What’s So Special About Israel?

As President Obama begins his first trip to the Holy Land, it's time to rethink our “passionate attachment” to Israel.

There are few policy positions in Washington that enjoy such broad-based consensus across the partisan spectrum as the belief in America’s unmitigated commitment to Israel.

Look no further than the conference hosted earlier this month by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, which drew speeches from Reps. Eric Cantor and Bob Menendez, as well as Senate minority whip John Cornyn and his counterpart in the GOP-controlled House, Steny Hoyer.

If it seems ironic that a group of men who couldn’t find common ground to save the U.S. economy from falling into the abyss of sequestration are happy to stand side-by-side singing Kumbaya for an arid piece of land the size of New Jersey nearly 6,000 miles away, it shouldn’t.

As Vice President Joe Biden pointed out in his own speech at the AIPAC conference, America’s unequivocal support for Israel is  “not a matter of debate.”

But why shouldn’t it be? Isn’t informed debate the engine that drives a vibrant democratic republic? With President Obama’s first visit to Israel since taking office, I’m stepping into the hornet’s nest by questioning the continued sensibility of this gag rule—and going even farther by suggesting that it’s time we transitioned Israel into the same category as our other allies in the region, such as Jordan or Turkey.

It’s not an issue of money. While it’s true that Israel currently receives far more U.S. aid than any other country ($3.1 billion last year), there is nothing wrong with providing financial support to a friend in need. Millions in American tax dollars helped fund the IDF’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system, which has significantly cut the number of successful rocket strikes against targets in Israel. This is a good thing, and it’s what allies are for.

But our exceedingly cozy relations with Israel have made it nearly impossible for sensible voices in U.S. government or academia to speak their minds (without drawing a lot of fire) on legitimate areas of concern, such as the influence of the Israeli Lobby on U.S. foreign policy, the blockade of Gaza, or the enduring violence of continued settlement building in the West Bank.

We need to create an environment in which questioning Israel’s actions is not equated with questioning its legitimacy. No thinking American of any consequence would take issue with Israel’s right to exist and defend its borders. To get to that point, however, we first need to drop the idea that Israel is just a hair’s breadth away from ceasing to exist. On the contrary, despite years of internal political strife, border skirmishes in Lebanon and Gaza, and blustering rhetoric from Iran, some analysts say that Israel’s security situation has never been better.

In a briefing paper published last year for the Congressional Research Service, Middle East policy expert Jim Zanotti downplayed the existential threats facing Israel, noting that since establishing formal peace with Jordan in 1994, threats to the integrity of Israel’s borders have largely disappeared.

We also need to create an environment where it is okay to critically assess the benefits to the U.S. of continuing our “special friendship” with Israel without being accused of abandonment or worse. In this era of increasing political and economic globalization, there is little strategic justification for pledging unconditional allegiance to any nation.

Consider the impact our perceived unconditional alliance with Israel has had on public opinion in the region. A 2010 poll of Arab citizens found that 64 percent of respondents see the Palestinian issue as the number-one factor influencing their opinion of the United States, compared to just four percent who chose the war in Afghanistan.

George Washington warned Americans to avoid “passionate attachments” to other nations (hat tip to Stephen M. Walt), noting in his 1796 Farewell Address that:

“The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”

Is Israel an ally? Absolutely. And an important one at that. But I submit that our “habitual fondness” has and will continue to lead us astray from our duty and our interests until we put Israel on equal standing with our other strategic allies.