American Jews are apoplectic. While they watch in astonishment, Israel’s leaders are doing everything they can to disrupt and degrade Israel’s relations with her most important ally, the United States of America. Jewish leaders are not only dismayed but genuinely puzzled. Why in heaven’s name, they wonder, would Israeli officials do things that are guaranteed to undermine the goodwill so essential to Israel’s security and well-being?
American Jews know that America is Israel’s indispensable ally. Absent American support, Israel’s military deterrent would evaporate in a single day. Israel’s sophisticated weapon systems are provided by America, and so is much of the funding for these systems. Indispensable as well is American political backing in an increasingly hostile international environment. There is no substitute for American support, period.
And the issue here is not differences over Iran, settlements, and peace talks. There are significant policy disagreements on these matters—and sometimes, Israel is right and America is wrong. But the American government understands that allies sometimes differ. What it does not understand is why an ally that is the largest recipient of American aid regularly acts in ways that range from ungrateful to insulting.
The Obama administration has still not forgotten the actions of Prime Minister Netanyahu prior to the 2012 presidential election that were seen by operatives of both parties as lending support to Obama’s rival, Mitt Romney. But one need not go back to 2012 to find provocations by senior members of Israel’s current government. To take a few more recent examples:
Netanyahu’s September meeting with the President was held in the wake of an Israeli announcement of settlement building, followed by the Prime Minister’s statement to the American news media that Obama was acting contrary to American values. And the day before the White House meeting, Netanyahu held a widely-publicized meeting in a New York City restaurant with Sheldon Adelson, the Obama-hating Republican tycoon who spent tens of millions of dollars to oust Obama from office.
None of these things was necessary. The now established pattern of announcing settlements immediately prior to significant meetings or events under American auspices succeeds only in infuriating the Americans; the announcements could easily be made at other times. And note to the Prime Minister: American presidents do not like being lectured by Israeli politicians on “American values.” A simple statement that “Israel and America have differences on the complicated settlement issue” would have been sufficient. And if Netanyahu wants to break bread with Adelson, fine; but as numerous Israeli commentators have pointed out, arranging a private get-together in a hotel suite would have been far preferable to the hoopla of a very public meeting in the middle of New York.
And Netanyahu is not the only guilty party. Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s Defense Minister, famously accused Secretary of State John Kerry in January of being “obsessive and messianic” in his approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace, and followed up in March with another round of insults directed at America. He offered apologies that were weak and unconvincing, with the result that during his visit last week to Washington, he was denied meetings with senior administration officials. Gilad Erdan, another senior minister with close ties to Netanyahu, has just accused John Kerry of making statements encouraging “moral debasement.” And not a week goes by without Naftali Bennett adding his voice to the chorus of anti-American abuse.
Again, some of the concerns articulated by Israel’s leaders are real and some of the substance is right. But the tone is unforgivable, the forum inappropriate, and the collective impact is, by now, disastrous. The way to express disagreements with an important ally is quietly and behind closed doors. When a small country has a superpower patron, the key is to avoid debates in the media. Allies do not surprise each other or exchange public insults.
As noted, American Jews are concerned and puzzled. What might explain the motivations of those who engage in these attacks? Some Israelis reassure them by pointing out that shared national interests will always trump personal tensions.
But such reasoning is flawed and dangerous. Obama will be President for two more years, during which major decisions will be made by America on the Iran nuclear threat and unrest in the region. Israel is vulnerable now on many fronts, and maintaining goodwill between America and Israel at this juncture is essential. And while national interests are foremost, personal relations are critical as well. Strong personal ties and trust between top leaders in both countries enable mistakes to be avoided, points of friction to be resolved, and misunderstandings to be clarified. Without such ties, every difference of opinion is a potential crisis.
My sense is that Israelis on the right, anticipating Israeli elections, have decided that dumping on America is good election strategy for themselves and their parties. And perhaps they feel that if pro forma apologies are then offered, America will forgive—and in any case, Israel can count on being protected by a Republican Congress, likely to be elected next week.
The problem with this strategy is that it is insanity, risking Israel’s most precious asset to advance interests that are narrow, personal, and partisan. Netanyahu needs to speak up, right now, and make clear that ministers who sit in his government are obligated to refrain from public attacks on America. And American Jews need to remind Israel that America is Israel’s lifeline and is irreplaceable.