Friends Without Benefits

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a lot of things in his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, most of them foolish and some of them offensive. But one of his very first statements was among the most important: "Israel has no better friend than America," he claimed, "and America has no better friend than Israel."

The former is accurate. The latter is absurd.

Protecting Israel is a special project taken on by the United States. The reasons may be good and bad, but it's a burden we undertake. Israel does us no favors and is no use to us. Recognizing that fact hardly solves the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict, but it ought to be the starting point for what Americans should debate--not Israel's policy toward its Palestinian subjects but America's policy toward Israel.

It's not actually clear which country is truly America's best friend. A traditional answer cites the United Kingdom, former colonial overlord turned key partner in world wars and in designing the institutional architecture of the Cold War West. Our vanquished enemies from World War II, Germany and Japan, also suggest themselves as the most economically and geopolitically significant of our close allies. The dark horse candidate is oft-neglected Canada, our biggest trade partner. It's tied into our electricity grid, and its prime ministers have tended to join us in legitimate wars while attempting to warn us off fiascos in Vietnam and Iraq. (Friends don't let friends get into military quagmires.) Canada took in American planes when U.S. airspace was closed on September 11, and Canada is a key source of human capital for the United States. So, three cheers for Canada.

Does that mean Israel is a friend at all? We are certainly a friend of Israel's. The United States gives the country billions in aid. Indeed, it is the largest recipient of American foreign assistance in the world, even though it's neither a poor country nor a large one. Netanyahu explained that his country and ours are such good friends because "we stand together to defend democracy."

There are democracies with more serious needs: India, Brazil, and Indonesia are all large developing democracies with many poor citizens.
"We stand together to advance peace," Netanyahu said. "We stand together to fight terrorism."

But not really. Israel doesn't contribute to international peacekeeping efforts. Israel isn't preventing Taiwan and the People's Republic of China from going to war. Israel fights terrorism, of course, but this hardly distinguishes it from dozens of other countries. Israel's lack of practical utility to the United States is no knock on it. It's a small country, which, despite its prosperity, simply doesn't have a ton of resources for solving global problems. And unlike, say, Sweden or the Netherlands, Israel faces substantial security challenges at home. While those other countries do what they can in the international arena, even though it isn't a huge amount, Israel focuses on its own problems.

Israel's definition of those problems -- especially as outlined by Netanyahu -- is quite expansive. According to Netanyahu, it's in the vital interest of Israel to annex 100 percent of Jerusalem to the Jewish state, including neighborhoods that are inhabited nearly exclusively by Palestinians. Netanyahu also thinks it's vital for Israel to prevent any hypothetical future Republic of Palestine to have a military. But that's not to say he thinks there should be no military on Palestinian soil; he just wants to make sure it's an Israeli military stationed in the Jordan River Valley. For good measure, he added that "in Judea and Samaria [that is, the West Bank], the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers."

This is not an agenda that takes the interests of the region's Arab population seriously. Which makes sense, in a way. Israel is a democracy, as Netanyahu was at pains to note, and its prime minister is accountable to an Israeli electorate. The current Israeli priority is to enforce the interests of Israelis rather than promote fairness for Arabs. But when America positions itself as Israel's best friend, this signals to Palestinians and hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims around the world that we, too, don't take the interests of the Palestinian people seriously. One can debate how big an impact this has on our policies throughout the greater Middle East, but it clearly doesn't help.

American pundits have spent a lot of time over the past week debating the merits of Netanyahu's strategy for Israel. But what we really ought to talk about is America's strategy for America. Personally, I think Netanyahu's view of Israel's interests is mistaken. But too much of the discourse about his policies has taken this tack. It's genuinely not America's place to second-guess the Israeli electorate about settlements or East Jerusalem. But it shouldn't be America's place to do what Congress did on Monday and simply stand and cheer while a foreign prime minister offers absurd lies about who America's friends are in the world. Israeli politics has taken an aggressively hawkish and nationalistic turn over the past decade, and whether or not that's good for Israel, it's certainly not good for the United States. The starting point for our policy ought to be to recognize that and respond accordingly.

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