Posts Tagged Israel
This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 2.
Last week, John Kerry appeared with British foreign secretary William Hague in London, and they congratulated one another on concluding their nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry expressed American gratitude for Britain’s support. “We are determined to press forward,” he said, “and give further life to this very special relationship and to our common objectives.”
It was President John F. Kennedy who first extended the concept of a “special relationship” beyond Britain to include Israel. In December 1962, Kennedy met with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the American memorandum of conversation reported his assurance in these words: “The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”
The State Department disliked this. A few months earlier, the Near East and South Asia Bureau had put together a memo on U.S.-Israel relations. “Israel’s proposals for a special relationship with the U.S. would be self-defeating if executed,” it argued. “We consider it important not to give in to Israeli and domestic pressures for a special relationship in national security matters.” But Kennedy spoke the words, and even if their definition remained foggy, they provided some reassurance to Israel every time an American president or secretary of state uttered them.
Which is why it’s worth noting that John Kerry doesn’t utter them. To the best I can determine, in his present job, he hasn’t ever described the U.S.-Israel relationship as “special.” Susan Rice, while at the UN, did so on several occasions, and Senator Kerry did it when he ran for president back in 2004 and again to AIPAC in 2009. But as best as I can tell (and I would welcome contrary evidence), he hasn’t done it as secretary of state, and that stands in striking contrast to his repeated invocation of the “special relationship” with Britain.
For example, last February he visited London and said this (Hague beaming at his side):
When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain—our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship—there is a reason why we call this a special relationship, or as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron wrote, really, a partnership of the heart. It is that.
In June, Kerry (again with Hague at his side) stressed the “special relationship,” which he declared to be “grounded in so much—our history, our values, our traditions. It is, without question, an essential, if not the essential relationship.”
And in September, when Britain’s parliament voted down a motion to join the U.S. in the use of force in Syria, Kerry rushed to declare the “special relationship” intact:
The relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom has often been described as special, essential. And it has been described thusly, quite simply, because it is. It was before a vote the other day in parliament, and it will be for long afterwards after that vote. Our bond, as William [Hague] has just said, is bigger than one vote; it’s bigger than one moment in history. It’s about values. It’s about rules of the road, rules by which human beings try to organize their societies and offer people maximum freedom and opportunity, respecting rights, and finding a balance in a very complicated world. And we have no better partner in that effort than Great Britain, and we are grateful for that.
Quite early, the Obama administration earned a reputation in British public opinion for showing insufficient respect for the “special relationship,” and Kerry may see his mission as repairing that impression. But then the Obama administration stands no higher in Israeli public opinion, and Kerry sees no need to do any work of repair (and a few things he has said have heaped insult on injury).
President Obama does refer to the “special relationship” with Israel, but coming from him, the phrase means a bit less than it once did. That’s because he’s upgraded Britain to something even higher. On the eve of Obama’s visit to Britain in May 2011, he and British prime minister David Cameron published a joint op-ed in the London Times that included this sentence: “Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship—for us and for the world.” (The headline: “Not Just Special, But An Essential Relationship.”) Suddenly, the word “essential” started cropping up in references to the relationship with Britain (see also two of the Kerry quotes above). “Essential” is now the new platinum card in relations with the United States, and Britain alone holds one. (That’s why having Britain on board the Iran deal was so important to the Obama administration, and it’s why Hague was assigned the role of setting Israel straight: “We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement and we will make that very clear to all concerned.” How pleased he must have been to categorize Israel among the world’s “anybodies.”)
Still, while Obama may have promoted Britain, he didn’t demote Israel. And as John Kennedy made clear more than fifty years ago, the two belong in a league of their own. Just what makes a “special relationship”? It’s more than democracy—the world is full of democracies. It’s not “shared values,” since American values are widely shared around the world. What compels the United States openly to acknowledge two “special relationships” is that two foreign states embody old cultures to which the American public feels profoundly and uniquely indebted.
Given that debt, the U.S. government assumes the obligation to show a bit of respect and work a little harder to make its case, when its biggest-knows-best policies impinge on the interests of those two states. When they dissent, as Britain did over Syria and Israel now does over Iran, it’s their privilege to do so and still win American praise as “special” friends who are entitled to speak their minds freely. For an example of how it’s done, see the Kerry quote above, following the British balk on Syria. So far, there’s no equivalent for Israel over Iran.
The U.S. government’s recognition of a “special relationship” doesn’t create a fact, it acknowledges a debt felt deeply by the American people. John Kerry apparently doesn’t fully grasp that reality in regard to Israel. But then, little in his Mideast diplomacy suggests that reality constrains him anyway.
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This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 13.
Jonathan Tobin, writing at the Commentary blog, rightly dismisses as dangerous any Israeli attempt to play China or Russia off the United States out of frustration with the Iran policy of the Obama administration. When it comes to dealing with the immediate threat posed by Iran, only Washington has superpower leverage, and if Israel wanders off the reservation, it will only damage itself.
But Jonathan makes a further claim: “Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.” This “linkage” is problematic, and its acceptance could blind Israelis to what they need to do to survive through the next half-century.
The problem with American power, like all power, is that it waxes and wanes. We have become used to the notion that U.S. preeminence in the world and the Middle East is a constant. But it isn’t so. Geography has rendered the United States the most self-contained superpower in history. As a result, it goes through manic bouts of interventionism and isolationism, and sometimes awakens to the responsibilities of its power too late. It did so during the Holocaust, and it did so during the first years of Israeli independence, when the fledgling Jewish state had to look to the Soviet Union and France for the arms essential to its defense. The simple truth is that Israel cannot rely on the United States to do just the right thing at just the right time. That’s at the heart of the crisis of confidence between the United States and Israel over Iran, and its sources run deeper than the particular world view of Barack Obama.
More than six years ago, before Obama even declared his candidacy, I told the Conference of Presidents that “America’s era in the Middle East will end one day,” and that “it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?” Obama accelerated that timetable, but the long-term trend has been clear for years. And one doesn’t have to be a “declinist” to realize that the United States can lead the free world and still write off the Middle East, which isn’t part of it. That’s precisely the mood in America today.
Hedging has been a fundamental principle of Zionism from its inception. That’s how it managed to outlast the fall of two empires that dominated the Middle East in the pre-state decades. When political Zionism emerged, the Ottoman Empire still held sway over the land, and Theodor Herzl went as a supplicant to the sultan’s palace in Istanbul. As late as 1912, the future first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and the future second president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, went to Istanbul to study Ottoman law, on the assumption that they would have to build the Yishuv under the same Ottoman power that had ruled the country for four centuries. (Here they are, looking like the deputies to the Ottoman parliament they planned to become.) A few years later, Ottoman power collapsed. Fortunately, Chaim Weizmann had laid the foundations for the support of the Allied victors, above all the British, whose empire now expanded to encompass the core of the Middle East.
British dominance in Palestine lasted for thirty years, during which London became the center of Zionist political activity. Britain was the mother of democracy, bastion of freedom, and home to a strong tradition of philo-Judaism and Christian Zionism. Much was made of “shared values.” But Britain, after facilitating the remarkable growth of the Yishuv, backtracked on its commitment to Zionism at the very moment of paramount Jewish need. It was Ben-Gurion who understood that the world war would bring down the British empire across Asia and Africa, Palestine included, and who sought an alliance with the ascendant United States. Still, years would pass before the United States would admit Israel to a “special relationship,” leaving Israel to fend for itself in the world’s arms market. That insecurity drove Israel to ally with Britain and France against Nasser’s Egypt—to Washington’s chagrin—and to build a nuclear capability with French assistance—in defiance of Washington.
Those days may seem distant, and Israel and the United States have had an extraordinary run. But history stands still for no people, and if our history has taught us anything about geopolitics, it is this: what is will not be. However enamored we are of the status quo, Israel needs a Plan B, and it has to consist of more than editorially flogging America for failing to maintain its forward positions in the Middle East. The State of Israel, like Zionism before it, must be agile enough to survive a power outage of any ally, and to plug in elsewhere. If Israel’s long-term safety really did depend on America’s will to govern the world, then it would be a poor substitute for Judaism’s own survival mechanism, by which the Jewish people outlasted the fall of countless host empires. But Israel’s future depends upon something within its own grasp: its ability to read the changing map of the world, to register the ebb and flow of global power, and to adapt as necessary.
Let us pray for the perpetuation of America’s power to do good in the world. Let us prepare for something less.
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This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on September 24.
As both Jonathan Tobin and Jonathan Marks have previously written here [at Commentary], University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick, author of a recent op-ed promoting the “one-state solution” and featured prominently in the New York Times, isn’t an outlier. To the contrary, American academe is full of Lusticks: 60-something Jewish radicals who went through some transient phase of simplistic far-left Zionism before discovering that the real Israel is complex. Disillusioned, they rode their leftism to minor eminence as repentants in departments and centers of Middle Eastern studies, where Jewish critics of Israel provide ideal cover for the real haters. Such Jews used to be devotees of a Palestinian state, but now they’re scrambling to keep up with the freakish fad of a “one-state solution” set off by the late Edward Said’s own famous conversion (announced, of course, on the pages of the New York Times, in 1999). Because Lustick’s piece ran in the Times, it was a big deal for some American Jews who still see that newspaper as a gatekeeper of ideas. In Israel, it’s passed virtually unnoticed.
Whatever the article’s intrinsic interest, it’s particularly fascinating as a case study in intellectual self-contradiction. For Lustick has reversed his supposedly well-considered, scientifically informed assessment of only a decade ago, without so much as a shrug of acknowledgement.
Let’s briefly recap Lustick’s dismissive take on the two-state solution in his new article. It is “an idea whose time has passed,” it is neither “plausible or even possible,” it’s a “chimera,” a “fantasy.” The “obsessive focus on preserving the theoretical possibility of a two-state solution is as irrational as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” Conclusion? “The pretense that negotiations under the slogan of ‘two states for two peoples’ could lead to such a solution must be abandoned.” In fact, negotiations do actual harm: “Diplomacy under the two-state banner is no longer a path to a solution but an obstacle itself. We are engaged in negotiations to nowhere.”
The ultimate two-stater
Yet only a decade ago, Lustick thought that the success of the “peace process” in achieving its aim of two states wasn’t only plausible and possible. It was inevitable. Lustick explained his thesis in a lengthy 2002 interview peppered with analogies and metaphors, including this one:
I like to think of it as a kind of gambler throwing dice, except it’s history that’s throwing the dice. Every throw of the dice is like a diplomatic peace process attempt. In order to actually succeed, history has got to throw snake eyes, 2. And, you know, that’s not easy, you have to keep throwing the dice. Eventually, you’re going to throw a 2. All of the leadership questions and accidents of history, the passions of both sides, the torturous feelings of suffering, the political coalitions, the timing of elections will fall into place.
What is Lustick saying here? Remember that the odds of throwing snake eyes on any given toss of the dice are 36 to 1, so only a fool or an idiot would despair after, say, a dozen or even two dozen throws. Even failure is just a prelude to success, since as long as you keep throwing, “eventually, you’re going to throw a 2.” The old sawhorse that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is belied by the dice-thrower, who repeats the same action knowing that each result will be different. And that’s why the United States keeps repeating the diplomatic moves that Lustick now finds so tiresome. The “peace processors” are just adhering to his logic, circa 2002, which guarantees that one of these initiatives is destined to succeed—provided there are enough of them.
And what did Lustick in 2002 have to say to those Israelis who “want the West Bank and Gaza to remain permanently under Israeli rule”? “You will have to roll a 13,” Lustick told them.
But you can’t roll a 13, which is to say that the right has no plan for how it can successfully keep the territories anymore. They don’t even advocate as a realistic option expelling the Palestinians. So they have no plan. So if you are the right and you know you have to roll a 13, the strategy is, don’t let the dice get rolled, keep trying to stop every initiative and subvert it if it gets started…. It’s the only rational thing to do in order to prevent history from eventually producing what it will produce, which is a two-state solution.
So the Israeli version of a one-state solution—an Israel from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean—was the hopeless cause of dead-enders who defied “history” itself. In 2002, Lustick was certain that “one of these days,” Israel would leave the West Bank:
Israel is caught between the inability to make the issue disappear by making the West Bank look like Israel, and the inability to make it disappear by actually withdrawing, by getting through that regime barrier, that regime threshold. Some day, one of these days, that regime threshold is going to be crossed.
The Palestinian version of the one-state option? Lustick didn’t even mention it in 2002.
So Lustick was the ultimate two-state believer. I don’t think even the inveterate “peace processors,” whom he now dismisses so contemptuously, ever assumed that repeated failures would bring them closer to their goal. Lustick did believe it: one couldn’t “prevent history from eventually producing what it will produce, which is a two-state solution,” and it was just a matter of time before “that threshold is going to be crossed.” So certain was Lustick of the inexorable logic of the two-state solution that he believed even Hamas had acquiesced in it. And because Israel had spurned Hamas, Israel had squandered an opportunity to turn it into a “loyal opposition.”
Here lies the problem—perhaps dishonesty is a better word—in Lustick’s latest piece. Lustick ’13 never takes on Lustick ’02, to explain why “history,” destined to lead to two states only a few years ago, is now destined to end in one state. It’s tempting to make light of the seemingly bottomless faith of “peace processors,” and I’ve done it myself, with relish. But the case Lustick made for them in 2002 had a certain logic. The case he’s made against them in 2013 is weak. Indeed, he never really builds much of a case at all.
Is it the number of settlers? If so, he doesn’t say so. Lustick knows how many settlers there are, and he numbered them in a lecture in February. In 2002, he says, there were 390,000 (West Bank and East Jerusalem). In 2012, he says, there were 520,000. That’s 130,000 more (two-thirds of it, by the way, natural growth). Presumably, some significant proportion of the 130,000 have been added to settlements whose inclusion in Israel wouldn’t preclude a two-state solution, because of their proximity to pre-1967 Israel. So we are talking about some tens of thousands. Which 10,000 increment, between 2002 and 2013, put Israel past the “point of no return”?
Lustick doesn’t say. In the Times, he claims that American pressure could have stopped Menachem Begin’s re-election in 1981, precluding the building of “massive settlement complexes” and prompting an Oslo-like process a decade earlier, in the 1980s. It’s a we’ll-never-know counter-factual, but it doesn’t solve the conundrum. Lustick knew all this in 2002, and it didn’t dampen his faith in the historic inevitability of the two-state solution. So the question remains: what’s happened since 2002 to change Lustick’s mind so drastically?
“The state will not survive!”
Here we come to Lustick’s supposedly original contribution to the “one-state” argument. He isn’t repeating the usual claim that Israeli settlements have made a Palestinian state unachievable. He’s arguing that the Israeli state is unsustainable. “The disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project, through war, cultural exhaustion or demographic momentum, is at least as plausible” as an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. The best indicator? Israelis say so! “Many Israelis see the demise of the country as not just possible, but probable. The State of Israel has been established, not its permanence. The most common phrase in Israeli political discourse is some variation of ‘If X happens (or doesn’t), the state will not survive!’”
I don’t know any research that’s established “the most common phrase in Israeli political discourse,” and I’m guessing that Ian Lustick doesn’t either. He just made it up. In his February lecture, he did cite one work, from 2009, that counted how many articles published in the left-wing Haaretz employed the phrases “existential danger” or “existential threat.” There’s a bump up after 2002 (Second Intifada), then a spike up in 2006 (Second Lebanon War). The “study” proves absolutely nothing. After all, this is Haaretz, the Wailing Wall of the Israeli left. A perfectly plausible explanation is that the paper’s editorial bias, exacerbated by the eclipse of the left, has tended to favor doomsday prognostication.
And Lustick is contradicted by real research on real people, which he either ignores or of which he’s ignorant. The Israel Democracy Institute’s latest large-scale poll, for 2012, shows that optimists outnumber pessimists among Israeli Jews by a margin of 79 percent to 18 percent. Over 85 percent say Israel can defend itself militarily and only 33 percent think Israel will become more isolated than it now is. The Tel Aviv University academic who oversees the poll summarized the results: “It is important to note that most Israelis view the country’s future optimistically. Our national resilience rests heavily on the fact that even though people are negative on Friday evenings at their family dinner table and the zeitgeist is discouragement, when you scratch a little deeper, people are not really depressed here.” That may be an understatement. Israel is ranked eleventh in the world in the latest UN-commissioned World Happiness Index, which hardly correlates to any level of depression.
According to the Peace Index poll ahead of this Jewish New Year, only 16 percent of Jewish Israelis think the country’s security situation will worsen. 46 percent think it will stay the same, and 28 percent think it will actually improve—this, despite the chaos in Syria and the Sinai, and the spinning centrifuges in Iran. The only thing Israelis are persistently pessimistic about is the “peace process,” but that doesn’t sour the overall mood—except for the small minority, including those op-ed writers for Haaretz, who apparently constitute Lustick’s “sample.”
(Lustick also alludes to “demographic momentum” as working against Israel, and he has puttered around with figures in an attempt to show that Israelis are lining up to emigrate. He got away with this until an actual demographer, Sergio DellaPergola, took a hammer to one of his amateur efforts and left nothing intact. It’s a must-read takedown.)
Israel the balloon
But in the end, for Lustick, it doesn’t really matter how prosperous or stable or viable Israel appears to be, even to Israelis. That’s because Israel is like… wait for it… a balloon. “Just as a balloon filled gradually with air bursts when the limit of its tensile strength is passed, there are thresholds of radical, disruptive change in politics.” Zionist Israel is a bubble that’s bound to burst. It’s been inflated by American support, and the “peace process” has protected it from rupture. But the larger the balloon gets, the more devastating that rupture will be. In February, Lustick revealed that he is writing an entire book on this thesis, evoking “history” again, with a fresh analogy to exchange rates:
History will solve the problem in the sense of the way entropy solves problems. You don’t stay with this kind of constrained volatility forever. When you constrain exchange rates in a volatile market by not allowing rates to move even though the actual economy makes them absurd, rates will eventually change, but in a very radical, non-linear way. The more the constraint, the less the adaptation to changing conditions, the more jagged and painful that adaptation is going to be.
Better, thinks Lustick, that the “peace process” in pursuit of the two-state solution be shut down now, so that both sides can slug it out again—this time to “painful stalemates that lead each party to conclude that time is not on their side.” Israel, which has defeated the Palestinians time and again, has to stop winning. Pulling the plug on the “peace process,” he writes in the Times, would
set the stage for ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror, Jewish and Arab emigration and rising tides of international condemnation of Israel. And faced with growing outrage, America will no longer be able to offer unconditional support for Israel. Once the illusion of a neat and palatable solution to the conflict disappears, Israeli leaders may then begin to see, as South Africa’s white leaders saw in the late 1980s, that their behavior is producing isolation, emigration and hopelessness.
And that’s where we want to be! Enough rolling of the diplomatic dice! It’s time to roll the iron dice! It may sound cynical to you, but Lustick thinks it’s destiny: “The question is not whether the future has conflict in store for Israel-Palestine. It does. Nor is the question whether conflict can be prevented. It cannot.” Remember, this is someone who just a few years ago insisted that a two-state solution was inevitable. Now he argues exactly the opposite. The world should get out of the way and let the inescapable violence unfold—only this time, the United States won’t be in Israel’s corner, and so Israel will be defeated and forced to dismantle itself.
The problem with rolling the iron dice, as even an armchair historian knows, is that the outcome is uncertain. What Lustick would like “history” to deliver is a defeat of Zionist Israel of such precise magnitude as to create a perfect equilibrium between Jew and Arab. But it may well be that the outcome he desires is the equivalent of rolling a 13, because Israel has deep-seated advantages that would be magnified greatly were Israel ever to find itself up against a wall. (The fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war may be an apt moment to remember that.) Or something in his scenario could go wrong. As Clausewitz noted about war, “No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance.”
One of the possible outcomes Lustick imagines is that “Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as ‘Eastern,’ but as Arab.” Given that even “the Arabs” don’t think of themselves anymore as “Arabs” (especially when they gas or bomb one another), and that Jews never thought of themselves as “Arabs” even when they lived in Arabic-speaking countries and spoke Arabic, one wonders how many thousands of dice rolls it would take to produce that outcome.
Prophet of Philly
In the end, it’s pointless to debate Lustick on his own hypothetical grounds, invoking rolling dice, bursting balloons, and volatile exchange rates. That’s because nothing has happened since 2002 between Israel and the Palestinians, or in Israel, that can possibly explain his own total turnaround. I suspect his Times article has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and everything to do with Lustick’s attempt to keep his footing in the shifting sands of American academe.
Ever since Edward Said veered toward the “one-state solution,” the pressure has been growing, and it’s grown even more since Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor at Columbia, finally gravitated toward the same position (something I predicted he would do well before he actually did it). This turn of events left Lustick in the rear of the radical vanguard and far from the action. Ever since Tony Judt passed on, there’s been a vacancy for a professorial Jewish supporter of the “one-state solution.” So this is Lustick’s late-career move, and I anticipate it will do for him a bit of what it did for Judt, transforming him from an academic of modest reputation into an in-demand hero. Invitations will pour in. Soon we will hear of a controversy involving an invitation rescinded, which will raise his standing still higher. And it’s quite plausible that the Times piece will land him a heftier advance for his next book (as of February, “I’ve not written the conclusion yet”), and the promotional push of a major publisher.
In anticipation, Lustick is already casting himself as a prophet of Israel, exemplified in this quote from an answer he gave to a question last winter:
I argued in 1971 that 1,500 settlers in the West Bank were a catastrophe that would lead Israel into a political dungeon from which it might never escape. I was laughed at. I also argued for a Palestinian state alongside of Israel in the early 1970s, but it took twenty-five years before the mainstream in Israeli politics agreed with that. It may take another twenty-five years before they realize that what I’m saying is true now and will be even truer if Israel is still around in twenty or twenty-five more years.
This is not a human measure of prescience, as Lustick himself has acknowledged. How far in advance would anyone have been able to imagine the Iranian revolution or the fall of the Soviet Union? Lustick: “Ten years? No. Five years? Maybe two, if you were very, very good.” If, as Lustick claims, he consistently sees the future of Israel twenty-five years forward, he must inhabit a sphere far above the regular run of prognosticating political scientists. He is now compiling the Book of Ian. Read it, O Israel (enter credit card here), and weep.
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, is returning to Israel after more than four years of service. The American-born Oren (whom I’ve known for thirty years) told an Israeli reporter: “I’m still surprised that some people, even advisers in the Prime Minister’s Office, ask me if I’m Israeli.” Surprising indeed. Oren has lived in Israel since 1979, assumed Israeli citizenship, served as an Israeli paratrooper in Lebanon, raised his three children in the country, and even renounced his U.S. citizenship to become Israel’s ambassador in Washington.
Oren’s successor, American-born Ron Dermer, won’t escape the same prejudice. Past defense and foreign minister Moshe Arens was recently asked this question about Dermer’s appointment: “Dermer is 42 years old and lived in the United States until the age of 30, making him a kind of new immigrant. Is he the figure that Israel needs to represent us to the Americans?” (Dermer actually immigrated at the age of 25—seventeen years ago—and has already represented “us to the Americans” as economic attaché, requiring him to renounce his U.S. citizenship back in 2005.) Arens pointed to Dermer’s personal qualities, and added this clincher: “I appointed Netanyahu [in 1982] to be Israel’s deputy ambassador in Washington, and at the time people also talked about him being half-American, and how can he represent Israel.” (Netanyahu, born in Israel and raised partly in America, had acquired U.S. citizenship, which he renounced in 1982.) Arens, by the way, also grew up in the United States and held U.S. citizenship, which he renounced in order to serve in Israel’s Knesset. He later served as Israeli ambassador to the United States, so that Dermer is the third Israeli ambassador to Washington to have held and renounced U.S. citizenship.
No one would ask whether an Arab, female, or gay appointee could be an appropriate diplomatic representative of Israel, so this nativist view of “immigrants” must be one of the last prejudices in Israel that openly speaks its name.
Those who still hold it might consider the case of the most renowned Israeli ambassador to Washington: Abba Eban. Eban served as Israel’s first representative to the United Nations (from 1948) and concurrently as its second ambassador to Washington (from 1950). During that formative era in Israeli diplomacy, he became the familiar face and stirring voice of the Jewish state for American Jews, and “Mr. Israel” to the world.
Imagine his surprise, then, when in the spring of 1959, on the eve of his return to Israel, he was informed that he wasn’t a citizen of Israel, that he was ineligible to vote in Israeli elections and, more importantly, that he couldn’t run for Israel’s Knesset and thereby enter Israeli politics.
The back story? Eban was born in 1915 in South Africa, to Lithuanian Jewish parents who brought him to England the following year. In 1940, Eban joined the British Army, where he did intelligence chores in Egypt and Palestine, ultimately attaining the rank of major. Upon his demobilization in 1946, he joined the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, the precursor of the Israeli foreign ministry. The Jewish Agency, appreciating his talents and Zionist zeal, dispatched him to New York in 1947 to work on the United Nations partition resolution. A few days after Israel declared independence in May 1948, the new State of Israel named Eban its first representative to the UN. He immediately renounced his status as a British subject and returned his British passport. In 1950, Israel also appointed Eban ambassador to Washington, where he took up the challenge of turning Israel’s nascent relationship with the United States into something special.
Pressed into diplomatic service, Eban didn’t reside or keep a home in Israel in its first decade. He had first laid eyes on Palestine as a British officer in 1942, and from then and until his demobilization in 1946, he spent a total of only about three years in Jerusalem. When he joined the Jewish Agency in 1946, he went straight to London, then moved to New York in 1947, and finally settled in Washington in 1950. During the 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants were becoming acculturated to Israel, Eban was being Americanized. “Insofar as an Israeli can ever feel at home outside Israel,” Eban later wrote, “it is in America that he feels less alienated from his environment than anywhere else.” Eban’s memoirs reveal a man entirely at home in America.
After more than a decade in the United States, Eban decided the time had come to make a bold move and enter Israeli politics. (He himself recognized that “I would soon lack an intimate relationship with the reality that I was supposed to represent.”) Promised a choice place on the Mapai party list for the November 1959 Knesset elections, he began to plan his political debut. Eban naturally assumed he had Israeli citizenship, because he carried an Israeli (diplomatic) passport. But when the matter was vetted, he learned that he could neither vote nor run for office. His diplomatic passport didn’t confer citizenship, and his name didn’t appear in the population and voter registry. He’d been out of the country on all the critical dates relevant to the citizenship law. Abba Eban, Israel’s most celebrated diplomat, wasn’t a citizen of Israel.
The Attorney General wrote to him in March 1959, proposing that he acquire citizenship under the Law of Return, by which any Jew could claim citizenship. Eban balked. He wanted to be regarded as a citizen of Israel from the date of its establishment, May 15, 1948. In a letter to Yitzhak Navon, bureau chief in the Prime Minister’s Office, he pointed out that Israel’s embassies were Israeli territory under international law, and that he’d been sent abroad by the State of Israel on official duty. It would be “difficult emotionally” for him to accept the solution proposed by the Attorney General. The newspaper Maariv, reporting the case, said that this route to citizenship would have seemed “ridiculous.” But Mapai’s opponents exploited the episode, claiming it would be absurd for someone who hadn’t lived in Israel as a citizen to land a seat at the cabinet table.
Eban couldn’t be made a citizen retroactively without leaving the impression that the law had been stretched for partisan political purposes. Was there another option that might spare him the indignity of becoming a “new immigrant” under the Law of Return? The 1952 nationality law, section 6(d), did confer on the interior minister the power to grant citizenship directly, “if there exists in his opinion a special reason.” Eban finally settled for this compromise and telegraphed a request to the interior minister, who granted him citizenship in May 1959, just before Eban left Washington. He could now stand for the Knesset in November. But he couldn’t vote: only those on the voting roles as of December 31, 1958 could do so, and Eban’s citizenship wasn’t retroactive. One of Eban’s supporters pointed to the irony: Eban could cast Israel’s ballot at the UN, but couldn’t cast his own ballot in Israel.
Eban didn’t mention the episode in his two memoirs, where he delved into every aspect of his public life in minute detail. (His authorized biographer, Robert St. John, touched on it in passing.) The story probably doesn’t deserve more than a footnote in any account of the sweep of Eban’s career, culminating in his dramatic role as Israel’s foreign minister in the 1967 war. But it’s a reminder of an attitude toward Eban that dogged him throughout that career. In a 1987 profile of Eban, the journalist who interviewed him expressed it succinctly: “I can’t shake the feeling that this man, who arrived in Israel decades ago, still hasn’t landed here.” That said as much about nativist prejudice as it did about Abba Eban.
By competence alone
So just how long does one have to live in Israel to represent it in Washington, New York, or anywhere else? The precedent set by Israel in dispatching Abba Eban, the non-Israeli ambassador of Israel, set the bar very low, and since then, each of the former Americans sent by Israel to Washington has surpassed it easily, by decades. And beyond counting years, the broader lesson is that Israel’s ambassadors should be judged strictly by their competence, not by whether they conform to some artificially construed and outdated notion of what constitutes “Israeliness.” A warm welcome home to Michael Oren and best wishes for success to Ron Dermer. And here’s to the memory of Abba Eban, who brilliantly represented the State of Israel in its first decade, without having lived there at all.
Sources: The letter from Eban to Navon, March 15, 1959, is in the Abba Eban Archives at the Truman Institute, Hebrew University, file C-297/F-3563. The resolution of the episode, with details, was reported in Maariv, May 25, 1959, p. 1; and Davar, May 26, 1959, p. 2. David Lazar wrote a strong article ridiculing how the revelation had been used by Mapai’s opponents, in Maariv, May 29, 1959, p. 3. The 1987 interview appeared in Maariv, April 10, 1987, weekend supplement, p. 8f. The episode is mentioned in passing by Robert St. John, Eban (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 351.
For a very good introduction to Eban, mostly by Eban himself, with comments by the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Henry Kissinger, view the clip embedded below (click here if you don’t see it).
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Tablet asked “six prominent thinkers and activists” to answer the question: “Do we need a pro-Israel lobby?” Below is my answer. Read the five other responses here.
Back in 2006, in response to the “Israel Lobby” thesis of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, I wrote this: “Israel does not need the whole array of organizations that claim to work on its behalf. The rationale for keeping Israel strong is hardwired in the realities of the Middle East. The United States does not have an alternative ally of comparable power. And if the institutions of the lobby were to disappear tomorrow, it is quite likely that American and other Western support would continue unabated.”
Mearsheimer and Walt doubted that I believed this to be true: “If he is correct, then the people who bankroll AIPAC and The Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy and other like-minded organizations are wasting their money, and Kramer himself is wasting his time. Kramer claims that all this effort is unnecessary, but his own behavior suggests otherwise.”
I never responded: I didn’t want friends to think they were “wasting their money” by supporting organizations that do fulfill a role, but that role is vastly different from the one assigned to them by Mearsheimer and Walt. They believe the “lobby” is all that prevents Israel from being exposed as a liability. The opposite is true: The “lobby” is fueled by Israel’s value as a strategic asset in an unstable region. The professors confuse cause and effect.
But if Israel doesn’t depend on pro-Israel advocacy (from which I exclude the coolly analytical Washington Institute), what purpose do such organizations serve? They energize some substantial number of American Jews to stay affiliated with the Jewish people at a time when traditional forms of affiliation are waning. Israel’s batteries charge them. Businessmen and dentists come to Washington to advocate for Israel, and they feel like players on the world stage. Those who do are far more likely to visit Israel and embrace an Israeli cause. Younger ones might even make the decision made by myself (and many of my colleagues at Shalem College) to settle in Israel. Yes, I’m a classic Zionist, who believes that the ingathering of the Jews is their preferred destiny.
So, the measure of the “lobby” isn’t its ability to change U.S. policy on Iran or stop the nomination of Chuck Hagel. The State of Israel and its resilient people will decide how and when Iran will be stopped, and Hagel’s appointment won’t stand in their way. I measure pro-Israel advocacy by the degree to which it sustains Jewish peoplehood outside Israel and draws Jews into a deeper commitment to Israel than an annual visit to Capitol Hill.
And here is a revelation for Walt and Mearsheimer. I’m not so delusional as to believe that my writing and speaking on Israel’s behalf make a difference. If Israel is strong, the United States will value it. If it is weak, nothing anyone says will redeem it. So, why do we bother? It’s something the two “experts” can’t possibly fathom: Ahavat Yisrael, love for the people of Israel. And expressions of love are their own reward.
Martin Kramer is president of Shalem College in Jerusalem.