What is it about the Israeli psyche that talks about a U.S.-Israel alliance, but really demands an America that lavishes love on the Jewish state? And what is it about American policymakers that make them so blind to this need?
I was thinking about this as I read several stories about the Israeli reaction to President Obama's first major Israeli TV interview last week. For more than a year, the President was advised to speak directly to the Israeli people, but not just to talk: to really have an impact, Jewish pundits instructed, he had to display warmth, to show a visceral emotional connection to the state and to its people.
I get it; Israel feels besieged, misunderstood and isolated; it has one real friend in the world, and it wants emotional as well as military and strategic support from that friend.
But...alliances don't work that way.
Alliances are pragmatic relationships built on common interests that are strong enough to overcome those areas where interests clash. And clash they do; bickering with allies over little things and clashing over momentous strategic issues are part of a long tradition in U.S. foreign policy.
As I've noted before, the United States and Great Britain were the closest of allies during World War II – and fought tooth and nail over numerous issues. They spied on each other, they ran disinformation campaigns, they used dirty tricks to get their way – and yet the alliance remained strong and vibrant.
The United States has a handful of close allies; only Israel seems to regard U.S. criticism of its policies as a betrayal of that friendship; only Israel wants constant reassurances of closeness and empathy; only Israel has a kind of national nervous breakdown every time there's a disagreement with Washington, which is almost always viewed as a betrayal and not just a disagreement.
Again: I get it. I know Israel faces unusual challenges in the world. But there's a perception gap here that leads to unnecessary friction.
U.S. leaders get slammed when they treat Israel like an ally but not like the kind of best friend you had when you were in high school. President Obama speaks in a cool, detached, intellectual tone to everybody, then doesn't get why Israelis don't like him. U.S. policymakers get irked when Israelis seem to demand total agreement with all their policies and call that an alliance, when no other country places such demands on their friendship with us. Israel suspects U.S. motives when it gets what it wants – diplomatically or militarily – but doesn't get the warm fuzzies it needs.
Our strategic relationship with Israel is as strong as it is with any other country, and it's gotten much closer under President Obama - but that doesn't seem to count with Israelis as much as the symbols of closeness.
Every alliance has big differences over policy; the U.S.-Israel alliance is plagued with a yawning emotional gap that adds new layers of complexity to the relationship that policymakers in both countries don't seem to get.
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