America the Biden administration has made to Ukraine, the Baltic states, NATO countries or the Taiwanese, Filipinos, South Koreans and the Chamorro people of Guam and other Pacific islanders are also subject to the pressure of American politics (much as Vietnam was). If Putin expands his war into the Baltics, Poland or Finland because he believes America and its Democrats do not honor alliances like this one with Israel, for internal political reasons, he and Russia will be much more dangerous than they already are, and the terrible threat of nuclear conflicts will take a quantum leap. If Xi, seeing such an American-Israeli rift opening, chooses to expand Chinese control in the Pacific to Taiwan, the Philippines, or decides to bomb Guam, as most military experts expect he might if a conflict between the US and China breaks out, it will no doubt be a move he takes because he believes that the Americans will consider internal political needs more than alliances, a conclusion drawn from walking away from Israel.

Finally, if the U.S. walks away from Israel, its intelligence eyes and ears will be severely impacted. Today America depends heavily on Israel’s intelligence agencies for information and help, and can and has used Israel as a proxy and silent partner (not always so silent) for a variety of operations in the Middle East, Europe and Africa, in cyber warfare, and in human intelligence in some places where they cannot insert themselves with the confidence that Israelis have brought to the field. Only the close alliance and cooperation between Israel and America make this possible. And only a democratic Israel can continue to succeed in this.

Rather than moving away, America and the Biden administration must insert itself into this Israeli political and internal struggle for the survival of democracy. It must use every lever of pressure and diplomacy it has to help Israel from destroying itself by division and tendencies to dictatorship, from the domination of extremist religious actions and intramural hatred, from occupation and criminality. The right-wing Israeli government ministers, at least three of whom are convicted criminals and the PM an indicted one, will ultimately go into the dustbin of history, with others who have embraced extremism and led to exile and suffering for the people who live in the Land of Israel. America can and must take the longer view and see that it is in both of our interests that America forces the Israelis to choose Democracy rather than the path it has been following since the current government has come to control the Knesset. With the Biden administration’s active engagement, this little friend Israel might save itself from repeating its gloomy history of internal conflict, loss of sovereignty and exile. And in the process, America might also wake up and see how it could itself avoid the abyss of populism and dictatorship together.

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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