Obama, the U.S.-Israel relationship and some historical lessons

This week I wrote about changing outlooks on the U.S..-Israel alliance and fears among American Jewish leaders about what that may mean for the “special relationship” between the two countries.

In reporting the story, I was struck by how Israeli leaders and their supporters here have worked to alter the definition of “alliance” to suggest almost complete conformity in policies and perspectives – the “no daylight between U.S. and Israeli interests” idea that has become a mantra among some pro-Israel groups.

Coincidentally, I am reading Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, by Max Hastings, which looks at the last year of World War II in the Asian theater. The chapter I’m reading now is particularly interesting in how it reflects on the question of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

This chapter reveals a great deal about the contentious relationship between U.S officials and their counterparts in London.

By any measure, the U.S.- British relationship during the war was one of the truly successful alliances in history, and the close ties forged during those years set the stage for decades of cooperation through the Cold War and beyond.

Lost in all those warm memories but highlighted in Hastings’ book is the fact that throughout the war, and especially when it came to Asia, U.S. and English interests were seen as very different. Over and over again, the two allies fought tooth and nail over specific policies and broad goals. Sometimes they used sly maneuvers and dirty tricks to win their points.

Yet, they were allies, in the truest sense of the word. They were more or less on the same page when it came to core principles. They didn’t let their big differences and their squabbles get in the way of what became and continues to be a genuine friendship that survives periodic political upheavels in both democracies.

It seems to me we’ve come to view U.S.-Israel relations and the “special relationship” between the two countries in a very different way.

Today, any U.S. disagreement with Israeli policy is seen by many as a breach of that alliance, at best, as hostility to the Jewish state, at worst, instead of what it is: a difference among friends.

Pro-Israel groups act as though U.S. and Israeli interests are identical, which is ridiculous; no two countries, especially no countries separated as much by geography, geopolitics and culture, have interests that are perfectly in sync.

What is disturbing about this: by exaggerating how close U.S. and Israeli interests are, and treating every squabble over policy as a breach of that friendship, we ultimately undercut that relationship because that’s not how alliances work in the real world, and because it becomes too easy to overreact to every perceived insult.

“But at least the U.S. and England fought their battles privately, not in public,” I hear you say.

Not true; often these battle were pretty public, because Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt knew the core of their relationship and the logic behind it were strong even as they disagreed vigorously over a range of policy matters. England, being the junior partner in most respects, lost more of those fights than it won – and yet was able to protect most of its interests and maintain an alliance that ultimately proved critical to its survival.

That, it strikes me, is the way mature diplomatic alliances work – in contrast to unrealistic assertions of virtually identical interests and accusations that the relationship has been breached every time one side expresses disagreement.


About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.