Israelis more likely to blame Obama, not Netanyahu, for 'crisis' in ties with US

Ties with the Obama administration might indeed be lacking, but Israeli-US relations go far beyond the administration and extend to the Pentagon, Congress, the business sector and the public.

October 27, 2014 01:02
3 minute read.
King David Hotel

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look out a window before their lunch at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO / PETE SOUZA)

You can only cry wolf for so long, critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently complain regarding his constant warning that Iran is on the cusp of a nuclear bomb, before those cries lose their impact.

The same is true of a “crisis” in US-Israel ties.

Every other week, it seems, someone out there is bewailing that the US-Israel relationship is in trouble. This week was Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s turn, saying Saturday that as a result of the high-profile White House snub of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, “there is a crisis with the US and we should treat it as a crisis.”

This “crisis” followed by just a couple of weeks another “crisis” when the White House spokesman slammed Israel in particularly harsh terms for announcing plans to develop Givat Hamatos and for moving Jewish families into the predominantly Arab east Jerusalem neighborhood Silwan. Netanyahu only deepened the “crisis” when he responded that he was “baffled” by the response.

And that followed numerous other “crises” during Operation Protective Edge, including when Netanyahu told US Ambassador Dan Shapiro not to second-guess him on Hamas, and the US slammed Israel for slamming Secretary of State John Kerry for his clumsy handling of initial cease-fire efforts.

And on and on and on, going back months to Kerry’s comments about Israel being isolated and his warning of a third intifada.

Ya’alon himself was at the center of a couple of these crises, having spoken in undiplomatic terms about Kerry – saying he was obsessed with the Middle East and had a “messianic” syndrome – words that seemed to knock the world’s mightiest power somewhat off kilter.

For much of the past six years, since Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama began their terms in office – one “crisis” has followed the other in US-Israel ties to the point where the word has lost much of its meaning.

Following Ya’alon’s criticism of Kerry, last week’s snub by the White House should not really have come as any surprise. Is it good that the defense minister can’t get a meeting in the White House though he did get one at the Pentagon? Obviously not. Is this the level of communication you want with your greatest ally at a time when the region is in flames and Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear threshold state? Obviously not.

But are relations actually in a crisis? Ties with the Obama administration might indeed be lacking, but Israeli-US relations go far beyond the administration and extend to the Pentagon, Congress, the business sector and the public. And those ties are not in a crisis. Not at all.

Still, Lapid says they are, and Lapid, the country’s finance minister, must know of what he speaks. Or, perhaps Lapid – like seemingly everyone else in the land – is getting a whiff of new elections and looking for an issue to run on in the next campaign.

One of those issues might be improving ties with the US. If they are indeed in trouble, as Lapid maintains, then someone is to blame, and that someone must be Netanyahu. So get rid of Netanyahu and restore the relationship that everyone realizes is so critical to Israel’s strategic health.

Before choosing this as a marquee issue, however, Lapid would do well to look back at 2012 when Tzipi Livni ran on a similar platform against Netanyahu.

Much of Livni’s campaign revolved around her claim that the prime minister was poisoning ties with Washington. The electorate, however, didn’t buy it. Or if they did agree that relations with the US were not exactly what they should be, they didn’t necessarily blame Netanyahu (perhaps they blamed Obama), and Livni ended up with a very disappointing six Knesset seats.

Likewise, the Obama administration should take note. As the polls have consistently borne out during the six years Obama and Netanyahu have been forced to work together, when the two lock horns the Israeli public rallies around its leader, not the US president.

Since the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian talks some six months ago, various administration officials have left the distinct impression that they view a change of government in Israel as one way to break the diplomatic logjam. Fueling a “crisis” atmosphere might be one way to achieve that goal.

But they should be cautious. In a fight between Washington and Jerusalem, there is no guarantee the voters will blame Netanyahu and Ya’alon, to the benefit of a Lipid or Livni, more than they will Obama and Kerry.

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