OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

We cracked the code to relations with the US

Israel is enjoying unprecedented close ties with the U.S., which is never something to take for granted. At the same time, we must never ignore the potential threats to those ties.

U.S. President Donald Trump with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at United Nations headquarters in New York City on Sept. 26, 2018. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.
U.S. President Donald Trump with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at United Nations headquarters in New York City on Sept. 26, 2018. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.
MK Nachman Shai (Credit: knesset.gov.il)
Nachman Shai

The week exemplifies the new era—some might call it a golden age—of Israel-U.S. relations.

The spike in tensions in the Persian Gulf has made a clash between the United States and Iran more likely. U.S. President Donald Trump stopped the planes 10 minutes before a U.S. strike was scheduled to take place last week—but Jerusalem already knew about it. They knew, and they kept it quiet.

The prime minister rushed to announce that Israel should prepare itself for an attack by Hezbollah or Hamas, long arms of Iran reaching toward us from the north and south.

Information about military actions is generally not shared, even among friendly nations, but the United States did notify Israel, because that is the current protocol—we tell each other things. When it comes to the Persian Gulf and Iran, Israel and the United States have begun coordinating particularly closely. According to foreign reports, the United States has been receiving intelligence from Israel since the crisis began, including about the string of attacks on oil tankers in and around the Strait of Hormuz.

If we compare Israel-U.S. ties to a safe, it appears as if we have the three golden digits needed to open it: mutual interests, shared values, and personal ties. When these three are dialed in, the United States and Israel launched a new stage in their diplomatic history. Their interests have overlapped for some time, and rest on the democratic government and democratic values that exist in both countries. Only a few countries are true democracies, and Israel—despite its domestic concerns and battles on this issue—is still one of them.

The mutual interests do change from time to time, and with each U.S. president. Barack Obama and George W. Bush, a Democrat and a Republican, respectively, never saw Israel as a partner in any regional or international actions, and there were disputes that affected bilateral relations. Under other presidents, Israel was considered an ally. It’s not automatic, and every president has his own foreign policy.

Finally, personal ties are a key element. The trust between the leaders of the two countries, the ability to talk at any given time, and the knowledge that even if one of them errs, the other will support him, is a vital asset. This is something that depends on the two figures’ personalities. This time, it works.

But—and there will always be a but—there are underlying threats that could upset this ideal situation. First of all, what will we do about the Democratic Party’s attitude toward Israel?

The Democrats are already gearing up to be the majority in the House of Representatives. A Pew survey two weeks ago revealed the drop in Democratic support for Israel: two-thirds of respondents expressed negative opinions about Israel. The Democrats could also retake the White House, and what will happen then? The same survey confirmed what we already know—that the younger the respondents are, the less supportive they are of Israel, both among Democrats and Republicans. This is bad news indeed.

And then there is the Jewish community. The closeness between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump, and therefore to the strong and influential U.S. evangelical community, is affecting how the Jewish community sees Israel, its government, and its prime minister. Issues such as egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and non-Orthodox conversion—which led U.S. Jewry to feel marginalized and rejected—also come into play here.

The American Jewish community was and still is Israel’s main source of strength in the United States. Its support, then and now, is crucial and of strategic worth. Israel has to foster relations with the community and listen to what it is saying.

Israel can be thankful for the moments of grace it is enjoying, but must never ignore the gathering storm clouds.

Former MK Dr. Nachman Shai served as head of Knesset lobbies for Israel-U.S. relations and to bolster ties with Diaspora Jewry.

This column first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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