Real differences

The differences between the Obama administration and Israel’s chosen government might be brushed over, but no amount of Democratic pushback will make them go away.

March 30, 2015 22:31
4 minute read.
Netanyahu and Obama

Netanyahu and Obama. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

It had to come, but the question remains will it work or not? The Democratic pushback against US President Barack Obama’s highly publicized reassessment of American relations with Israel began last week.

JTA’s Ron Kampeas reported that Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York) had relayed to the White House that “it’s time to cool it.”

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“The US-Israel relationship is based on shared values and an unbreakable bond, not personalities,” Lowey reportedly said.

Politico reported that about a dozen Jewish Democratic members of Congress, including Lowey, met with White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and told him to ask Obama to back off.

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Jewish members of the House were also upset about comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they told Rhodes, but Obama’s swipes at Netanyahu in recent weeks “felt vindictive and gratuitous.”

At least once during Netanyahu and Obama’s rocky relationship of over six years as heads of their respective countries, a Democratic pushback succeeded in quelling tensions.

In March 2010, during a visit to Israel by US Vice President Joe Biden, an Israeli planning committee announced a housing project to be built in Ramat Shlomo, a Jerusalem neighborhood located over the Green Line.

Just a few months before, the Obama administration had demanded that Netanyahu’s government institute a building freeze in all areas beyond the 1949 armistice line. Now Israel was defying Washington, and doing so openly while the vice president was in Israel for a visit.

Then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton lectured Netanyahu on the phone for 45 minutes. A few weeks later Obama kept Netanyahu waiting in the White House for an hour to draft a response to US demands while he went to eat dinner with his wife and girls. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US at the time, reportedly said US-Israel ties were facing their worst crisis in 35 years.

In April, the mood shifted after leading Democrats in the House signaled to Obama that he had pushed too hard.

But will the present Democratic pushback work? There are a number of reasons to believe that it won’t. First, Obama has made it clear that the tensions between himself and Netanyahu are not personal but substantive. In a press conference in the White House last Tuesday, Obama said: “We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israel’s security, for Palestinian aspirations, and for regional stability. That’s our view, and that continues to be our view.

And Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different approach.

And so this can’t be reduced to a matter of somehow let’s all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’” Obama and Netanyahu have deep differences of opinion that are played out in their respective policy visions. This is true about the two-state solution. It is also true regarding Iran, another major source of tension between the two leaders.

Obama has faith in the ability of diplomacy, negotiations and “engagement” with the Iranians as the best strategy for dealing with the threat presented by an Iran with nuclear weapons.

In contrast, Netanyahu, many Israelis and quite a few American critics of Obama (not just Republicans) are rightly concerned that after being in office for six years, the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East has very little to show for its efforts. Anarchy seems to be spreading, from Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

Israel and its borders, in contrast, are a relative oasis of stability.

This hardly seems the time to be taking chances by creating a Palestinian state that will inevitably be corrupt and autocratic and vulnerable to takeover by Hamas, as in the case of the Gaza Strip. And the Obama administration is hardly in a position to be lecturing to Israel about how best to solve its conflict with the Palestinians.

Further hurting relations between the Obama administration and Israel is the perception – not just among Israelis but also among the heads of Gulf states, Obama’s many American critics (not just Republicans) and even the French – that a tougher stand needs to be taken against the Iranians to prevent them from achieving nuclear weapons capability.

Obama is right. The differences between the Obama administration and Israel’s chosen government “can’t be reduced to a matter of somehow let’s all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’” They are much more substantive. They might be brushed over, but no amount of Democratic pushback will make them go away.

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