Have crises put US-Israel relations on new, more honest, course?

Public tensions between Obama and Netanyahu have exposed fault lines in the US-Israel relationship. But some experts see a silver lining, in that relations may be more realistic and more reflective of changing perspectives in each country.

Jason Reed/Reuters/File
US President Obama (l.) listens as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media from the Colonnade outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, September 1, 2010. Netanyahu's allies acknowledged on Sunday, that his election-eve disavowal of a Palestinian state had caused a rift with the White House, but blamed Obama's unprecedented criticism on a misunderstanding.

Mounting and unusually public tensions between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have exposed fault lines in the US-Israel relationship that portend a rocky and perhaps uncharted course ahead for the two allies.

Despite what is likely to be a bumpy ride for years to come, some diplomatic experts see a silver lining, in that they say relations will be more realistic and more reflective of changing perspectives in each country.

It may have been the very-public differences between two leaders with clashing worldviews that enabled an airing of an evolving relationship. But for some diplomatic experts, it has been above all Mr. Netanyahu’s public opposition to then American president on key issues and his brazen insertion of his views into the American political arena that have paved the way to a relationship overhaul. The most notable example of the latter was his speech to Congress earlier this month aimed at derailing a prospective nuclear deal with Iran.

“Netanyahu is the gateway drug to a more honest conversation on Israel,” says Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who directs the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Middle East and North Africa Program in London. “The Netanyahu-Obama rift has accelerated an existing trend,” he adds, “but it’s the Israeli leader’s willingness to be partisan that has exposed the thinking that Israeli actions aren’t always in America’s interests.”   

No one foresees any weakening of the rock-solid American commitment to Israel’s security. Many officials and security experts in both countries consider that commitment stronger than ever – and even Netanyahu acknowledged the steps Mr. Obama has taken to ensure Israelis’ security in a dangerous region. 

But at the same time, changing attitudes in the US, not least within the American Jewish community, have ended the long-held maxim that there must never be any daylight between the US and Israel. Israel’s status as an occupying power increasingly rubs some Americans the wrong way, while Israel’s growing Arab population raises questions about the sustainability of the Jewish state’s democracy.

At the same time, some elements within Israel increasingly press for a cutting of the cord to the US, especially those who aver that Israel is not an occupier and that the West Bank must never be anything other than Israel.

Differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how to resolve it, the desirability of reaching a nuclear deal with Iran, and Israeli anxiety over Obama’s aspirational “pivot” away from the tangle of the Middle East to the opportunities of Asia, are all contributing factors to a reassessing of the relationship.

Right now, much of the debate on US–Israel relations is focused on the Iran nuclear negotiations. World powers including the US are nearing an end-of-month deadline in the talks and could announce a deal with Tehran – the outlines of which Netanyahu has called a “bad deal” – sometime this weekend, some diplomatic sources say.

But even more than Iran, it is the Palestinian question, and increasingly divergent American and Israeli views on how to address it, that are at the heart of the relationship shift, some experts say.

“With some serious dialogue and assurances of the sort the US has offered Israel in the past I think it’s possible to rebuild the trust that has been damaged over the question of Iran,” says Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “But the Israeli-Palestinian issue is more problematic,” he adds, “because the differences are more stark.”

Netanyahu has walked back from his election-eve rallying cry earlier this month that no Palestinian state would be created while he remains prime minister, and he has disavowed the warning he issued to right-wing voters that “hordes” of Arab-Israelis were voting and could tilt the election. 

Netanyahu won the election and is currently putting together a new government. He could be in office four more years, or about two more than Obama, who will leave office in January 2017.

But Obama is not likely to get over Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric any time soon, according to Mr. Goldenberg, who says the comments about Arab-Israeli voters especially were “very personal” for a president “who had just given a speech in Selma on something similar,” referring to efforts in the US to suppress African-American voting.

Goldenberg says the Obama administration, for which he worked previously, “is not blameless” in the growing rift in relations, particularly on the Iran issue. But at the same time he says Netanyahu is “playing with fire” if his aim is to pressure American Jews into “choosing between the president and Israel.” 

Echoing that sentiment, Mr. Levy says Netanyahu risks alienating American constituencies that are no longer reflexively supportive of Israel.

“The old idea that Israel can do no wrong does not carry through to the younger generation, to Americans on the left, and to minorities,” he says, “and I dare say it doesn’t carry through to a subset of Republicans who question the neocon foreign-policy position.”

Still, it is the leaders of the two countries who have put the rift on display, and in the eyes of some experts it will be up to the leaders to demonstrate in short order that neither one wants the differences to continue building momentum.

“Unless these two take some concrete steps towards each other, it’s going to be a turbulent period ahead,” says David Makovsky, a fellow and expert in the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

There’s no getting around the “dual crises” the relationship faces in the Iran and Palestinian issues, Mr. Makovsky says. But he insists that a full-blown bilateral crisis can be avoided by a concerted effort from both leaders: assurance on Iran from Obama, and steps from Netanyahu demonstrating his commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

“Washington will need to provide assurances that the accord [with Iran] is not political shorthand for a change in the balance of regional power,” he says. Obama must reassure Israel that he is not engineering a return to a Washington-Tehran axis as in the days of the shah, or favoring a reset with Iran “at the expense of Sunni Arab countries and Israel,” Makovsky says.

At the same time, Netanyahu should act quickly to reassure Obama that he remains dedicated to reaching a two state solution, says Makovsky, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian land and border issues who was an adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative.

For example, he says Netanyahu could “align” his new government’s settlement policy with a two-state policy by restricting settlement expansion to West Bank areas that are likely to be part of Israel after a peace accord. 

Such actions by the two leaders may help to reduce the tensions they’ve created. But nothing – not even a Republican in the White House – is likely to restore relations to some pinnacle of the past, some experts say.

“It’s not by electing a new president that you’ll suddenly put things back in the box,” says Levy. “I think disappointment awaits anyone who thinks suddenly in January 2017 you’ll have a reset back to where things were.”  

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