By The Economist Print Edition
BRITAIN’S is based on history and showing its age. Geography dictates that Canada’s and Mexico’s will stay strong. Saudi Arabia’s will endure as long as America needs to buy its oil. The one with Hosni Mubarak (though not the one with Egypt itself) was dropped like a hot potato once the protests began.
America, in short, is both promiscuous and flighty when it comes to “special” relationships. One of the most fascinating is its long-standing fling with Israel. What, exactly, does America see in the Jewish state? And is the relationship in danger from the wind of change rattling Egypt and the wider Arab world?
These questions are best tackled in reverse order. It is easy to see why an Arab democratic spring might chill relations between America and Israel. The peace between Israel and Egypt was made between leaders, not peoples. That hardly mattered when the people of Egypt, like other Arabs, had no voice. But it will matter once they find one. Right now, the demonstrators in Tahrir Square are demanding their own freedom, not Palestine’s. But the statelessness of the Palestinians remains the great unifying cause of the Arab world. So even Israelis acknowledge that if Arab leaders have in future to respond to the wishes of their people they will become more hostile to Israel—and, by extension, to Israel’s American paramour. In that case, if America’s relationship with Israel was a marriage of convenience, like the one it has just annulled with Mr Mubarak, America might begin to see the case for a divorce, or at least some separation.
But, of course, America’s attachment to Israel is not a marriage of convenience. It looks a lot more like true love. Listen to all the sweet talk, for a start. Even Barack Obama, who in his desire to mend America’s relations with Islam has been tougher on Israel than many presidents, goes misty-eyed when he harps on the “special relationship”. It is founded, he says, on “shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests”. And the billing and cooing is the least of the evidence. The strongest proof of America’s feelings for Israel is all the inconvenience America puts up with for the relationship’s sake.
Some American friends of Israel argue gamely that Israel is a strategic asset to the superpower, a doughty democracy that provides intelligence, high technology, storage for American weapons and so forth. But that was an easier argument to make during the cold war. More recently, the benefits have been eclipsed by the costs. These range from the billions American taxpayers give Israel and Egypt to underwrite the 1979 peace, to all the resentment America’s Muslim allies harbour towards the superpower for being soft on the oppressor of the Palestinians. Its help to Israel may not be al-Qaeda’s main grievance against America, but in the war on terror this past decade Israel has surely been more of a liability than an asset in the contest for hearts and minds.
Far from being a marriage of convenience, in other words, it is a marriage of inconvenience. So is it a case of true love? Some Americans, refusing to accept this explanation, argue that although Israel is not linked to America by history, like Britain, or by geography, like Canada and Mexico, its relations with the Jewish state are entangled to an unusual degree in domestic politics. Harry Truman decided to support Israel’s founding after relentless lobbying. “I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism,” he grumbled. “I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”
Since then, the power of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington has grown stronger, assuming epic proportions in some imaginations. Two American academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, made the claim in a book in 2007 that without the Israel lobby George Bush would not have invaded Iraq. That is an exaggeration, to say the least. But the powerful congressional resistance Mr Obama bumped into last year when he tried to enforce a settlement freeze in Jerusalem and the West Bank almost certainly played some part in the failure of America’s latest peacemaking initiative in Palestine.
Still, to explain America’s intimacy with Israel through the political power of America’s Jews is to miss half the story. In recent decades a far broader range of Americans, including evangelical Christians but not only them, have joined the love affair.
Trust in old faithful
No matter how desperate the lot of the Palestinians, polls show that Americans feel greater sympathy for Israel, a country they can identify with. And if some Democrats have lately become somewhat readier to criticise Israel, the Republicans have more than compensated in the other direction. Most conservatives, especially since the 2001 attacks, see Israel as a beleaguered democracy that shares America’s Judeo-Christian values. For some this article of faith has become a subtle line of attack against Mr Obama, whom they deem too hard on Israel and (nudge, nudge) insufficiently Judeo-Christian himself. Republicans want to slash foreign aid, but not the aid to Israel. And while demonstrators thronged Cairo last week, Mike Huckabee, who may seek the Republican presidential nomination again, was declaring from Israel that it was “racist” to stop Jews settling in the West Bank.
Against this backdrop, with a Republican House and a presidential election less than two years away, Israeli fears of abandonment look unwarranted. America will be faithful. But it will have to pay a higher price for its fidelity in an Arab world whose leaders no longer dare to ignore the preferences of their people. The best way to escape this trap would be for America to win the Palestinians their state. In that event, Arabs in general might be willing to make a people’s peace with Israel. But it was hard enough to negotiate a compromise when the autocrats were in charge. Finding one the masses accept will be harder still.