In the year 701 BC, the Assyrian king Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem. The Bible records the words which the Assyrian general, Rabshakeh, addressed to Hezekiah, king of Judah: "Now, behold, thou trusteth upon the staff of this bruised reed, even upon Egypt, on which if a man lean, it will go into his hand and pierce it: so is Pharaoh, king of Egypt, unto all that trust on him."
The writers of the Bible were so impressed by this phrase that they quoted it twice (2 Kings, 18, 21 and Isaiah 36,6).
One has to understand the historical context: Egypt was then a great power. For hundreds of years, it had dominated all its neighbors, including the area of present-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The Assyrians, on the other side, were an upstart force. After conquering the Kingdom of Israel in Samaria, the more important of the two Hebrew kingdoms, they tried to occupy the tiny kingdom of Judah, which relied for its defense on mighty Egypt.
Judah held out. For unknown reasons, the Assyrians lifted their siege and retreated from Jerusalem. The kingdom of Judah remained intact for another hundred years – until the Babylonians, who took the place of the Assyrians, conquered it, too. Egypt could not save it. By that time, it had indeed become a bruised reed.
The USA is the modern heir of ancient Egypt. It is colossal, rich and strong, a cultural, economic and military power. Pharaoh, king of America, dominates the world as Pharaoh, king of Egypt, once dominated the Semitic region. And like any dominating empire, it is interested in the existing world order and defends the status quo against all rising forces in the world.
Israel, therefore, considers its special relationship with the United States as the foremost guarantee of its national security. No occupied territories nor weapon systems can be a substitute for the umbilical cord that connects Jerusalem with Washington – a connection that has no parallel in the present world, and perhaps even in history.
Many have tried – and are still trying – to explain this special relationship, but nobody has yet succeeded in measuring its full extent.
This relationship has an ideological dimension: the two states were created by immigrants from afar who took over a country and dispossessed the indigenous population. Both believed that they were chosen by God, who had given them the Promised Land. Both began with a beachhead from which they set off on a historic march that seemed irresistible – the Americans "from sea to shining sea", the Israelis from the coastal plain to the Jordan.
This relationship has a strategic dimension: Israel serves the essential American need for the domination of Middle East oil, America serves the Israeli government’s endeavor to dominate the country up to the Jordan and overcome the resistance of the local population.
This relationship has a political dimension: the US has immense influence in Jerusalem, and Israel has immense influence in Washington. This influence is based on the millions of Jews who emigrated to America a hundred years ago, They now constitute a powerful community, admirably organized, with a political-economic impact on all centers of social power. The combined might of the Jewish-Zionist lobby and the Christian-Evangelical one, which also supports the Israeli Right, is immeasurable.
(There is a story about an Israeli politician, who proposed joining the USA as the 51st state. "Are you mad?" his colleagues retorted, "if we were another state, we would have two senators and a few congressmen. Now we have at least 80 senators and hundreds of congressmen!")
Dozens of small countries throughout the world see the way to Washington as passing through Jerusalem. When they want to curry favor with the US, they first establish close relations with Israel, as if it were a door-keeper who cannot be passed without a bribe.
This influence is not unlimited, as some believe. The Jonathan Pollard affair has shown that all the assembled might of the pro-Israel lobby is not enough to secure a pardon for one minor Israeli spy. And Israel has just failed to prevent the sale of massive quantities of arms to Saudi Arabia (though of course it is getting even more aid for free.)
Neither is the influence a one-way street. When the US gives Israel a direct order, Jerusalem obeys. For example: when Jerusalem decided to sell China an expensive intelligence airplane, the pride of the Israeli industry, Washington compelled Israel to cancel the deal, causing grievous damage to Israel-China relations.
But in Washington and Jerusalem there is a deeply entrenched belief that the interests of the two countries are so closely connected that they cannot be told apart. What is good for one is good for the other. These Siamese twins cannot be separated.
Nevertheless, it is worthwhile, from time to time, to come back to the words of the Assyrian general 2708 years ago. Great powers arise and fall, nothing stands still.
The 20th century has been called the "American Century". At its beginning, the USA was just another country on the margin of the world system. At its end, after two World Wars which were decided by the rising power of the American giant, it had become the sole world power, the final arbiter of everything. So much so, that a learned professor fantasized about "the End of History" under American tutelage.
The 21th century will not be another "American Century". One can foresee a slow but steady decline in the status of the USA. Europe is uniting, slowly but surely, and its economic power is growing steadily. Russia is gradually becoming a great power again, helped by its enormous oil and gas reserves. And, most importantly: the two population giants, China and India, are rapidly climbing the economic ladder.
Probably, nothing dramatic will happen. The United States will not collapse suddenly, like the Soviet Union, a giant with feet of clay. It will not go down in military defeat, like Nazi Germany, whose megalomaniac military ambitions were based on a quite inadequate economic base. But the relative power of the US is in an inevitable process of gradual descent.
The events in Iraq are a small example. America did not enter this adventure only to protect Israel, as the two professors, Walt and Mearsheimer, assert in their new book. Nor because it wanted to rid poor Iraq of a blood-thirsty tyrant. As we wrote here at the time, it invaded Iraq in order to take hold of the essential oil reserves of the Middle East and station a permanent American garrison in their center. Now it is sinking, as expected, in a quagmire. But a country like the US, which was able to absorb a shameful debacle in Vietnam, will also absorb the coming fiasco in Iraq. The military might of the US, unequalled in the world, is based on its unprecedented economic power.
But many small defeats add up to a big one. The war has hurt American prestige, self-confidence and moral standing (Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib). There was a time when the US inspired admiration throughout the world. Nowadays, opinion polls show that in almost all the important countries the majority hates the US. The colossal American national debt also does not bode well.
Is it really good to be tied to the fate of the US for life and death? Apart from moral considerations, is it wise to put all our eggs – all of them – in one basket?
A cynic might say: why not? America still dominates the world. It will continue to do so for quite a while. If and when it loses control, we shall say goodbye and look for new allies. That is what we did with the British. After World War I we helped them to get the Mandate over Palestine, and in return they helped us to establish the Hebrew community here. In the end, they went away and we stayed. After that, we helped France, and in return they gave us the nuclear reactor in Dimona. In the end they went away, and the reactor remained.
This is called "Realpolitik", the politics of reality. We shall get from the Americans what we can and then, in a generation or two, we shall see. Perhaps the US will lose many of its assets. Perhaps it will stop supporting Israel when a new reality brings about a change in its interests.
I do not believe that our present policy is wise. Our so-called "realistic" policy sees the reality of today, but not the reality of tomorrow. And after all, we did not found a state for some limited time, but for generations to come. We must think about the reality of tomorrow.
Undoubtedly, the world of tomorrow is not going to be uni-polar, all-American, but multi-polar, a world where influence is divided between many centers, such as Washington and Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi, Brussels and Rio de Janeiro.
It would be wise to start preparing today for this world of tomorrow.
In what way?
I once likened our situation to that of a gambler at a roulette table, who has an incredible streak of luck. In front of him, the pile of chips grows and grows. He could stop at the right moment, change the chips into millions of dollars and live happily ever after. But he cannot. The betting fever will not let go. So he continues even when his fortunes change, with predictable results.
At this moment, we are at the height of our power. Our connection with the US, which is still all-powerful, gives us a standing much beyond our natural capabilities.
This is the time to change the chips for money, exchange our temporary gains for permanent assets. To give up the occupied territories and make peace, establish good relations with our neighbors, strike deep roots in the region, so that we will be able to hold on when the will and ability of America to protect us at all costs has evaporated.
That is even more true if we take into consideration the rise of Islamic radicalism, which is a natural reaction to the actions of the American-Israeli axis. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main cause for this earthquake, which may one day unleash a tsunami. Both we and the Americans would be well advised to start work soon on removing the causes of this natural phenomenon.
America is far from being a bruised reed – now. Those who want to, can still lean on this staff for some time to come. But it would be wise for us to make good use of this time to ensure our existence in peace in the coming world.