When America sneezes, does Israel still get pneumonia?

As the political divide widens, what does this mean for the US-Israel relationship?

US President Donald Trump speaks next to PM Benjamin Netanyahu before signing Abraham Accords (photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)
US President Donald Trump speaks next to PM Benjamin Netanyahu before signing Abraham Accords
(photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)
In May 1961, a 74-year-old David Ben-Gurion traveled to the United States for a meeting with John F. Kennedy, the newly elected president. Thirty years his junior, JFK was everything Ben-Gurion was not: tall, handsome, articulate and raised in the lap of luxury. The charismatic Kennedy had swept America with his magnetism and charm.
Ben-Gurion was short, stout and spoke with a heavy accent. He was a stubborn statemen and a fighter, having led his country through battles that no one imagined it would win.
There were a number of topics for the two political leaders to discuss: a recent visit by American scientists to Israel’s Dimona reactor; an Israeli request to purchase weapons from the United States; Russia’s role in the region, and more. While the US in the early 1960s refrained from selling arms to Israel, Ben-Gurion hoped he could convince Kennedy to provide defensive weapons like the Hawk surface-to-air missile system.
At the end of their meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Kennedy asked Ben-Gurion how could he ultimately help Israel. Ben-Gurion didn’t hesitate: “By being a great president of the United States,” he said.
A similar story is told of Levi Eshkol, Israel’s prime minister following Ben-Gurion. His advisers came to him one day and informed him of a drought. “Where?” Eshkol asked. In the Negev, answered his advisers. “Thank God it’s not in the US, then I’d be really concerned,” replied the prime minister.
Eshkol had another line he used to describe the Israeli-US relationship: “When America sneezes, Israel gets pneumonia.”
The underlying idea behind these stories was internalized by the late Shimon Peres – who served at Ben-Gurion’s side in Israel’s early years – and which he would convey often throughout his six decades of public service. Israel might need help from the US with a specific weapons system or piece of intelligence, he would say, but ultimately it needed America to be strong, no matter who the president was or might be.
His words are worth thinking about ahead of the US presidential election in 11 days. There are those who will claim that Donald Trump will keep America strong, and there are those who will argue that he has weakened America’s standing in the world and that only Joe Biden can restore the country to what it once was.
For Israel though, the question runs deeper, and hits at the core of the type of relationship it would like to maintain with its closest ally in the world.
The concern is obvious. As politics in the US have become more hostile and polarized, perception of Israel has changed as well. And this also must be said: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not help the situation.
During the eight years of the Obama administration, Netanyahu fought openly with the president of the United States, not just about policy despite genuine disagreements but also for political purposes, in order to show the Israeli electorate why he was needed as their leader: only he could stand up to whom he called a “hostile” president.
When Trump was elected, Netanyahu did not spare compliments. After eight years of fighting with a president, he now had to show that only he could get along with one, and reap from him strategic benefits.
Trump, Netanyahu said early on in the administration’s term, was “the greatest friend” Israel ever had in the White House. Not “one of” the greatest friends - the greatest friend. In that single comment, the prime minister erased the 12 men who had come before Trump throughout the 72 years of Israel’s existence. Not Truman, not Reagan, not Clinton, not Bush. No one was as good as Trump.
Was this the responsible thing to do? Probably not. Since its inception, Israel has safeguarded the importance of bipartisan support. It meant that no matter who was sitting in the White House, or which party controlled the House or the Senate, Israel always received the support that it needed. This was illustrated in practical terms in military aid, in the delivery of advanced weapons systems, and with the knowledge that it could rely on a US veto around the Security Council table.
That bipartisan support is not what it once was, and the reasons vary. There were Netanyahu’s fights with Obama; his decision – still scarred in the minds of many democrats – to speak in Congress against the Iran deal; and the unprecedented way he has warmed up to Trump.
There was also Netanyahu’s decision not to reach out to Biden last month when he was in Washington to sign the peace deal with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. To meet so close to Election Day with one candidate and completely ignore the other is simply not done when it comes to the Israeli-US relationship.
On the other hand, there are troubling shifting trends in the Democratic party. A powerful flank of the party has moved farther left, farther from Israel, and deeper into the arms of elements that are openly hostile to the Jewish state. These members are setting the party’s tone and making it a place increasingly uncomfortable for stalwart supporters of Israel.
One of Israel’s top intelligence chiefs told me some 15 years ago that Israel’s strength is derived from three key pillars. The first is the conventional IDF, the most powerful and technologically advanced military in the Middle East.
The second is Israel’s purported nuclear capability. Israel does not admit to having nuclear weapons, but also does not deny that it does. That ambiguity boosts its deterrence.
The third pillar, he said, is Israel’s strategic alliance with the United States. When that relationship is strong, Israel’s enemies get the message. But when that relationship is weak, or when there is daylight between the two countries, Israel’s enemies sense that as well. (I would update the list today with a fourth pillar: Israel’s advanced technology).
For those pillars to remain strong, Israel has to stop falling into partisan traps. It has to remember the importance of the relationship, which needs to transcend the identity of elected officials on both sides of the Atlantic.
Was Obama the first president with whom an Israeli prime minister openly fought? Of course not. Ronald Reagan stopped fighter jet deliveries to Israel, and let an anti-Israel resolution pass at the UNSC. Yitzhak Shamir fought with George H.W. Bush and was rebuked by secretary of state James Baker, who famously gave out the number of the White House switchboard, and then told Israel: “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”
No one knows who will win come November 3, but they do know how to politicize the conversation. There are those who compare the candidates’ records on Israel. They refer to Trump’s decisions to move the embassy to Jerusalem and to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran as proof of his commitment to Israel. Others refer to Biden’s longstanding support of Israel in the Senate and as vice president, and point to the fact that after pulling out of the Iran deal, Trump has yet to come up with a new one. The world, they claim, is far from being safer.
Many also tend to get stuck on the polls, and wonder how it is possible that so many Israelis support Trump while so many American Jews support Biden. They see the discrepancy as an illustration of the divide between the different Jewish communities, and as another catalyst for the widening Israel-Diaspora rift.
While the differences do exist, they always have – and always will, because of the way each community feels and approaches the different issues that they face. This is a geographical and cultural divide that cannot be bridged, and it would be foolish to think that it can. What can be done is recognize why the differences exist and then find a way to work together with that in mind.
When Netanyahu cozies up to Trump, he is not thinking about the impact it will have on Israeli relations with the Democratic party, or how it will make the majority of American Jews who will vote for Biden feel. He is thinking about his political standing, and the possibility that he will soon head to his own new election. If that means alienating some members of the American Jewish community for now, then so be it.
This does not mean Israel isn’t preparing for a Biden victory. The extension of Mossad chief Yossi Cohen’s tenure until June 2021 was just so that he could be around for the transition, and help a new Biden administration settle in if the former VP wins. In Israel, Cohen was said to have had the best relationship with Susan Rice when she served as Obama’s national security adviser. If she is selected as Biden’s secretary of state, expect Cohen to be one of the first people reaching out to congratulate.
Gilad Erdan, Israel’s current ambassador to the UN, will take up the ambassadorship to Washington by Inauguration Day. If Biden wins, expect that transition to take place sooner than initially expected.
AHEAD OF the upcoming election, Israel has to stay focused on what is truly important and remember that no matter who wins, it has to know how to work with the man in the White House.
Was Trump the greatest president for Israel ever, as Netanyahu claims? There is no answer because the question itself is irrelevant to begin with.
What truly matters is that America is the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the world. Not the president. America.