The Danger of Symbolism in Israeli-U.S. Relations

After President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel in late March, I—like many other American Jews—felt a renewed sense of confidence for Israeli-U.S. relations.  I’d like to think I viewed the visit rationally, understanding that Obama’s gestures of solidarity with Israel were largely symbolic.  The visit demonstrated that Obama (or his speechwriters, at least) are in touch with a younger generation of Israelis, who remain steadfast in their devotion to Israel, but understand the rapidly changing global dynamics.  Above all, Obama’s visit signified a deliberate attempt to mollify an obviously strained relationship between the Obama administration and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Now, as the geo-political situation in and around Israel appears increasingly precarious, I am beginning to regret the sense of relief I felt in late March.  Israel’s concerns seem to be intersecting in an unprecedented manner.  Spillover from Syria, a strengthened connection between Hezbollah and Iran, and increased cooperation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority all pose significant threats to Israeli security.

Now, perhaps more than at any point in the last two decades, Israel is depending on the support of the U.S.  Obama seems to have pledged this loyalty, albeit cautiously, during his visit.  However, as Israel has faced mounting pressures in the past two weeks to make difficult decisions regarding Syria, Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas, the U.S. has been conspicuously silent.  If the U.S. wants to take a bold stance in Middle Eastern politics, it has a responsibility to follow through with action.  U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry has continually articulated his focus on Israel and the Middle East; yet, when Israel was forced to take military action in Syria, Kerry’s comments were far from forceful.

If Obama favors an isolationist policy in the Middle East, or even more generally, that’s fine.  While I cannot deny that Israel relies on foreign aid from the U.S., the Obama administration could undoubtedly develop a policy that provides monetary aid without committing broader support.  However, luring Israel into a false sense of security is not only unfair, but also exceedingly dangerous.  If the Israeli government—along with the Israeli people—are under the impression that the U.S. will stand behind Israel in conflicts with its enemies, the U.S. cannot be lagging behind until the conflict resolves itself without U.S. involvement.

Prior to Obama’s visit to Israel, I had begun preparing myself for a new era in Israeli-U.S. relations.  While I was regretful that the bond between the two countries I call home seemed to be disintegrating, I was nonetheless equipping myself for that reality.  The excitement Obama’s visit to Israel generated left me feeling that this new era had been averted, or at least delayed.  However, now as I’m witnessing the aftermath of that visit, I’m learning that this new era may have already arrived, only without the U.S. admitting it.

In these uncertain times, what Israel requires most from the U.S. is sincerity.  Obama did indeed critique Israeli policy when he visited Israel; however, his visit was clearly sculpted in a manner that would earn his pardon from an Israeli people who were generally dissatisfied with him.  If the U.S. intimates its support for Israel, it must stand behind those claims.  If the U.S. is not prepared to do so, its responsibility is to quietly clarify that to the Israeli government and people.

About the Author
Stephen Rutman studies Modern Middle Eastern Studies and English at the University of Pennsylvania; Originally from New York, Stephen is interested in Israeli culture and politics and the way it is portrayed in American media and society