I always enjoy listening to former ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer discuss U.S. policy because he eruditely expresses the essence of the Arabist point of view. Speaking on a panel at the Association of Israel Studies conference at Brandeis, Kurtzer gave a presentation that concluded the problem with U.S.-Israel relations is that Israelis are undiplomatic and don’t take American advice.
When I suggested his analysis reflected the discredited view of Arabists, Kurtzer condescendingly said that Arabist don’t exist anymore. He then asserted that the U.S.-Israel relationship had grown stronger under the Obama administration. At the risk of sounding equally condescending, it seems the ambassador slept through the eight years of the Obama administration.
Kurtzer gave a litany of examples of Israelis behaving badly, such as Netanyahu’s failure to follow protocol in arranging to speak to Congress and then using that forum to attack the president’s position on Iran. I agreed that Israelis can be undiplomatic – as shocking a notion as gambling in Rick’s place in Casablanca – but I pointed out the United States is in no position to lecture Israelis on diplomatic niceties. When it comes to Israel, our government behaves uniquely undiplomatically. The State Department publicly condemns Israeli policy on a regular basis; no other Western democracy is treated with the same disdain and disrespect.
The other point that Kurtzer made, that Israel has the chutzpah not to take American advice, is quintessential Arabist thinking. It is predicated on the thesis that America knows what’s best for Israel and that the United States must save Israel from itself, as George Ball famously put it. The United States does not presume to tell Europeans what to do, so why does Kurtzer believe the United States is entitled to dictate policy to Israel or that Israelis should accept those instructions?
It is ironic that Kurtzer made this argument on the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War given that President Johnson had advised Israel not to go to war. Had Israel listened to Johnson, it is likely the country would have suffered catastrophic losses once Egypt and Syria invaded in what they had promised would be a war of extermination. If Israel listened to the United States instead of acting as a sovereign nation defending its own interests, Ben-Gurion would never have declared independence, the Iraqi nuclear reactor would not have been destroyed and, rather than negotiating a treaty with Sadat, Begin would have attended an international conference where peace would have been vetoed by the other Arab leaders.
As to the nonsensical claim that Arabists went the way of the Dodo years ago, one need only recall the policies and statements of Obama and officials in his administration. For example, the Pentagon, another home of Arabists, produced a document that said that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has a negative influence on American interests in the region and the perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel stimulates anti-American sentiment. This was reminiscent of the 1940s when the Pentagon tried to sabotage President Truman’s endorsement of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine by issuing dire warnings about the need to send U.S. troops to enforce partition. After the Arab League threatened to deny pipeline rights to American companies if the government did not change its policy, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal warned that Americans would all have to drive 4-cylinder cars without Middle Eastern oil. Israel declared independence, no U.S. troops were involved, and gas continued to flow.
In his final foreign policy address, Secretary of State John Kerry assailed America’s closest ally in the Middle East for more than an hour. He ignored all of America’s foreign policy concerns and devoted the entire address to lambasting Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. While Kerry heaped scorn on Israeli democracy, he had nothing to say about Mahmoud Abbas canceling elections and arresting, exiling or killing his opponents.
The clearest expression of the Arabist mentality came from Obama himself. In 1951, the State Department’s G. Lewis Jones explained that U.S. policy was “based on the assumption that Israel needs peace more than do the Arab states, and that it would be Israel, not the Arabs, who would have to make concessions in order to obtain this peace, given the present Arab determination not to come to a settlement with Israel.” Similarly, Obama said Israel is in a position of strength; consequently, Israelis “are in a position to take some risks for peace.”
As Dennis Ross noted, Obama’s enmity toward Israel was so obvious to Israelis that they no longer believed they could count on American support in a crisis and therefore were unwilling to take risks for peace, which Obama expected them to willingly accept without any corresponding pressure on the Palestinians.
While Arabists have always argued that developing closer relations with Israel would harm our ties with the Arab states, Obama’s hostility toward Israel did nothing to improve U.S.-Arab relations. Instead, his policies alienated our Arab allies and provoked the Gulf States and Israel to find common cause to oppose them.
And lest you think things have changed in the Trump administration, the Arabists have already demonstrated their staying power by convincing the president to ask Israel to restrain settlement construction and to renege on his promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Kurtzer should be happy since Israel has responded more diplomatically and listened to Trump’s admonition regarding settlements.
If Israel is to achieve peace, defend its citizens and maintain its sovereignty, the time may come when Israel’s leaders will have to speak plainly, if undiplomatically, to this administration’s officials, ignore Trump’s advice and act based on their evaluation of the country’s interests.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.