When the country’s election campaign ads start broadcasting in a few weeks’ time, don’t be surprised if you start seeing a lot of US Vice President Joe Biden, and even Secretary of State John Kerry, starring in ads for – believe it or not – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
No, it’s not as if Biden will be sitting under the vice presidential seal saying “Vote Bibi,” or Kerry will be filmed on an airport tarmac in front of his plane somewhere saying “Netanyahu is my man.”
Rather, someone from the Netanyahu campaign will surely take ample advantage of footage of what both Biden and Kerry said over the weekend about the American-Israeli relationship, at the annual Saban Forum at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The footage is likely to be used because Israel-US relations are sure to play a more prominent role in this campaign than in any elections since 1992 – when the US decision to cut off $10 billion in housing loan guarantees due to settlement construction was a major campaign issue, and helped lead Yitzhak Rabin to victory over Yitzhak Shamir.
The state of US-Israeli ties is already playing a role in this campaign. In fact, it began even before elections were formally declared this week.
“I won’t be made to speak against the prime minister while I’m still sitting in his government. But it’s not like the relations [with the US] are deteriorating, we’ve already hit bottom,” then-finance minister Yair Lapid said at the end of November, even before he was fired and when he still sat in Netanyahu’s government.
“We’re at the lowest point of our relationship with them ever. No one knows what they’ll do when [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas turns to the [UN] Security Council,” he said.
(Interestingly enough, Abbas himself seems to know, and in a November 30 interview with Egyptian daily Akhbar al-Yawm, as translated by MEMRI, said he expected an American veto. “The US will not allow it,” he said of a Security Council resolution calling for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines within three years.) Like Lapid, Labor Party head Isaac Herzog also made clear that Washington-Jerusalem ties will be a major issue.
“I think the policies of the Israeli government have led us to a situation of total lack of trust – total lack of trust between the administrations or their leaders,” he said at the Saban Forum. “Now it’s essential...
to have trust between the leaders, not only the professionals, not only the government level, but the leaders. It’s a fact. It’s a fact that there is no trust at all between the president and the prime minister.
And we will have to attend to it. And one of my first aims will be to mend those relationships.”
Which is why the camera in Netanyahu’s campaign ads will pan to Biden and Kerry.
Here is Biden Saturday night, a day after Herzog’s comments: “Please, let’s keep whatever disagreements we have in perspective, because they don’t go to the heart and soul, they don’t go to the essence of who we are as Americans and who Israelis are. There is no daylight.
None. None. None... between Israel’s security and the US.”
Or Netanyahu’s campaign can use this Biden quote: “Let’s not make more of what are normal disagreements that occur between friends than warrants. Israel disagrees with us on a number of tactics.
They have a different perspective on how to proceed. But folks, that’s the downside of democracy.
“It also has an upside. We never have to wonder where the other guy is standing. Occasionally, politics on both sides of this divide, these tactical divides, is used to try to gain an advantage.”
And for a closer, the campaign can use this: “I just spoke to 4,000 members of North American Federation [Jewish Federations of North America]... and I said, ‘Send a message to Bibi: I love him. I love him.’ “And I signed a picture years ago to him. I said, ‘Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you had to say, but I love you.’ I agree with a lot he has to say, but if friends can’t acknowledge – if friends can’t acknowledge the very things that are acknowledged in each of our countries, vis-à-vis one another, then it’s not much of a friendship.”
Some will say, “Ah, that’s only Biden, he has a tendency to drone on, to gush, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Then the Netanyahu campaign cameras can zoom in on Kerry, who also provided them with an arsenal full of material with which to deflect arguments that the prime minister has driven Israel’s relationship with its most important ally into the ground.
“I’ve said and I’ve got to say it again, yeah, we’re going to disagree from time to time on something tactical, and we’re going to disagree on settlements, which we believe deeply – and we are shared in this opinion by most of the rest of the international community – that those settlements are undermining the prospects for peace and isolating Israel in the international community itself. It is important that we address these kinds of differences directly and respectfully.
“But make no mistake – the bonds that link our countries do remain unbreakable.
And that’s not a cliché. They just are,” he said.
Words, the cynics will say, these are all words – empty words. But why are words testifying to the enduring strength of the relationship – even despite the wellknown differences between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration – empty, while other words painting a picture of a relationship on the rocks are true, honest and full of meaning? Why do Lapid and Herzog’s protestations while in campaign mode, that the relationship has never been worse, carry more weight than Biden and Kerry’s comments conceding differences, but making clear there is no crisis in the relationship (or as Biden might say, “None.
None. None.”)? The truth is that the relationship between the two countries is wide, broad, many-faceted and complex.
There are numerous components to the relationship, with the ties at the top between the leaders being extremely important. There is no question those ties have been strained, but it is not the only component.
There is also Congress, the defense relationship, the business sector and public opinion – and each of those components remains very strong.
The newly elected Congress is expected to be among the most pro-Israel in history, and there have already been some very pro-Israel Congresses. Earlier this month, the outgoing Congress passed the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, declaring Israel a “major strategic partner” of the US. And that was in the aftermath of The Atlantic monthly article in which a senior official infamously labeled Netanyahu “chickenshit,” and the atmosphere in the media was one of a crisis in American- Israeli ties.
As far as the defense relationship is concerned, again, it is time to cut to Kerry at the Saban Forum.
“No one,” he said,”should doubt for a minute that the US-Israeli relationship remains as strong as ever. I want to make crystal clear – I’ve heard this from Israelis up and down the chain of command: Never has our security cooperation, despite whatever political agreement there might – disagreement there might be at a given moment or tactical disagreement – never has our day-to-day, month-to-month, long-term security cooperation been stronger or better than it is today, with Iron Dome, with weekly, daily consultations, with constant briefings on what we’re doing with Iran, other things, and with support for Israel under siege from Gaza and elsewhere.”
In addition, business between Israel and the US is robust, and public opinion – as evidenced in constant polling data – is highly supportive.
Neither Kerry nor Biden papered over the countries’ disagreements, and they deal with everything from negotiation tactics with Iran to the Palestinian issue.
Kerry stressed that, once elections are over – elections he promised the US would not “involve ourselves in, in any way” – the US will be back hard, pressing the Palestinian issue. Achieving a negotiated two-state solution, he said, “will remain high on the agenda of this administration of the US.”
Which means, inevitably, that the Obama administration will lock horns with any government formed after the elections – because no government is going to agree 100 percent with the US positions. No government will agree to discontinue building in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood, as the US demands, or Gilo, Neveh Ya’acov or Gush Etzion.
Disagreements will, again, inevitably arise – just as they have arisen with every single administration, including the most friendly. And when these conflicts arise, so too will the talk of a “crisis” in ties.
But when you hear that word thrown around, listen again to what Biden and Kerry said about the fundamental strength of the relationship.
Ask yourself why on-the-record words by US senior officials, attesting to the strength of the relationship, mean any less than off-the-record words by anonymous US “senior officials” saying those ties are in danger.