It’s no secret that there’s been little love lost between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who began their terms within months of each other – and now both face reelection.
But despite that cool personal relationship, US-Israel ties are arguably stronger and deeper now than at any time since Israel’s founding in 1948. While some presidents have made a big impact on peace talks or key security issues – George H.W. Bush’s handling of the 1991 Gulf war, for example – the relationship tends to rest on shared principles rather than the personalities at the top.
“What you see in the media is the tip of the iceberg, what’s at the top, and you see some coolness,” says an Israeli official who declined to be named due to the sensitive election period. “You think it reflects on the rest of the relationship and it doesn’t.”
Perhaps one of the strongest and most objective measures is trade. In the past decade, US-Israel trade has nearly doubled. US exports to Israel rose from $7 billion in 2002 to $13.9 billion last year, while US imports from Israel during the same window rose from $12.4 billion to $23 billion, according to the US Census Bureau.
The emergence of that “fourth pillar” builds on a trio of more well-established bonds – spiritual, democratic, and military, says Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US and author of “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1773 to the Present.”
These shared bonds date back to well before Israel’s founding – Puritans once lobbied the Dutch government to “transport Izraell’s sons and daughters ... to the Land promised their forefathers.”
And they have been strengthened by the tremendous upheaval in the Middle East over the past two years, Ambassador Oren argues.
The upheaval “has underscored the fact that there is only one country in the region that is stable, that has never known a second of non-democratic rule, is militarily robust, and unequivocally pro-American,” he says in an interview by phone. “There’s no other country remotely in the region like that.”
But one of Israel’s foremost experts on US-Israel ties has argued that the “special relationship” has taken a distinct turn under Mr. Obama and finds itself at a “critical crossroads.”
"The beginning of the Obama era signals that nothing lasts forever," wrote political scientist Abraham Ben-Zvi in his 2011 book, “From Truman to Obama: The Rise and Early Decline of American-Israeli Relations.”
Obama 'distant' from shared values
Professor Ben-Zvi attributed that distance to Obama’s upbringing – including a stint in Jakarta, Indonesia – which was “distant both geographically and psychologically from the formative American narrative,” according to translated excerpts published by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Obama’s “distance from the values and the beliefs that form the core of the pattern of special relations” helps explain his “cool and reserved attitude toward Israel," wrote Ben-Zvi.
Many Israelis have criticized the fact that Obama’s opening foreign-policy salvo – a speech to the Islamic world from Cairo – was never followed up by a visit to Jerusalem. He clashed with Mr. Netanyahu over Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank, publicly slighted the prime minister during a White House visit, and declined to meet him altogether during Netanyahu’s visit to the United Nations in September. (For more perspective, the Monitor details five lower points from the history of US-Israel relations.)
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a clear majority of Israeli Jews (57 percent) prefer Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, especially given the country’s rightward shift in recent years. An October survey by the Israel Democracy Institute revealed that 17 percent of the Jewish public in Israel define themselves as left or moderate left, with 55 percent saying they’re right or moderate right, and the rest in the center.
But despite Israelis’ lack of warmth toward Obama, they have consistently placed a high premium on maintaining good ties with the US and have been unwilling to risk that, even in the case of Iran’s nuclear program, a threat some put on par with the Holocaust.
“All the studies we’ve done over the past 25 years show that the Israeli public … puts great, great, great emphasis between Israel and the US and views strong bonds … as a major factor in Israel’s national security,” Yehuda Ben Meir, codirector of INSS’s National Security and Public Opinion Project, told the Monitor in September. “Since it’s been made very clear that the US is more than strongly opposed to a unilateral Israeli independent attack at this time … [Israelis] don’t want it.”