The U.S.-Israeli Relationship Is Fraying, but Won't Fail
Do not be fooled by the recent lull in the long-running soap opera between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The U.S. administration has taken a break from the Bibi Wars in order to sell the deal on Iran's nuclear program. It would not be smart policy right now to open up a second front on the peace process, nor to respond critically to every move the new Israeli government makes. Notice the collective yawns of the U.S. administration in response to the appointment of hardliner Silvan Shalom as Netanyahu's new point person on the peace process.
But trust me on this one: Unless the new Israeli government moderates by morphing into a National Unity coalition (an unlikely prospect for now), this is but a break between rounds. Bibi and Barack, that lovable pair, will be back in the ring before you know it.
I have been bullish on the U.S.-Israeli relationship in large part because I have participated in and watched it for so many years. When it works - when adults are in charge - it can be functional and productive for both sides. It can be, indeed, special. And it has proven remarkably resilient. Unlike Lehman Brothers, the U.S.-Israeli relationship really is too big to fail.
But that doesn't mean some serious fraying is impossible. The relationship is now in a place it has never visited before. The Arab world is melting down; there is pressure to address two of the most critical national security challenges Israel faces - Iran and the Palestinians - at the same time; and you have a narrow, right-wing Israeli government that views reality in a fundamentally different way than does the Obama administration. Indeed, in the next 20 months, things will remain unsettled and potentially stormy between Washington and its closest ally in the Middle East. Here is why.
Dysfunction at the Top Won't End
Rarely have I seen a pair of leaders who, for reasons of personal and policy differences, seem so unable to work out a consistent and functional way of cooperating. This duo has bickered longer and more publicly than any previous pair of Israeli and American leaders.
Part of the dysfunction is generational. President Obama was six years old in 1967, when most of the pro-Israeli tropes and narratives surrounding the 1967 War solidified American support for Israel among American Jews and non-Jews alike. Instead, Obama's view of Israel was shaped in the 1980s, when the occupation and Palestinian grievances began to turn the image of Israel as David into the perception of the Jewish State as Goliath. Whether or not the president's perception is also shaped by a civil-rights narrative wherein Israel is perceived as the stronger party, and the Palestinians as the oppressed and disenfranchised underdog, there is a strong sense that the Israelis must be the magnanimous party. Indeed, if you take his words at face value, the president expects more from Israel because he believes it has well-entrenched moral and ethical values. Still, unlike his two predecessors - Bill Clinton and George W. Bush - Obama is much less inclined to give Israel the benefit of the doubt, and he rarely sends any valentines.
The administration wants to make nice for now, particularly with the Jewish community. In the last week, Obama visited one of Washington's oldest synagogues. But the Barack-Bibi imbroglio is not likely to end. Too many public rows between the two have eroded confidence and entrenched negative images. In the president's mind, the prime minister is a con man. Regardless of what he says, Obama believes Netanyahu is neither serious about respecting U.S. interests on Iran and the peace process, nor is he interested in real give-and-take. In the prime minister's view, the president has a bloodless view of Israel's security predicament and is eager to see Netanyahu replaced by someone more flexible.
The Iranian nuclear issue has come to illustrate the great divide between the two. Indeed, it is a source of tension that will continue to ensure personal and policy upsets. For Netanyahu, a deal with Iran will sow more disorder into an already chaotic region, and it will threaten Israel. For Obama, a deal brings order, not disorder - it creates a framework to avoid war and press Tehran to cooperate on a variety of other regional crises such as those in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. What drives Netanyahu to distraction is not just what he regards as the president's naïveté. It is that his own success as prime minister is bound up with leading Israel out of the dark shadow of the Iranian bomb, yet a U.S.-Iranian agreement leaves him powerless to do much in that direction.
Interceding in U.S. politics through House Speaker John Boehner may have boosted Netanyahu's image as a leader who stands up for Israel, but it was also costly. The act frayed the bipartisan character of the U.S.-Israeli bond, and Netanyahu has proved unable (as of yet) to stop the deal. And unless the final deal is a fire sale of bargain-basement giveaways to the mullahs, Congress will likely not want the responsibility of blocking it.
Relations between allies do not rest on individuals alone, but on interests as well. And while Iran represents a major divide, so does the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Set aside the fact that the positions of Netanyahu do not align with those of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on issues such as borders, refugees, or Jerusalem. Part of what is driving this dysfunctional duo is that Washington and Jerusalem themselves are not on the same page. In past peace processes, the driving dynamic saw the United States and Israel coordinate somewhat - with Washington pushing Israel to offer more - around positions that might then be sold to the Arabs. That is not possible now. Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have apparently discussed some moves on borders and other issues - moves that had real potential. But these conversations remain fruitless. And it is hard to imagine, with this new Israeli government, that the prime minister has the interest and/or the capacity to push the peace issue - not when the U.S. administration is going its own way on Iran, and the Palestinians are going their own way in seeking recognition for statehood in the international community.
How Bad Could Things Get?
The meltdown in the Middle East - and especially the behavior of actors such as ISIS, al Qaeda, Iran, and even Egypt - will likely continue to underscore the need for stable partners in the region who share American values. And right now, only Israel can check both boxes. Political support for Israel in Congress and among the general public will also serve to keep ties close, though many Democrats will increasingly react negatively to Israeli settlement policy, while Republicans will not.
Still, the next 20 months could be tough. If the Iran deal is finalized, implementation will play out like Chinese water torture - an agonizing daily drip of complaints, from Congress and from Israel, that Iran is hiding something, or violating something, and pursuing its bad-boy behavior in the region. An expansion of Israeli settlement activity, building in Jerusalem, or other actions, like the proposed policy (now apparently dead) of separate buses for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, will also create tensions, not just in Washington, but in Europe too. And the U.S. administration, given its concern with creating a legacy (see Cuba and Iran) will not sit idly by. There is little chance that the two sides will sit down to negotiate an end-game agreement. So chances are that Washington will consider either buying on to the French idea of a UN Security Council resolution that embodies the elements of a two-state solution, or will go it alone by laying out its own parameters, similar to what Bill Clinton did in 2000. Neither option will produce statehood. But it may make the Palestinians and Europeans feel better, pressure Israel, and almost certainly lead to a fight between Netanyahu and Obama.
America has few friends in the Middle East these days. Despite its imperfections, Israel is the only democratic ally there that shares American values and some of its interests, and is stable too. As the presidential election heats up, Republican and Democratic candidates will vie for the title of who loves Israel more. And whether the election delivers a second Clinton or a third Bush to the White House in 2017, the U.S.-Israeli relationship will improve.
But campaigning is not governing, and make no mistake: Where you stand in life has everything to do with where you sit. Washington and Jerusalem increasingly sit in very different places - the latter in a broken, angry, and dangerous Middle East.
What remains to be seen going forward is how these two allies will maintain their special relationship even while their interests continue to diverge. And managing this problem would require something we have not seen in this relationship for quite some time: skilled Israeli and American leaders who not only understand their own needs and requirements, but are prepared to respect those on the other side.