Don't Blame Bibi: Demographics are Wrecking U.S.-Israel Ties

It isn’t in America’s interest to follow Israel into such a condition of isolation.

Big elections often are seen by academics and pundits as ushering in new political eras. More often, they actually are mere reflections of underlying political developments that create these new eras.

So it is with Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection victory this week in Israel. It marks a new era in U.S.-Israeli relations. The “special relationship” will never be the same. It may seem immaterial whether the Netanyahu victory ushers in this new era or merely reflects it, but the distinction is important for anyone wishing to understand the dynamics between the two countries.

What’s emerging is that they are entering into a divergence of interests that is both stark and probably irreversible. The divergence can be seen in the unprecedented nature of the Netanyahu victory: no Israeli prime minister has ever sought reelection by humiliating a sitting U.S. president on American soil—in the halls of the U.S. legislature, no less. And no Israeli prime minister would ever have succeeded in getting reelected with such a strategy—until now.

Consider the electoral fate of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1992. Shamir ran afoul of the George H. W. Bush administration on the matter of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and Israel’s aggressive West Bank settlement policies’ negative impact on those efforts. Shamir never sought to humiliate the American president in the manner of Netanyahu, but his stubbornness on those issues rankled U.S. officials. And they let the world know it.

Secretary of State James Baker, in congressional testimony, questioned whether Shamir was making a “good faith, affirmative effort” on behalf of peace. To reporters, he chided the Israeli leader by suggesting the United States would simply wash its hands of the matter until Shamir embraced a more cooperative approach. “Everybody over there,” said Baker, “should know that the telephone number [at the White House] is 1-202-456-1414; when you’re serious about peace, call us.”

Members of Congress piled on. Wisconsin’s Democratic representative David Obey, referring to Israel’s West Bank settlement blitz, declared, “Frankly, it gets under my skin because my understanding is that this activity is in violation of U.S. policy.” To emphasize U.S. policy, Bush and Baker withheld the distribution of $10 billion in housing loan guarantees to Israel pending a promise from Shamir that the funds wouldn’t be used for West Bank settlements.

Shortly thereafter, Shamir lost his bid for reelection to Yitzhak Rabin’s less hardline Labor Party. “Did U.S. actions help defeat Shamir?" asks Aaron David Miller, the writer, scholar and former State Department adviser. “You bet they did." He adds that the “perception that Shamir had mismanaged Israel’s ties with the U.S. hurt him badly" with Israeli voters concerned about any fault line between their country and its great patron, the United States.

The same could be said, though it is less clear, about Netanyahu’s own reelection defeat in 1999, after his much-publicized frictions with President Bill Clinton. In private meetings, Netanyahu lectured the president as if Israel were the superpower and Clinton was a client-state leader. “Who the fuck does he think he is?" complained Clinton in private afterward. “Who’s the fucking superpower here?" The mutual animosity seeped into the public consciousness of both countries and almost surely contributed to the victory of Ehud Barak over Netanyahu during the next Israeli election.

The significance of these episodes lies in the reality that Israeli voters felt a strong political need to preserve decent relations with its one natural ally, even when disagreements emerged over the fine points of how to proceed on major issues, such as the fate of the West Bank and the Israeli settlements. Sometimes these disagreements were finessed in ways that weren’t always sincere, but the importance of avoiding the kinds of frictions reflected in the Baker-Shamir standoff was considered paramount.

That renders all the more significant Netanyahu’s last-minute desperation move—an outright rejection of any Palestinian state under his leadership. This repudiates U.S. policy going back decades and also repudiates his own eloquent support of such a policy in 2009, when he said: “In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government."

Almost nothing Netanyahu has done as prime minister following that statement suggests he meant it. And the so-called two-state solution has been dead in reality for a number of years, in significant measure because of Israeli actions—for example, its rejection of Saudi King Abdullah’s proposal for normalized relations between Israel and all Arab nations if Israel would pursue a deal with Palestinians, just about any deal, that they could accept. But it was considered a diplomatic necessity that Israel at least pay lip service to the merits of an accommodation with the Palestinians, and that at least kept alive the prospect that a leader could emerge who actually would pursue such a policy sincerely, as did Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in the 1990s.