As Governor Romney leaves for overseas travel that includes Israel, he doesn’t have to be ready to solve the problems of the region, or have a “peace plan” in his pocket. A few basic principles — previously observed by both Republican and Democratic presidents — will serve him well.
1. Israel is a sovereign country. The government of Israel should not be asked (or told) to substitute American policy positions for its own positions. Whether on strategic or day-to-day issues — including housing policy, blockades, and the disposition of checkpoints — Israel is responsible for and to its citizens; the U.S. is not. If the Israeli government is wrong about a security matter, Israelis will pay the price; if the U.S. is wrong, Israelis will likewise pay the price.
2. Israel is our friend and ally. When the government of Israel makes a big decision, the U.S. doesn’t have to agree with it — and certainly can express itself (preferably privately) — but under the terms above, the U.S. should plan to be helpful to the extent possible, even if it wasn’t our idea. It’s what allies do.
Prior presidents knew this. President Carter’s plan for a U.S.-Russia-Middle East peace conference was upset by Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. President Clinton was not party to the initial draft of the Oslo Accords. President Bush was not pleased with Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, but when opponents of the move tried to get him to pressure Sharon, he declined. The cost-benefit ratio of specific Israeli moves can be debated, but the U.S. in each case charted the course of support for an ally.
President Clinton was thwarted once — in early 2000, he orchestrated meetings between the Syrian foreign minister and Israel’s prime minister, hoping to accomplish the return of the Golan Heights to Syria under circumstances that would be secure for Israel. Putting U.S. troops on the Golan as a buffer, similar to their status in Sinai, was floated. Israel nixed the idea of handing its security over to an American force. Imagine if President Clinton had won the point.
President Bush was similarly thwarted when trying to ascertain what U.S.-provided security measures would make Israel feel secure enough to permit the emergence of a Palestinian state even in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. Israel declined to discuss security guaranteed by the U.S. rather than by the IDF.
3. Remember to repeat that Israel is our friend and ally. When Israel does something of which the U.S. disapproves — such as building houses for Jews east of the 1949 Armistice Line — remember that some of our “best friends” commit far more egregious “sins” with far less justification. Never mind Turkey refusing the U.S. access to Iraq in 2003 or Pakistan closing the U.S. supply route to Afghanistan. NATO buddies France and Germany took Oil for Food money from Saddam while the U.S. was managing the no-fly zones and the sanctions regime on Iraq. Keep it in perspective.
4. The U.S. and Israel face many of the same threats. Islamic radicalism and potential Iranian nuclear capabilities confront both countries, and each has something to impart in terms of information, tactics, and training: partnership in security matters aids both.
4a. Suggestion: If you have a counter-terrorism conference (particularly if you have two), include Israel.
4b. Suggestion: If you produce a list of countries fighting terrorism, include Israel. It is not enough to say that Israelis killed outside Israel are “victims of terrorism”; Israelis facing indiscriminate shelling from across the Gaza border also face “terrorism.”
5. If other countries in the region want to work with the U.S., they have to accept that we work with Israel. No, the Arab countries do not like our closeness, but they do understand it. Nothing seems to have surprised the Saudis more than the Obama administration’s curt dismissal of Israel. From the Saudi perspective, if the U.S. could abandon Israel, a country that shares the same democratic and civic values, how much more quickly might the U.S. abandon Saudi Arabia, a country whose only real value is in the oil it pumps?
Agreeing with Turkey to oust Israel from the combined U.S.-Israel-Italy-Turkey “Anatolian Eagle” exercise in late 2011 was a sign to others that the formerly close U.S.-Israel security relationship could be breached. Shortly after the U.S-Israel missile defense exercise “Austere Challenge” was canceled in April 2012, “Eager Lion 2012” excluded Israel while providing U.S. Special Operations training to soldiers from 19 countries, including some of Israel’s declared enemies.
Governor Romney doesn’t have to move the ball down the field when he visits Israel — a simple restoration of traditional principles of U.S. policy will have a salutary effect on Israel and on the region.