Many of my posts from the past week are about just who is an ally and who is an adversary. This is a nice (albeit belated) segue into the G-20 open mic flap, in which French president Nicolas Sarkozy said what he really thought about Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- and Barack Obama didn't disagree.
There's obviously going to be much gnashing of teeth about this from the usual suspects, and much caterwauling about said gnashing of teeth from the other usual suspects. So perhaps it's worth stepping back for a second to appreciate the fact that, contra realism, most alliances in recent history are far more long-lasting than a particular leader's term of office. Obviously, certain leaders -- see: Castro, Fidel -- can realign a country from one great power to another. Geopolitical pressures can cause other countries -- see: India -- to realign during critical junctures. Still, these have been the exceptions rather than the rule since 1945.
The Netanyahu/Obama flap is clearly one of clashing ideologies and clashing personalities, but it doesn't really change all that much in the way of the US-Israeli alliance. The defense cooperation between United States and Israel is stronger and larger than ever before, for example. The fundamentals of the alliance remain unchanged. As Robert Blackwill and Walter Slocombe recently pointed out in their WINEP paper:
[T]he United States and Israel have an impressive list of common national interests; that Israeli actions make substantial direct contributions to these U.S. interests; and that wise policymakers and people concerned with U.S. foreign policy, while never forgetting the irreplaceable values and moral responsibility dimensions of the bilateral relationship, should recognize the benefits Israel provides for U.S. national interests
This argument has drawn criticism from the usual suspects, but it reaffirms my point that alliances rarely rise and fall due to individual leaders.
So think of dust-ups like the open mic gaffe as mild ripples in the flow of friendship between the two countries, while the stock of the alliance remains fundamentally constant.
Sure, you can argue that the people on the ships weren't exactly Christ-like in their embrace of nonviolence. Based on the number of e-mails I got from the flotilla organizers in the last 72 hours, they were dying for a confrontation with Israeli forces. That said, it should be possible to gain control of an unruly ship without, you know, killing more than ten people, further worsening relations with your primary regional ally, and forcing the UN Security Council into emergency session. At this rate, Israel and the Netanyahu government will be blamed for the sinking of the Cheonan and the cancellation of Law & Order by the end of the week.
Gideon Rachman thinks Israel is placing itself in an increasingly untenable situation:
There are three particular angles for the Israelis to worry about. First, that there will be some sort of new intifada. Second, the continued deterioration in their relationship with Turkey. Third, their fraying ties with the Obama administration.
My colleague in Israel, Tobias Buck, seems to rate the chances of renewed unrest in the Palestinian territories as fairly high. That would obviously be a major blow. For the last year, Israel has been quietly building a fairly decent relationship with the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. And Hamas, bottled up on the West Bank with the connivance of the Egyptians, has also been relatively quiet....
Ironically, a sanctions package against Iran is arguably as much in the interests of Israel, as in the interests of the US itself. The US may now feel that it has to go along with a UN condemnation of Israel to preserve the chances of getting its Iran resolution through. It would be a classic Israeli own goal, if their assault on the Gaza ships sank the choices of a new resolution on Iran.
I concur with Jeffrey Goldberg -- episodes like this are exposing the lack of Israeli wisdom in thinking about its situation:
There is a word in Yiddish, seichel, which means wisdom, but it also means more than that: It connotes ingenuity, creativity, subtlety, nuance. Jews have always needed seichel to survive in this world; a person in possession of a Yiddishe kop, a "Jewish head," is someone who has seichel, someone who looks for a clever way out of problems, someone who understands that the most direct way -- blunt force, for instance -- often represents the least elegant solution, a person who can foresee consequences of his actions....
I'm trying to figure out this story for myself. But I will say this: What I know already makes me worried for the future of Israel, a worry I feel in a deeper way than I think I have ever felt before. The Jewish people have survived this long in part because of the vision of their leaders, men and women who were able to intuit what was possible and what was impossible. Where is this vision today? Israel may face, in the coming year, a threat to its existence the likes of which it has not experienced before: A theologically-motivated regional superpower with a nuclear arsenal. It faces another existential threat as well, from forces arguing that Israel's morally disastrous settlement policy fatally undermines the very idea of a Jewish state. Is Israel ready to deploy seichel in these battles, rather than mere force?
Ha'aretz columnists are saying no -- and based on Israel's foreign policy and approach towards the occupied territories, I can't say I disagree with them. Indeed, the parallels between Israel and -- gulp -- North Korea are becoming pretty eerie. True, Israel's economy is thriving and North Korea's is not. That said, both countries are diplomatically isolated except for their ties to a great power benefactor. Both countries are pursuing autarkic policies that immiserate millions of people. The majority of the population in both countries seem blithely unaware of what the rest of the world thinks. Both countries face hostile regional environments. Both countries keep getting referred to the United Nations. And, in the past month, the great power benefactor is finding it more and more difficult to defend their behavior to the rest of the world.
The Obama administration has reacted to this incident in remarkably similar ways to China's reaction to the Cheonan incident -- with a call for more information. Rachman wonders if there will be a quid pro quo on Iran and Israel at the Security Council. I wonder if the quid pro quo will involve Jerusalem and Pyongyang.
Developing.... in a ridiculously bad way for Israel.
The Christian Science Monitor's Yigal Schliefer reports on a less-than-productive meeting between Israel and Turkey:
A diplomatic spat is threatening to worsen Israel’s strained relations with Turkey, traditionally one of its most important allies in the region. The rift exposes growing Israeli frustration with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in a bid to increase Turkey’s regional standing has increasingly spoken out against Israel.
This latest crisis included a showdown at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, where Turkey’s ambassador was summoned to explain Mr. Erdogan’s recent harsh criticism, as well as a TV show that portrayed Israeli intelligence agents holding a woman and her baby hostage.
Breaking with diplomatic protocol, Israeli officials failed to include the customary Turkish flag on the table between them and the Turkish ambassador, whom they seated on a low couch. To rub it in, they instructed the press members in attendance to note that they were sitting in higher chairs and the usual diplomatic niceties were conspicuously absent.
“The message was, ‘We’ve had enough,’” says Ephraim Inbar, an expert on Turkey-Israel relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. “Erdogan has taken things too far. It might have not been the best treatment for an ambassador, but it came from the gut. The signal is that we’re not going to take it anymore.” (emphasis added)
Yes, because heaping petty humiliations on another country will always shift their attitude in a more favorable direction.
Beyond Erdogan's statements -- which, from the Israeli perspective, are probably infuriating -- the proximate motivation for the meeting appears to be the depiction of Israelis on a 24-style show broadcast in Turkey. Let me repeat that -- the Israeli Foreign Ministry is cheesed off about a Turkish television show.
So, is this just Israeli overreaction? Stupidity? According to Ha'aretz's Barak Ravid, it's a bit more complicated than that:
Senior officials in his own ministry say Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is trying to foil the scheduled visit of Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Ankara following renewed tensions in relations between the two countries. Barak is scheduled to travel to Turkey on Sunday for an official visit in which he will meet with Turkey's defense and foreign ministers....
"There's a feeling Lieberman wants to heat things up before Barak's visit to Turkey," a senior Foreign Ministry official said. "Everything that took place yesterday was part of Lieberman's political agenda."
This raises a very troubling question: what does it say about the state of Israel's body politic that Avigdor Lieberman thinks he can enhance his political position by snubbing one of the few semi-friendly countries in the region?
UPDATE: This was such a picayune slight that I'm sure it will all blow over. Oh, wait....
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.