Monday, May 31, 2010

Being a Good Friend to Israel

Israel has always needed its friends. And now that Israeli forces have killed nine civilians on the high seas, and Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defense Minister, has followed up by blaming the aid flotilla to Gaza for "political provocation", Israel is going to need its allies' friendship more than ever. Over the next few days, there is going to be a loud outcry from some quarters inside the United States that the US is not backing Israel enough, that they are letting Israel down. Those voices are wrong. The United States has already let Israel down, and so have the people who will complain that Israel is not getting enough support. If we had been better friends to Israel, this terrible and wicked thing would not have happened in the first place.

The best friends are the ones who want the best for you, not the ones that want to make the biggest show of friendship. And when you're in need, the best friends are the ones who give the best help and the soundest advice, not necessarily the ones who are focused on displaying their loyalty. That advice includes talking sense to you when you need it, and the friend who won't or can't do that is a sorry friend to have.

If you've had too much to drive, the best friend you have is the one who takes your car keys away. The worst is the one who loudly declares that if you say you can drive, you can drive, and tells you not to listen to the haters. The guy who unconditionally supports your decision to drive while plastered really is sincere, and he wants you to know how much he likes you. It's just that you may never see him again. The guy who tells you you're drunk and lets you curse him in a rage, but ends up driving you home, is the guy.

For a long, long time now, American political discussion of Israel has been dominated by the better-friend-than-thou camp, the people concerned with demonstrating their superior loyalty to Israel. And those people have shouted down anyone who doesn't back every Israeli action, no matter how foolish or self-destructive, as not true friends of Israel: indeed, tried to brand anyone who talks sense to Israel as its enemy, an anti-Semite or "self-hating Jew." These people have been more concerned in displaying the intensity of friendship than in living up to the full obligations of friendship. Think that killing civilians is counter-productive? Then, according to the self-proclaimed friends of Israel, you're an anti-Semite, and you should shut up. If you were a real friend, you would support any military action by Israel, no matter how bad a strategy it is in the long run. Are you saying Bibi Netanyahu can't hold his liquor?

Self-declared friendship for Israel has won out over candid friendship in American politics, to the extent that American administrations have felt either unwilling or politically unable to restrain Israel's strategic mistakes. No one in high office is allowed to take Israel's keys, and anyone who suggests that they shouldn't drive faces enormous pressure to show their "support" for Israel (by slapping them on the back and even buying them one for the road). Even as the Israeli government has grown more short-sighted and reckless, we've become more passive and enabling, more reluctant to preserve Israel from self-destruction. At this point, they don't believe we will ever have the guts to take their keys, which makes them more reckless still.

If we had been better friends to Israel, they would never have gone so far down a road that risks so much and leads to so little. If we had been better friends to Israel, we would have tried to talk sense to them long before this. If we had been better friends to Israel, they would never have felt that they could forcibly board ships flying NATO flags in international waters. But we haven't been. We've only pretended to friendship, and let them go to hell. This week pundits will complain that we've stopped being real friends to Israel, but the truth is that we haven't even begun.

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