Max Ryabinin
Max Ryabinin

America, do you (still) love me?

In the 1971 epic musical film Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman asks his wife Golde if she loves him. Golde immediately replies with a question “Do I what?” After a long 1:40 minutes of back and forth, Golde admits she does love Tevye. Many modern Tevyes in Israel ask the exact same question today. Instead of Golde, the question is addressed to their beloved United States. Much ink was spilled on trying to anticipate what will be the attitude of the new Biden administration towards Israel. After two months in office, one can say with certainty that it is not the same as it was under the Trump administration. While some might see it as a negative development, I would argue that the current policy towards Israel should not be immediately dismissed as it has positive aspects.

Let’s face it, Israel is not the most important country in the world, nor is it the most influential country in the world. Some Israelis might think we are but, how to put it politely…no. Nevertheless, Israel is indeed unique and has so many good things to offer the Middle East and the world. The fact Israel has received so much attention during the Trump administration is an anomaly, not the natural state. If there is something that has changed in the transition between the administrations is that Israel returned to its natural size after it was overrepresented in President Trump’s foreign policy. This relegation from the “big boy’s league” is manifested in the administration’s recent United States National Security Strategy document.

Every American presidential administration is required by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act to publish a National Security Strategy. This document outlines the administration’s priorities and strategic vision. In President Obama’s 2010 NSS, Israel was mentioned 21 times, and in his 2015 NSS it decreased to 5 times. In President Trump’s NSS, Israel was mentioned 4 times. In the recently published Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, Israel is being mentioned, by name, only once: “In the Middle East, we will maintain our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security, while seeking to further its integration with its neighbors and resuming our role as promoter of a viable two-state solution”.

Some might argue that this is merely a lip service, aiming to mitigate Jerusalem’s concerns of U.S. abandonment. Lip service or not, for Israel this statement is crucial. Others will argue that this word count doesn’t mean a lot, rather, actual deeds do. Either way, maintaining good relations with the world’s super power and having its “ironclad commitment to Israel’s Security” is Israel’s core strategic priority, especially when a possible showdown with the nuclear-aspiring Iran might be just around the corner.

Such a showdown, if initiated by Israel or members of the anti-Iranian camp, might challenge that ironclad commitment and create a chasm between the U.S. and Israel. This chasm might leave Israel to face Iran and its proxies without U.S. backing. This possible scenario is clearly stated in the Interim NSS: “…But we do not believe that military force is the answer to the region’s challenges, and we will not give our partners in the Middle East a blank check to pursue policies at odds with American interests and values”. During his presidential campaign, then candidate Biden, stated that he believes in diplomacy, and if elected he will strive to return to the Obama era JCPOA agreement with Iran, reversing President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. from it.

Those negotiations, indirect at the moment, are in progress. As was reported by Reuters on March 12th, President Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan confirmed the existence of indirect negotiations with Iran. Leaving the pro and con arguments around the JCPOA agreement aside, the basic fact remains, by stopping adhering to several key provisions of the JCPOA, Iran reduces the time it would need to produce a nuclear bomb. It should serve as a wakeup call for the world. With American backing or not, it is hard to see Israel holding back from attacking Iran’s nuclear installations. When push comes to shove, Israel will act. Unlike the successful U.S. restraining efforts of Israel after a dozen of Iraqi rockets fell on Israel during Desert Storm, the situation here will be different. If history teaches us something is that Israel doesn’t shine away from bombing nuclear reactors of enemy states (Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007).

However the standoff with Iran will end, one should not forget that there is a more pressing and closer to home issue, the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. While the relative scarcity of security incidents between the sides might create a false sense of serenity, it might be just the calm before the storm. Maintaining a Jewish and Democratic state is in Israel’s supreme interest. To ensure that, Israel will have to separate itself from the Palestinians. A divorce with an accepted property division. The United States has long tried to negotiate a resolution to the conflict.

Time and time again it failed. Some might say that the explanation for the poor mentioning of Israel and the Palestinians in the current Interim NSS, is that the warring parties managed to break the U.S. belief that a solution in the near future is possible. So, instead of investing energy into something that is destined to fail, this energy should be invested in other priorities. Secretary of State Blinkin enforced that observation in an interview to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “Look, the hard truth is we are a long way I think from seeing peace break out and seeing a final resolution of the problems between Israel and the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state.  In the first instance now, it’s do no harm.”

According to The New Republic, during the 2013-2014 “Kerry talks”, President Obama’s NSA Susan Rice once told the Palestinian chief negotiator Erekat that “You Palestinians, can never see the fucking big picture.” It might be that Israelis, as the Palestinians, don’t see it either.

Having said all that, not everything is bleak. The Biden Administration praised the Abraham Accords, the peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, and the peace agreements with Sudan and Morocco. The U.S. embassy will remain in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. Following the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) ruling that the court has jurisdiction over alleged war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories, the State Department’s spokesman stood by Israel’s criticism of the ICC by raising “serious concerns about the ICC’s attempts to exercise its jurisdiction over Israeli personnel”.

Israel received $500 million for missile defense development (part of President Obama’s 2016 $38 billion Memorandum of Understanding), ignoring domestic criticism of sending foreign aid during domestic economic hardship. Furthermore, Israel was relocated to the area of responsibility of the US military’s Central Command, joining the newly allies in the Arab world. This relocation strengthens the cooperation between Israel and the other countries that are part of the area of responsibility of the US military’s Central Command (previously, Israel was in the area of responsibility of the US military’s Europe Command).

“Matchmaker. matchmaker, make me a match” ask Tevye’s daughters. After 2 months into the Biden administration, we can say that the matchmaker should focus on helping Tevye’s daughters because Israel and the U.S. are still “a thing”. True, Israel is not in the U.S. top priorities right now. Global pandemic, economic hardships, increasing domestic polarization, increasing global great-power struggles, climate change, and efforts to restore relations with NATO and historic partners, are situated much higher in the U.S. priorities list than two Middle Eastern people’s endless fight over real estate. I know it can be hard to adjust to playing in the championship league after you were playing with the top teams in the premier league.

However, Israel should embrace the positive aspects of the relegation. In the upcoming years, if Israel will not “do harm” (e.g., annexation or one sided actions in relations to the Palestinians), the U.S. will not force Israel’s hand and demand any concessions. With Iran noncompliance with the JCPOA and its closer than ever position to obtain a nuclear weapon, maybe we should give diplomacy a chance. If diplomacy fails, and Iran will continue with its defiance, it will increase the justification of even harsher maximum pressure policy. If that maximum pressure will lead to a full-blown war in the Middle East, then the U.S. will be driven back to the region, willingly or not. Why? Well…that’s tradition. Tradition! Tradition!

About the Author
Max is an M.A. in International Relations student at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse University. Former Escoll Family Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Vanderbilt Hillel. Max oversaw Israel programing at Vanderbilt Hillel and provided opportunities for students to engage with Israel in an open and supportive environment. Max made Aliya from Ukraine and served in the IDF Nahal Brigade. Max graduated from IDC Herzliya with a cum laude degree in Government and he is an Argov Fellowship in Leadership and Diplomacy alumni.
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