Mitchell Bard
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Robert Kagan’s illiberal attack on Israel

Israelis have not abandoned liberal ideals; they have learned that 'land for peace' was always a myth

On September 15, the Washington Post ran a nearly 7,000-word attack on Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship by Robert Kagan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, which read like a rehash of the Arabist claptrap published in The Israel Lobby. Kagan’s straw man argument comes down to asserting that there is a “growing confrontation between the liberal world order and its anti-liberal nationalist and authoritarian opponents” and that Israel is leaning toward the latter.

And what does he base this on?

The fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets along with Donald Trump and has established relations with other rightist leaders in countries such as Russia, Poland and Hungary. Suggesting this makes Israel illiberal is absurd.

First, Israel is a small country that, alone among the world’s nations, faces an international campaign of delegitimization and enemies that want to destroy it. Israel needs good relations with as many countries as possible for economic, strategic and political reasons.

Second, why does Kagan ignore Israel’s efforts to improve ties with countries throughout the world that are not led by nationalists? Love him or not, Netanyahu has done more than any prime minister to reach out to countries in Africa and Latin America. Today, Israel has diplomatic relations with more nations than ever before.

Third, does Kagan believe Britain, France and Germany are moving away from liberalism because they have relations with the same leaders?

Fourth, only Israel worries about the Jews living in other countries. Israel’s ability to protect those communities is enhanced by having good relations with their governments.

Kagan says the intifadas convinced “most Israelis to recoil at the moral and physical cost to their democratic society associated with oppressing a subject population.” As evidence he points to an increase in support for a Palestinian state from 21% to 57%. Like the delegitimizers, he asserts Israel is an oppressor and he implies Israelis woke up and realized this after being terrorized.

He uses the word “terrorism” only once in the context of the threats Israel faces when he acknowledges that the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000 “convinced many Israelis that peace was hopeless and that efforts at accommodation only led to acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians.” Elsewhere, he refers to the murder of Israelis as “resistance.”

Astoundingly, he does not mention Gaza once and the threat of Hamas only passingly. He ignores the disengagement’s impact on Israeli society. Israelis have not abandoned liberal ideals; they have learned that “land for peace” was always a myth. As much as many may prefer separation from the Palestinians, they are not prepared to sacrifice their security to make liberals like Kagan happy. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t mention the lack of support for a two-state solution today –only 39% support a two-state solution, down from 44% a year ago.

Kagan’s analysis of U.S.-Israel relations is a recitation of the long discredited Arabist nonsense suggesting that our relations with the Arabs suffers because of our ties with Israel and that Israel offers no strategic value to America. He cites Gen. David Petraeus saying that the Arab-Israeli conflict adversely affects American interests and produces “anti-American sentiment” among the Arabs that weakened moderate Arab regimes and allowed “al-Qaeda and other militant groups [to] exploit that anger to mobilize support.”

With all due respect to the general, this is rubbish. If you look at the trajectory of U.S.-Israel and U.S.-Arab relations over the years, you see they have moved in a similar direction. Our relations with the Arab world were far worse when we distanced ourselves from Israel.

A conflict no longer exists between Israel and the Arab states; it is now a conflict with Islamists. Al-Qaeda, however, is motivated by hatred of Western values and doesn’t need Israel for motivation. Kagan also knows Israel-Arab ties have improved due to the common threat of Iran. The myth of the “Arab street” that weakens governments and threatens America if we strengthen ties with Israel should have been put to rest when there was no uprising following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Kagan cites Eisenhower as an example of a “realist” who was never a friend of Israel and that the Cold War period exemplified how “it is difficult to argue that the relationship was ever a net advantage to the United States.” He should brush up on his history. Israel came to be seen as an asset in July 1958 after the pro-Western government in Iraq was overthrown in a coup and nationalist forces were threatening the regimes in Lebanon and Jordan. A memorandum from the National Security Council Planning Board expressed the new realism:

It is doubtful whether any likely US pressure on Israel would cause Israel to make concessions which would do much to satisfy Arab demands which—in the final analysis—may not be satisfied by anything short of the destruction of Israel. Moreover, if we choose to combat radical Arab nationalism and to hold Persian Gulf oil by force if necessary, then a logical corollary would be to support Israel as the only pro-West power left in the Near East.

Kagan also quotes a 1970 article from Commentary, which said that the United States had “every reason for wishing that Israel had never come into existence,” while the Soviets had “every reason for wishing it to remain as an obstacle to reconciliation between America and the Arabs.” The timing is ironic since it was in 1970 that Israel again proved its strategic value by offering to come to the aid of Jordan’s pro-American King Hussein when the Soviet-backed PLO threatened his regime.

Kagan claims “some Israeli commentators” would like the U.S. to abandon its European allies. I have never heard any serious Israelis, let alone government officials, suggest the U.S. turn away from Europe. He argues that those allies are more important because of their contribution of troops. Israel could send troops if the United States asked (and, as noted above, was prepared to defend Jordan), but they don’t need them, just as Israel does not ask Americans to fight its battles. This does not diminish Israel’s importance in supporting U.S. interests in the region.

Kagan insists Iran is no threat to the United States, that it is only regarded as one because of the danger it poses to Israel.


Securing oil supplies is America’s primary interest in the Middle East and Iran just blew up Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. Iran sponsors terror around the world, which adversely affects U.S. interests and directly threatens Americans. Iran is destabilizing the region and threatening our Arab allies. Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is contrary to our interests, which is why Obama signed a deal despite Israel’s opposition.

He claims Israel cannot contribute to containing Iran and yet it is the country most actively doing so; the international community stood by while Iran used Hezbollah to take over Lebanon and spreads its tentacles into Syria and Iraq and threatens the Gulf states. Kagan is correct that Israel is acting out of its own self-interest but preventing Iran from gaining hegemony in the region is an interest it shares with the United States.

Kagan also joins Israel’s detractors in condemning U.S. military aid to Israel. He says it is nothing like our aid to NATO and yet taxpayers are also responsible for the expenses required to defend those allies. Israel did sign a new 10-year package, but Obama insisted that all the money be spent in the United States where it benefits our economy and creates thousands of jobs. Some of that money also goes toward joint development of weapons systems used by our military. Israel also has produced its own innovative weapons that benefit our soldiers.

Kagan says that “Israelis might have forgotten that their own survival and success are not due only to their own heroic efforts.” Yes, the United States is an important ally, but Israel has never asked U.S. troops to fight its battles, won its War of Independence and the Six-Day War despite a U.S. arms embargo, and has been impeded in wars against Hamas and Hezbollah by American presidents.

Ironically, Kagan’s argument is based on the importance of liberal values, but he ignores the fact that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that shares them with the United States. Whatever one may think of the efforts of the right-wing in Israel to change certain laws, the country continues to have an independent judiciary, a free press, freedom of religion and the other rights we take for granted and which are completely absent from the Palestinian Authority and other Arab and Muslim nations, including NATO ally Turkey.

Despite the hysteria among some here and Israel, Trump’s brief reign, whether it be four or eight years, will not destroy America’s liberal democracy, nor will Netanyahu’s change Israel’s character. Thus, to answer Kagan’s question, yes, Israel is and will remain a part of the liberal order.

About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.
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