April 21, 2015 § 2 Comments
Now that the Israeli elections are in the rearview mirror – although coalition negotiations are still ongoing – it is time to assess the damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and figure out how to avoid clashes going forward such as those that have marred the past few years. There is no doubt that the relationship is at a low point politically, perhaps even historically low. But it is also the case that it will certainly recover and that we are not seeing the beginning of the end, but are rather going through the sort of blip that happened under Ford in 1975, Reagan in 1981, Bush in 1990, etc. The relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu is the worst between any two presidents and prime ministers, and there is also wide distrust and dislike of ministers such as Bogie Ya’alon and Naftali Bennett in the White House with a corresponding disdain for people like John Kerry and Susan Rice in the prime minister’s office. Ultimately, Obama and Netanyahu are going to move on from the scene, and the robust institutional relationship that still exists at all other levels will be paramount. That said, this fighting at the top levels is ugly and counterproductive, and at some point threatens to become a lasting acrimonious trend rather than a temporary occurrence, so each side needs to think about what can and should be done to prevent future misunderstandings big and small.
Starting with the Israeli side, this government and all future governments need to understand that support from the U.S. is predicated on a number of things, but first and foremost on the idea of shared democratic values. I have written about this at length in academic form and the post-9/11 picture is a bit more complicated, but the executive summary is that it is easy to draw a direct line from public preferences to foreign policy formation in this particular case, and Americans don’t care whether or not Israel is a strategic asset or liability but do care whether or not Israel is a liberal democracy. Furthermore, the erosion of support for Israel on the left and among younger voters is even more tightly tied to this (whether Israel could do anything that would be able to satisfy some of this segment is a separate question). Netanyahu’s lackluster moves toward creating a Palestinian state and his ugly election day display thus matter hugely in this regard, and all of the “yes, but” arguments that seek to mitigate these things don’t matter, even if they are true. Maybe a Palestinian negotiating partner that was more serious and responsive to Israeli concessions or an altered security environment would prompt Netanyahu to leave the West Bank, and maybe Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state on his watch really was meant to be qualified and his warning that Arabs are coming to the polls in droves wasn’t about Arabs specifically but just shorthand for leftwing voters. Even if you fervently believe these things – and, for what it’s worth, I am hugely skeptical – it doesn’t matter when it comes to the relationship with the U.S., because they both chip away at the vision in the American mind of Israel as a like-minded country that we can easily understand and with which we can sympathize. What Israeli governments need to understand is that 99% of people outside of Israel are not following the daily back and forth of Israeli politics and policy, and so the rapidly spreading perception of Israel as an increasingly illiberal country seeking to shout down minorities and keep the Palestinians in a state of perpetual occupied statelessness doesn’t have to be true in order to be damaging. Once Israel is seen as abandoning the two state solution and the peace process, the game is over and Israel becomes like any other country when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. The only priority the Israeli government should have going forward when it comes to the U.S. is preserving the possibility of an eventual two state solution, even if such an outcome is currently impossible.
The Israel Policy Forum released a statement of principles last week that is dead-on in this regard. It explicitly recognizes that a negotiated two state solution is not imminent for a variety of reasons, but that preserving the possibility of two states happening at some point down the road is critical. It recognizes the security bind that Israel is in and thus does not demand that Israel simply pull out of the West Bank tomorrow, and unqualifiedly states that Palestinian moves to encourage the BDS movement or to use the ICC are counterproductive. At the same time, the statement is clear that advancing the goal of two states for two people is the key to U.S.-Israel relations, among other things, and that this means rethinking settlement policy and embracing ways out of the bind such as the Arab Peace Initiative. This is on target because it displays an understanding of the fact that just because Israel may not be able to create a Palestinian state at this point in time due to circumstances both of its own doing and beyond its control does not obviate the necessity to keep this goal alive, if for no other reason than to preserve the crucial relationship with the U.S.
For a variety of historical reasons, no matter what it does Israel is never going to be a normal country accepted by everyone. Anti-Semitism is a very real phenomenon and it underpins much (although not all) of anti-Zionism, and the strain of anti-imperial ideology that exists in many places is never going to be comfortable with Israel whether it pulls out of the West Bank or not. Israel does not and never will live a completely normal life. But this fact makes it even more important for Israel to have completely clean hands and to not give anyone any excuse to condemn her, since double standards when it comes to Israel are a permanent fact of life. The U.S. is a country that actually does sympathize with Israel for many reasons, whether it be because of a frontier mentality or Christian Zionism or respect for democracy or solidarity with a Westernized state in the Middle East. Even the U.S., however, is not going to give Israel a blank check, and needs to see that Israel is doing what it can within reason to live up to its ideals. Obama and Netanyahu will continue to loathe each other, and better Israeli behavior on settlements would have had absolutely zero bearing on mitigating West Wing retaliation in the aftermath of the Netanyahu speech to Congress, but looking at a longer time horizon and anticipating what happens once the principals change, Israel needs to do a better job on always acting like a country that values its democracy first and foremost, and that is ready to live next to a Palestinian state when the Palestinians are ready to live next to Israel. When you rule out that possibility entirely, what the Palestinians are or are not doing simply doesn’t matter when it comes to better relations with the U.S.
On the U.S. side, just as Israel needs to understand what is important to the U.S., the U.S. needs to better understand what is important to Israel. As a political scientist, one of the things that I think the Obama administration has gotten right is an understanding that countries have their own internal politics and that this cannot be simply brushed away as an inconvenient fact to be ignored. Public opinion matters, in authoritarian states as well as in democracies (in fact, it may be even more important in authoritarian states where the only outlet for dissatisfaction is violence in the streets), and even a government in a country like Iran with a Supreme Leader ironically has to take politics into account when taking action like selling a nuclear deal. Yet, when it comes to Israel, the Obama White House seems to forget this lesson and grants Netanyahu zero leeway. If the U.S. wants the Israeli government to stop acting so hostile, it needs to get a better sense of when to push and when to lay off, since not all perceived Israeli misdeeds are created equal.
To take an important example, the Obama administration’s views on the moral and practical problems with settlements are strident, but in expressing this, it rarely takes into account the fact that Israelis do not view all settlement activity as equal, and so putting all settlements into the same boat makes Israelis feel as if the U.S. does not understand Israeli realities. For instance, 90% of Israelis, if not more, do not view building in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as settlement activity, and are deeply resentful of efforts to prevent building in their own capital. Every time Marie Harf or Jen Psaki says something negative about Israeli construction in neighborhoods like Gilo or Har Homa, Netanyahu seizes the opportunity to slam the U.S. government, and not only is he not wrong to do so in the minds of the vast majority of Israelis, it wins him points in their eyes. Within the West Bank as well, many Israelis make distinctions between building in settlement blocs that will be part of Israel in any eventual deal and building in areas outside of the blocs, but the U.S. publicly does not recognize any distinction between an apartment in French Hill or Efrat and one in Kiryat Arba, and this is a problem. Just as Israel needs to recognize U.S. realities, the U.S. needs to do the same with Israeli realities, and one of these realities is that not all building outside the Green Line is equal by a long shot. When the administration treats all building as the same, it makes the Israeli government throw its hands in the air in frustration and assume that since it will get criticism no matter what it does, it may as well do whatever it likes. If this administration or any future one wants to get the Israeli government to crack down on the problematic settlements and to stop expanding blocs like Ma’ale Adumim or Ariel that legitimately cut into the West Bank so as to threaten its territorial continuity, then it has to be very clear with the Israeli government that it understands that Gilo and similar neighborhoods are always going to be a part of Israel. Without acknowledging where Israeli politics are on this issue, the U.S. will never have the trust of either the Israeli government or the Israeli public when it comes to territorial concessions. Even if the U.S. does not publicly acknowledge Israel’s right to build in Ramot or Alon Shvut, it needs to privately concede the point and pick its public battles more carefully if it wants an Israeli prime minister to ever be able to sell a deal with the Palestinians.
Relatedly, Netanyahu has obviously born the brunt of the anger coming from the White House and has been raked over the coals numerous times, and I think that in many instances it is deserved, but to give the man credit where it it due, he is capable of instituting a policy of doing no harm. He has not expanded settlements at a faster pace than his predecessors, and he has initiated new ones on a much reduced scale than his predecessors. He also instituted a building freeze outside of Jerusalem for nine months when asked, and has very quietly instituted a freeze on new settlement projects even in Jerusalem this year. The point is not that Netanyahu is a peacenik, but that even he is capable of doing things that will make the U.S. happy, and that giving the Israeli government a little bit of breathing space may do wonders for American priorities.
For both sides, it is imperative in the future to keep disputes behind closed doors rather than air them in public. This applies to the U.S. taking Netanyahu to task for a wide variety of real and perceived misdeeds, and it applies even more heavily to Israel doing things like trying to sabotage an Iran deal by embarrassing the White House in very public ways. Aside from the fact that it poisons the relationship, it ends up being massively counterproductive for everyone involved. Is there really anyone left who thinks that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress moved the needle in the direction he wanted rather than doing the opposite by forcing Democrats to publicly side with the president even if their inclination was to do otherwise? Does anyone really believe that publicly threatening to withhold American vetoes in the United Nations Security Council is going to have a salutary effect on Israel’s willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians? On issues like settlements, it is in fact vital that the U.S. try to accomplish what it wants in private, since if Netanyahu or any rightwing prime minister is going to give on territorial issues, they will not be able to loudly broadcast it and will need to maintain plausible deniability. The public sniping back and forth is bad for both sides and needs to stop, no matter how cathartic it may be for two parties that could use some couples therapy.
Despite the policy disputes, American and Israeli long term interests still align in many ways. Even on Iran, which is of course the most high profile and deepest disagreement that has caused the most acrimony, the issue may now be working to Israel’s benefit. The White House’s apparent desire to strike a deal at nearly any cost likely means that it will not want to rock the boat in any way with Congress, which makes Israel’s position at the UN a lot safer. Both sides have to learn from past mistakes, such as the U.S. not creating unreasonable expectations for Israel that can’t be met, like a total settlement freeze, and Israel not trying to win fights with an administration when it has no leverage and little influence. The personalities at the top will not be there forever, but if the U.S. continues to use Israel as a wedge issue to score points, or if Israel keeps on behaving as if it is an equal partner – such as when it makes very public demands from U.S. nuclear negotiators that are completely unrelated to the nuclear deal – when it is in fact very much a junior partner, then U.S.-Israel ties really will suffer a blow that is not so easily recoverable. Both sides need to step back, realize what is important to the other, what is doable within the confines of the political and security environment, and recalibrate things.
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.