A Way Around Israel

In Plato’s Parable of the Cave he tells a story of prisoners who grew up and spent all their lives inside a cave. The cave was all they ever knew or saw. Due to their conditions they became accustomed to the darkness and the occasional shadows of passersby. One day one of the prisoners was freed and allowed to leave the cave. After the initial shock of sunlight upon leaving the cave, he was amazed at all he saw…instead of shadows, there were real people walking, animals, buildings. Although upon his return to the cave, none of the other prisoners believed what this man had seen since all they knew and all they believed were the shadows.

Plato’s famous parable can be interpreted a number of ways, one of those is that what we don’t see what we choose to ignore (even though Plato’s prisoners weren’t exactly ignoring the outside world) It’s no national secret that the U.S. places high importance on its relationship with Israel. Since 1985, we have been providing over $3 billion annually to support Israeli defense efforts. We are their single largest trading partner and Congress just approved another 3-year extension on Israeli debt, signifying a boost to the Israeli economy and a sure sign that diplomatic ties between the two allies are just as smooth as ever.

Some would argue however that the United States’ cozy relationship with Israel is damaging American presence in the Middle East while creating a misguided U.S. foreign policy in the ever-increasingly important region. Surely there’s more to one of the largest regions in the world than Israel and oil. For example, the EU is the number one trading partner of Iran, making up almost 1/3 or Iranian exports. The 27 European Union nations make up nearly 20% of total Iranian trade, while the United States comprises just 0.1%. In 2010, the U.S. government reinitiated sanctions on Iranian agricultural and other goods.

There is also the little issue of nuclear capability. The United States government along with Israel has been sweating at the thought of a nuclear capable Iran. Even with a Democratic majority, Congress and the administration are taking a hard line on Iran, not so much for post-9/11 sentiment but for the U.S.’s ally in the Middle East. U.S. officials don’t want to see Israel take matters into their own hands, and in doing so are enacting foreign policy not in the U.S.’s best interest, but in Israel’s. We have screamed and hollered, and created an unnecessary enemy out of Iran, but there is opportunity to change. Much like Obama’s Russia reset, the nomination of John Kerry as Secretary of State, and Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, offers the United States a window of opportunity to change course on Iran. Congress won’t allow too much divergence, but a lifting of certain embargos and tariffs could be a start.

Last year, President Obama threw his weight around regarding Palestine independence at a UN General Assembly meeting, saying that “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN.” This speech coming in the midst of the Arab Spring movements, many of which were supported by the Administration, came off as highly hypocritical. The Obama administration’s tiptoeing around Palestine is certainly being coordinated to some extent by Israel, and in the midst of new democracies sprouting up throughout the region, creates a particular challenge for Mr. Obama. When looking around at the UN General Assembly, one can’t help but think that the U.S. has become antiquated and irrational in regards to Palestine and their pursuit of independence.

This term could be different. In fact, the conditions couldn’t be better for Mr. Obama to initiate a reset in the Middle East, one that is not solely guided by U.S.-Israeli relations. The start of a second term with no coming election to win, new Secretary of State, new SecDef, renewed Democratic support in Congress; all these factors can allow the Obama administration, if they let it, to pursue a more pragmatic, U.S. interest-based strategy in the Middle East. The opportunities are there, it is now up to the United States to step out of the shadow of Israel and embrace Middle Eastern relationships.

Written by Timothy Palmer, current student in the IE Master in International Relations (MIR)