Biden must act to stop Israel’s drift away from Washington

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is shown in a June 13, 2021, file photo. Israel rejected the U.S. request to sign onto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Even the closest of allies, culturally and militarily, can diverge temporarily when national security issues are at stake. Surprisingly, at least on the surface, such a division may be unfolding between the United States and Israel over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Given Israel’s own painful history of being invaded by its Arab neighbors immediately upon its founding in 1948, and nearly 700,000 of its original population being displaced European refugees from the Holocaust and Word War II, Jerusalem lamentably has teetered in its pushback and condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” and resulting crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

Lost in the back pages of many of America’s most prominent newspapers was the story that Israel rejected the Biden administration’s request to co-sponsor or sign the U.S.-led United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s Feb. 24 incursion into Ukraine. Eighty-seven other nations, including all of the EU and NATO member-states did. This left Israel as a proud democracy standing awkwardly on the totalitarian side with Russia, China, Cuba and Iran.

Israel had become a casualty of the Biden administration’s foreign policy — a “second- and third-level effect.” Israel’s ongoing 74-year-old conflict with Syria and Russia’s heavy military presence and operations in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in September 2015, is the predominant reason. Syria is a classic Mideast kaleidoscope — full of ever-shifting proxy and militia alliances, U.S. and Israeli military involvement, and Russia and Iran each actively aiding and abetting Assad while simultaneously seeking to cross-check the other so neither Moscow nor Tehran controls Damascus.

Iran has diligently labored to encircle Israel with militant proxies since the overthrow of the last Shah in Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in February 1979. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as Zaynabiyoun Brigade and Fatemiyoun Division in Syria are all Iranian surrogates directly funded and controlled by al-Quds, the paramilitary and espionage wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. When the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, then al-Quds commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani — killed by the Trump administration in January 2020 — ordered Lebanese and Syrian proxies alongside Iranian soldiers to fight the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army attempting to overthrow Assad.

Israel views Iran’s physical and proxy presence in Syria as a national security threat and was deeply alarmed when Soleimani traveled to Moscow in April 2016 to meet Putin in person to reach agreement on Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria. In response, Israel began aggressively attacking Iranian military installations in Syria and arms-smuggling convoys to Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. Israeli prime ministers also have met frequently with Putin to manage Israeli attacks on Iranian interests in Syria, including Benjamin Netanyahu in April 2021 and Naftali Bennett in October 2021.

It’s complicated, revolving friends and enemies — but then again, so is the Middle East.

Another reason for Israel’s apparent divide with the U.S. is not as obvious. Its origin is rooted deep within Israel’s national psyche: survival at all costs, Israel first. Israel’s modus operandi is its deeply held belief that it is a country with no margin for any existential error. The Holocaust is at the foundation of this national fear, the 1948 War of Independence, and the nearly disastrous 1973 Yom Kippur War underpin it. Israel fervently believes it must be utterly ruthless in defense of its national existence.

Unsettled by progressive Democrats’ calls for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions and declarations that Israel is an apartheid state, Israel reluctantly may be hedging on the Ukraine war lest Israel’s future existence compels Jerusalem to explore even closer military and economic ties with Moscow and Beijing. Putin understands Israel’s existential fears, which is why he sought to exploit them in February after invading Ukraine when he reassured Bennett that Moscow would continue to cooperate with Israel in Syria.

To ameliorate the exigency of Israel’s drift away from Washington, Biden must ensure that his administration is substantially more in tune with Israel’s national security fears and “survival-at-all-costs” DNA. It is imperative, therefore, that the U.S. fully partner with Israel in resolving all of its existential concerns. If not, Israel — the Middle East’s only true democracy — increasingly will be under pressure to seek accommodation from Moscow and Beijing.  

If these second- and third-level U.S. policy effects push Israel in that direction, its democracy as a shining light in the Middle East will be greatly diminished.

Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including Tel Aviv.

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. 

Tags Biden China Israel Defense Forces Israel-US relations Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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