US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, October 1, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There really is no crisis in the US-Israel relationship. Not yet, but it could be just over the horizon. What is going on for now is a spitting match between two leaders who don’t like and don’t trust each other.
This clash of personalities could be come a clash of interests if both sides are not careful. So far there is no sign of change in the billions of dollars in economic assistance, access to top-of-the-line weapons technology, sharing of intelligence and full diplomatic backing in hostile environments. That last one could be sorely tested in the next few months.
Under Benjamin Netanyahu’s stewardship there has been a steady and serious but not surprising erosion of Israel’s relations with its most important allies. It faces increasing isolation and condemnation that can’t continually be dismissed as “the whole world is against us.”
Barack Obama came to office with little empathy for Israel and none of the affection in his kishkes that his two predecessors had. Even before taking office he made it known that being pro-Israel did not require loyalty to the Likud, a clear signal to Netanyahu of trouble ahead.
As the junior partner in the alliance, Netanyahu has demonstrated the arrogance and disdain that once led an exasperated Bill Clinton to explode, “He thinks he’s the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires.”
But let’s be clear; relations are not the worst ever.
An unnamed senior administration official was quoted by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic last week calling the prime minister a “chickenshit.” The choice of words was unhelpful but it got attention. The message was clear: this White House considers Netanyahu a coward who lacks the courage to stand up to extremist coalition partners and is scared to “reach an accommodation with the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu responded, “I am under attack simply because I am defending the State of Israel.” But he knows that’s true and only confirmed the validity of the charge.
As the anonymous administration source said, “The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not Rabin, he’s not Sharon, he’s certainly no Begin. He’s got no guts.” Netanyahu is seen as “a no-vision small-timer who worries mainly about pleasing the hardest core of his political constituency.”
(By that standard, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is also a chickenshit. His increasingly inflammatory rhetoric – calling a settlement announcement “a declaration of war” amid growing violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank – could spark a third intifada that he really doesn’t want.) Secretary of State John Kerry quickly condemned the “chickenshit” epithet as “disgraceful, unacceptable, damaging” and phoned Netanyahu to apologize. He later said he believes peace “is doable but it takes courage. It takes strength. Both sides have to be prepared to compromise.”
Kerry may be the last one in Washington who believes peace is doable under the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and he intends to keep prodding them.
Palestinian officials were in town this week to meet with Kerry on their plan to ask to the UN Security Council to set a two-year deadline for an end to the occupation and recognition of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines. Kerry told them Washington won’t support that and prefers seeing direct negotiations resumed.
Palestinians are hoping that in light of the rising tensions between Washington and Jerusalem, the Obama administration might not veto their resolution but work with them on an acceptable alternative. Acceptable, that is, to the United States and the Palestinians; it is hard to imagine anything acceptable to Netanyahu, who is said to be planning new elections for next year and looking to dump his centrist partners in favor of more right-wing, nationalist partners who reject Palestinian statehood.
As US frustration with Netanyahu grows, one early result could be an end to the automatic veto of UN resolutions opposed by Jerusalem.
That will certainly create an outcry from the Congress and the Jewish community, demanding he back down. If he does, an administration with a reputation for weakness in foreign policy will look even weaker.
Another card the administration can play is publishing its own vision of what the two-state approach should look like, including maps of where it would like to see the borders drawn.
Even before that issue arises, a potential flashpoint is the November 24 target date for a nuclear agreement with Iran. Whatever the outcome Netanyahu is certain to object and can be expected to mobilize his friends, particularly Republicans in Congress who would be delighted to oppose Obama on anything, to kill the deal and impose tough new sanctions. Look for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a close Netanyahu ally which has made this its signature issue for more than two decades, to lead the charge.
Goldberg and others report Netanyahu has written off Obama for the past two years of his administration and decided to bypass the administration and deal directly with the Congress, especially the Republicans, and the Jewish leadership to pursue his agenda.
That strategy, which Netanyahu also employed during his first term in the 1990s when he aligned with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Republicans to block the Clinton administration’s peace policies, could backfire. Israeli analysts have said that strategy was a major contributor to Netanyahu’s landslide defeat in the 1999 election.
The White House is well aware than in the 2012 election Netanyahu, his financial backer Sheldon Adelson and his confidante and future ambassador Ron Dermer teamed up to try to unseat Obama and elect fellow Republican Mitt Romne. Meddling in American partisan politics is an old habit for Netanyahu and look for it more of it over the next two years.
The alliance is not collapsing, as some fret. The essential defense/intelligence/security relationship as well as the economic support continue to be strong. The first signs of weakness could show up very soon in the political-diplomatic arena and could be game changers. Friends and foes alike will be watching to see how Netanyahu responds to the outcome of this week’s US elections and what lessons both he and Obama learn from “chickenshit-gate.”