Israel is one of the only places in the world where Georges W. Bush can be greeted with real enthusiasm and even affection. The most unpopular American president in recent history thus relished his recent triumphal welcome in Jerusalem, where he was the guest of honor of the International Conference planned and devised by Israeli President Shimon Peres on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Jewish state.
Historical revisionism was near the top of the agenda, with the United States portrayed as Israel’s most faithful supporter and ally since 1948. But in fact, George C. Marshall, the US secretary of state in 1948, sought to prevent President Harry Truman from recognizing Israel. Likewise, the Suez crisis of 1956, when the US thwarted a joint French, British, and Israeli plan to seize the Suez Canal, was presented in a politically correct light, as were Henry Kissinger’s complex diplomacy during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
The hugging and kissing between Bush, Peres, and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert were undeniably moving, but they were also troubling – and not only because serious references to the Palestinians were, for the most part, not on the agenda. One had the feeling that this was something akin to dancing on the Titanic – the culmination of a privileged partnership at its tipping point, a grand gala for something that was about to disappear.
This is not only a matter of leaders – Bush and Olmert – on their way out.
Beyond the celebration of eight exceptional years of “unique friendship under Bush, it also seemed clear that the 41-year-old special relationship inaugurated by the Six Day War in 1967, when the US became Israel’s main backer, might be coming to an end.
The next US president, whether he is Barack Obama or John McCain, will certainly maintain the close bilateral alliance. But it will not be the same: even if America remains an indispensable nation, it will no longer be the only one.
While Bush was in Jerusalem, so was India’s Lakmar Mittal, the king of the world’s steel industry. If Bush was the departing present, Mittal represents the incipient future, in which America will have to share influence with emerging powers such as China, India, Russia, Brazil, and eventually, if its members get their act together, the European Union.
In fact, Israelis are already debating the meaning of the emerging post-American “multi-polar world for their country’s security. Will it really be such a bad thing, or might it hold some redeeming value?
The close bond between Israel and Bush’s America can in retrospect be seen as a mixed blessing – a special relationship that contributed to the declining attractiveness of both countries. Israel, rightly, may not be ready to exchange US support for that of any other power, but Israeli leaders, having kept all their eggs in one basket for so long, will now have to factor not only American concerns and interests into their decision-making, but those of the other powers as well.
Thus, the problem for Israel is not to replace the backing provided by “300 million Americans, as Bush put it in Jerusalem, but to add to it the sympathetic interest of more than three billion Chinese, Indians, Russians and others in Israel’s future in a pacified Middle East. The question is not so much one of substituting alliances, but of creating a complementary system of security.
In their effort to achieve international respect and legitimacy as responsible stakeholders in today’s evolving international system, countries such as China, India, and even Russia have a greater interest in stability than in global confusion. For them, a nuclear Iran led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is seen more as a threat than as a card they can play, even if their actions thus far in regard to Iran do not always match their long-term strategic interests.
In fact, when it comes to deterring Iran from developing nuclear weapons – or, for that matter, exerting pressure on Israel and the Palestinians (including Hamas) to reach a compromise – a group of powers such as the US, China, India, and Russia might produce better results than a sole superpower imprisoned by its own contradictions and limitations.
Israel’s nimble society and economy seem perfectly designed for the post-American era of political and economic globalization. Equally important, Israel will be forced to confront the reality of Palestinian despair, which the unique relationship with America has allowed it to obfuscate and evade for too long.
Dominique Moisi, a founder and Senior Advisor at Ifri (French Institute for International Relations), is currently a Professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).