Israel and the US: Lost in translation

America is Israel’s greatest ally. But will it solve Israel’s existential problem regarding Iran?

Obama next to words 'America' 390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Obama next to words 'America' 390
(photo credit: 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 English.
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 idea.”
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....”
American 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 us.
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 map.”
The bureaucracy could then argue that it was implementing the president’s policy. The words sounded fine, but they in essence blocked what the president wanted.
The bureaucracy won that war, the president lost.
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.
Regarding 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.
In 1967, 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.
What 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 saying.
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 peril.”
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.