When love isn’t enough for the US-Israel relationship – analysis

The controversy over annexation has led the Trump administration to realize it can’t control Israel’s policies from Washington

JUST GIVE HIM one more chance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump at the White House this week. (photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)
JUST GIVE HIM one more chance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump at the White House this week.
The two weeks since the rollout of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan have been a roller-coaster for Israel and the US. Instead of coordinating what comes next, both sides and their teams of leaders and advisers can’t agree regarding the annexation of parts of the West Bank.
This illustrates how even the Trump administration’s unfettered support for Israel, a kind of “love-love” relationship, has its challenges.
It was clear last week that the aftermath of the “Vision for Peace” rollout sparked unrest in the West Bank. An ambush of IDF troops in Jenin and the killing of several Palestinians, as well as rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, has been termed “unrest over peace plan.”
Tensions are rising in Gaza as Iran pushes for Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas to respond. On terrorism threats, the US and Israel see eye to eye. But the talk of “annexation” fueled the clashes.
On Sunday, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman wrote that the plan had been the product of years of close consultations between Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior staff. Application of Israeli law to the territories of the West Bank “is subject to the completion of a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee.”
He stressed that any unilateral action in advance of that would endanger the plan and US recognition. That announcement came as a surprise to the Israeli leaders, who had jumped on the January 28 rollout to push for annexation.
The process of applying Israeli law was initially supposed to happen as early as the Tuesday after the rollout, which would have been last week. Friedman had appeared to indicate that Israel “does not have to wait at all,” according to January 29 reports. Some in Israel have been discussing annexation for years, and the push for it gained momentum in the summer of 2019.
A day after the rollout, the initial plans for annexation were called off. The idea that Netanyahu would ask the cabinet to vote on sovereignty over parts of the West Bank was postponed. The Washington Post, the Hill and others pointed to criticism of Trump adviser Jared Kushner as “putting a knife” in Netanyahu’s back over the mix-up on time lines. That’s harsh language.
The controversy boils down to whether Netanyahu and Israeli leaders agreed to wait until after the March 2 election. With controversy already surrounding the plan’s rollout near the elections, the third in a year, this hasn’t helped. On January 30, reports said Kushner hoped Israel will wait until after the election.
We may not know the full details of how this all transpired, and it’s not necessarily important who said what and when. What is important is how it symbolizes that even the Trump administration’s love-love approach to Israel, as opposed the Obama administration’s “tough-love” approach, has its pitfalls.
The main pitfall is that, like the Obama doctrine, the Trump doctrine on Israel stems from what the administration thinks is best for Israel. For a year, those close to Trump have waited Israel to form a government. They want clarity in Jerusalem, the city they historically recognized as Israel’s capital.
In Israel, a critique of  the Trump administration is that its policies are designed to help Netanyahu win elections. However, Netanyahu’s vote count hasn’t increased, Polls don’t show him doing much better in March. What that means is even with the most pro-Israel government in US history, at least in terms of working closely with Israel’s leaders, Washington and Jerusalem can’t agree.
The reason they can’t agree is that even when you want to help someone, the most you sometimes think you know what’s best for them and the essence of the Israel-US dispute tends to be that Israel thinks it knows what is best for itself. The Obama administration believed it was saving Israel from Israel’s worst proclivities. That means John Kerry and others argued that Israel’s control of the West Bank forever was making Israel less democratic.
By condemning settlements, the administration thought it was doing what was in Israel’s best interests. According to this theory, being “pro-Israel” is about showing “tough love,” while being “anti-Israel” means giving Israel everything it wants. Maybe.
The problem is that the US approach to Israel is too familiar and too intimate for the two sides to see each other equally. The US doesn’t as often pay lip service to doing what is in the best interests of Turkey by opposing Turkey’s policies, as some in the US argue it should be “tough” on Israel to be “helpful” to Israel. At the same time a carte blanche for Israel’s policies has challenges because it can mean torpedoing other US goals.
Since the Trump administration’s goal is to have a win with the peace plan, a victory for Washington isn’t always what Jerusalem judges to be a win. Jerusalem might prefer the short term. That could have to do with something as cynical as winning elections.
There is another side to the problem. Those who tend to pose as champions of an issue sometimes have trouble understanding that being sympathetic to a cause doesn’t mean taking over the cause and deciding for it. There is a tendency in some pro-Israel circles to be tougher on Israel’s adversaries than Israel is.
That can manifest itself in pro-Israel voices abroad advocating an invasion of Gaza when Israel’s leaders prefer calm and managed conflict. It could mean pro-Israel voices going to bat for regimes that are actually hostile to Israel, with the theory they are helping Israel somehow.
The Trump administration wants to walk the fine line between being absolutely behind Israel without feeding totally into Israel’s election-cycle politics. Also, Washington doesn’t want Israel to put the cart before the horse, in a sense annexing without doing much else on Trump’s peace plan. The issue for Trump’s advisers is that they believe in the plan they’ve conjured up, and they also know some in Israel don’t believe in the plan and only want to operationalize bits of it and then move on.
Israel has been quite good in the past at weathering all the storms that come out of various US plans, with the knowledge that each administration goes through a cycle of high hopes and disappointment. It happened under Obama when George Mitchell resigned as Middle East envoy. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was well known for having a turnaround, for the worse, on her views of Israel.
Former president Ronald Reagan said the most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” The same is true on the US engagement with the Israel-Palestinian issue. Israel is wary of too much help, and the long list of Americans who waded into the peace process and were encumbered by it continues to grow.
Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, Friedman and the administration’s new envoy, Avi Berkowitz, are now part of that list. The love-love relationship with the US has now encountered its first major hurdle.