clock menu more-arrow no yes

What Israeli leaders think America gets wrong about the world

Pool/Getty Images

American and Israeli leaders, for all their declarations of eternal friendship and an unshakable alliance, have pretty regular moments of disagreement and outright tension.

George H.W. Bush and allies in Congress refused $10 billion in loan guarantees because Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wouldn't accept Bush's conditions limiting spending on West Bank settlements. In 1996, Bill Clinton all but openly campaigned against Benjamin Netanyahu in the Israeli election (Netanyahu won). George W. Bush rescinded $289.5 million worth of loan guarantees to punish settlement expansion. And the poisonous relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama, first over Israeli settlements in the West Bank and now over Iran, is impossible to hide.

There's more at work here than just differing US and Israeli opinions over what strategy will best address problems like the Iranian nuclear program or the Israel-Palestine conflict. As Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution writes in an insightful essay in Foreign Affairs, on some level the disagreement is over whether they should even try to fix these problems at all.

Israeli leaders have consciously chosen, in other words, a strategy of no strategy. That's part of why Israel opposes any achievable nuclear deal and why Netanyahu declared this week he supports an Israel-Palestine peace deal in theory but in practice opposes it for "the foreseeable future." This anti-strategy strategy, Sachs writes, is "neither illogic nor confusion but rather a belief that there are currently no solutions to the challenges the country faces and that seeking quick fixes to intractable problems is dangerously naive."

And that gets to what Israeli leaders often think America gets wrong —that big problems can be fixed at all, and that it's worth the risks to try:

Applied to the Palestinian case, this worldview is best articulated not by Netanyahu but by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. In his 2008 book, Derekh aruka ktzara (A Longer Shorter Way), Yaalon decried what he termed "solutionism" and "nowism"—the idea that "Israeli society wants a solution, and it wants it now!" Such impatience, he argued, cannot accommodate chronic problems or open-ended conflicts; rather, it demands neat solutions, no matter the cost. For Yaalon and others in Israel, solutionism is perhaps best embodied by the can-do pragmatism of the American foreign policy ideal, which they believe assumes that any problem can be solved through sufficient will and enterprise.

In Washington, US-Israel disagreements often get boiled down to rhetoric and posturing. Obama isn't "tough enough," or Netanyahu is too "hawkish." But these explanations never really explain why Netanyahu would declare Iran's nuclear program Israel's greatest threat but then oppose any workable deal to curb it. Nor does it explain why American leaders from Bush Sr. to Bush Jr. to Obama with very different foreign policies keep hitting the same disagreements with Israel.

On some level, there's a disagreement that's just more fundamental: America sees itself as the indispensable nation, the guarantor of the international system, a country with both the ability and the responsibility to tackle the world's biggest problems. It's a worldview that is, at its core, deeply optimistic.

Anyone who has visited Israeli officialdom can tell you that America's optimism is not really shared there, in either specific foreign policy terms or general temperament. Hence a belief, as strange as it may sound to American ears, that problems should not solved and attempts should not be made, even if this means committing to a status quo that is long-term unsustainable.

Ironically, the American "solutionism" that Israel so opposes is most strongly held by Israel's most fervent allies on the American right, particularly the neoconservative right. If you listen to establishment Republican presidential candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, you'll hear exactly the optimism and belief in America's world-shaping potential of which Israeli leaders are so skeptical.

Sachs makes a point to put Israel's "strategic pessimism" into context, rooted in a learned belief that many problems are inherently intractable and that Israel's margin for error is too slight to take the necessary short-term risks to find any long-term solution.

But Sachs is careful not to endorse this approach, and with good reason. Even if Israeli leaders believe they are choosing to defer their problems by managing the status quo with Iran and with the Palestinians, there's no such thing as stasis.

"A cautious strategic approach, finally, makes sense only when the passage of time works in one’s favor," Sachs writes. But when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, "time is decidedly not on the side of either Israel or the Palestinians." As the occupation stretches on, it becomes more costly for both parties, and it becomes harder to solve. Israeli leaders might believe they are choosing a strategy of no strategy, but in fact what they're choosing is a future of ever-entrenching and possibly permanent conflict with enormous long-term costs.

Maybe Israelis are correct that the American worldview is too optimistic; it led us to believe we could turn back communism in Vietnam and bring democracy to Iraq. But it is also worth considering whether Israel's own strategy pessimism could be dangerous as well.