As American as Apple Pie
The Israeli-American alliance rests on traditional geopolitical considerations but also, as Walter Russell Mead’s new book shows, on much more than that.
What are the prerequisites for a good ally? The question is particularly pertinent for the United States, which has so many allies—more than any other country has, perhaps more than any other country has ever had. First and foremost, allies should have, as far as possible, the same interests. Countries form alliances because they share some interests, but often they also have differing and incompatible goals, as proved to be the case when World War II ended and the United States and the Soviet Union, allies in that conflict, became bitter rivals.
Second, allies should ideally have the same political values. This, too, is not always the case. Since 1945 the United States has made common cause with “friendly tyrants” that share American interests beyond their borders but do not practice democracy at home. Third, each ally should shoulder as much as possible of the burden of pursuing the alliance’s common goals. America’s allies, however, often pay considerably less than their fair share of the financial and human costs of common policies, instead acting as what economists call “free riders.” They depend heavily on American military forces, but it is American taxpayers, not their own, who pay for these forces.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Finally, both the government and the people of an allied country should support the alliance, thereby imparting to it a measure of stability and predictability. Again, America’s alliances have not always met this test. The eminent scholar of the Middle East Bernard Lewis once observed that in many countries in that part of the world either the government was favorably disposed to the United States while the public was not, or the government took anti-American positions while the public held strong pro-American sentiments.
By these standards, the model American ally is the state of Israel. It has supported American initiatives, and opposed the adversaries of the United States, since its founding in 1948. During that time, it has retained an impeccably democratic political system. As for burden-sharing, Israel’s defense budget as a percentage of the country’s overall output far exceeds what other American allies spend; Israel provides valuable intelligence to the American government; and Israel forswears the use of American troops for its defense, relying entirely on its own soldiers. Finally, both the Israeli government and the Israeli public have warm feelings toward the United States.
For all those reasons, the logic of alliances would predict a close relationship between the United States and Israel and, not surprisingly, that is the kind of relationship the two countries have. Yet the matter is not so straightforward. The relationship between the great democracy of North America, on the one hand, and Zionism, the Jewish national movement, and Israel, the state that that movement created, on the other, has been a complicated one.
The complications receive a thorough examination in The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People by Walter Russell Mead, James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and Global View columnist of the Wall Street Journal. His book surveys American attitudes and policies toward Jews, Zionism, and Israel from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first, with detours to explore such topics as the general crisis of Southern and Eastern Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, the religious history of the United States, and the diplomatic missions of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. As such, Mead’s book joins other indispensable studies of this broad subject: Michael Oren’s Power, Faith and Fantasy (2007), about America’s historical engagement with the Middle East as a whole; Adam Garfinkle’s Jewcentricity (2009), whose subtitle reveals its subject—Why the Jews Are Praised, Blamed, and Used to Explain Just About Everything; Ronald and Allis Radosh’s A Safe Haven (2009), about Harry Truman’s decision to accord diplomatic recognition to the new state of Israel; and Rick Richman’s Racing Against History (2018), which deals with American Jews’ complex attitudes toward Zionism in the years before World War II.
The American-Israeli relationship has not always proceeded smoothly because important American officials have frequently believed that the interests of Israel and the United States did not in fact align. Since 1945 the American government has felt the need to win the goodwill of the Arab countries, which for much of that time made a point of their hostility to the Jewish state in their midst. Their declarations of hostility, which sometimes spilled over into warfare, had an impact on American policy toward Israel. In 1947 and 1948, for example, the U.S. State Department promoted the idea of a United Nations Trusteeship in what was then British-administered Palestine as an alternative to the founding, against Arab wishes, of an independent Jewish state there. In 1956 the American government insisted that Israeli military forces withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, which they had captured from Egypt in a war triggered, for Israel, by murderous Egyptian raids on Israeli settlements.
To cite a more recent instance, the presumption that the creation of a Palestinian state would placate Arab opinion lay behind the American obsession with securing an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to establish one. In pursuit of that goal the United States regularly pressed Israel to make concessions about which the Israelis had serious reservations—reservations that more than once turned out to be well founded.
In fact, the American government generally overestimated the costs of good relations with Israel. While issuing a steady stream of anti-Israeli statements, the Arab states decided their actual policies on the basis of their own interests, which often had nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with their suspicions of, and rivalries with, each other. Insofar as American friendship with Israel did cause friction with Arab governments, American diplomacy minimized the effects of that friction with impressive success.
Despite this evidence, some in the United States, as well as in Europe and around the world, have insisted that the close relationship with Israel so damages American interests that it must be the result of a sinister conspiracy masterminded by the world’s Jews, acting through an all-powerful “Israel lobby.” To this point of view Mead supplies an emphatic and definitive rebuttal: The idea that such a cabal “dictates America’s Israel policy in ways that deliberately elevate Israeli interests over those of the United States,” he makes clear, “is wrong about the history of U.S.-Israel relations, wrong about the way foreign policy works, wrong about the American political process, wrong about American Christians, and, last but by no means least, it is wrong not only about American Jews but about the political context of Zionism.”
Not only did the American government oppose Israel when it believed American interests required such opposition, but the United States also gave the Jewish state very little official support during Israel’s first decade, when it was at its most vulnerable and was most in need of external support—and when, therefore, by the logic of the conspiracists the Israel lobby should have been most active and effective. Indeed, in Israel’s hour of greatest need, during its War of Independence in 1947–48, the arms that enabled the new state to survive the onslaught of the five Arab armies that invaded it came not from America but from communist-controlled Czechoslovakia. For the decade thereafter the outside power on which Israel relied for military assistance was not the United States but France, where, as Captain Alfred Dreyfus could have attested, the Jewish lobby has not historically been strong.
The history of the Israeli-American alliance displays yet another complication. That alliance exists not only because the two countries have shared interests and values but also because, as Mead puts it,
[T]he Jewish people and the Jewish state [have] a distinctive place in American historical consciousness and political thought. The state of Israel is a speck on the map of the world; it occupies a continent in the American mind.
Better than any other book, The Arc of a Covenant illuminates “the connections between America’s Israel policy and the inner life of the American people,” without reference to which the close association of the two countries cannot be understood.
Those connections stem, first and foremost, from the American Protestant tradition. With their emphasis on the Old Testament as well as the New, many Protestant denominations foster a familiarity with, and often sympathy for, the Jews and their history. Protestants are far from being the only pro-Israel Christians, but more than others they both identify with the Jewish people and regard the re-establishment of the ancient Jewish homeland as a demonstration of the importance of the Bible, which is central to their lives.
Indeed, American Christians provided earlier and sometimes stronger support for a Jewish homeland in the Middle East than American Jews, who tended to have lukewarm feelings toward Zionism until after World War II, when the Nazi destruction of European Jewry made the need for it undeniable. Thus, as early as 1891 a group of Protestants issued the Blackstone Memorial calling for the United States to use its influence to create a Jewish homeland in what was then the province of Palestine in the Ottoman Empire, a full six years before Herzl founded the modern Zionist movement at a meeting in Basel, Switzerland. Thus, by far the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States today, and perhaps the most influential one, is not the Jewish-dominated American Israel Public Affairs Committee, with its one hundred thousand members, which is the focus of conspiracist complaints, but rather Christians United for Israel, a Christian organization with a membership that exceeds ten million.
In sum, The Arc of a Covenant shows the close relationship between the United States and Israel is not at all the product of a conspiracy against American interests and not exclusively the result of geopolitical calculations. That relationship, as the book documents, has roots in the deepest beliefs and personal commitments of millions of Americans, most of them not Jewish, which makes support for Israel as American as apple pie.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author, most recently, of The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower (2022).
Image: U.S. and Israeli flags during the Austere Challenge 2012 bilateral exercises. (U.S. Air Force)
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