24 April 2010

Why conventional wisdom is wrong on Israel

Joe Biden visited Israel in March. Knowing full well that the Obama administration wanted Israel to temporarily halt Israeli settlements in disputed territory in East Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slapped the administration in the face by announcing -- during Biden's visit -- that it would begin expanding settlements by building an additional 50,000 homes.

The administration rightly was offended by Netanyahu, and called him out publicly.

Fareed Zakaria is the sharpest foreign policy mind in America. Lest readers think he is some sort of left-wing shill, if you've read any of his columns, he clearly marches to the beat of his own drummer, and just last month, took Obama to task for publicly criticizing Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai.

Zakaria's thesis on Israel is this: Dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat should be the top priority of the Israeli government. However, Netanyahu is undermining that priority by continuing to expand Jewish settlements into Palestinian territories, because suspension of such expansions are the only thing the moderate Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) ask that Israel give in exchange for their support. By insisting on expanding settlements, Netanyahu is playing to the hard-liners in the Israeli electorate, turning off his moderate neighbors and ignoring the looming Iranian threat. If Netanyahu was truly serious about the Iranian threat, he would stop settlements immediately and work with the United States on structuring a Middle Eastern coalition against Iran.

Furthermore, if he was serious about Iran, Netanyahu would do everything in his power to strengthen his relationship with the United States, who gives his country such critical military and economic support. If that means suppressing the hardliners within his administration, so be it.

As Zakaria astutely notes, Netanyahu's actions demonstrate that his first priority isn't national security, but rather Jewish hegemony.

The world has changed -- a lot -- since American/Israeli policy was first crafted in the 1940s and 50s. The Soviet Union collapsed; hardline Iranian clerics overthrew the American-backed shah in 1979; Iran's policies have begun to alienate it from the rest of the Middle East (save Syria); the Palestinian leadership has become considerably more moderate (Arafat to Abbas); and most critically, it's not just the major world powers who have nuclear weapons anymore.

What won't ever change is that Israel is an important American ally that deserves our support. However, we are allies not because of anything intrinsic about the country or the Jewish people, but rather because our interests have been aligned from the very start.

As soon as Israeli policies begin to diverge with what is in America's best interests, Israeli leaders must feel pressure from American leaders to change course.

What I fear some American politicians -- and leaders at think tanks like AIPAC -- believe is that the interests of the state of Israel and the Jewish people take precedence over American interests. That is fundamentally incorrect. Israel only deserves American support to the extent that it supports policies that benefit America.

When we examine American foreign policy in the post-9/11 world, the most critical priority is that we protect ourselves from radical Islamic extremism. And when we examine the globe, it is clear that the most clear and present danger is the growing nuclear threat posed by Iran. This is a country whose leaders have publicly threatened to wipe Israel off the map and unabashedly finance Hezbollah, an organization that has American blood on its hands. Ending the Iranian threat is equally as important as achieving victory in Afghanistan.

This is why Obama is correct to reprimand Netanyahu. We have written here before that the only way the Iranians will be convinced to change course on their quest to be a nuclear power is if they are fully isolated from the rest of the world. This starts in Iran's own backyard. The moderate Arab states view the Iranian hardliners as highly destabilizing forces in the region -- the Iranian nuclear threat is a once-in-a-century opportunity for these countries to show solidarity with Israel and begin building a new, moderate Middle Eastern coalition against Islamic extremism. It is therefore an enormous folly for Israel to continue to push the envelope on the one issue where the moderate Arab states ask Israel to back off.

Netanyahu's statement that he is acting "in the vital interests of the state of Israel" is nonsense. It is much more vital to Israel to deal with the Iranian threat than it is to build more homes.

American foreign policy in the post-9/11 world must accurately reflect the looming Iranian threat. To the extent Israel or any other country steps in the path of the United States achieving its objectives in that regard, it must be dealt with swiftly.

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