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:
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.
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
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 (www.DanielPipes.org) is director of the Middle
East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover
Institution of Stanford University.
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