Mismanaging a vital relationship

Mister prime minister, it is time to take the “special relationship” into account in all of your actions, not just in talk.

Netanyahu and Obama shake hands at start of Oval Office meeting, March 3, 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Obama shake hands at start of Oval Office meeting, March 3, 2013
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Let’s be frank. The US is everything for Israel. Our very survival as a nation is highly dependent today, possibly contingent, on the relationship with the US.
American weapons are the basis of virtually the entire IDF force structure; no other country could or would provide these weapons even if we paid. Without the power and deterrence they afford, we would not be weathering the dramatic regional dislocations underway unscathed. The resolve of the Israeli public, the IDF’s fighting spirit and our strategic capabilities are the other pillars of Israel’s national security, but without American weapons the entire structure would collapse.
The US protects Israel from endless diplomatic warfare in the UN and virtually every international forum. Absurdly, polls around the world, including Western countries, repeatedly show that Israel is considered to be one of the leading, if not the greatest threat to international security. Only the US separates Israel from what is already severe international isolation and actual pariah status, with the attendant sanctions and boycotts.
For decades Israel received large-scale American economic assistance and military aid is still in grant form. Israel is the only aid recipient that receives it in one payment, rather than over the year, that is allowed to use its largely as it sees fit and even to spend part (26 percent) for procurement at home, rather than in the US. The relationship with the US is also fundamental to Israel’s high-tech revolution and general economic prosperity.
Managing this relationship successfully is nothing short of essential, but in the past year Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has failed acutely. First and foremost in regard to Iran’s nuclear program, an area in which he deserves great credit in the past for having framed the issue in a way that greatly contributed to the US and Western decision to finally confront Iran.
Netanyahu, however, went too far, criticizing the administration’s approach for months and then strongly condemning the interim agreement, rather than working quietly to ensure that the potential downsides were minimized. In so doing he has managed to marginalize Israel on this issue and it is hardly a factor in the conduct of the negotiations. Israel could never have been at the negotiating table, but we most certainly could have been deeply involved in every step of the way in background talks in Washington, as we were in the past, had Netanyahu not chosen a confrontational approach and overplayed his cards.
Washington placed responsibility for the collapse of the talks with the Palestinians squarely on Israel. Whatever one thinks of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a leader, he has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and despite indications that Netanyahu was willing to make serious concessions, he was singled out by the US as the primary cause for failure, primarily due to largely spurious settlement activity. By design, i.e. to shore up his political support, or omission, i.e. failure to prevent settlement activity, Netanyahu once again became the focus of American opprobrium.
Then, to make matters worse, over strenuous Israeli objections, the US agreed to recognize the new Palestinian “reconciliation government.” Asking Israel to negotiate with a government that includes Hamas is akin to asking the US to negotiate with al-Qaida. A discredited Israeli government, however, perceived rightly or wrongly to always take gratuitous hardline positions, no longer had the clout to affect the US approach. Once again we were shut out.
All of the above has taken place at a time when there is growing disaffection toward Israel in the American public, including among the traditional pillars of support, Jews and the Christian Right. American Jews, overwhelmingly liberal, simply do not understand Israel’s policies and are increasingly showing their feelings by tuning out. There are cracks even among evangelicals. Only the blind cannot see that we are in danger of losing the American public and ultimately our influence in Washington will diminish as well.
If Israel could arguably have afforded to lose Europe some decades ago, a grave blow not just to our international standing, but our national security, there is absolutely no doubt that we cannot afford to alienate the US. Nothing is more important. Mister prime minister, it is time to take the “special relationship” into account in all of your actions, not just in talk.
The author is a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, teaches at IDC Herzliya and is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He is also the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy, Cornell Press, 2012.