The United States is the most powerful nation in the world. It may be the most powerful in the history of the world, but analyses of power relative to others at their times might find ancient Greece and Rome, and not so ancient Nazi Germany in comparable or stronger positions. Germany's power did not last long, but it was awesome while it was all over Europe, close to Moscow and Cairo.
Those who doubt that the United States can act unilaterally, or nearly so, should take a look at what it has done to Iraq, and what its unguided missiles have done to civilians in Afghanistan. Americans responsible for those actions are not concerned to travel outside their country, or being seized by border officials acting under the decisions of judges from Spain, the United Kingdom, or the Hague.
As in the past, however, power does not assure wisdom.
Recent noises coming from ranking American officials, up to and including the Vice President, White House aides, and senior generals have sounded like ultimatums directed against Israel. They make it appear as if the Americans are thinking about how to shift the markers on an international game board. If Israel goes to point X, then Iran and Syria will go to point Y, and all will be well.
Lesson number 1 in the political science of the Middle East: Tiny Israel is powerful in its context. It cannot rule the region. It must always be concerned about reaching beyond its capacity. But without its cooperation, the United States may find itself impotent.
Israeli generals, ex-generals, cabinet ministers and ex-cabinet ministers cannot travel freely without concern about activist judges who accept the claims of anti-Israeli petitioners. Should anyone doubt the power of Israeli policymakers, however, southern Lebanon, neighborhoods of Beirut, and much of Gaza show what they can do when pressed.
Those trying to understand Israel should also take account of the one million Russians who have come since 1988. Terminology is confusing. Many are not Russians, but Russian speakers from Central Asia. They may have not been considered Russian at home, but here they are Russian. (I am defined as an Anglo-Saxon here, but not where I came from.)
One of the Russian speakers is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, originally from Moldavia. Among his epigrams is that it is necessary to speak with Arabs in Russian. That is a metaphor for something other than an olive branch. He has joined Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in reducing the prominence of a Palestinian state on Israel's agenda. Both Netanyahu and Lieberman are shrewd enough to blur their message when talking to powerful others still adhering to the mantra of a Palestinian state. It is not clear what are their true intentions. Most likely they are flexible, and will respond to the behavior of Palestinians, Europeans, and Americans.
Lieberman and Netanyahu are targets of ridicule by Israelis who consider themselves, and are viewed by others, as decent and moderate. Many of those Israelis voted for Meretz or Labor in the recent election. Before taking them as the real Israelis with whom the United States and Europe should deal, one may note that Meretz has three seats and Labor 13 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. Four or five MKs on the left wing of Labor may pull out of the party due to its leader joining the Netahyahu government.
Israelis who ridicule Netanyahu and Lieberman lament that they are ranking policymakers, and are likely to be so for some years.
Others should notice the same thing when deciding where to put those markers on their game board, and what rhetoric to direct toward Israel.
No one should read this note as a threat. It is not wise, and usually not the Israeli style to threaten. We hear daily about what mad Iranians and Arabs will do to us. Israeli officials are explicitly silent about their most powerful weapons.
Some of my American friends may be inclined to dismiss the statements of Washington's officials that appear to me as threatening and simplistic. They may be harmful because they are simplistic. Will the Obama administration repeat the follies of the Bush administration, and impose its might on more of the world out of ignorance?
Some may say that the Vice President and others are trying to push Israel toward flexibility.
Israelis think of themselves as flexible. Many view the previous prime minister as pushed to excessive flexibility by well meaning, but misguided Americans and Europeans. That is part of the reason they voted for Netanyahu or Lieberman.
I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science