Israel-America relations vis-à-vis the Crimean War

As a regional power, Israel is certainly keeping on top of any new movement in the area, and following its coverage in international discourse.

A Ukrainian soldier stands on a military vehicle at a checkpoint at the road near a Crimea region border March 9, 2014.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Ukrainian soldier stands on a military vehicle at a checkpoint at the road near a Crimea region border March 9, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The new Crimean war is still in its infancy and we should hope it doesn’t reach the threatening level of the first Crimean War, which cost one million people their lives and ended inconclusively, although in retrospect Russia seems to have been the bigger loser. In the “new war” model, and as befits new wars, the use of force is reduced, whereas the use of diplomacy is much more significant, and a large part of this diplomacy takes place through the media. Images from the battleground are intertwined with political declarations. The fact that US President Barack Obama is making statements is very striking, especially since Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking action and then – at times – making statements. Once again, we are witnessing a power play of engagement between the US and Russia, between the former’s “soft power” and the latter’s “hard power.”
This old/new round of conflict between East and West proves that the Cold War never really ended. Despite the fact that the Cold War was officially declared over in the 1980s, the walls were torn down, the Eastern Bloc disintegrated, and the former USSR supposedly embraced democracy, Russia is once again carrying out its foreign policy with an iron fist. First of all, Russia is fearful of its former federated states; it demonstrated this in Georgia and it is now showing this again in Ukraine. But even beyond these two cases, Russia is standing up to and intimidating the US and Europe at every possible opportunity.
During both of his terms, Obama chose not to go to war. Obama’s was the first case in history of a Nobel Peace Prize being offered to someone for his future actions, and indeed it appears the US president is making every effort to fulfill the world’s expectations of him.
He removed US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan despite the fact they had not accomplished what they had set out to do there, and left these countries to fend for themselves against terrorism. At the same time, Obama is making every effort to avoid the conflicts in Libya, Iran and Syria.
The ridiculous phrase “leading from behind” has become Obama’s identifying expression. He has been true to his belief and translated these words into action via dialogue and signing agreements in place of using force or even threatening to use force. And if we look at his record in the three most recent crises (Libya, Iran and Syria), the US can feel well satisfied with the fact that, at least for now, all three ended with relative success and a limited use of force.
The Americans might think they are winning in all these spheres, but that depends whether you view the situation like it’s a 15-round boxing match in which if there’s no knockout, the points are tallied at the end. Or, alternatively, you might assume that every three minutes, whoever is winning receives a point. The Russians believe that the winner is whoever won the last battle, whereas the Americans believe that they can add up all the points they won round after round. And since we’re smack in the middle of a round right now, it’s impossible to declare who the winner is going to be – Putin or Obama.
Of course, there is also the distinct Israeli viewpoint of the situation. Granted, Israel is not directly connected to every international crisis, but it is to the ones that occur in our area. However, as a regional power, Israel is certainly keeping on top of any new movement in the area, and following its coverage in international discourse.
Regarding events in Syria and Iran, Israel has not hidden its disappointment that the US chose the diplomatic channel. The Israelis believe that it would have been smarter to combine economic and military power to both block the Iranian nuclear plan and punish Syrian President Bashar Assad at the same time. In this way, foreign sources claim, Israel could have taken action against Syria, especially regarding Syria’s close relationship with Hezbollah. “We are very adept at drawing red lines,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at the recent AIPAC conference.
Israel has not made any public statements about the Crimean crisis. This might be because it’s uncomfortable doing so, or perhaps because it doesn’t want to or does not know what to say. In his aforementioned enthusiastic AIPAC speech, which drew tremendous applause, Netanyahu managed to glide right through without even touching on the hottest topic in Washington now. For unknown reasons, he decided once again to take his aggression out on Iran. At one point, he even mentioned that Iranian missiles could reach US territory.
But this is of no importance since the US is surely not worried about such an occurrence. Last week, Russia carried out a successful test-launch of an “advanced” intercontinental ballistic missile; this was a clear message to show the US who its truly threatening enemy is.
The US will not be spending much time dealing with Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the near future.
As we can see from Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg’s interview with Obama, the president believes that reaching an agreement is first and foremost Israel’s responsibility, and that Israel is not doing enough to achieve this goal.
Obama’s stern stance on Israel’s international standing in light of recent calls for boycotts and sanctions is certainly disturbing, to say the least. And this time Obama didn’t add his usual line promising that the US would stand alongside Israel to fight off sanctions.
I believe, though, that it would have been in Israel’s best interests for Netanyahu (and it’s not too late) to side with Obama and support him. Obama’s seeming weakness, or what people choose to see as weakness, might make a few fools happy, but the sad truth is that this is bad for Israel. We need a strong America and a strong American president, and if they are weak, we should bolster them. Netanyahu needs to support US Secretary of State Kerry’s actions to prove that Israel trusts the American government, and that the path it is leading us down is the right one for us. We need to send this powerful and important message right now, when Europe and other world powers are questioning the US’s leadership capabilities. We have no alternative.
In the economic sphere, we could possibly search for new markets, although this would not be simple at all.
But in the political sphere, we have absolutely no alternatives.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman once attempted to think aloud about the possibility of looking toward the East, but in his current term, he is once again focusing his full attention on Israel’s relationship with the US. The idea of trying to manipulate the two blocs will not help us with the Palestinian issue because both the US and Russia have similar positions on this matter: they both believe that Israel should withdraw from the territories, and both are involved in the negotiations.
But – and this is a big but – the US, unlike Russia, is ready to invest (literally) in this process. Sometimes it offers financial assistance, and at other times they support Israel by making it dependent on our international standing. Whereas the Russians just stand on the sidelines and watch; only when they see something they don’t like do they take action.
In the political sphere too, Israel has no other option but to help make sure that America is strong, since we have no alternative partner waiting in the wings. A strong America is good for Israel, and a weak America weakens Israel – this needs to be our guiding principle.
It’s a shame that the prime minister missed this point in his recent speech in Washington. But he still has time to repair the situation and mend Israel’s ties with America.
We must remember – there is no other America.
The author is a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and chairman of the Knesset Caucus for Israel-US Relations.