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Another Day, Another Brilliant Intern

Another Via Meadia intern has somehow escaped the tight institutional surveillance program we run to publish a piece under his own name. This time it is recent Harvard and Crimson veteran Yair Rosenberg, who has an article in Tablet that does exactly what we try to do here: substitute a little light and reason for partisan heat.

Yair looks at some of the rhetoric on both sides of the US-Israel relationship. He discomfits those on the right who’ve tried to label President Obama the “most anti-Israel president ever” by looking at what prominent people said about, for example, President Reagan back in 1981. Writes Yair:

“The policy of publicly humiliating our traditional ally has made us no new friends in the Arab world and removed the trust needed to encourage Israel to take risks for peace,” argues a prominent conservative columnist. In his piece, he castigates the American administration for its policy toward Israel: “You’d think the heaviest cross [the President] had to bear was the Star of David.”

You could be forgiven for thinking the above was clipped from a column penned by William Kristol about President Barack Obama. But in fact, those are the words of William Safire criticizing Ronald Reagan in 1981.

On the other hand, Yair notes, criticism of the Netanyahu government as launching some kind of radical new direction in Israeli policy needs to be reconsidered. Earlier Israeli prime ministers (like Begin and Shamir) elicited criticism from papers like the New York Times as harsh as anything meted out to the current incumbent.

Read the whole thing. And congratulations to Yair on a job well done.

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  • Luke Lea

    If I’m not mistaken this was the first piece published by a mainstream US Jewish organization that was critical of the Begin administration’s handling of what it then liked to call “Judea and Samaria.” See if you can spot the writer’s secret motivation.

  • Luke Lea

    Correction. Begin was out of power by then. I guess it must have been the Likud administration.

  • Jim.

    So US Presidents have no right to expect any kind of consideration from Israel?


    Let’s clear something up right now… every Israeli who was in the country in ’73 owes America his or her life. Every Israeli born in that country,

  • Jim.

    …born in that country after ’73 (that’s just about all of them under the age of 40) owes the US their existence.

    Pile on that the fact that the US has some years handed Israel as much as a quarter of Israel’s GDP for their defense budget. This, in a world where 6pct GDP is considered excessive for defense spending. I’ll grant you, a lot of that money turns around and gets spent with American defense contractors. Still, that’s a good chunk of work we in this country are doing for Israel’s gain rather than our own.

    Preventing another Holocaust is critical to our advancement as a species, and I’m proud that we contribute to that. But the idea that Israel owes us no consideration for our critical conributions to this cause has to set a new record for chutzpah.

  • Y.


    Save those myths for some sucker interns, since they has no base in reality.

    Most of the aid in 73 arrived well past the time Israel beat back her attackers. In fact, Israel may well have lost more by the American insistence on not attacking first than gained by aid later.

    Second, the military aid was a part of the Camp David accords, in order to cajole Israel to making concessions. As usual, what Israel did to gain it is forgotten, while the aid remains as an hamstring. Which is one of the reasons why Israel’s conciliatory ways were a mistake and why it should switch to a far more hawkish stance.

  • Y.

    As for the article itself, it ignores the big picture, with Obama helping Egypt and other ME states to go Islamist, Obama’s horrible performance in the ME speeches (note for example that the 67′ borders part was one of the relatively least objectionable parts compared to the rest of the ridiculousness it managed to divert from) and so on and on. It even ignored some of the trivialities (like Obama’s personal treatment of Nethanyahu) which never happened before. I can’t help but wonder if intern flogging is legal here in Israel.

  • Bryan

    “I’ll grant you, a lot of that money turns around and gets spent with American defense contractors. Still, that’s a good chunk of work we in this country are doing for Israel’s gain rather than our own.”

    Did you seriously just say that making Israel more dependent on American military aid and funneling billions of dollars into *American* military industries is *not* for our own gain?

    Also, I don’t see anyone claiming that Israel owes the US “no consideration” (except for perhaps Begin). Israel has gone against its own interest in the past, in order to satisfy US demands. In 1970, Israel threatened Syria with war if Syria intervened on behalf on the Palestinian during the Jordanian civil war, in order to keep the pro-American regime in power. In 1973, Israel refused to make a preemptive strike (which might have prevented the need for American aid in the first place) in order to maintain relations with the US. In 1991, Israel allowed itself to be bombarded by Saddam’s Scuds without responding so that the Desert Storm coalition would not fall apart. What is important to remember is that Israel has red lines which define its absolute strategic imperatives, and when its strategic imperatives are threatened, nothing, not even its relationship with the US, will prevent them from acting to defend themselves.

    And how is that different from any other country? Every sovereign state will do what it feels necessary when it feels it absolutely must do so, the consequences be [darned].

  • Jim.

    Y., if not for US aid, ’73 would have been even shorter and it would have gone the other way. The fact that part of that aid didn’t get there until the fighting was done has nothing to do with the fact that the critical help got there when it was needed. Also, considering how the war played out, the idea that a preemptive strike would have been effective is at best questionable.

    The point is that Israel is dependent on the US, and has been for more than 40 years. For that, we’ve had our oil embargoed, sacrificed our bargaining position throughout the Middle East, and given tens of billions in aid.

    Granted, at some critical junctures we got a good idea of how well our armaments stacked up against the Warsaw Pact (and so did the Russians) — and the Israelis did the dying while we evaluated our weaponry. But the fact is that that whole country would have gone “squish” long ago if it weren’t for us. Even “strategic red lines” fade into insignificance when the consequences of the alternative (losing our support) is “greasy red smear”.

    A “thank you” would be nice, instead of all this self-justifying abuse.

  • Y.


    I simply happen to be more familiar with the history. Nickel Grass started arriving only by the evening of 14 Oct [intentionally delayed, by the way. The Soviet aid to the Arabs, OTOH, started from 9 Oct. or so]. By that time Israel had retaken the Golan, invaded Syria and crushed the Egyptian 14 Oct. attack. Had the aid not arrived, the situation would have been worse, but there simply was no threat to Israel’s existence by that time.

    Second, the Egyptian and Syrian commanders were well adapted to implementing known and trained for programs but usually bad at displaying initiative of their own, especially one that required command independence [one suspects this was intentional and the result of their regimes’ desire to avoid a coup]. A preemptive attack would have likely made them lose the script early. There were also other benefits which I won’t go into here in detail.

    Third, I can think of no ‘abuse’ towards America. In fact, Israelis tend to be very pro-America. This, however, doesn’t mean Israel would go the self-negating route.

    Fourth, with respect to America, Israel can and did do without it. (In fact, during the Independence War the biggest supporter was the USSR, and later France was in that role until 1967. Oddly, America wasn’t popular in the ME even then). It would, of course, be much harder, but far from impossible.

    Mind you, while most Americans are pro-Israel, I don’t agree that America entered this arrangement out of sympathy alone. Every Arab-Israeli war led to reverberations throughout the Middle East. If America wishes to maintain stability without committing its own troops, the best way is to arrange it so it would be clear to the Arabs they have no hope of winning a war. The mutual aid was supposed a way of both maintaining the power balance and allowing Israel to make some concessions. This was a reasonable policy for America, but increasingly a dubious one for Israel. Israel switched permanent assets for temporary ones, and that’s a bad deal when going too far, especially when some want to use this as a blackmailing tool.

  • Jim.

    Y., if you believe that relying on air power and neglecting American cooperation would have won the day, you are not familiar with the history. You should be very, very happy that that was not the chosen course of action at the time.

    I’m happy to see you disavowing knowledge of abuse against America and American politicians when we ask anything in return for our help — it seems almost churlish to ask you to re-read the original article to make the point that it is, in fact, too common.

    As for your kind offer to serve as hegemon of the Middle East: the job description requires a country capable of defending the Gulf States from Iranian aggression (nuclear or non-); one capable of dealing diplomatically with Kurdish separatist movements; one that could keep Iraq stable, and playing for our team; one capable of dealing with rogue elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence services; one with the (independent) military / industrial wherewithal to afford its own aircraft carrier group would seem to be a minimum; one that might handle military support for simultaneous revolts in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria; and, not to put too fine a point on it, one that showed a little more capacity to clear Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon, given the occupation of that end of that country.

    There are parts of the above job description that we even have trouble with. There is no way to maintain stability in the current Middle East without our troops. So the answer is, we are not looking to delegate those responsibilities at this time, and would likely pursue other candidates for the job. Thank you for your interest.

    And short of reducing the population centers of all Israel’s enemies to radioactive wastelands (and probably getting Tel Aviv nuked by some element of the Pakistani military in return), there is, frankly, no way Israel could “win” any but the narrowest Middle Eastern war without US help.

    Israel needs the US. Israel owes the US.

    Again, a “thank you” would be nice. Some diplomatic cooperation on something other than purely Israel’s own terms would be appropriate too.

  • Y.


    There’s no need in an honest debate to put words into my mouth. Just where did I suggest ‘relying on air power alone’? Or ‘serving as hegemon of ME’? I did not. It seems you are replying to some strawmen, rather than what was written.

    Same thing applies to the article. I re-read it and found no ‘abuse’. There was criticism against specific American presidents by other Americans, which last I heard, is fine in a democracy.

    The reality of the matter is that Israel sacrificed important interests to work with the US, though this is unacknowledged by some, and that the US would want Israel on its side if there’s to be any stability in the ME. A policy of ‘punishing your friends’ would simply net you no friends anywhere, and no stability either. Fortunately American administrations are usually smart enough to realize this.

    P.S. A short geography lesson: Pakistan is not a part of the ME per any definition thereof, and is too distant (and busy) to play a significant role. Nor do I see any scenario (barring Al-Q or similar taking over which will trigger intervention immediately) where it tried to play such a role or sacrifices itself for it.

  • Jim.

    – A preemptive strike implies reliance on air power, nothing else is fast enough.

    – The ability to prevent Arabs from winning a war implies hegemonic power.

    – Strictly speaking, in a free democracy, even verbal abuse against elected officials is permissible. My point is that attacks against those officials when deep gratitude is warranted instead, is a shabby way to treat one’s benefactors, even when they ask for something in return. The hand that feeds Israel is getting pretty badly chewed on, here.

    These are not large leaps, much less “straw men”.

    As for a policy of stability, I woul not say our current policies are leading to stability.

    The Israeli Left has a point; without the friendship of the government and people of a significant bloc of neighboring countries, Israel will have no long-term peace or stability. Periods of watchful peace, no matter how many apartment buildings they allow Jewish settlers to construct, do as much harm as good to that long-term goal. Those advantages only grow arithmetically, while the threats to Israel (radicalized Arab population) grows geometrically. Giving up one to reduce the other would, in fact, be a good deal.

    Do I have the long-term answer to these problems? I’m giving it some thought. Clearly, a status quo where a besieged Israel in an unstable region is unsustainable; Israel is just one war away from destruction. Using US force to build friends for Israel (as we tried in Iraq) does not work as well as the NeoCons hoped. Neither do people-power rebellions in Islamic countries, seemingly. (Though influencing new governments is certanly worth a try.)

    One new idea, with an aim to establish neighborly relations with at least one neighboring country, is a Charm Offensive on Israel’s part.

    You might try starting with giving a well-deserved “thank you” to the US, just for practice.

  • Y.

    Your reply makes it more clear how you arrived to your conclusions, yet these don’t follow from what I wrote – it seems like a case of dramatic overreading.

    – The goal would have been to disrupt Egyptian and Syrian preparations and air defences, not attack their territory or ‘win the war with airpower’. Yes, the IAF would have borne a fair amount of the _initial_ burden, but this doesn’t imply the entire war would have relied on airpower. Would it have been better? It’s hard to know (though I tend to ‘yes’). The point was that American aid in 73′ definitely did not ‘save Israel’s existence’ and that Israel had to sacrifice its plans for it.

    – Winning a war requires hegemony? So, for example, Israel in 48′ had hegemonic power? Nonsense. It is perfectly possible to win a war vs Arabs without being (for example), able to or wanting to deal with Kurdish separatists, or multiple revolts in Egypt/Libya etc. (taken from your earlier list).

    – The Israeli Left’s plans are IMHO hopelessly flawed. But as someone who actually lives there, I must in fairness note that their plans are _not_ reliant on getting the Arabs to like Israel. No one sane here expects that to happen anytime distant, so this seems like another case of overreading.

    ‘Charm offensive’??? How well did the American charm offensives do all these years? Oh, right, they got nowhere at all, even when they try to distance from Israel or from before relations with Israel got so close. And you didn’t have this entire ‘long-term conflict with Arabs’ or ‘centuries old antisemitism’ etc. to deal with. The Arabs aren’t really getting to like people these days, not with religious radicalism rampant or economic stagnation.

    P.S. There’s little which encourages Arab rejectionism more than the (IMHO, mistaken) idea that their victory is inevitable so long as they remain ‘steadfast’. It is a pity how often Leftists fall into that trap.

  • Jim.

    – It’s easy enough (well, maybe not impossible anyway) in an armchair with 20/20 hindsight to write up a preemptive strike plan that didn’t depend on the IAF, but that’s not the information they had at the time. Without US help, it would have been a complete existential catastrophe for Israel.

    A “thank you” would be nice.

    – Winning a war against a combination of at least a dozen nations in your region would count as hegemonic power, but not enough to prevent US troops from being involved in the region to pursue the interests I outlined above. So your offer to be hegemon of the Middle East, or at least your corner of it, does not really suit our needs at this time.

    I guess that your definition of the ME seems to start at the Med and end at the Jordan, but realistically, everything from Libya to Pakistan, and Turkey to Yemen, counts.

    Fulfilling US strategic goals in this region requires US troops. Israel has a hard enough time conducting post-modern warfare (in which we see both sides of the conflict, and as a consequence no one is to die) against just Lebanon, arguably the nearest and easiest of their strategic concerns.

    (You shouldn’t feel too bad about not having mastered postmodern warfare, by the way; the US is having trouble with it too. But we at least have the conventional muscle to win if the warfare goes a bit atavistic.)

    – Israel’s long-term existence depends on its normalizing, then gaining neighborly relations with enough local allies that it can work in a “Concert of the ME” sort of system. Anything else leaves it one catastrophe away from destruction. Do you honestly think that Israel will always be so dominant among the dozen, two dozen countries surrounding it? Seriously? The case of Iran is evidence enough of the risks you’re taking there. The fact that Pakistan’s military / intelligence complex is a deckful of jokers means that as it stands, the chance of Tel Aviv getting a package that says, “From Arabs with love, courtesy of A Q Khan” is far higher than you seems to be considering.

    Israel’s strategic position is abysmal. How in the world do we improve it? (Short of just depending on US help.) Since Israel has attacked each of its neighbors (no love there) let’s try old-fashioned neighbor-of-my-neighbor checkerboard diplomacy. That gives you: Libya. North Sudan. Yemen. The Gulf States. Iraq. Turkey. Are you guys hustling the Gulf States and Turkey as hard as you can? Because there’s nothing else out there for you. Even those are iffy.

    The fact is that you NEED THE US. In return, do we get markets, raw materials, diplomatic advantages, basing rights, or any other tangible reward? No, just the knowledge that we’re preventing another Holocaust. (A “thank you” would be nice.)

    Look, I know the emotional resonance of the strip of land you guys picked for your country. But the fact is, if a blindfolded monkey threw a dozen darts at a map of the world, all twelve would hit places with better strategic defensive potential than the Land of Canaan, even if they landed in the ocean or missed the map entirely.

    The “long-term conflict with Arabs”, “Centuries old anti-Semitism”, and “the Arabs aren’t really getting to like people these days” are not helping your case for your country being long-term viable. When you bring up points like that, it is a valid line of thought to wonder whether it is possible to find a strategy that has any chance of Israel existing 100 years from now.

    I would honestly like to find that strategy. That’s what I’m trying now. I’m convinced it will involve Israel normalizing diplomatic ties with most neighbors and establishing strong local allies. The question is, “How do we get from here to there?” The status quo will not.

    The alternative (military domination) is a) impossible without the help of a non-isolationist superpower US (that description may or may not be appropriate in 100 years, whether you ever thank us or not), and b) subject to revision-by-force at any time.

    If we can come up with a third way, by all means let’s try it. You think that the “peace” direction is unworkable, and I think the “war” direction is unworkable. I think that chances are higher that we’re both right, than that I’m wrong.

  • Y.

    – Actually, the original IAF plans were for a preemptive strike… It is impossible to know whether that would work, but there’s little basis to preemptively declare it a catastrophe. And again, US aid chronologically arrived only after Israel beat back the initial attack.

    – Look at the list of tasks you have set up earlier. These require far more than the ability to beat up on others. The US could beat Russia and China combined (and earlier, the USSR and China) if push came to shove but you do not (and did not) exercise ‘hegemonic power’ over them. I was saying was that Israel could defend itself, and that in order to have stability we need to keep it this way _even if and after a peace could be had_. (One of my problems with the Left is that their proposed arrangements lead neither to balance of power or stability, but lets not digress). For the record, Israel never asked or wanted US troops to fight for it. That’s the province of other states in the region.

    – Looking at wikipedia, no, Pakistan isn’t a part of the ME. In 2004, some US geniuses in that admin decided to define a ‘Greater Middle East’ to include a series of states from Djibouti to Uzbekistan, but frankly that’s silly. If they want to say ‘Muslim world’ they can just say it.

    – Yes, one can beat up a dozen states so long as they are near-third-world states. Take a look at the news. The nearby states are or will be soon facing multiple crises: Internal governance, economic stagnation, global warming implications (yes, I know readers on this blog like to escape reality on this one), exploding populations (albeit the TFR is decreasing in most states), high oil prices (for consumers. Note this doesn’t help oil producers much since the prices are reflected in the stuff they have to import), possibly moving away from oil (for oil producers and those reliant on their subsidies)… And some there actually think a theocracy could solve their problems.

    Now, there’s a good chance they’ll still want to take a whack at Israel (at the very least, it’s a good distraction for the populace) and Israel should always worry, especially of WMDs, but that would be a threat even if Arab allies had existed.

    I wouldn’t dare to try to look ahead a century (how many people looking ahead from 1912 got it right? “The Great Illusion” was published in 1910…), but I daresay Israel could do fine in the next few decades even if it had to go with the ‘war’ option.

  • J R Yankovic

    Fabulous essay. My sadly belated thanks to Mr Rosenberg for an insightful, readable and thoroughly engaging respite from the usual flamestream media wars on this topic.

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