The volcano has finally erupted. In Greek mythology, when a volcano erupts the gods are angry. Israel-United States relations are generally good, they are calm and partly hidden deep underground. But in moments of stress, which have been multiplying of late, the lava begins to boil. Sometimes there are warning signs, when smoke comes out the mountain’s mouth, and sometimes there are not. Then, if the temperature rises, the volcano erupts in a great blast of fire, and burns its surroundings and sometimes even distant areas.
The Greeks thought that it was how the gods expressed their anger, and sought a way to appease them. In the 21st century this god is called Barack Obama, and this week he was angry, really angry.
The long-standing relationship between the two countries is based on two foundations – interests and values . The interesting part was that this duality corresponds with the general political division in the United States between Democrats and Republicans.
The Republicans looks at the world in terms of power: America the Great leads the world. It relies on its economic and military power and if necessary acts as an international policeman. Today it is the leading force in the battle against the Iranian nuclear program and the insane Islamic extremism. In domestic affairs the Republicans are devotees of competition and believe that people are able to move forward due to their capabilities and ability, without government involvement.
The Democrats perceive the world in terms of values and employing dialogue and discourse. The main message of America is democracy. It is fighting for freedom, human rights, equality for minorities, women’s rights and peacemaking around the entire world. Domestically, they believe it is the state’s obligation to close social gaps and to help the minorities that were pushed aside by the system.
Through the years, Israel has been able to connect with the two political camps and has developed useful and productive dialogues with both. The Republicans see us as the long arm of the West, confronting its enemies, radical Islam these days and before that the Eastern Bloc. The Democrats are happy that among all the regimes, dictatorships and partial democracies in the Middle East, there is also a complete democracy that is stormy and choppy at times but real.
Every US president found in his personal worldview the worthy reasons to continue the close connection – military assistance, solid political support (veto in the UN Security Council, support at international institutions and international conferences such as Durban I in 2001), agreements and economic cooperation on various fronts over the years.
The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is, however, notably bad. From the first there was no love lost between the two men, first of all because Obama is a Democrat and Netanyahu holds Republican views.
Obama is looking for the values that established Israel and make the country function, while Netanyahu expects the United States to act firmly in the international system, first use force and then talk.
The Iranian issue demonstrates this well.
While Obama would prefer to reach an agreement with Iran after exhausting the power of economic sanctions, Netanyahu feels betrayed, as he expected military action if the sanctions fail to put a halt to the enrichment of uranium, as happened.
This week the Americans came out and called Netanyahu “chickenshit” – not in the least because of their perception that he threatened to use military force but in the end expected that the Americans would do the work for him. This criticism surely grated on Netanyahu, who is a former General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) warrior. Two of Netanyahu’s predecessors sought US approval to attack Arab nuclear activity. Menachem Begin destroyed Osirak in Iraq in 1981, and, according to foreign sources, Ehud Olmert destroyed a facility in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor region in 2007. No leader likes being compared to his predecessors and being found wanting.
Another focus of the tension is the Israeli- Palestinian relationship. The American government blames the failure of the negotiations on Netanyahu and his ministers (Naftali Bennett, Moshe Ya’alon, Uri Ariel) and thus appointed John Kerry to carry out the mission. Kerry jumped into the pool head first, only to discover at the last minute that there was no water. Personal insults certainly did not contribute to improving the atmosphere. Netanyahu, despite their good personal relationship, declined to rescue him. Obama still expects that democratic Israel, as it is perceived by him, will not expropriate land, not build in the territories, and not create an apartheid regime on the bus service in the West Bank.
The recent Gaza war also contributed to the disrupted US-Israeli relationship.
Israel received full support from the US, but eroded it with aggressive activity that caused a very high number of casualties and unbelievable destruction in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, it stymied Kerry’s initiative for a cease-fire and mocked him behind his back. The bottom line is that, despite it all, Israel failed to crush or topple Hamas. Israel’s achievements seem quite incomplete and it certainly failed to project its military power.
The US government hurried to try to fix the damage caused by the “chickenshit” comment, as if trying to return the lava back to the volcano. But even the Americans can’t do that. What was said, was said.
However, the reality in the Middle East, the chronic instability and violent extremism, require Israel and the United States, out of shared responsibility, to take a deep breath and calm down. We do not have the luxury to fight right now.
Netanyahu should initiate a gesture of reconciliation, perhaps a phone call, or maybe a special envoy to Washington, to appease the angry ones there. You can disagree with the Americans’ opinions, because even they had many mistaken perceptions of the Middle East in recent years. But all that is for behind closed doors. On the public front, it is better if we stand together. If not, the United States – and Israel even more so – have a lot to lose.
Dr. Nachman Shai is a member of the Knesset for the Labor Party, deputy speaker and chairman of the Lobby for US-Israel Relations at the Knesset.
Translated by Maya Pelleg.
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