The US and Israel: Top Ten Events of 2014

Historic moments, tense and opportune, made for a tumultuous year in the US-Israel relationship.

Israel and US flags (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Israel and US flags
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Relations between Washington and Jerusalem were marked this year, in large part, by insults.
"Poof" went the prospects of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, said US Secretary of State John Kerry, who himself was labeled "messianic" by Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya'alon for his "obsessive" focus on the peace process. Kerry later said Israel would become an "apartheid" state on its current path.
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was called "chickenshit" on Iran by an American official unwilling to speak on the record, skeptical of his willingness to bomb the state's nuclear facilities. On US air waves, Netanyahu called the Obama administration's critique of his governance "un-American."
And in wartime, as a team sent from the Pentagon surveyed new Israeli tactics to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza, State Department officials called some Israeli strikes "appalling" in public, unbecoming of an American ally.
Rhetoric aside, what actually defined the US-Israel relationship in 2014 were shared trials under fire from Islamic extremism, on the Israeli home front and throughout a fast-spiraling Middle East. Taken as a whole, these trends reflect a continuously strengthening alliance, challenged practically by policy differences on how best to confront similar threats.​
10. Kerry's peace push definitively fails.
Secretary Kerry began his push for peace in 2013 with fanfare: Handshakes were photographed in Foggy Bottom, and a deadline was set for peace by April of 2014.
Looking back on the process, much of that time was wasted, according to Martin Indyk, the president's special envoy to the effort. In a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy delivered in May, Indyk chided the Palestinian Authority for its rhetoric and leaks to the press, and its leadership for ultimately reconciling with Hamas.
Indyk also placed much of the blame on Israeli leadership, which, from his accounting, allowed settlement activity to continue in a manner that publicly humiliated Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
In the early months of 2014, Netanyahu focused on Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state; the request was dismissed by the PA and the State Department as a fool's errand. The topic of Israel's Jewish nature was a theme throughout the year, with the State Department suggesting disapproval of a Knesset bill that would declare the state definitionally Jewish.
A comprehensive peace accord nowhere in site, the parties agreed to work on a framework agreement for the continuation of talks. That fell apart at the announcement of a unity deal between Fatah and Hamas, and the framework document was never fully published.
Both sides praised Kerry for his effort. But its definitive failure primed the region for renewed conflict. Violence in Jerusalem, heated rhetoric between the capitals and a war in Gaza swiftly followed, all of which tested US-Israel relations.
9. Palestinian unrest claims American lives.
Ten Israelis were killed this autumn in a spike in violence that gripped Jerusalem— and half of them were also American, including several praying rabbis butchered with meat cleavers and a baby girl thrown from her stroller, hit intentionally by a car.
Earlier, 16-year-old Naftali Fraenkel, an Israeli-American, was one of three teenagers kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank. Their killings in June led to rogue reprisal attacks against Arabs, a major security sweep of the territory and, ultimately, war between Hamas and the IDF in Gaza.
In that single month of violence, Palestinian terrorism claimed more American lives than were taken by Islamic State in public executions.
Americans were not only victims of Palestinian violence: Three days after the abduction of the teens, 15-year-old American citizen Tariq Abu Khdeir was videotaped beaten by Israeli security forces in Jerusalem. The State Department condemned all the incidents and called for investigations.
Ultimately, the high American death toll reflects a steady trend: American Jews pursuing aliyah are predominantly religiously observant, settling in hot zones of the conflict. Their presence provides yet another reason to expect continued American involvement in the peace process.
8. United States scopes out an Israeli-Arab alignment.
"Quiet talks" are under way between Israel and its Arab neighbors over the possibility of a "major strategic realignment" over shared threats, Vice President Joe Biden told the Jewish Federations in November, citing "violent Islamic extremists" and a "regional struggle against Iran" as chief among them.
"Shame on us if we are not as nimble and as capable as our grandparents were in taking advantage of this— for the first time in the history of the state of Israel— common and consistent concern about the same threats," Biden said. "The historic conversion of basic interests creates the chance, just a chance, for closer relations between Israel and the entire Arab world."
Netanyahu has acknowledged those efforts, calling the opportunity an historic one in the life of Israel— and proof that Israeli-Arab peace is not predicated on the founding of a Palestinian state.
“Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world,” Netanyahu told the General Assembly this autumn. “But these days I think it may work the other way around: Namely, that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
Biden disagreed: Alignment is only possible coupled with a two-state solution, he told the group.
7. Israel's defense minister is banned from the White House.
Washington's facilitation of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians inserted American players into domestic politics— subjecting them to heated political rhetoric, perhaps none so harshly phrased as the comments of Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon back in January.
Entering the third quarter of the talks, Ya'alon said privately that Kerry was obsessed with the peace process, "messianic" in his ambitions, and suggested the region would be better off without his meddling. His comments were leaked, creating a media firestorm; the State Department issued a rare demand for the minister's apology.
When Ya'alon visited Washington six months later, the White House refused to grant him any meetings. US officials acknowledged at the time that Ya'alon had crossed a clear line and that the snub was intentional.
6. United States elevates Israel to "strategic partner."
US President Barack Obama's last act of the year at the White House was signing the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act into law. The act is an omnibus for the relationship, expanding cooperation across industries with a focus on defense.
Lawmakers across party lines took over a year to draft this legislation, which recommits the US to maintaining Israel's "qualitative military edge" over its neighbors and allows for the forward deployment of US made weapons in Israeli conflicts.
Perhaps most importantly, the law designates Israel as a "major strategic partner"— elevating the alliance from major non-NATO ally. No other country holds the US designation.
5. Washington brokers an historic gas deal between Israel and Jordan.
Invested in the stability of Jordan, the State Department helped facilitate a preliminary gas deal over the summer between Amman and Jerusalem that will provide Jordanians with 45 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Israeli seas over a 15-year period.
The deal, worth an estimated $15 billion, faces some political obstruction in Amman, where anger with Israel has grown since the Gaza war over the summer and throughout an increase in tensions over the Temple Mount-Haram al-Sharif this fall.
Nevertheless, the deal ties Jordan and Israel together economically more than any other individual agreement. Jordanian firms are now among the largest stakeholders in the Leviathan and Tamar reservoirs, providing the Arab country with a desperately-sought economical energy source.
Cyprus and Turkey are also considering opportunities with Israeli gas firms, though souring relations between Jerusalem and Ankara have reportedly frozen their talks.
4. Israel criticizes Pentagon for security failures in Iraq.
The dramatic rise of Islamic State shocked Washington and Jerusalem with equal measures of discomfort and fear. Netanyahu and then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni linked the group to a common threat facing moderate nations worldwide: The rise of Islamic extremists is borderless, they said, neither Sunni nor Shia and found similarly in Gaza, Raqqa and Tehran.
What put space between the two governments was an Israeli critique of the Pentagon's  fundamental ability to train Arab forces to fight for themselves— much less defend the Israeli people.
Israel’s national security leadership watched as Iraqi security forces, trained over the course of five years by the US military with billions of dollars, “literally left their shirts on the ground and fled” when faced with a fight, one senior Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post after Mosul fell to ISIL.
Bearing witness to the crisis from the sidelines, Israel “observed the effects of US-trained Arab forces in Iraq and, from that, has learned lessons on proposals for the Jordan Valley,” the official said.
The Pentagon rejected the comparison as reductive. But the political message was clear: Between the failure of Gaza and the fall of northern Iraq, Israel is more reticent than ever to withdraw fully from the Jordan Valley. The policy shift makes a peace deal even more remote.
3. Obama administration calls settlement activity "incompatible with peace."
The issue of Israel's settlement activity resurfaced dramatically and repeatedly in 2014, contributing to the end of peace talks and resulting in a marked escalation in rhetoric from Washington.
Incremental housing announcements over the historic Green Line humiliated Abbas, guaranteeing the failure of Kerry's peace effort, US officials attest. And this fall, a series of additional settlement moves led the State Department to question Israel's fundamental commitment to peace.
"Moving forward with this sort of action would be incompatible with the pursuit of peace," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "If Israel wants to live in a peaceful society, they need to take steps that will reduce tensions."
That new language was debuted less than an hour after Obama hosted Netanyahu in the Oval Office on October 1, blindsiding the Israeli team and leaving the prime minister humiliated.
"We raise these concerns as a partner who is deeply concerned about Israel’s future," one National Security Council spokesman told the Post at the time.
2. War in Gaza largely supported by the United States.
Despite a host of policy differences straining the relationship, US officials largely supported Israel's Operation Protective Edge over the summer. Obama said he had "no sympathy for Hamas," and his entire national security staff forcefully defended Israel's right to defend itself from rocket fire, the kidnapping of its children and the burrowing of tunnels into its territory.
The US continued weapons deliveries to Israel throughout the war, replenishing the defensive Iron Dome missile defense system in the heat of the conflict. Funding was further increased for all Israeli defense systems after the war in the year-end defense budget.
The shelling of several UNRWA facilities led to the US' harshest criticism of the IDF during the conflict: The attacks were "appalling," the US said, demanding swift investigation.
"The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians," the State Department said. The US demanded Israel live up to its stated standards.
But unlike Israel's critics, the Obama administration never suggested Israel intended to kill Palestinian civilians; and during the war, the Pentagon sent a "lessons learned" team to Gaza to study Israel's tactics on avoiding civilian casualties.
1. Israel considers force in response to a global nuclear deal with Iran.
Negotiations between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program were extended twice in 2014, much to Israel's relief. Throughout the decade-long crisis, Netanyahu has demonstrated a preference for delay over facing uncomfortable decision points— though singularly obsessed with its outcome, heavily reliant on the power of the United States.
Facing the real possibility of a comprehensive deal in November, Israeli officials revealed to the Post the government's rationale for revisiting military action against Iran should a deal come to pass. The agreement under consideration, they explained, includes a weak inspection regime that, if followed to a tee, would allow Iran to become a nuclear state after the deal sunsets in roughly a decade.
The fate of the talks— described by Obama as an historic opportunity to end the nation's greatest national security challenge— is far from certain. But in 2014, world powers effectively granted Iran the right to continue enriching uranium on its own soil. Western powers appeared increasingly eager for a deal. And Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations shuddered as Washington opened dialogue with Tehran over the expansion of ISIL.
The absence of these powers at the negotiating table has unintentionally heightened the prospects of an Israeli-Arab alliance, brought together by mutual distrust; and for the first time, Israel has suggested a willingness to disrupt a deal endorsed by the US, UN and EU with unilateral force.
That might be all for naught: Without a deal, according to one US official, the result may be the same.