Lion's Den: The solace of poor US-Israel relations

Historically, strong Israel-US ties induce irreversible Israeli retreats, poor ties abort this process.

April 13, 2010 22:44
3 minute read.

Things are not always as they seem; the current crisis in US-Israel relations has a silver lining.

Four observations, all derived from historical patterns, prompt this conclusion:

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First, the “peace process” is in actuality a “war process.” Diplomatic negotiations through the 1990s led to a parade of Israeli retreats that had the perverse effect of turning the middling-bad situation of 1993 into the awful one of 2000. Painful Israeli concessions, we now know, stimulate not reciprocal Palestinian goodwill but rather irredentism, ambition, fury and violence.

Second, Israeli concessions to the Arabs are effectively forever, while relations with Washington fluctuate. Once the Israelis left south Lebanon and Gaza, they did so for good, as would be the case with the Golan Heights or eastern Jerusalem; undoing these steps would be prohibitively costly. In contrast, US-Israel tensions depend on personalities and circumstances, and the stakes are relatively lower. Each president or prime minister can refute his predecessor’s views and tone. Problems can be repaired quickly.

MORE BROADLY, the US-Israel bond has strengths that go far beyond the politicians and issues of the moment. Nothing on earth resembles this bilateral, “most special” of special relationships and “the family relationship of international politics.” Like any family tie, it has high points (Israel ranks second, behind only the US, in number of companies listed on NASDAQ) and low ones (the Jonathan Pollard affair continues to rankle a quarter century after it broke). The tie has a unique intensity when it comes to strategic cooperation, economic connections, intellectual ties, shared values, UN voting records, religious commonalities and even interference in each other’s internal affairs.

From Israel’s perspective, then, political relations with the Arabs are freighted but those with Washington have a lightness and flexibility.

Third, when Israeli leaders enjoy strong, trusting relations with Washington, they give more to the Arabs. Golda Meir made concessions to Richard Nixon, Menachem Begin to Jimmy Carter, Yitzhak Rabin, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak to Bill Clinton and Ariel Sharon to George W. Bush.

Conversely, mistrust of Washington tightens Israelis and ends the willingness to take chances. That was the case with George H.W. Bush, and is even more so with Barack Obama. The current unease began even before Obama reached the Oval Office, given his public association with prominent Israel-haters (e.g. Ali Abunimah, Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said, Jeremiah Wright). Relations degenerated in March, when his administration simulated outrage over an announcement of routine construction work in Jerusalem, followed by a brutal telephone call from the secretary of state and a tense White House summit meeting.

TO MAKE matters worse, the Obama administration figure most identified with maintaining good US-Israel relations, Dennis Ross, was anonymously accused by a colleague last month of being “far more sensitive to Netanyahu’s coalition politics than to US interests.”

A prominent foreign policy analyst used this to raise questions about Ross having a “dual loyalty” to Israel, impugning Ross’ policy advice.

These ugly and virtually unprecedented tensions have had a predictable effect on the Israeli public, making it mistrustful of Obama and resistant to US pressure, while inspiring usually squabbling politicians to work together to resist his policies.

Fourth, US-Israel tensions increase Palestinian intransigence and demands. Israel in bad standing empowers their leaders, and if the tensions arise from US pressure for concessions to the Palestinians, the latter sit back and enjoy the show. This happened in mid-2009, when Mahmoud Abbas told Americans what to extract from Jerusalem. Conversely, when US-Israel relations flourish, Palestinian leaders feel pressure to meet Israelis, pretend to negotiate and sign documents.

Combining these four presumptions results in a counterintuitive conclusion: Strong US-Israel ties induce irreversible Israeli mistakes. Poor US-Israel ties abort this process. Obama may expect that picking a fight with Israel will produce negotiations, but it will have the opposite effect. He may think he is approaching a diplomatic breakthrough but in fact he is rendering that less likely. Those who fear more “war process” can thus take some solace in the administration’s blunders.

The complexity of US-Israel relations leaves much room for paradox and inadvertency. A look beyond a worrisome turn of events suggests that good may come of it.

The writer ( is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

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