Yes, Israel is in some ways a strategic ally of the United States, and yes, its scientists create all sorts of products valued in America; but it is impossible to argue that America needs Israel more than Israel needs America. So when an American president who is obviously pro-Israel (no U.S. president has worked more assiduously to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” than has Obama) believes it important to make progress on the creation of a Palestinian state, it is best for Israel to take him seriously. This the Netanyahu government has not yet done. In fact, some of its more truculent officials have disseminated the idea that Obama is trying to do something to Israel, when in fact he is trying to do something for Israel, namely, create a Palestinian state that would ensure the demographic viability of Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy.
It is true that Israel’s many friends on Capitol Hill, and many leading figures in the Democratic Party, would work tirelessly to protect Israel’s relationship with America in case of a collision between the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister, but it is also true that Israel may one day soon find itself with fewer friends in America — in particular on the coasts and among the elites — than it previously had. Already, the Netanyahu government seems to have acquiesced to a Republican scheme to turn support for Israel in America into a partisan issue, which has obvious dangers for Israel. Particularly among liberals, Israel’s reputation is waning dramatically, and the Arab Spring will only accelerate this trend. The Arab revolts have inspired many Americans who will soon look at the West Bank and see unfree Arabs. Then they will look at who is suppressing these Arabs and see Israel; and then they will become confused by this because they have heard many times that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. And then they will ask, why is this so? (And, by the way, the people who will be doing this asking will be disproportionately Jewish.)
The West Bank has been occupied now for 44 years. It is increasingly difficult to argue that the occupation is impermanent. I believe Americans still have a benevolent understanding of Israel — that it is a plucky democratic outpost and a haven for an oppressed people in an inhospitable part of the world. This perception, to my mind, is not wrong. But this interpretation of Israel dissipates with each year of occupation. Israel is popular in America in part because Americans believe, to borrow the most famous clichÃ© in Middle East policymaking, that the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. But more and more — and I hear this every week now — Americans, in particular those who pay attention to these things, believe that it is Israel that is missing opportunities to reach a compromise with the Palestinians. If, over time, Israel becomes unrecognizable to Americans, it will lose.
This is not an argument for a panicked withdrawal from the West Bank, nor an argument that a final peace is possible at the moment. It will be dangerous for Israel to leave large swaths of the West Bank, but it will be existentially dangerous to maintain control over large populations of Palestinians. One of the most obvious reasons is that Americans will, more and more, come to see the occupation the way Israel’s enemies frame it: as an exercise in apartheid. And it will lose the support of the only country that matters to its existence, and one of the few member states of the United Nations predisposed to the Zionist idea.
Perhaps no group will find this situation more unpalatable than American Jews, who have been so historically, morally, and emotionally invested both in the struggle against apartheid-era South Africa and in the American civil rights movement. That latter cause demanded for African-Americans what some of the more clever Palestinian strategists I know are demanding for the Arabs of the West Bank: a vote in Israel. If the Middle East conflict becomes reframed not as a demand for an independent Palestinian state, but as a demand by West Bank Palestinians for the power to choose the leaders of the government that has de facto ruled them for more than four decades, then the idea of Jewish national sovereignty in the historic Jewish homeland is finished. An Israel that formally denies the Palestinians independence, and also denies them the right to vote in Israel, is an Israel that will eventually become a pariah in the United States.
It is true that America and Israel are close allies. It is also true that America does not need Israel to get by in the world. But Israel, more than ever, needs America. Israeli leaders believe it would be impossible for Israel to lose the affection of America. They are wrong.