06 April 2009

Finding a Balance in Israel

UPDATE: As if to answer my question (see final paragraph, "Or is that just toothless and not savvy?"), Matthew Yglesias responds (albeit to another blogger and on another subject, but the lesson may apply):

These are important shifts and this is audacious policy. Frankly, you’ve got to worry that it may be too audacious. The defense budget looks the way it looks because that’s how the key players in congress want it to look, and I don’t really know what Robert Gates or Barack Obama can do about that.

Yglesias is keeping an eye on rising tension and rhetoric coming out of the new Israeli government, and he wonders out loud about possibilities that the U.S. could/should start putting some distance (which the hard line government is almost certainly begging for but doesn't actually mean, because whole shitpiles of money and arms are involved) between our government and theirs.

Barring that distance, Matt's next question is whether the U.S. isn't entitled/expected to exercise a hand in Israeli affairs, considering how consistently and deliberately Israel has always "fought for a very close special relationship [with] the United States." One could argue that that relationship deserves/demands a certain amount of steering as well from the Americans, especially where American interests beyond Israel are complicated by American interests within Israel.

But Yglesias goes on:
On the other hand, a lot of people in the United States seem to feel that it’s wrong, as a matter of principle, for the United States to actually use its leverage over Israeli policy. So it’s quite possible that, in practice, the Israeli government could tell Obama that they don’t care what he thinks and manage to continue to get whatever they want out of congress.

I'd take Matt's post a step further. What if, instead of assuming that the Obama administration will toe the line and maintain the status quo with regard to Israel, the pendulum actually were to creep the other way? Conventional wisdom has it that no serious American politician would ever actually suggest that Israel should be on its own. And I'm not advocating that here. But if the U.S. has taken a step forward on issues of truth, justice, and human rights in our recent election, then Israel appears to have done the opposite in theirs. For the Obama administration to hold up now to international scrutiny on big (read "moral") questions, our relationship with an immoderate Israel will be a huge tell.

The U.S. doesn't have to leave Israel cold to send clear messages both within and beyond Israel's borders. A little bit of diplomatic repositioning could put the White House in a unique position in American/Israeli history. Our love, Obama could make clear, is not unconditional, and our patience is not indefinite. Neither of these are new sentiments, of course, but the world stage has arguably changed, and the impact of subtle recalibrations will echo loudly despite all the static coming out of the region. If Israel chooses the hard line in Gaza, then that may be Israel's choice, but the U.S. doesn't have to support it. A fractional reduction in spending on Israel, for example, would make clear that the U.S. will still support an ally without condoning extreme governmental action. It would also send a message to moderate Arab nations who now question how close they each care to become with the Obama administration.

Obama has positioned himself as a deft inclusionist (an "includer," perhaps, after eight years with the "decider"?) coming out of the G20 summit. It's a new world, and America needs a new Arab buy-in for Mideast coalition building to be successful. And Israel isn't making it easy this week for the U.S. to be a best friend. So to take Yglesias one step farther, is Obama the leader who could let Israel go, just a little, and survive the well-organized backlash?

FYI, I'm admittedly fuzzy on how much foreign policy depends on Congress. The White House could engineer a little bit of hocus in all this only to see a heavily-lobbied Hill maintain the status quo. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, either. Congressional inertia may be the very mechanism that allows America to say one thing (through the White House and State Department) while doing another. Or is that just toothless and not savvy? Like I said earlier, I'm not much of a judge for the nuances of all this.