The Myth And Dangers Of “No Daylight” Between The United States And Israel
Aaron David Miller noticed something about Vice-President Pence’s recent visit to Israel:
The vice president spent his less than 48 hours in Israel saying literally everything Israelis wanted to hear: He vowed to fix the Iran deal or cancel it; made it clear the U.S. Embassy would open in Jerusalem earlier than planned; validated Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital; and vowed to make the U.S.-Israeli relationship stronger still.
It turns out, too, that Pence benefited from the revised timing of the trip. His visit came just days after Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas, in an unhinged speech ripping Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, veered into rank anti-Semitism and denied the Jewish people’s historic connection to Israel. “This is a colonial enterprise that has nothing to do with Jewishness,” Abbas said. “The Jews were used as a tool under the concept of the promised land—call it whatever you want. Everything has been made up.” Those who have been arguing for years that Abbas is no partner for peace—Netanyahu above all—hardly could have scripted it better.
“The Jewish people’s unbreakable bond to this sacred city reaches back more than 3,000 years,” Pence said in a speech to the Israeli legislature that was infused with religious references. “It was here, in Jerusalem, on Mount Moriah that Abraham offered his son, Isaac, and was credited with righteousness for his faith in God.”
Pence isn’t just playing cheap politics to cater to his base; he really does see Israel in religious terms. When I interviewed then Representative Pence in 2006 on Israel, he began by quoting the book of Genesis: “I will bless those who bless the Jews and curse those who curse thee.” And Pence’s views reflect those of millions of Evangelicals who feel much the same way. This is hardly new. What’s new is that you now have an influential vice president sitting next to a president who shows no interest even in pretending to be even-handed on the Arab-Israeli conflict; he’s all in for Israel.
The tenor of Pence’s pilgrimage to Israel doesn’t just reflect the eschatology and end-times beliefs of many Evangelical Christians. It also reflects the more practical calculation that maintaining a decidedly pro-Israeli sensibility—on Jerusalem, the peace process, the Iran nuclear deal and having Israel’s back at the U.N. no matter what—plays really well among mainstream Republican voters. What was once a thoroughly bipartisan issue has been increasingly harnessed in the service of partisan politics, as a recent Pew poll reflects: Currently, 79 percent of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with just 27 percent of Democrats —a gap wider than at any point since 1978.
For a president whose prime directive on foreign policy flows from his preternatural focus on domestic politics, these numbers represent sweet music. Add to that Trump’s obsession with portraying himself as the un-Obama, and the sun, moon and stars are perfectly aligned to create an almost seamless bond between the U.S. and Israel.
“We stand with Israel because we believe in right over wrong, in good over evil, and in liberty over tyranny,” Pence said in his Knesset speech—and it so happens that Palestinians, Iranians, ISIS and the Assad regime are all playing their proper roles in this morality play. Even the so-called “good” Arabs—Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians and Emiratis—are closer to Israel and want to remain in Trump’s good graces, at least for now.
Will this love affair continue? Many peace process veterans would argue that being this uncritically close to Israel is both illogical and irrational, harms America’s capacity to manage tough issues like the peace process or the Iran deal and undermines the U.S. national interest. But in Trumpland, that’s clearly not the view. The peace process is all but dead—you could invite Moses, Jesus and Muhammad back from the afterlife to resolve it, and it likely wouldn’t help. And clearly, anyone who thought Trump’s hunger for making “the ultimate deal” would lead him to put real pressure on Netanyahu got this one wrong.
Miller makes this observation earlier in the article linked above:
Under Trump: the U.S.-Israel relationship has undergone a transition from a valued special relationship to one that’s seemingly exclusive. The need for “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israel used to be a talking point wielded by staunchly pro-Israeli supporters against Democratic and Republican presidents alike; Trump has turned it into official policy, and many foreign policy hands worry that the U.S. interest is being lost in the process.
All of this, of course, comes as the Trump Administration has spent much of the past year making the U.S. policy in the Middle East even more closely in line with that of the current Israeli government than it ever has been in the past. Perhaps the most notable example of that has been his announcement late last year that the United States would be moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem as soon as possible, a move that effectively endorsed Israeli claims to Jerusalem as the “undivided” capital of Israel and rejects any Palestinian claim to the contrary. More recently, Trump stated on Twitter that he had taken Jerusalem “off the table,” a comment he repeated when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Additionally, Trump moved closer to the Netanyahu government with respect to Iran when he decertified Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) despite the fact that all available evidence shows that Iran is in compliance with its obligations under the agreement and the fact that America’s European allies have made it very clear that they will not go along with efforts to reopen the negotiations that led to the JCPOA. Most recently, the Trump Administration threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority unless they “negotiate peace” notwithstanding the fact that his actions related to Jerusalem have, in fact, made even the idea of negotiations any time in the near future less likely.
All of this is consistent with the idea that has gained traction among Republicans and conservatives in recent years that there should be “no daylight” between the United States and Israel when it comes to policy in the Middle East generally and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict specifically. To be fair, this is a phrase that other Presidents have used in the past, including President Obama. In recent years, though, it has become an article of faith among Republicans and conservatives, a point emphasized by the fact that the Israeli Ambassador to the United States stated shortly after President Trump took office that there was “no daylight” between the two countries for the first time in many years. Much of this, of course, is a reflection of the growing partisan divide toward Israel that I wrote about last week, and the Trump Administration’s efforts to wed American policy even closer to Israel than it is now is only likely to make that divide more pronounced.
Working off of Miller’s post, Daniel Larison notes that the idea of “no daylight” between the United States and any of our allies is not in American national interest and that this is particularly true with respect to the Middle East:
Losing the American interest is inevitable when our government makes maintaining “no daylight” with any other country a priority. It is not possible to have “no daylight” with any other state, because there are always divergent interests. It does no one any favors to pretend that these divergent interests don’t exist, and it is positively harmful to try to conform one country’s interests to the other’s. Candidates have been foolish to promise “no daylight” with other countries, and it is a major error to follow through on that promise.
As if to prove that his rhetoric about putting America first was nothing but hot air, Trump has shown a remarkable knack for subordinating American interests to the interests of its clients abroad. He has done this with the Saudis and other Gulf clients over the last year by indulging their reckless and destructive behavior against Yemen and Qatar, and he did it with Israel when he formally recognized Jerusalem as their capital. It is funny that Trump should be the one to preside over the deepening of one of the most one-sided relationships that the U.S. has with a client. He is always saying that the U.S. is getting a bad deal from other countries, but he has no problem overindulging a state that has increasingly become a liability for the U.S. Trump has gone out of his way to give Israel everything it might want from an American president without requiring anything of them.
Larison goes on to note that, in his speech to the Knesset during his visit, Vice-President Pence told Israeli officials and the public that “your cause is our cause, your values are our values, and your fight is our fight.” As Larison goes on to note, this quite simply isn’t true. There are no quarrels between the United States and its neighbors, for example, not only because those neighbors pose no threat to us but because we also have things in common with those nations, including but not limited to the ongoing “War On Terror,” the effort to stop the spread of jihadist rhetoric that leads many down the path to terrorism, the effort to restain the spread of Iranian influence over the region, and the vital importance of the region’s oil supply to the world economy. because of this, the United States has long maintained friendly relationships with nations that still don’t recognize the existence of Israel. Additionally, while many conservatives seem to think otherwise, there is no mutual defense obligation between the U.S. and Israel akin to the obligations created by the NATO Treaty. Indeed, it would not be in the interest of either nation for such an obligation to exist. In other words, while the U.S. and Israel have friendly relations and have much in common, there is no alliance and it is a mistake to refer to them as an ally.
As Larison notes, “[i]nstead of recognizing that reality, Trump and Pence have chosen instead to make the already lopsided relationship even more so.” The results of that decision are likely to be unknown until well into the future, but at the very least it means that the United States will be far less able to encourage any kind of movement toward a comprehensive settlement between Israel and the Palestinians as long as we have a thumb so massively on the scale on the Israeli side. Additionally, the kind of close relationship that the Trump Administration appears to be moving toward threatens to undermine our relations with other nations in the Middle East and to complicate our efforts to advance our other interests in the region.
It’s also worth noting that the idea of “no daylight” applies to other nations as well, including nations that are among our most important allies such as the United Kingdom and other nations in Europe, as well as nations elsewhere in the world such as Japan and South Korea. In all of these cases, there are many things that we have in common with these nations, there are also areas where our interests diverge. Some of the best examples of this came during the Reagan years with respect to our relationship with Great Britain. During that time, the Reagan Administration was critical in some respects of the British war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands and the Thatcher government was equally as critical of the U.S. invasion of Grenada, a member of the British Commonwealth. Indeed, President Reagan ended up apologizing to Thatcher for the fact that he had not warned her about the invasion before it happened. As these incidents show, differences always exist between even the closest of allies. Pretending otherwise fails to recognize reality and poses the danger of creating problems in other parts of the world.
None of this is to say, of course, that the United States and Israel don’t have interests in common, or to suggest that we should abandon a relationship that has existed as long as Israel has been a modern nation. There are many aspects of what is going on in the Middle East and other parts of the world in which our interests are in line with Israel, and we should continue to cooperate in those areas. Additionally, it is in our interest to assist Israel in its efforts to protect itself from threats such as those from the Hamas-backed terrorism that has originated from Gaza ever since that group took control of that part of the territory that has been essentially ceded to the Palestinians. Additionally, we share many common values and Israel remains the only nation in the Middle East with anything approaching a functioning representative democracy. At the same time, we have interests independent of the things we have in common with Israel, and they have interests independent of the things they have in common with us. Trying to operate with the deluded belief that there is or should be “no daylight” between the two nations is a mistake for both nations that will only backfire in the end.