Israel and the US: Lost in translation
America is Israel’s greatest ally. But will it solve Israel’s existential problem regarding Iran?
US President Obama waving Photo: Reuters
A British leader once quipped that America and England are “two cultures
separated by a common language.”
Most Israelis, no matter how well they
know English, are often clueless about the nuances of American
Israelis, even diplomats who have spent a lot of time in
America, often don’t understand what Americans are saying; this lack of
understand can endanger Israel.
This “lack of communication” has now
become extremely important because Israelis are trying to figure out whether
they can depend on America to take care of the Iranian problem, or whether are
they on their own.
Israeli Hebrew is direct and blunt. When Israelis
disagree, they say things like “You’re wrong,” “You’re crazy,” “What a stupid
An American, preferring to be polite and inoffensive, would try to
co-opt the disagreement, and might say, “What about this? Let’s see how we can
make this work,” or “What you say makes perfect sense, but....”
officials constantly say “We cannot allow Iran to attain nuclear weapons,” and
“We have Israel’s back.” What does this mean in American English? Can Israel
rely on the US to take care of this existential problem? Working at the Pentagon
for 28 years, we constantly came across officials who disagreed with what some
of us proposed. Our adept bureaucratic colleagues often strongly opposed our
ideas, but never said so directly.
Instead, they proposed that they write
a paper on the subject.
That paper would take our ideas and politely
explain them away. The net result was that they used our words to neutralize
Take for example, president George W. Bush’s decision to use Natan
Sharansky’s ideas to work toward democracy in the Middle East. The president
tasked the bureaucracy to find ways to implement that strategy. The American
bureaucracy overwhelmingly opposed Sharansky’s ideas, which president Bush spoke
about in his Rose Garden speech.
The bureaucracy developed the road map
plan to reassert control over the situation, and “solve” the intractable
Arab-Israeli problem. The road map absolutely contradicted the president’s
democratization efforts as expressed in the speech. Those bureaucrats,
undaunted, in order to neutralize the president conjured up the idea that “the
way to implement the president’s democratization ideas was to implement the road
The bureaucracy could then argue that it was implementing the
president’s policy. The words sounded fine, but they in essence blocked what the
The bureaucracy won that war, the president
Whys is this relevant to America and Israel regarding Iran? The
meaning of the above-mentioned bureaucratic battle was lost on many Israelis. To
Israelis, who speak directly and bluntly, the words sounded right. They believed
that the bureaucracy was doing what the president had ordered. Only the few
versed in the nuances of American English understood otherwise.
Iran, is the American government doing the same – i.e., using words one way, to
obfuscate and lull Israel, while actually having no intention of using force if
necessary to take care of the Iranian nuclear problem? Another incident provides
more insight. Americans like signed documents because written agreements are a
basic tenet of American culture. These agreements often diffuse problems. But
are the signed commitments always carried out? After the Sinai War in 1956,
America managed to get Israel to leave the Sinai by among other things promising
to re-open the Straits of Tiran, should they be blocked again.
however, when Egypt again blocked these Straits, even the then-pro-Israel
American president, Lyndon Johnson, would not do so, claiming that they could
find no such commitment. Israel was on its own.
This story was to repeat
itself with president George W. Bush’s letter of commitment to Israel on
settlements, of which the Obama administration claimed ignorance.
about Israel wanting to sell Israeli-modified Phantom planes to China? Many
Israelis claimed that America never directly vetoed the Israeli sale. But from
an American point of view, America most assuredly did so, by expressing itself
in American terms.
America did this indirectly by raising many questions
which, from an American point of view, would have been enough to make the
Israelis understand that the answer was “No.” But this was lost on their Israeli
interlocutors who, because they never heard a direct “No” assumed they had been
given the go-ahead. The Israelis involved knew English, but they did not know
“American.” Otherwise, they would have understood what America was
These are just a few of the many “misunderstanding” that have
clouded the American-Israeli relationship.
Some years ago, an Israeli
diplomat in Washington finished his second term as a diplomat in the US – having
been there for six years. He summoned up his experiences as follows, “Before I
came here, I thought that America and Israel understood each other well could
communicate easily. After my years in the US, I realize how little we Israelis
really understand American attitudes and American culture, much to our
Where does this leave us regarding America and Israel on Iran?
America is Israel’s greatest ally. But will it solve Israel’s – and for that
matter America’s Saudi allies’ – existential problem regarding Iran? Given the
nuances of American English, the words coming out of the mouths of American
officials are not reassuring. As things stand now, Israel and America’s Arab
allies are on their own.
The writer, who has a PhD in Middle East and
Islamic studies from Columbia, is a Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute in
New York. He served as an adviser on Middle Eastern Affairs in the Office of the
US Secretary of Defense for 28 years.