Crisis: Are U.S.-Israeli Relations Really Doomed?

"If there wasn’t a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations before the appearance of Jeffrey Goldberg’s explosive new article in the Atlantic, then there is one now." 

If there wasn’t a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations before the appearance of Jeffrey Goldberg’s explosive new article in the Atlantic, then there is one now. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long chafed at President Obama’s strictures about pursuing a Middle East peace, and Obama, in turn, has made no secret of his disdain for the rebarbative Israeli leader. But there was little evidence that the emotional rift between the two sides was of much real or practical consequence. Goldberg, however, says that it is. He holds out the prospect that the Obama administration will engage in a “showdown” with Netanyahu over Iran, will soon refuse to side with Israel at the United Nations, and, not least, will lay out its own peace plan that includes specific maps “delineating Israel’s borders.”

To a degree that Israel’s critics—and they are legion—have always been reluctant to acknowledge, the relations between Jerusalem and Washington have never been without tensions. When push came to shove, various presidents pursued what they saw as the American national interest, whether it was sending fighter jets to Saudi Arabia during the Carter administration, or punting on bombing Iran during the Bush administration. (Contrary to popular mythology, George W. Bush was also not acting at the behest of Israel when he invaded Iraq. Quite the contrary.)

For his part, Goldberg apportions much of the blame for the whole shemozzle between the two partners on the junior one. According to Goldberg, “Netanyahu has told several people I’ve spoken to in recent days that he has ‘written off’ the Obama administration, and plans to speak directly to Congress and to the American people should an Iran nuclear deal be reached.” Meanwhile, Obama officials are livid at Netanyahu for approving new settlements in the West Bank and for his snubs of Secretary of State John Kerry, who valiantly attempted, against all the odds, to reach some kind of deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. At the same time, Obama officials have apparently concluded that Netanyahu lacks the cojones to attack Iran—he’s all hat and no cattle. Netanyahu’s caution on Iran, we are told, may seem laudable, but it is actually of a piece with his craven desire to appease various right-wing constituencies at home with increased settlement activities. Mainstream Jewish organizations, Goldberg reports, are concerned: “The Israelis do not show sufficient appreciation for America’s role in backing Israel, economically, militarily and politically,” he was told by Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League.

What does all this add up to?

Goldberg indicates that he would like to “see Israel foster conditions on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem that would allow for the eventual birth of such a state.” It would be hard to disagree. But at a moment when the Middle East is aflame, it would seem an inopportune moment to pressure Israel into a peace process. But the real apprehension is that the Netanyahu government—which Goldberg refers to as “disconnected from reality”—is sabotaging, persistently, any efforts at an accommodation with the Palestinians, which is to say that it prefers war-war to jaw-jaw. The result would be isolation from the Western democracies.

Already, western Europe is beginning to treat Israel as an international pariah state. Whether a similar movement would take place in the United States, however, is an open question. Netanyahu is likely banking on a Republican House and Senate with a Republican president as his trifecta. It’s also the case that Hillary Clinton is unlikely to repeat Obama’s tough love act with Israel should she become president in 2014.

So in the next two years, Netanyahu can continue to do what he has done for the past six—attempt to perform an end-run around Obama. From the outset, he seems to have decided to outwait Obama. Maybe his strategy will be more successful than Goldberg would appear to believe, and Netanyahu is hedgehog to Obama’s fox. Goldberg says that Netanyahu’s approach is leading in the direction of Israel as a garrison state, a state of affairs that for Israelis, until now largely passive witnesses to the internecine warfare on their borders, “has its charms. But for Israel’s future as an ally of the United States, this formula is a disaster.” For now, this conclusion deserves what’s known as a Scottish verdict—not proven.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.

Image: Flickr/Prime Minister of Israel