Lion's Den: The solace of poor US-Israel relations

Historically, strong Israel-US ties induce irreversible Israeli retreats, poor ties abort this process.

Things are not always as they seem; the current crisis in US-Israel relations has a silver lining.
Four observations, all derived from historical patterns, prompt this conclusion:
First, the “peace process” is in actuality a “war process.” Diplomatic negotiations through the 1990s led to a parade of Israeli retreats that had the perverse effect of turning the middling-bad situation of 1993 into the awful one of 2000. Painful Israeli concessions, we now know, stimulate not reciprocal Palestinian goodwill but rather irredentism, ambition, fury and violence.
Second, Israeli concessions to the Arabs are effectively forever, while relations with Washington fluctuate. Once the Israelis left south Lebanon and Gaza, they did so for good, as would be the case with the Golan Heights or eastern Jerusalem; undoing these steps would be prohibitively costly. In contrast, US-Israel tensions depend on personalities and circumstances, and the stakes are relatively lower. Each president or prime minister can refute his predecessor’s views and tone. Problems can be repaired quickly.
MORE BROADLY, the US-Israel bond has strengths that go far beyond the politicians and issues of the moment. Nothing on earth resembles this bilateral, “most special” of special relationships and “the family relationship of international politics.” Like any family tie, it has high points (Israel ranks second, behind only the US, in number of companies listed on NASDAQ) and low ones (the Jonathan Pollard affair continues to rankle a quarter century after it broke). The tie has a unique intensity when it comes to strategic cooperation, economic connections, intellectual ties, shared values, UN voting records, religious commonalities and even interference in each other’s internal affairs.
From Israel’s perspective, then, political relations with the Arabs arefreighted but those with Washington have a lightness and flexibility.
Third, when Israeli leaders enjoy strong, trusting relations withWashington, they give more to the Arabs. Golda Meir made concessions toRichard Nixon, Menachem Begin to Jimmy Carter, Yitzhak Rabin, BinyaminNetanyahu and Ehud Barak to Bill Clinton and Ariel Sharon to George W.Bush.
Conversely, mistrust of Washington tightens Israelis and ends thewillingness to take chances. That was the case with George H.W. Bush,and is even more so with Barack Obama. The current unease began evenbefore Obama reached the Oval Office, given his public association withprominent Israel-haters (e.g. Ali Abunimah, Rashid Khalidi, EdwardSaid, Jeremiah Wright). Relations degenerated in March, when hisadministration simulated outrage over an announcement of routineconstruction work in Jerusalem, followed by a brutal telephone callfrom the secretary of state and a tense White House summit meeting.
TO MAKE matters worse, the Obama administration figure most identifiedwith maintaining good US-Israel relations, Dennis Ross, was anonymouslyaccused by a colleague last month of being “far more sensitive toNetanyahu’s coalition politics than to US interests.”
A prominent foreign policy analyst used this to raise questions aboutRoss having a “dual loyalty” to Israel, impugning Ross’ policy advice.
These ugly and virtually unprecedented tensions have had a predictableeffect on the Israeli public, making it mistrustful of Obama andresistant to US pressure, while inspiring usually squabblingpoliticians to work together to resist his policies.
Fourth, US-Israel tensions increase Palestinian intransigence anddemands. Israel in bad standing empowers their leaders, and if thetensions arise from US pressure for concessions to the Palestinians,the latter sit back and enjoy the show. This happened in mid-2009, whenMahmoud Abbas told Americans what to extract from Jerusalem.Conversely, when US-Israel relations flourish, Palestinian leaders feelpressure to meet Israelis, pretend to negotiate and sign documents.
Combining these four presumptions results in a counterintuitiveconclusion: Strong US-Israel ties induce irreversible Israeli mistakes.Poor US-Israel ties abort this process. Obama may expect that picking afight with Israel will produce negotiations, but it will have theopposite effect. He may think he is approaching a diplomaticbreakthrough but in fact he is rendering that less likely. Those whofear more “war process” can thus take some solace in theadministration’s blunders.
The complexity of US-Israel relations leaves much room for paradox andinadvertency. A look beyond a worrisome turn of events suggests thatgood may come of it.
The writer ( is director of the MiddleEast Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the HooverInstitution of Stanford University.