What’s next for the US-Israel relationship

It will be on the next president to uphold its promises to the American people – to hold Iran accountable for its behavior, and to enforce sanctions when necessary.

November 12, 2016 21:31
4 minute read.
PM Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry

PM Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Today, as the voting comes to a close, so will the frostiest US-Israel relationship in decades.

The past eight years marked memorably low moments between the two nations’ leaders, including the 2010 White House dinner snub; President Barack Obama and French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s hot mic slander; and of course, the anonymous administration official who referred to Israel’s prime minister as a “chickenshit” in The Atlantic. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has likened his relationship with Obama to a (bad) “marriage” – but even this seems charitable.

Nevertheless, both countries worked together at the highest level. Given that the Middle East in 2016 is a lot bloodier and less predictable than it was in 2008, it would serve the next president well to continue existing security cooperation while going a step further and mending the fractious relationship.

What can be fixed?

No more daylight

As former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren pointed out in his book Ally, the United States traditionally has had a longstanding policy of “no daylight” between itself and Israel. This doesn’t mean disagreements don’t exist, but rather that to the extent possible they should remain behind the scenes.

In July 2009, President Obama decided to change that.

In a meeting with Jewish leaders he was quoted as saying, “For eight years [i.e., during the Bush administration], there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished.” Over the next two terms, the president did little to hide those differences. In fact, there were times where his disdain was blaring.

Consider Netanyahu’s reelection in 2013. It took Obama an entire week to call Netanyahu to congratulate him. By contrast, it took only hours for him to call the Muslim Brotherhood candidate and then Egyptian president elect Mohammed Morsi on winning his election. He was also quicker to call Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012, despite rumors that the Russian vote was rigged. As one Washington Post columnist and Middle East expert put it, “Netanyahu is being treated [by Obama] as if he were an unsavory Third World dictator.”

If Obama hoped daylight would somehow move along the peace process, his eight years in office proved the opposite. Unlike his predecessors who brokered Oslo and the Gaza disengagement, Obama’s alienation of Israel yielded a stagnant peace process, and an Israeli – and Arab – public increasingly weary of him.

Call out the enemy

In the 2009 Cairo speech, Obama formally laid out his outreach mission to the Muslim world. While the feel-good address recognized important contributions made by Muslims in the arts, sciences and philosophy, it missed the opportunity to mention an enemy common to the West and Muslim world: radical Islam. Dubbed “the new beginning,” this conciliatory approach would define the rest of his presidency’s war on terrorism. Obama was too often wrapped up in antiwar dreams to acknowledge the nightmare of a perilous Islamist ideology raging across the Middle East.

Perhaps the apex of the administration’s reluctance to articulate what or who we are fighting was Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France: “There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that,” Kerry said in Paris, according to a transcript of his remarks. “There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of – not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, OK, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people.”

Kerry tried walking back the comments but what emerged from the remarks was an administration either too misguided to understand what was behind all of the Paris attacks or worse, one that was too apprehensive to articulate the truth: that the same terrorism behind slaughtered journalists in Paris was behind beheaded infidels in North Africa, and parents gunned down in front of their children – even in the West Bank.


When Obama ran for office in 2008, he often suggested that he would dismantle the partisanship that had jammed Congress in the past. Fast forward to his final State of the Union address: he referred to the partisan divide as “one of the regrets of my presidency.” Between brokering one of the most significant national security deals in modern history- the Iran deal- and Obamacare, both with no Republican votes, it frequently felt like he was running a one-party show.

Partisanship is the kryptonite to the US-Israel relationship. Practically, the only way to build a lasting consensus for pro-Israel policy is through achieving unity on both sides of the aisle.

One of the imperatives for Trump will be to reunify Congress. In an era of détente with Iran, growing skepticism among our Saudi/Gulf State allies and increasing global jihadism, it’s on him to drive the message home that support for Israel is strategic, not burdensome and that it transcends party lines- as it has since Truman.

President Trump is inheriting a complex legacy; one fraught with policy and personal disagreements but also high-level security cooperation. His Israel adviser, David Friedman, has vowed that this tension will ease under him, that “the level of friendship between the US and Israel is going to grow like never before”. That the security cooperation would continue is almost a no-brainer. But if Friedman’s words prove true, Israel could also use a friend.

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