A Closer Look at an Unbreakable Alliance

Israeli Policy Experts Discuss the Future of the American-Israeli Partnership at YU Panel

On March 7, a panel discussion on Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus brought Israeli policy experts together to share their insights on one of modern politics’ most important and complicated international relationships: the strategic partnership between the United States and Israel.

Hosted by YU’s Schneier Program for International Affairs and Joseph Dunner Political Science Society, in conjunction with The Truth About Israel, the panel, titled, “The U.S.-Israeli Partnership: What Is It? Where Is It Going?” addressed the countries’ seemingly fraught relationship during the tenures of President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as developing trends such as the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement against the State of Israel that have been festering across American college campuses.

Speakers included Ambassador Danny Ayalon, former Israeli deputy foreign minister and ambassador to the United States and Rennert Family Visiting Professor of Foreign Policy Studies at YU; Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer ’71YC, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Princeton University; and Colonel Eran Lerman, former deputy national security advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu and professor of security and diplomacy studies at Tel Aviv University. The panel was moderated by Dr. Bernard Firestone ’70YC, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of political science at Hofstra University.

Left to right, Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer; Colonel Eran Lerman; Ambassador Danny Ayalon; and Dr. Bernard Firestone.
Left to right, Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer; Colonel Eran Lerman; Ambassador Danny Ayalon; and Dr. Bernard Firestone.

Kurtzer described the personal tensions between Obama and Netanyahu as toxic.“The language that’s been used has not been healthy, and that language will also translate into opinion,” he said. “We need to hold our own leaders accountable, not only for their policies, but also for the ways in which they express themselves.” However, Kurtzer predicted that the tension will pass, particularly as American and Israeli leadership changes hands.

Both Kurtzer and Ayalon emphasized that despite the tensions in the U.S.-Israel relationship in recent years, defense cooperation has remained “excellent.” Ayalon believes that Israel will continue to enjoy America’s strategic support, because out of all America’s allies, “Israel is the only one that’s capable of defending itself by itself” without asking for American soldiers. Unlike allies such as South Korea, Japan, or Italy, Israel only asks for equipment and technology “which always comes back to the United States in an upgraded way to be used by the United States and its allies,” he said.

According to Firestone, this “strategic partnership” goes back decades; Israel used to be considered a bulwark against Soviet influence in the Middle East, and is now seen as the most stable country in the region, opposed to nuclear proliferation and Islamism. Ayalon added that countries’ mutual interests extend beyond issues of intelligence, counter-terrorism, and regional stability. “It is in American interests to promote democracies [like Israel], because democratic regimes don’t start wars with other democratic regimes,” Ayalon said.

The panelists disagreed about the appropriateness of Netanyahu’s recent speech to U.S. Congress, in which he bypassed the President and voiced his opposition to the Iran Deal.

Lerman praised Netanyahu’s decision, despite his original doubts. “You sometimes have to pay a very high price to be heard,” he said, explaining how Netanyahu’s bold move insured far wider coverage of his speech than if he had spoken in front of a large, cheering pro-Israel crowd. Kurtzer disagreed with this positive assessment, arguing that “[Netanyahu] went about it in a way that was not healthy for the bilateral relationship” and that “it will take time for that wound to heal.”

Ayalon conceded that with a different relationship at the top “we could have had a much better understanding and perhaps better result on Iran.” However, he focused on the future, explaining that the new test of the relationship will be how the two countries move forward, including how they will work “to upgrade Israel’s defense abilities.”

Lerman suggested that three driving forces make the U.S.-Israel relationship especially durable: an affinity of values, resulting from the fact that both countries are democracies that were born in battle; common interests (which often means common enemies); and a profound connection between the two countries’ peoples, particularly the Jewish community. The U.S.-Israel relationship “has come to rest, in a very powerful way, on all three,” said Lerman. “But none of the three is immune to erosion, to failure, to difficulties, and we need constantly to be looking to the future.”

Later, Lerman stressed that American Jews must not forget that “Israeli power is not a muscle-bound exercise in willfulness; it is an absolute necessity,” and that the existence of the State of Israel has positively contributed to Jews’ ability to live and thrive in America. Ayalon too noted the “vulnerability of Israel in terms of geography and territory” and the Israelis’ awareness that “we do not have any margin of error.”

Corrine Malachi (SCW ’16), a political science major and Israel Club leader, studied with Ambassador Ayalon and attended the panel. “I hope all the students who attended walked away with a deeper understanding of what it means to be Jewish in America and still support Israel from abroad and how crucial it really is, especially in the midst of all of the anti-Israel resolutions on other campuses and in the larger world,” she said.