If the dialogue between Washington and Israel suddenly seems out of whack to you, perhaps that's because the relationship has been a lopsided one all along.
On Monday I asked critics of Obama's policy toward Israel to show me where any substantive changes had been made since the president's election. In response, a regular reader writes:
The problem with your theory that nothing has changed is the behavior of the Obama administration. There is a limited amount of diplomatic oxygen which makes the public vituperation over a position that (a) is an Israeli position held for decades and (b) enjoys wall to wall support in Israel both substantive and regarded as an indicator of true future intentions. So exactly what did Obama, Biden and Clinton think they were going to gain from broadcasting a demand that Israel could and would never accede to? If nothing is at stake, why are these highest of officials wasting time on this?
The U.S. demanding that an ally do something which it could never do and making that the center stage issue is a substantive change because it is an exercise of that limited resource of public leadership. It is a public exercise of a sort that was not used with respect to Iran or Russia.
But Washington doesn't have the kind of influence over Russia and Iran that it should theoretically have over Israel. In the case of Russia, the United States has to deal with a nuclear-armed energy power with a permanent perch on arguably the world's most authoritative deliberative body. In the case of Iran, years of diplomatic and economic disengagement have left the U.S. with few carrots to hang over Tehran's head (this is the crux of the unilateral versus multilateral sanctions debate). Both regimes have a strategic interest in not only resisting American overtures, but even, at times, rebuffing them entirely. This in turn makes diplomacy a more difficult and, yes, finite commodity to be used with care.
It's supposed to work differently with allies however, as shared values and strategic interests should, in theory, make diplomatic cajoling, hand-wringing and arm-twisting unnecessary. If strategic interests line up, then the diplomacy should sort itself out, right? So why is it so different in the case of Israel?
The problem as I see it is that the American relationship with Israel has become something more like a security pact than a strategic alliance, with the United States serving as the guarantor of Israeli security in the region. The tangible and strategic benefits for the United States may be less than apparent, but that's okay. The U.S. supports the security and longevity of the Jewish state not for some cynical or material end, but because it's the right thing to do.
But such a strategic imbalance has to have a line, and I do believe this Israeli government may have crossed it. That the Israelis are somehow entrenched or unwavering on Jerusalem is neither true (indeed, Ehud Barak managed to move public opinion on Jerusalem to what were, at the time, unimaginable points during the Camp David process), nor is it entirely the point. The Obama administration doesn't have the luxury of caring only about public opinion in Israel, as it must also care about public opinion in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and throughout the entire region. The opinions of a select few despots and monarchs, sadly, must also be taken into consideration by Washington.
Public opinion doesn't lead countries; leaders do. Netanyahu's government can play domestic politics with regional indifference because the region has done likewise to Israel. But the United States can only referee this squabble so long as its own interests aren't being harmed. At this point, it's unclear whether or not this current incarnation of Israeli leadership even knows what's in its own best interest.
It is, at times, a bizarre patron-client relationship, but the actual policy has not changed one bit; the United States, for better or for worse, will guarantee Israel's security through large, unique military aid packages and a regional security umbrella. And if the dialogue between patron and client suddenly seems out of whack, perhaps that's because the relationship has been a lopsided one all along.