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Adam Gross

On clarifying US-Israel relations….

There has been significant discussion about, and questioning of the US’ leadership role in promoting Israel-Saudi rapprochement.

From the perspective of Israel’s interests, it must better shape the discourse and narrative, learning lessons from the historical experience.

US ‘aid’ to Israel is often positioned on the political level as a form of ‘charity’ to a country that ‘shares its values’. Thus it has often been seen by political opponents and anti-semites alike as evidence of the ‘sinister’ power of the ‘Israel/Jewish lobby’ in the US.

However, this aid is in fact an instrument of strategic control by the US. It buys a set of benefits that far outweigh the value of the aid itself – not only jobs and revenues for the US companies that supply the equipment Israel is obliged to purchase with the aid, but also an ability to escalate and de-escalate tension and conflicts in the region, as leverage in its power relationships with other global and regional actors, as a testing ground for US military hardware and strategies, the flow of intelligence, a source of technological innovation, a reliable forward operating base, and plausible deniability for US operations in the region. It is also a lever of US influence over Israel’s governance any time Israel is seen to diverge from the ‘shared values’. (I use the apostrophes not out of cynicism, but rather to emphasise the somewhat blinkered reductionism that lies behind the term.)

When painted like this, it is clear why the US would rather position this relationship as a form of charity rather than as an expression of power politics.

I would understand Israel has allowed this inaccurate discourse to prevail because it uses the perception of Israel’s outsized influence with the US as a source of leverage in its dealings with other countries.

As a basis of diplomacy, this is short-sighted. Israel has under-sold itself and on some issues tied its hands.

Unfortunately, and more importantly, Israel seems to have (subconsciously perhaps) become subsumed within similar structural dynamics as historical European Jewish communities writ large on the international stage. While pandering to, and working on behalf of the interests of the sovereign power in a given European country created short-to-medium term benefit for the Jewish community, in the long-term, change in the national power dynamics often saw horrible backlash against those Jewish communities as agents of the declining or former sovereign.

This, it seems, may be the structural reason why Israel struggles to build support at the UN among developing countries it has sincerely invested in over many decades with initiatives in agriculture, water, technology and others. It is even more the case given the US’ leadership role, driven in some part by the encouragement of US Jewish communities, in reinforcing at the UN an outdated and naive discourse around the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and cementing the global fixation on the ‘classic’ two-state solution.

With the notable exception of the Trump Administration, this has served to structurally intensify rather than remediate Israel’s isolation on the world stage, notwithstanding the occasional wielding of the US veto and the occasional castigation of UN agencies when they exhibit excessive zeal against Israel.

The US is now deliberately painting itself as Israel’s ‘lapdog’ in seeking out Israel-Saudi rapprochement for the same reasons – ‘helping out a friend that shares the same values’. However, of the three countries, the US will likely prove to be the biggest winner.

An Israel-Saudi security relationship, potentially extending outwards to include the other Gulf States, Turkey and Egypt, allows for orderly US withdrawal from the region. Saudi cash and legitimacy combined with Israeli military technology and knowhow can strategically reduce the threat from Iran’s proxies across the region and, perhaps, ultimately force a de-escalation with Iran itself on acceptable terms. This will allow for the much-vaunted ‘US pivot to Asia’ (more accurately, East Asia) – the fundamental US security interest of the era.

Additionally the same strategic control that the US maintains as concerns Israel can be extended to these other countries, shifting the balance with China and Russia as global powers competing for influence and relationships in the region. The declining US relationship with Saudi has seen greater than ever independence exercised by Saudi over global oil prices, mainly to the benefit of Russia, and strengthening that relationship will presumably reassert US control over this still-important lever. Meanwhile, as Saudi rebalances its economy, unlocking USD billions of capital available for domestic and global investment, the US will aim to position itself as principal beneficiaries, and conversely, to reduce or exclude its global competitors.

Saudi, or at least the Saudi regime, will arguably be the second largest beneficiary of the rapprochement, probably achieving more benefits from this rapprochement in concrete terms – security, economic, diplomatic – than Israel.

This is not to say that the US-Israel relationship isn’t beneficial to Israel. It is, but with strings attached. Or that the US is a bad or dishonest actor. It is not, though it is sometimes not as reliable a friend and ally as Israel would want. Nor is it to say that Israel-Saudi rapprochement won’t be in Israel’s interests – it can, but subject to the details.

The key message is that, while it may seem attractive in the short-to-medium term for Israel to go along with the discourse that positions the US as serving Israel’s interests, it would be preferable for Israel to promote a more accurate narrative – that Israel is, as always, serving US interests, and is prepared to entertain rapprochement with Saudi to help out its American friend and ally.

In the short term, this correction may help to counter the one-sided nature of the public debate on this issue to date which has placed emphasis on the ‘concessions’ that Israel ‘must’ make to the Palestinians as a means to achieve rapprochement with the Saudis.

In the longer term, this correction can boost Israel’s standing and clout on the international stage as an independent actor with many advantages it can offer, and fully leverage, outside the framework of its relationship with the US.

About the Author
Adam Gross, an Oxford-educated strategist, has over 20 years' experience solving complex problems in the international arena for United Nations agencies, international financial institutions, private sector, NGOs and social enterprises across Europe, Africa and Asia. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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