Tuesday, July 31, 2012

About That Special Relationship

 Sultan Knish

Romney has landed in Jerusalem and Obama is threatening to visit Israel in his second term. This seems like good news for Americans, but presidential and pre-presidential visits are often bad news for Israelis.

Romney's trip itinerary covering the UK, Israel and Poland is a clever road map critique of Obama's foreign policy. Kerry and Obama both campaigned on a promise to fix America's broken relations with its allies. Romney is subtly doing the same thing, paying a visit to allies alienated by the last three years.

When Obama first visited Israel the contentious Democratic primaries had just wrapped up and Jewish voters and organizations had thrown their support to Hillary Clinton. Obama had Jewish leftists, but he didn't have more middle-of-the-road Jewish Democrats. And additionally paying a visit to the home of the Little Satan was a way of dispelling suspicions about his Muslim roots.

Obama hasn't bothered with a visit to Israel, but he hasn't bothered appearing in person at the NAACP either. And that's all for the best. Israel needs a visit from Obama about as much as it needs more of the "mysterious fires" being set as part of the Arson Jihad.

A presidential visit to most other countries is a formality while a presidential visit to Israel is an unpleasantness. Presidents who visit Israel must also stop off for a visit with the terrorist leaders. Presidents don't just stop by, have a pita, smell the flowers and do some handshakes. Instead they arrive tasked with peacemaking duties and then they task everyone else with their peacemaking.

There is something intriguing, though little good, about Putin's visit to Israel, because it at least has the air of unpredictability. Presidential visits to Israel however are painfully predictable. There is never anything new that comes out of those trips and nothing good either. They are a lot like family reunions, pleasant in theory, but uncomfortable in practice. Both have a special relationship that they can never quite define and the visits always carry with them an aura of disappointment.

A Presidential visit has the air of a boss coming downstairs to check up on a lazy employee. On arrival, there are the customary expressions of a hope for peace. In private whatever Prime Minister is in office will be upbraided for still not having achieved peace. At a joint press conference in a capital that the United States still doesn't recognize,  after the usual formalities about the special relationship and the commitment to Israel's security, the President will tell reporters that more sacrifices are needed for peace.

"And next time I talk to you there had better be peace," is the unspoken message always left hanging in the air.

The pre-presidential visits are less of a chore, but no more significant. Candidates stop by Israel the way that they do any other state. They visit a few significant places, have their picture taken there, get a brief tour from local officials and fly over the narrowest point in Israel's border as a demonstration of just how strategically precarious the situation is.

Like all practiced politicians they are very understanding of the problems that their hosts have, whatever those problems might be. They emphasize that unlike the last guy from the other party, they will not pressure Israel to make more concessions. And then a few years later they are disembarking from an airplane and frowning at the lack of peace on the airport tarmac. "Where is that damn peace already? I ordered it last week."

Israel would be best served if the next American President forgot that Israel even existed or decided that it was a small country like Slovenia or Fiji, and need not be bothered with. A great month would be a month that passed without any State Department statements on Israel or a single question or answer from the White House Press Secretary about that small country wedged in between much bigger countries where frankly more interesting things are going on right now.

Instead no one ever forgets Israel. It's the one country that the Western world and the Muslim world are equally obsessed with. Asia is mystified by that obsession and has been ever since the days when it was being flooded by Nazi propaganda about the Jews controlling the world, even while penniless Jewish refugees were showing up in China and Japan.

The Jews not only don't control the world, they don't even control their own borders or get to name their own capital. And not a day passes by without some pundit putting paws to iPad and pounding out some turgid prose about the hopes for peace that can only be realized when the warmongering Israelis get over the Holocaust and help the terrorist gangs of Fatah and Hamas have their own state.

Other countries have art, science, historical marvels and gleaming beaches. Israel has those things but they don't exist in the official narrative. The backbreaking labor of nearly a century is nothing more than a minor mention in yet another news story about Israeli checkpoints preventing pregnant women and suicide bombers from reaching Jerusalem quickly enough.

The dark cloud of the eternal peace process overshadows everything that Israel is and does. And it defines its relationship with American leaders who on their initial visits may see Israel as a place but on their succeeding visits see it as a problem in need of a Two-State Solution.

The American-Israeli relationship began when the United States began running out of Muslim allies in the Middle East. It began to decline when the United States pulled Egypt out of the Soviet camp. It has gone up and down each time administrations have gone looking for long term relationships in the Muslim world. The American and Israeli governments have been like a couple that had to settle for each other because they have no one else.

Israel lost its French paramour and the United States never found a Muslim Middle Eastern country that was reliably friendly and whose leaders didn't need the US Marines to protect them from their own people. Despite its best diplomatic efforts, the United States has never found anyone else, but that doesn't stop it from constantly lecturing Israel on its shortcomings and reminding it how their special relationship is preventing the United States from getting any of the gorgeous Muslim states it could have had.

Obama was the best bid for landing a special relationship with the Muslim world, but despite his best efforts, no such relationship has materialized. But the blame for that, as usual, doesn't go to Obama, it goes to the Israelis for scaring away all the potential dates. In Washington D.C. the diplomats brood over their latest plans for landing Iran or fixing Egypt so that they can dump Israel for good, and the Israelis try to flirt with China or Russia; but in the end they all have to go home together because there is no one else.

Israel and America are stuck with each other. America needs a reliable partner in the Middle East whose government won't suddenly fall and be replaced by Jihadist maniacs and Israel needs a friend whose leaders don't openly talk about how much they hate it. It's not exactly a match made in heaven, but for two democracies with a certain amount of shared history and shared problems, it's all they have.

There's not much special about the visits back and forth by American and Israeli leaders. Mostly they sound like an old married couple having the same argument for the thousandth time  "Make peace with the Palestinians!" "Do something about Iran or I will." And then with nothing accomplished everyone goes home with gritted teeth.

There are high hopes that a new president will be different and that this time the cycle will be broken but then a few years later we are right back where we started and usually worse off. After a while all the headlines run together in smears of ink, the broadcasts full of earnest reporters standing against some dark background somberly reporting about another blow to the hopes of peace all seem the same no matter how many fashions have changed and how many decades have passed.

The United States expects Israel to fix its problems with the Muslim world by completing the peace process. But the problem with this Two-State Solution is that Israel isn't the source of the problems in the Muslim world. America's problems with Islam come from the same place as Russia's problems with Islam and as everyone else's problems with Islam.

Nevertheless the thinking goes that when Israel finally builds its own special relationship with the Muslim world, the United States will be able to build its special relationship with the Muslim world too. And when every president sits down at the table and is given his briefings, those briefings place Muslim violence in the context of Israel. And Israel becomes the Zionist Knot that has to be cut to untangle the hostility of 1 billion Muslims.

It's easier to cut up Israel than it is to deal with the possibility that Islam's internal conflicts and external hostilities might not be solvable. That they are something that we have to deal with without any easy short cuts through Jerusalem. And politicians are nothing if not fans of the easy way out. Presidential candidates may come and go, they may fly over and look at how narrow Israel is, meet with generals and soldiers in the field, and farmers and ranchers in their own fields, but when they leave then the Jewish State, that small elongated strip of land, becomes the knot that must be cut to make the Muslim world stop the killing and love America.

 (a shortened version of this article appeared previously at Times of Israel)

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