How to expand Israel’s pool of allies

Focus on places where public opinion is up for grabs instead of those where it’s solidly anti-Israel.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israelis witnessed an unusual public disagreement last week between their foreign minister and his deputy. Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel should reduce its dependence on the United States, declaring, “Israel’s foreign policy for many years went in one direction toward Washington, but my policy has more directions.” Deputy Minister Zeev Elkin countered that “Even when there are disagreements ... there is no one who can take the place of the Americans.”
In truth, both are right. Elkin is correct that no other country can replace America as Israel’s chief ally, and Lieberman is correct that depending solely on America leaves Israel vulnerable, without friends to fall back on during times, as now, when it disagrees with Washington on crucial issues. Yet without understanding why Elkin is right, any quest to broaden Israel’s pool of allies will fail. And both the answers commonly given – America’s superpower status and our shared democratic values – are wrong.
Though a superpower ally is obviously a plus, a superpower’s greater capabilities don’t automatically produce greater impact on world affairs. That happens only if the superpower actually uses its capabilities – and America sometimes chooses not to. Bouts of isolationism have been a recurrent theme in American history, and right now, America is clearly withdrawing from the Middle East.
Consequently, despite vastly inferior capabilities, both France and Russia have arguably exercised greater influence in the Mideast recently than America has – Russia by staunchly supporting the Syrian regime, and France by leading interventions in Libya and Mali, and to some extent by its hardline stance on Iran. That’s precisely why Cairo and Riyadh have been courting Moscow lately, while Israel has coordinated more closely with Paris than with Washington over Iran. Because a country’s willingness to use its power often matters more than how much power it objectively has, an active medium-weight ally may be no less useful than a reluctant superpower.
As for shared democratic values, these simply don’t suffice to forge an alliance. As evidence, see Europe. Excluding America, Europe is where Israel’s foreign policy establishment has invested most of its effort, naively believing that fellow democracies should be natural allies. Yet most European countries routinely vote against Israel in the UN, take the Palestinian side of every Israeli-Palestinian dispute and vocally denounce any and all Israeli defensive measures, even as they lavish financial and diplomatic support on undemocratic entities like the Palestinian Authority, whose president is now in the ninth year of a four-year term.
America’s irreplaceability stems from something else entirely: It’s one of the few countries whose people are overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Shared democratic values obviously contribute to this, but so do many other factors. For instance, Americans generally admire Israel’s willingness and ability to defend itself, whereas in Europe, this same trait elicits revulsion. Additionally, American Christianity is largely philo-Semitic, whereas European Christianity generally espoused replacement theology, an inherently anti-Israel credo.   
Since democratic governments are constrained by public opinion, America’s pro-Israel public ensures that even the most hostile administration will be more pro-Israel than the friendliest European one. Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, for instance, is unquestionably pro-Israel; after losing office, he even founded the Friends of Israel Initiative to promote Israel’s case in Europe. Yet his policies as premier differed little from those of his anti-Israel successor; constrained by anti-Israel public opinion, he routinely voted against Israel in the UN, took the Palestinians’ side in disputes, and so forth.
In contrast, the current US administration is one of the most hostile in decades. Yet it still gives Israel $3 billion a year in military aid, even as other expenditures are being slashed, and has wielded its UN veto on Israel’s behalf even when its reluctance was palpable. In 2011, for instance, then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice gave a speech proclaiming the administration’s enthusiastic agreement with a resolution denouncing Israeli settlements – and then vetoed it anyway. Why? Because the president was running for reelection, and in America, abandoning Israel to the UN wolves would be unpopular.
All this explains why Lieberman’s previous efforts to broaden Israel’s alliances achieved so little: In many of the countries he targeted last term, Israel is widely loathed, creating a disincentive for their governments to support it. That’s true even in nondemocratic countries, since obliging public opinion on minor issues (like relations with Israel) helps dictators mitigate popular discontent.
Thus to cultivate allies, Israel must invest in altering public opinion. But instead of wasting time on countries where this effort is hopeless, it should focus on those that offer reasonable prospects of success.
The BBC’s global popularity survey offers some useful clues. Aside from America, only in two of the 22 countries surveyed did pluralities view Israel positively: Kenya and Ghana. Neither currently has the capabilities to be even a medium-weight ally. But there were other countries where public opinion is still up for grabs – and they would be better investments than, say, Europe, where public opinion is overwhelmingly negative.
In France, Germany and Britain, the ratios of negative to positive views about Israel were 63-21, 67-8 and 72-14, respectively. By contrast, Israel’s negative-to-positive ratios in China, India and Russia were 33-32, 26-16 and 32-23, respectively. In short, these countries had large pools of undecided people who, if swayed to Israel’s side, could flip them into the pro-Israel column. And each has things in common with Israel that could be useful in fostering pro-Israel sentiment – China’s traditional emphasis on education and family values, for instance, or Russia’s concern over Islamic extremism.
Granted, only democratic India is a feasible near-term ally; nondemocratic China and Russia are too anti-American. But both seem ripe for democratization in the coming decades, which could well alter their foreign policies. And since changing public opinion is obviously a long-term process, it makes sense to start now, to be ready to take advantage of democratization once it happens.
After all, Washington wasn’t always an ally, either: It took decades of Israeli effort to convert the America of the 1948 arms embargo into today’s best friend. Similar decades of effort will be needed to cultivate other alliances. It’s long past time to get started.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.