Overlooked in the controversy regarding Trump, Omar and Tlaib, and Israel: The imperative of maintaining Israel’s sovereign decision-making.
Amidst the turmoil surrounding the decision to ban two radical US Congresswomen from visiting Israel, and the subsequent statements of President Trump, one key issue has been overlooked: The strategic imperative of maintaining Israel’s sovereign decision-making.
It is certainly important for Israel to consider the positions of the President of the United States of America. Yet it is also vital to maintain the semblance as well as the substance of Israel’s sovereignty. Israel’s right to determine what is best for the country’s future needs to be upheld on a broad range of issues, including the delicate and vital relationship between Israel and American Jewry.
Israel’s image as a free-standing nation is of significant strategic value. It underlies Israel’s deterrent posture; enables its military actions; and provides both Jerusalem and Washington with diplomatic room for maneuver. It needs to be clearly re-asserted.
While political independence is never absolute in the post-modern world, and interventions in another country’s affairs are endemic in international relations (despite the formal norm against them), it is in the national interest of both Israel and the US to resist the temptation to be drawn into each other’s polarized political controversies.
The debate over the actions of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and their aborted trip to Israel has become political theater, with President Trump and some Republicans seeking to use the hatred for Israel shown by Omar and Tlaib as a tool against all Democrats; and Democrats according the “Squad” the high moral ground – which they don’t deserve. (Tlaib and Omar have clearly used antisemitic tropes in their campaign against Israel). Wedged in the middle is the fraught relationship between Israel and US Jewry.
But again, from a strategic perspective, the most salient aspect of this crisis is the shadow cast upon Israel’s sovereign standing.
Of course, it behooves an ally, let alone a needy ally in a very bad neighborhood, to respect the wishes of the holder of the high office of President of the US. Indeed, there have been cases in which Israel bent formal and even moral positions in response to an unusual request from the US, such as the arms sales which were at the core of the Iran-Contras affair during President Reagan’s second term.
Moreover, the general norm of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries (supposedly sanctified in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) has always and everywhere been “honored in the breach.” The real life of nations, in interaction with each other, repeatedly leads to meddling in each other’s affairs. For example, President Clinton came, saxophone in hand, to try and help Shimon Peres win the 1996 elections. (He failed). Prime Minister Netanyahu overrode President Obama’s objections and addressed Congress on the Iranian issue, which also can be construed as a political intervention.
Indeed, as Israeli policy makers know well, the US presidency matters, but the legislative branch is equally important under the constitution. Often, it has been Congress to which Israel turned at times of need. Wailing about interventions is thus beside the point. But as a rule, interventions (due to their aura of illegitimacy) are discreet affairs. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case this time.
There may have been good reasons to ban the two congresswomen from visiting Israel. Their planned visit, in coordination with the PA, could have generated a messy face-off and even violence, especially in Jerusalem and on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Alas, the ban came to be perceived by many as an example of Netanyahu slavishly being at the beck-and-call of the Trump White House. Clearly, it is not in Israel’s strategic interest to be perceived in such a light.
The Government of Israel must be the judge of Israel’s vital interests, not the President of the United States – no matter how truly friendly and extremely helpful the President may be. This is true regarding Iran; it is true about the ultimate delineation of Israel’s borders; and it is certainly true about the Israel-Diaspora Jewish relationship. The latter relationship is critical to Israel and central to the long-term health of the Jewish People.
In an American society that has come to accept the once infamous “hyphen” as a badge of honor – as in Irish-Americans, African-Americans, or Greek-Americans – it is legitimate for Jews to care for and support their own, newly-reborn “old country.” Thus, the debate over “loyalty” is misplaced, and despite the dark tropes it evokes, it is in this light that Trump’s challenge should be considered.
This is not a mere matter of “Jewish unity.” Rather, the issue cuts to the strategic importance of sovereign decisions under Israel’s unique circumstances. Israel must remain a politically independent nation making its own choices. It is bad for Israel and detrimental to the US when Israel is viewed as a US dependency. After all, Washington does not really want to become the port of call for every regional and global player seeking to generate leverage on Israeli policy.
Moreover, the semblance and the reality of sovereign decisions is at the very core of Israel’s deterrence. Israel does depend on US support, but it is not a “client” state in the traditional sense of the term. Israel’s fierce preservation of national independence marks Israel as a power with capacities well beyond what the country’s geographical or demographic size would indicate. (Begin’s response to US censure of the Golan Law comes to mind.)
Among other, this allows Israel to sustain the so-called “campaign between the wars” (MABAM); i.e., the ongoing shadow war against Iran. In the diplomatic arena, Israel’s ability to take an independent stance is useful for the US too. And on some issues (such as trade and global warming) there is a genuine difference of opinion between the two countries.
In short, Israel needs to be “a free people in our own land” – as Israel’s national anthem “Hatikvah” goes. This is much more than an aspiration. It is a strategic imperative and an asset.
As in all matters of state, this too is a matter of degree. Thus, when the Obama Administration set out to deliberately create “daylight” between the US and Israel on the Palestinian question, the results were distinctly counterproductive. The assumption that this would make peacemaking easier proved to be sadly false. All it did was tempt the Palestinians to stake out impossible expectations and widen the divisions between the US and Israel.
But this does not mean that it is useful for the pendulum to swing all the way in the opposite direction. Tempting as it may be to exploit US-Israel relations for partisan purposes, the bedrock strategic interests of both countries require more overt respect for each other’s sovereign stance.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.