Solved: How to Get U.S.-Israeli Relations Back on Track

"Both sides ought to develop realistic ways of dealing with the common challenges they face."

When President Barack Obama told Prime Minister Netanyahu in his first telephone call after the Israeli elections that Washington would “reassess” its positions on U.S.-Israeli relations and Middle East diplomacy after the Israeli prime minister took a position against Palestinian statehood during his reelection campaign, Obama reminded Israelis who follow the U.S.-Israeli relationship of previous traumatic reassessments of U.S.-Israeli relations made by American administrations.

One significant example was the “reassessment” of U.S.-Israeli relations President Gerald Ford decided upon forty years ago, in order to force Israel to disengage with Egypt in Sinai in 1975. In retrospect, maybe the United States and Israel can learn from this episode that a reassessment is not always bad for Israel and for the mutual relationship, and in the long term, it can be healthy for building a sustainable relationship between the two states.

The current crisis is a result of principal differences on major policy issues, mainly on the ways of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and dealing with Iran, as well as escalating personal enmity between two leaders whose relations are marked by a growing distrust and aversion to each other.

The perceived Netanyahu withdrawal from the two-state solution puts him on collision course with traditional U.S. policies on this issue. Netanyahu’s attempts to derail the nuclear agreement with Iran is also a cause of tension between him and Obama. This personal animosity is born from a mutual distrust and the perception on the part of both these leaders that the other leader is collaborating with his domestic political enemies to bring him down. Additionally, there is a mutual lack of appreciation for the performance of the other leader. Netanyahu and his people believe that President Obama and his staff completely misunderstand the Middle East, and that his naive policies are weakening U.S. influence in the Middle East, and by extension, harming the interests of Israel. On the other hand, Obama and his staff believe that Netanyahu lacks credibility, his promises are meaningless and that he is insolent. They perceive his policies as harmful to U.S. interests, conflicting with traditional U.S. policies, and damaging to perceptions of the United States in the Middle East. They also believe his policies are harmful to the real interests of his own country.

Obama’s team sees Netanyahu’s political conduct as being based on deceit; for example, Netanyahu was for a two-state solution in his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, but ultimately he was not sincere about that. Netanyahu is also perceived as willing to break any rule to intervene in domestic U.S. partisan politics.

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Another major source of controversy is in perceived differences in approaches to human rights and democracy. This is reflected in the U.S. perception of past legislative initiatives by Netanyahu’s government to limit human-rights and judicial oversight, and by assertions made by Israeli political leaders from the right wing, including Netanyahu himself, in the election campaign. A striking example was Netanyahu’s racist insinuation against Israeli-Arab citizens during the past election when he implied that votes from this group were votes against Israel. This controversy is significant because one of the foundations of the U.S.-Israeli relationship is a perception of common values.

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It is not yet clear whether President Obama intends to reassess the U.S.-Israeli relationship only in the context of the Palestinian issue or in a broader context, but even if the original intention was to reexamine U.S. policies on the Palestinian issue, the reassessment might slide to other areas as well. Actually, it might be a good opportunity for the two allies to clear the atmosphere on a range of subjects by asking the new Israeli government to make a choice between clear policy alternatives. If it still supports the two-state solution as Netanyahu argues now, than its actions should correspond with this choice, and if it wants the United States to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, it should cooperate wholeheartedly with the American administration’s efforts to do so.

President Obama will probably stick with his consistent policy of not letting his disagreements with Israel affect the security relationship between the two states. He understands very well that only a secure Israel will be willing to take the risks inherent in any attempt to solve the big problems of the region, whether it is the Palestinian question, the Iranian nuclear program or the problems bred by the turbulence in the Middle East.