July 3, 2014 § 5 Comments
Michael Cohen published an article in Foreign Policy a couple of days ago in which he argues that the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship will be marked by “less cooperation, more disagreements, and greater tension.” The piece is headlined “The Democrats Are Finally Turning Away From Israel” with the inflammatory subhead “And it’s high time they did,” but this does not reflect Cohen’s core arguments, and I am 100% confident that he had nothing to do with the title in any way (having been published in FP on numerous occasions, I can say from personal experience that the editors choose the title on their own and the first time the writer even knows about it is when it goes live on the website). What Cohen argues is that the relationship is being strained and slowly pulled apart by bad personal relationships between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel actively trying to prevent a deal between the U.S. and Iran by working Congressional channels, differing strategic priorities in the region, and a widening gap between the two countries’ worldviews.
In Cohen’s analysis, all of these factors mean that support for Israel in the U.S. will wane as the U.S. government finds it increasingly difficult to justify or explain bad Israeli behavior – particularly on the Palestinian front – and that the U.S. will no longer rush to defend Israel from pressure coming from Europe. Furthermore, Cohen foresees the politics of Israel changing in the U.S. as support for Israeli behavior among American Jews wanes and as Israel identifies more and more with Republicans, making support for Israel less politically important for Democrats.
Cohen astutely identifies a number of points of tension between the U.S. and Israel, and he is not exaggerating things such as the distrust between the elected leaders or the frustration among administration officials over Israel’s handling of settlements and peace negotiations. Nevertheless, I do not entirely agree with the analysis, and I think there are some angles that Cohen either misreads or leaves out, particularly on the strategic front.
First, while Obama and Bibi have long been and likely always will be at odds, this duo only has two more years to go, and that means that the relationship can be reset in a heartbeat. The low point of the George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir pairing was followed by the apex brought about by Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin, so I am reluctant to predict any longterm trends based on the two men currently in office. If Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden end up winning the White House in 2016, their track records and both public and private comments indicate that the relationship with Israel will improve irrespective of what happens with settlements and the peace process, and that goes double for any Republican not named Rand Paul. That is not to say that U.S. frustration with Israeli settlement policy is a mirage or only resides in the minds of Obama White House officials, since it absolutely permeates a much deeper group of politicians and foreign policy bureaucrats who rightly worry about the consequences of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Rather, it is a problem that must be considered in light of a larger strategic context (more on that below), which makes it important but not necessarily an ultimate driver of U.S. policy toward Israel.
Second, while it is absolutely true that support for Israeli policies among younger American Jews seems to be on the decline, the jury is out as to whether that support will increase as younger American Jews get older, and more saliently there is a question as to whether support for Israeli policies directly overlaps with support for Israel more generally. Furthermore, none of this may matter anyway if support for Israel among the general public remains strong, or if within the Democratic Party there is a gap between grassroots progressives and elite policymakers and opinion leaders. On the question of support among the general public, favorable views of Israel are at historical highs with a clear 55% majority of Democrats still holding favorable views, and historically Americans tend to sympathize with Israel versus the Palestinians at even higher than normal levels when Israelis are the victims of terrorism and violence, as was tragically the case this week. I am also not convinced from conversations with progressive politicians and thought leaders that they are on the verge of abandoning Israel wholesale, and there is a strong recognition among Democratic elites that Israel is not and should not be entirely defined by its settlement project, as deeply problematic as that project is.
Most importantly though, in his focus on divergent strategic goals, Cohen glosses over a newly strengthened recognition that Israel’s strategic value as an ally is going up. It’s clear that Israel and the U.S. differ on their respective threat perceptions of Iran, whether Iran should be contained, and whether Iran can be contained, but in seeking to contain the fallout coming from the rest of the region as it implodes, Israel is pretty much the only reliable ally left standing. Despite an American desire to pivot to Asia, the Middle East cannot be ignored just because the U.S. finds it thorny, as the recent crisis in Iraq demonstrates all too well. The U.S. is going to be involved to a greater extent than it desires, and as I heard from multiple Israeli foreign policy and security professionals and experts when I was there last month, the Israeli government is well aware that the country is an island of stability amid the chaos. Iraq is a mess, Syria is in the middle of a civil war, Egypt is teetering dangerously on the brink of becoming a failed state, Saudi Arabia is dealing with massive uncertainty amidst a succession crisis, Jordan has been in constant crisis management mode since 2011 and now has to worry about being overrun by ISIS, Turkey is dealing with all sorts of internal problems and has proven itself to be a notoriously unreliable and myopic ally with its disastrous flirtations with jihadi groups in Syria…the list goes on and on. Israelis are of the view that the U.S. almost needs them more than they need the U.S., and while this is overconfident hyperbole, it is based on a foundation of truth. U.S.-Israeli coordination is now more vital than ever, and this is a variable that is not going to change for the remainder of this decade given the Middle East’s unraveling. When I wrote two years ago that Israel was going to benefit from the Arab Spring as a result of its neighbors being too busy with their own domestic unrest to worry about making trouble for Israel, I didn’t anticipate the positive externality of Israel becoming an even more crucial American ally, but that dynamic has arrived.
I share Cohen’s concerns about Israeli policies, and anecdotally there seems to be softening support for Israel among younger Democrats. Ultimately, however, I think the political tension in the relationship is fleeting, and the genuine and widespread disappointment at Israeli settlement building is a long term problem that needs to be addressed but that for next few years will be outweighed by larger strategic concerns. Surveying the state of things, I am not nearly so confident as Cohen that the U.S.-Israel relationship is destined to be remade.
March 19, 2014 § 3 Comments
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon gave a speech yesterday at Tel Aviv University during which he said some things that have got the White House pretty annoyed. Ya’alon inferred that President Obama wants to play out the clock and punt dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue to the next president, fingered the U.S. for demonstrating weakness in a variety of areas including in its response to the Crimean crisis, pointed out that U.S. military aid to Israel is not entirely altruistic but operates to American benefit as well in the areas of intelligence and technology, and finally predicted that U.S. weakness will come back to haunt it in the form of terrorism and direct challenges from revisionist powers. All in all, it was quite the rhetorical broadside. I will refrain from extensively commenting on Ya’alon’s last point except to note that by the standards of many of Ya’alon’s ideological compatriots and Likud fellow travelers who excoriated John Kerry when he predicted that the failure of the peace process will lead to greater international isolation of Israel and accused him of advocating for Israel to be treated as a pariah, Ya’alon has now done something far more serious than offer a prediction that the U.S. will suffer future attacks.
In response, an unnamed senior Obama administration official hit back at Ya’alon for undermining security ties between the U.S. and Israel and calling the entire relationship into question. To quote, “We were shocked by Moshe Ya’alon’s comments, which seriously call into question his commitment to Israel’s relationship with the United States. Moreover, this is part of a disturbing pattern in which the defense minister disparages the U.S. administration, and insults its most senior officials. Given the unprecedented commitment that this administration has made to Israel’s security, we are mystified why the defense minister seems intent on undermining the relationship.” This is not the first time this year that the White House has responded to comments from Ya’alon that it deemed to be over the line, as in January it was leaked that Ya’alon had disparaged John Kerry, which drew a disappointed, albeit less harsh, American response.
What is driving Ya’alon here? Ultimately, causing a rift with the U.S. is not going to benefit Israel in any way, and Ya’alon is presumably smart enough to know that trying to rhetorically peer pressure the U.S. into taking a more confrontational approach with Iran is not going to work. Furthermore, Ya’alon knows from intimate firsthand experience, first as IDF chief of staff and now as defense minister, just how close security cooperation between the two countries is, and so pretending that it’s not such a big deal rings hollow. In addition, the timing of going after Obama personally just as the U.S. is actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and figuring out the security parameters of a longterm presence for IDF troops in the Jordan Valley is an awful strategy. If Ya’alon wants to ensure that the White House becomes more sympathetic to Palestinians complaints about Israeli intransigence, this would be one good way to go about it.
Certainly some of Ya’alon’s frustration is real. It is no secret that Israeli officials are worried about the direction of events in the Middle East, particularly with regard to Iran, and fear the U.S. stepping back from the region. What looks like cautious realism in the West Wing is viewed by Israelis as weak-kneed appeasement and wavering, whether it be negotiations with Tehran, an unwillingness to intervene in Syria despite repeated threats to do so, not bolstering Hosni Mubarak or dealing more harshly with the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. In addition, as Jonathan Schanzer points out, Ya’alon is upset about the U.S. not giving Israel weapons systems that would help in an Iran strike. Perhaps all of this boiled over at once and Ya’alon just couldn’t contain himself.
Or, perhaps there is more at work here, and Ya’alon’s outburst was a bit more politically strategic. Bibi Netanyahu has long had a real problem within his own party, and it is only compounded by the current peace negotiations. The younger and more hardline Likud members don’t trust him, and they have sought to embarrass him countless times, whether it be at Likud conventions, Likud primaries, or looking to amend the party’s constitution. Some of these efforts have been more successful than others, but if Netanyahu makes any real concessions with regard to the West Bank, the party is fated to split apart and there are no two ways about it. All of that is assuming that Netanyahu does not do the deed himself at some point and go the route of Arik Sharon, forming a new party and leaving a rump Likud behind (which would be deeply ironic since Netanyahu was the one who took the helm of the badly weakened Likud when Sharon formed Kadima). Ya’alon has been doing a good job of courting the Danny Danons, Yariv Levins, and Miri Regevs of the world, and they trust him a lot more than they trust the prime minister. Should it come down to needing a replacement for Netanyahu, Ya’alon seems like an obvious choice, and he can keep it that way by consistently espousing hawkish views such as the ones he did yesterday.
On top of this, the mood among Israel’s rightwing is no longer as uniformly pro-U.S. as it has been. There is a deep distrust of the Obama administration of course, but also a sense that the U.S. is moving in a very different direction than Israel. Netanyahu and his circle were genuinely surprised by the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, and simply did not grasp the internal American political dynamics, the changing demographics, or the war weariness of the American public. Throw on top of this the pressure coming from the White House on the peace process, and it just compounds the notion for some that the U.S. is harming more than it is helping. Many Israelis are for the first time in awhile openly questioning whether the U.S. can be reliably counted on, and nowhere is this more prevalent than among the younger Likud ideological vanguard who are the party’s future. Ya’alon recognizes this, and has been subtly playing into it for some time, which is why I think his comments about Kerry in January and his speech yesterday were more coldly calculating than he may want to let on. The other component to this is that Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to be prime minister one day and can only do so through Likud and is thus engaging in some jockeying for position of his own, has been criticizing the anti-American tone since his acquittal of fraud charges and his return to politics and publicly reminding Israelis that they should be wary of ruining the relationship with Washington. To the extent that Ya’alon views Lieberman – a hawkish nationalist who is very at home among the younger Likud folks – as a potential future rival, setting himself apart from Lieberman in a way that the Likud base favors is only smart politics.
At first glance, Ya’alon’s comments certainly seem puzzling, and they will not do any good for Israel itself. The question is whether Ya’alon was directing them toward Israel’s future or his own, and as usual, I think there is a heavy dose of internal domestic politics that is being overlooked. Yes, the frustration is real and is not entirely manufactured, but there is a method to the madness inasmuch as Ya’alon is thinking instrumentally about his political prospects down the line.
March 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
Bibi Netanyahu and the Israeli government have had the same two important decisions regarding the U.S. hanging over them for over a year, and they aren’t going away. The first is whether to cooperate with the U.S. to the hilt on the peace process and agree to anything the Obama administration asks them to do. The second is whether to cooperate with the U.S. to the hilt on Iran and agree to refrain from striking Iran, which is a commitment that the Obama administration clearly seems to want. The question is, if Israel does not deliver on either of these issues to the fullest extent, what will the fallout be, and which one is the higher priority for the U.S.?
There’s a lot of chatter recently about this being Israel’s last chance for peace with the Palestinians along with dark warnings about what will happen if the talks break down. In an interview with Jeff Goldberg last week, President Obama spoke at length about what he thinks the negative ramifications will be. Echoing John Kerry, he said that demographics, settlement growth, and the possibility that Mahmoud Abbas will be gone from the scene in the near future make this the last best chance for a deal, and that should a deal not happen, Israel will face increasing isolation and the end of its status as both Jewish and democratic. He also warned of a decreased ability on the part of the U.S. to protect Israel in international institutions and from the growing hostility of the international community. Goldberg interpreted this last point as (in his words) “a veiled threat” which would suggest that the U.S. may at some point stop using its veto to shield Israel from unfavorable UN Security Council resolutions.
This comes on the heels of months of Israeli-perceived threats from Kerry, including his prediction of a third intifada if talks fail, his denouncement of Israel’s military presence in the West Bank, and most recently his observation that efforts to boycott Israel are only growing. Never mind that none of these statements were threats but were rather predictions of how other actors will behave should the two state solution disappear; the important point is that Israeli leaders have interpreted these statements as a warning that the U.S. will abandon Israel should these talks not produce results. There is also the news that Israeli defense and intelligence officials have had visas to the U.S. denied at a much higher rate over the past year, which could be an effort to warn the Israeli government about what lies ahead should U.S. wishes be defied.
For whatever reason, there is much less talk – both here and in Israel – about what will happen to the relationship with the U.S. if Israel goes and strikes Iranian nuclear sites. This strikes me as strange for two reasons. First, I think that the possibility of this happening is at least 50% and yet there is a lot more speculation about Israel not doing its best to come to an agreement with the Palestinians. Second, I strongly believe that compared to a peace process failure, Israel defying U.S. wishes on Iran will be far more harmful to the relationship and will bring a higher degree of fallout.
I have always been clear in my belief that the consequences for Israel should the two state solution evaporate will be similar to what the White House describes: isolation, boycotts, and a far more difficult dance on maintaining Israel’s democratic character along with a Jewish majority. I am not quite sure that this is the absolute last opportunity, but were I the prime minister of Israel, I would be making plans for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank in the eventuality that a deal cannot be reached. But that is another post for another day; the main point here is that should the talks fail, I do not think that the consequences from the U.S. will be much to fear. For starters, this show is not new. The Israelis and Palestinians have spent decades talking to each other or not talking to each other, all to no result, and the American-Israeli relationship has proceeded apace with no real ruptures. If these talks fail despite intense American intervention, it will be no different than Camp David, Wye River, Taba, the vaunted road map…you get the point. The U.S. and Israel have a long history of getting over peace process failures no matter if the administration puts the onus on Israel or on the Palestinians, and I suspect this time will be no different. The U.S. interest in getting this resolved has not grown more than it was under Clinton, and the damage to the U.S. should the talks fail does not present a vital threat. Furthermore, the peace process requires not just Israeli acquiescence but Palestinian acquiescence as well, and if reports are to be believed, the Palestinians have no intention of acceding to the security plan formulated by the U.S. and General John Allen. What this means is that if the Palestinian side is intransigent to a larger degree than the Israeli side (and so far reports indicate that to be the case), any failure will not be pinned on Israel. So for a number of reasons, this Israeli fear of a rupture is far-fetched. This is not an attempt to provide an excuse for Israel not to make a deal, since I think that Israel should agree to any and every U.S. request if it means getting an actual permanent agreement, but just an observation that the global consequences of failure will be a lot harsher than those emanating from the U.S.
In contrast, I think that Israel might want to tread more carefully when it comes to Iran, because an Israeli strike will be harder than a half-hearted peace process negotiation effort for the U.S. to shrug off. For one thing, there is not much recent history of Israel carrying out military operations that will clearly upset the U.S. and thus less of a history of getting over it for Israel to draw upon. Two examples would be the Suez crisis in 1956 and the bombing of the Osirak reactor in 1981, but neither of those are truly comparable. On Suez, Israel was operating in conjunction with Britain and France, which blunted the reaction as Israel was not seen as a sole rogue party, and on Osirak, Iraq was not viewed as such a vital interest for the U.S. and it did not embroil the U.S. in any messy aftermath. In the case of a hypothetical future Israeli strike on Iran, these conditions do not apply. Israel will be doing it alone, in defiance of U.S. wishes ahead of time, and it will affect what is likely the number one American foreign policy goal at the moment, which is a nuclear deal with Iran that leads to a more general rapprochement. Not to mention that many will view the U.S. as somehow complicit, and there is a chance of blowback directed against U.S. interests in the region. Also in contrast to the Palestinian issue, there will be no other party to blame; if things get hairy afterwards, Israel cannot share the burden of blame with someone else. It will not blow up the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is far too institutionalized and based on public affinity, but I can imagine a variety of unpleasant consequences, such as arms shipments being halted, intelligence and security cooperation suffering, the visa situation becoming even more difficult, etc.
I fully recognize that in Netanyahu’s eyes, these situations are not equal. Iran targets Israel in a variety of ways, with the seizure of the ship carrying missiles yesterday as just the latest exhibit in a mountain of evidence. Bibi views Iran as an existential threat whereas he views the Palestinian issue as one that can be managed. I disagree with his assessment, but it being what it is, his motivation and incentive structure is likely to go it alone on Iran. If Israel does that, however, it should at least factor in the costs of defying the U.S. and not assume that everything will be copacetic in the aftermath.