Acknowledging Reality in the U.S.-Israeli Relationship

November 7, 2015 Topic: Israel United States Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Acknowledging Reality in the U.S.-Israeli Relationship


On the eve of a visit by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington, we have gotten yet another of the statements from members of his government that are sufficiently unrestrained or unhinged to cause a flap both in the United States and Israel. While Netanyahu's own comment about the Holocaust being a Palestinian idea is still fresh in our minds, the latest ear-catching remarks come from Ran Baratz, an inhabitant of a West Bank settlement whom Netanyahu has chosen to be chief of hasbara, the selling of Israeli policies overseas. Baratz has posted a trail of entries on Facebook that have insulted, among others, President Rivlin of Israel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, whom Baratz says has the mental capacity of a 12-year-old, and President Obama, whom he accuses of being anti-Semitic.

Netanyahu has reacted to the flap by saying that these postings do not represent the views of his government and that he will be reviewing the appointment of Baratz. But whether Baratz keeps or loses the job of chief propagandist doesn't really matter. The backtracking that customarily follows these sorts of Israeli comments (including Netanyahu's sort-of retraction of his assertion about the origin of the Holocaust) are less representative of what this Israeli government is about than were the original comments. The government's insulting or embarrassing of senior U.S. officials is nothing new and has happened repeatedly in the past, such as when it announced new construction of settlements in East Jerusalem while Vice President Biden was visiting Israel. The playing of the anti-Semitism card as a response to criticism of Israeli government policy is habitual, on the part of not only the Israeli government but also some of its most loyal supporters in the United States. Throughout the history of Netanyahu occasionally being pushed into saying something that could be interpreted as support for a Palestinian state, his more genuine statements, as indicated by their consistency with his actual policies, have come when he has not been pushed—such as his statement most recently that he intended to “control all of the territory” and “live forever by the sword.”


Rather than seeking a meaningless retraction or apology or mouthing of words we would like to hear, we should accept the original statements for what they are and not try to pretend that they were some sort of slip of the tongue. Statements that denigrate others may not be a slip at all but rather part of a pattern of shifting blame, even when a particular accusation is patently false. There is the pattern of placing all blame for the violence and endless continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Palestinians, even when this includes asserting that Palestinians in general have genocidal aspirations. There is the pattern of attributing opposition to Israeli policies to ethnic bias, even when this includes calling Barack Obama an anti-Jewish bigot.

Statements that refer to Israel's own intentions should be taken as truthful and not as a slip when they reflect Israel's actual policies and practices on the ground. This certainly is true of a statement by the Israeli prime minister expressing his intention to cling forever to the occupied territories, using military force as necessary to do so.

There will be much evaluation of Netanyahu's meetings in Washington in terms of whether frictions between the two governments have been smoothed over, at least as far as the public face that they present is concerned. There already has been much commentary ahead of the visit that has essentially adopted that standard for assessing the meetings. But the kumbaya scale is not the right means for measuring success or failure of the visit. And harmonious U.S.-Israeli relations per se do not have value; harmony is valuable only if it advances U.S. interests.

Pretending there is more harmony of interests than there really is only obscures and confuses the diplomatic work that can and should be done. Such pretending also carries the additional disadvantage for the United States of associating it all the more closely with the actions of the other party in the relationship, including actions that are contrary to U.S. interests and that the rest of the world understandably condemns. As with any bilateral relationship, being honest about differing interests and objectives provides an accurate basis on which to address problems that need to be addressed. It also clarifies where there are truly convergent interests that can be the basis of mutually beneficial cooperation.

Major, substantial differences exist between U.S. interests and Israeli interests—at least given how the latter are defined by the current Israeli government. The differences were in full display with the strenuous efforts by Netanyahu's government to sabotage a major U.S. foreign policy priority: the multilateral agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. The underlying difference on that issue was between on one hand the U.S. interest in using all available diplomatic tools to pursue nonproliferation and other goals consistent with improving regional stability, and on the other hand the Netanyahu government's objective of keeping a competitor for regional influence isolated and maintaining conflict with Iran as a bête noire in perpetuity. Certainly major differences of interest also persist regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More generally, the gulf between the United States and Israel has grown even wider insofar as Israel (including the territory it occupies) has become an increasingly intolerant place in which civil and political rights are apportioned according to ethnicity and religious belief.

About the best outcome from the U.S. standpoint—which is the standpoint that ought to matter to Americans—of Netanyahu's meetings that could reasonably be expected given the circumstances would be for the two sides to issue a communiqué saying that they had a “frank, businesslike exchange of views.” That is the sort of language that typically describes dialogue between governments with major differences that nonetheless are willing to talk honestly about those differences and to explore ways of possibly reducing them.

The public statements that actually will come out of the meetings probably will sound much more kumbaya-like than that. Netanyahu has a strong interest in making it appear that, despite all the attempted sabotage of U.S. policy and the pokes in U.S. eyes, his government is in good graces in Washington. We all are familiar with the realities of U.S. politics that lead players in the United States to go along with him in maintaining such an appearance. With this month's visit even a paragon of the liberal establishment such as the Center for American Progress is welcoming Netanyahu into its spaces, despite all his blatant interference in U.S. politics in a direction opposed to what CAP stands for. That decision probably has mostly to do with how Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign sees its near-term interests. But that is distinctly different from the interests of the United States—and even, over the long term and looking beyond the current government, the interests of Israel.