Before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington on Sunday, Israeli and American officials set clear expectations for his first meeting with US President Barack Obama since the adoption of the Iran nuclear deal: Not a meeting of the minds, but a recognition of common ground and an opportunity to build on it.
The White House believes that Obama has strengthened the US-Israel relationship over the past six and a half years by continuing down the path of least resistance with Israel’s Likud leadership: robust defense and intelligence cooperation.
Quick to take credit for these accomplishments – when asked for policy examples of a strengthening relationship, administration officials reliably cite US defense assistance – the White House last week also acknowledged weaknesses in its strategy toward Israel on matters of disagreement.
And yet those disagreements, particularly over Iran, are the very policies motivating the Israeli government to request an increase in US defense aid.
The “tough love” tactic employed by Obama and his aides, also cast as “disagreements within the family” by some White House officials, has opened no new diplomatic tracks and has bridged none of the major differences between the US and Israeli governments. That track record has led some, including former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, to question the efficacy of the president’s aggressive approach.
“There’s been a lot of room for tough love, particularly in private and behind closed doors,” said the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president in September.
But, “I don’t think it’s a particularly productive course for the US to take” in public, she continued. “It opens the door for everyone else to delegitimize Israel and to pile on.”
Asked by The Jerusalem Post to explain how their approach has thus far produced the results the president seeks from Jerusalem, Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national- security adviser for strategic communications, said the public feuds were over unavoidable and substantial policy differences.
“The most prominent difference that we’ve had with the Israeli government is over the nuclear deal that was reached with Iran,” Rhodes said. “And I think the fact of the matter is, that wasn’t an issue of the United States criticizing Israel.
That was a matter of the Israeli government objecting to our nuclear deal.”
“Absent us not conducting diplomacy with Iran and reaching a nuclear deal, I think there was going to be a difference over the issue,” Rhodes continued.
“And there’s just nothing that can be done to cover up the fact that we had a policy difference.”
Specifically, Rhodes said that, since taking office, the White House had established “the most effective and far-reaching security cooperation that the United States and Israel have ever had”– particularly notable, he said, in light of the disagreement over Iran.
And yet when he arrives in the Oval Office on Monday morning for his sixteenth meeting with Obama, Netanyahu will explain that he seeks an increase in US defense aid from $3 billion to $5 billion a year, precisely because of disruptions in Israel’s security environment after the nuclear agreement. He will argue, in other words, that US aid needs to be increased to offset US policies that run contrary to Israel’s national security interests.
“What President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have been able to do together is demonstrate that even as they can have a difference on an issue as consequential as the Iranian nuclear deal, they can direct their governments to cooperate at an unprecedented level in ways that contribute very meaningfully to Israel and its security,” Rhodes told the Post.
“What has been accomplished is that Israeli lives have been saved by the deployment of the Iron Dome missile system directed at the threat that Israel faces from rocket fire. And I’d point out that we’re going to have discussions in this meeting about what can be done with that and other missile defense systems to protect the Israeli people from the threat of terrorism and rocket fire.”
Asked specifically to respond to Clinton’s September comments, Rhodes said the administration – both during and after her tenure at the State Department – has consistently fought against efforts to delegitimize Israel.
“I think we would share the notion that we can have differences of views over Iran and over, at times, the pursuit of a two-state solution with the Palestinians,” Rhodes said. “But I think we’ve demonstrated that if you look at the actions of our government on security cooperation and in our diplomacy and international fora, we have stood up for Israel security and we’ve stood against efforts to delegitimize Israel.”
Before departing for Washington on Sunday, Netanyahu told his weekly cabinet that Monday’s meeting with Obama “is important in order to clarify the continuation of American aid to Israel in the coming decade. It will be another step toward realizing an understanding in this direction.”
Netanyahu added, “My conversation with the president will center on recent events in the Middle East, including in Syria, possible progress with the Palestinians, or at least stabilizing the situation with them, and, of course, strengthening the security of the State of Israel, which the US has always been committed to, while maintaining the State of Israel’s comparative advantage in the face of a changing Middle East.”
On Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden swore in Florida that the US was committed to helping Israel maintain its qualitative edge when he addressed the 2015 Biennial of the Union of Reform Judaism.
“No disagreement President Obama has ever had [with Netanyahu] has lessened a single iota our enduring unwavering commitment to be the guarantor of Israel’s security, period,” Biden said.
He spoke strongly about this point, even though reports out of Washington suggest that Netanyahu will leave without receiving a firm pledge for the funds, but rather the two sides would set up a framework to discuss the need for increased aid.
“We are keeping the commitment we made to sit down to mutually determine what best meets their needs [Israel’s needs] across the board,” Biden said. He told that audience that he would participate in Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu and meet with him separately.
But he also touched on the second topic of disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem, which is the path to a two-state solution.
Already last week officials in Washington said they did not believe it was possible to reach that goal during the time that remained in Obama’s administration.
Obama will be looking to Netanyahu to explain what steps he will take to keep open the option of a two-state solution.
The United States, Biden said, has strongly condemned Palestinian incitement and violence against Israel.
“There is an urgent need to take steps to restore the calm and defuse the tension.”
He cautioned, “Both sides need to demonstrate restraint and avoid incitement. We do not want another intifada, we do not want to risk violence escalating any further.”
“We have to find our way back to achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. We should never abandon the hope of achieving a two-state solution with two peoples living side by side in peace and security,” said Biden, adding, “nothing would ensure Israel’s long term security better than a two state solution.
Let’s stop the talk of abandoning that goal.”
Separately, CNN reported on Sunday that at least some of the intercepts being used in the ongoing investigation into what caused a Russian jetliner’s crash in Egypt’s Sinai comes from Israeli intelligence sources. According to a US official briefed on intelligence matters pertaining to the situation, Israeli intelligence sources intercepted communications between ISIS affiliates in Sinai, who have since claimed responsibility for the downing of the plane.
Israel had no comment on the matter.