JERUSALEM – In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis tried to allegorise about a reality which he admitted he could not imagine, but tentatively hoped to suggest. The US-Israeli relationship, to most, seems like an unbreakable bond, and any potential divorce might be regarded as unimaginable.
But when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets US President Barack Obama on July 6, they will discuss a relationship that is on the rocks, despite an annual US$2billion in aid and – in keeping with the traditional parameters of the relationship – Obama’s repeated commitment to Israel’s security.
Stirring things up in advance, Michael Oren,Israel’s Ambassador to the US, spent Sunday and Monday denying media reports that he told Israeli diplomats that a “tectonic rift” was emerging between the two countries.
The summit will be a reprise of a stillborn meeting originally scheduled for late May, which Netanyahu cancelled after nine Turks were killed by Israeli commandos onboard one of six boats attempting to breach the blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
Whatever Obama’s private thoughts, he refused to join the chorus condemning Israel.
Much has been made of Obama’s attempts to “reach out” to the Muslim world, and his sackcloth-and-ashes pose for perceived American foreign policy sins-of-the-fathers.
But In Israel his Cairo Speech was taken as a signal that this American administration does not see Middle East geopolitics in the same light as its ally, and therefore puts Israel in danger.
It is not the first time that the two have quarrelled, with tetchy relations apparent during the first Bush administration. Alon Pinkas, former Israeli Consul-General to the US, said last week that “In reality, US interests in the Middle East are with the Arab world.”
“That is where the oil is, and Israel is just one small country surrounded by 290 million Arabs,” said Pinkas, who was speaking at seminar of foreign and Israeli journalists at the IDC Herzliya last week,
That is just part of the bigger picture. Both Obama and Afghanistan-bound Gen. David Petraeus believe that “solving” the Israel-Palestine conflict will contribute to US strategy elsewhere – particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, an unproven thesis, but one that fits well with Obama’s hoped-for outreach to the Muslim world.
According to Dr Jonathan Fine of IDC Herzliya, Israelis fear that the US does not get that Israel is dealing with much the same ideological opponents in Hamas as the US faces in Afghanistan or Iraq. Part of the diverging worldview, Fine lamented, is down to “the Obama effect,” which means that the because of its popular and telegenic new president, the US does not receive the same condemnation for its drone strikes as Israel does when it attacks its nearby enemies or engages in a clumsy and deadly attempt to stop boats reaching Gaza.
Israel feels it has been sacrificed on the altar of another Obama initiative, which might otherwise be described as inherently laudable. At the recent Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, Obama endorsed a resolution which omitted any mention of Iran but specifically targeted Israel, demanding that it sign the NPT and allow inspections of its facilities.
Whatever about the rights and wrongs of the proposal, to Israelis the disparity between including Israel and excluding Iran was glaring and galling.
Netanyahu has already signalled his willingness to concede in the face of international pressure by the recent announcement to ease the Gaza blockade, which the US regards as untenable. In doing so, he may have left himself vulnerable domestically, with the so-called ‘centrist’ Kadima Party led by Tzipi Livni leading the charge. She is seen by many in Washington as less-hardline than the current coalition, with whispers that the US might work behind the scenes to unseat Netanyahu who seen as beholden to religious parties in his coalition and therefore unable to meet the US halfway on issues such as settlement expansion.
But after the announcement that the Gaza blockade would be relaxed, Livni accused the Netanyahu Government of making policy at the dictates of international opinion. Previously she accused Netanyahu of overreacting to the flotilla and of destroying Israel’s standing in world opinion. So, even before Netanyahu goes to the White House, it seems that Livni has her sights trained on him, irrespective of whether he aligns more closely to Obama on settlements, Gaza or Iran, or whether another row ensues.
It is just a few weeks since Vice-President Joe Biden was humiliated in Jerusalem by an Israeli announcement that it plans 1,600 new houses in East Jerusalem, a slap-down that mirrored visiting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas getting the customary White House Lawn photo-op with the US President — a privilege denied to Netanyahu.
Well-known foreign policy analyst Anthony Cordesman recently rationalised that Netanyahu’s government is becoming a “strategic liability” for the US, saying that “it is time Israel realised that it has obligations to the US, as well as the US to Israel, and that it becomes far more careful about the extent to which it tests the limits of US patience and exploits the support of American Jews.”
That support will weigh on Obama’s mind as he continues his introduction to what predecessor Harry Truman described as a problem unmatched in its complexity and potential for controversy. While 78% of American Jews voted for Obama in 2008, it seems many might be having second thoughts. With midterm elections looming and the passage of the healthcare bill tempered by spectacular turnarounds such as Republican Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, Obama may not want to see the relationship with Israel deteriorate on his watch, for now at least.
Old-school powerhouses in the American-Jewish lobby have rowed in behind the Israeli Government and lambasted the Obama administration’s cool approach to the “special relationship” between the two countries — though there are divergent views within that constituency.
An April survey by Quinnipiac University showed that 67 percent of Jews disapproved of Barack Obama’s “handling [of] the situation between Israel and the Palestinians.”
In another poll, support for President Obama in the Jewish community dropped to 58 percent, a loss of 20 points on the 2008 election.
However other data suggests that the majority of American Jewish voters are card-carrying Democrats and liberal progressives first, with Israel policy less of a priority than domestic concerns.
Stephen M Walt co-authored The Israel Lobby and US foreign policy, a provocative take on the influence of the Jewish lobby in the US. He told Asia Times that “here are some new pro-Israel groups like J Street that are trying to encourage smarter policies” as a way of countering more security-focused Israeli lobbies in the US.
“There is a much more open discussion of these issues now (due in part to the rise of the Internet and the blogosphere), but the raw political power of AIPAC et al is still formidable,” Walt said.Show