Weathering the Perfect Diplomatic Storm

Israeli-American relations have always been characterized by sustained, intense cooperation and coordination on security matters and by periodic bouts of intense differences on political and diplomatic matters. Strategic cooperation and U.S. security assistance have continued almost without interruption for more than forty years, despite severe differences of opinion over the Middle East peace process and Israeli occupation practices.  Some analysts have assumed that this dichotomous relationship will continue, unaffected by recent sharp differences of view on the Iran nuclear agreement and the introduction of partisan American politics in the equation.  But this may not be the case.

Never before has the bilateral relationship been as fraught as it is today, marked by profound differences in strategic outlook vis-à-vis Iran, chronic differences on the Palestinian issue, and toxic interpersonal relations between the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister.  Never before has an Israeli Prime Minister played so directly in American domestic politics, thereby creating a rift in what traditionally has been bipartisan support for Israel in Congress.  And never before has the language of the American-Israeli discourse become so polluted with personal invective and undiplomatic slurs.

Peace or annexation?

Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the working assumption in American diplomacy has been that Israel desired peace with the Palestinians, was prepared for substantial territorial and other compromises, expected full recognition of its legitimacy as a state; and needed to be persuaded that its security following a peace settlement would be assured.  Acting on these premises, the United States has played an engaged role as third party catalyst and mediator, accepting that peace could only emerge from direct, face to face Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but also recognizing that the two parties needed help in achieving what was thought to be a shared goal of two states for two peoples.

Over the years, the United States has seen signs pointing to different premises held by the two sides.  Persistent Palestinian violence and terrorism and the failure of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate seriously when presented with potentially forthcoming Israeli proposals at Camp David II or in the Annapolis talks gave rise to doubts about Palestinian intentions.  Equally, Israeli settlement expansion and occupation practices ran counter to Israeli protestations of interest in peace and gave rise to doubts about Israel’s commitment to a two-state outcome.  American diplomacy, though led by Secretaries of State and senior envoys, lacked the teeth and backbone to move the two sides off their intransigent and diametrically opposite positions.  Despite, this, however, the U.S.-Israeli relationship remained largely unaffected: the United States always condemned Israeli settlement activity and Palestinian terrorism but did nothing else in response.  The Israelis and Americans appeared to settle in comfortably to a relationship of rhetorical differences that had little substantive impact on policy.

Today, however, there are significant indicators of change in this dynamic.  Secretary of State John Kerry appears interested in resuming the diplomacy that stalled in 2014, assuming that the violence on the ground subsides and does not morph into a new Palestinian uprising.  The Administration may consider some significant policy changes, for example, laying out American “parameters” or terms of reference for negotiations that reflect what has been discussed in the past but which seek to draw the two sides toward narrowing differences on the core issues.  The United States may also be considering assigning more importance to the Arab Peace Initiative as a means of injecting a regional component into what has traditionally been a bilateral peace process.  The administration may weigh not vetoing a UN Security Council resolution on settlements if Israeli activity intensifies. 

It is incorrect to think that any changes in U.S. policy will reflect President Obama’s “legacy” concerns; this is a false argument put forward by opponents of change in U.S. policy.  It is equally false to assume that such changes will have a dramatic, positive impact on the prospects for peace.  Indeed, in the immediate term, U.S. actions such as these are likely to harden the position of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and possibly lead to negative Israeli responses, such as increased settlement activity.  Why, then, might the United States consider doing anything?  The simple answer is that the administration may come to the conclusion that only a kind of shock treatment might move the conflict resolution process off dead center.  Since neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are likely to adopt a meaningful initiative in the period ahead, the reasoning goes, it will be up to the United States to shake things up.  Whether this shake-up is ensconced in a strategy, or whether it is a one-off tactic remains to be seen.

The Iranian “elephant in the room”

Netanyahu’s strident opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement may be abating, as he hinted after his address at the UN General Assembly, but the strains in the U.S.-Israeli relationship attributable to Netanyahu’s tactics are not likely to be reduced soon.  To be sure there will be efforts by the Administration and Israel to patch over some differences, and this will be translated into some new security assistance.  But the political ties between the two countries and the personal ties between the two leaders are likely to remain deeply fractured at least until Obama and/or Netanyahu retire from office.

This has never before been the case in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.  The serious crisis in relations between the Ford and Rabin governments in 1975 was confined to significant differences over the negotiations on a second Sinai disengagement agreement.  It took several months to work through the substantive issues and to smooth a solution via U.S. assurances, but there is no evidence that personal animosities got in the way of a solution.

Israel did not consider President Jimmy Carter a friend, and Carter’s vocal opposition to Israeli settlements and his affection for Egyptian President Sadat did not endear him to Prime Minister Begin or the Israeli people.  Here, too, the interpersonal relations did not get in the way of positive outcomes either at the 1978 Camp David summit or the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli treaty, in both cases facilitated by Carter’s direct mediation.

The relationship between Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the Bush 41 administration was rocky at times, and there was a major blow-up between President George H.W. Bush and Shamir in 1991 over the question of whether Israeli settlement activity should be curbed as a condition for U.S. loan guarantees to resettle Soviet Jewish immigrants in Israel.  The fight went public when Shamir tried to reach over the president’s head to secure Congressional funding; Bush pushed back and gained Congress’ support to defer the issue.  While the interpersonal relationships suffered as a result, Secretary of State James Baker – who was considered by the pro-Israel community to be hostile to Israel – reported later that he maintained a cordial relationship with Shamir at the time and afterwards.

Thus, although personal animosities came into play in earlier U.S.-Israeli crises, the current situation is unprecedented in that the two sides have failed to compartmentalize the problem and insulate the larger bilateral relationship from serious damage. By conspiring with the Republicans in Congress, behind the president’s back, to arrange a Netanyahu speech to a joint session of Congress at which he attacked the impending Iran deal, Netanyahu not only set a collision course with the president but also made support for Israel a partisan issue.  This was made clear when 56 Democratic members of Congress, including eight Senators, boycotted Netanyahu’s speech in protest over the way the speech was arranged.  Of these, almost all members of the Black caucus boycotted, adding a further dimension in the partisan strain caused by Netanyahu’s actions.

Prospects for improvement

The prospects for real improvement in the relationship are mixed.  As noted, the two countries are likely to agree on a package of security measures to help Israel feel more secure during the period of implementation of the Iran agreement.  But the negotiations over this security assistance could itself exacerbate problems in relations.  For example, some pro-Israel policy thinkers advocate providing Israel with so-called massive ordnance penetrators – huge bunker busters – and B-52 bombers to deliver them.  Reaction to this proposal has been swift and negative from many who argue that Israel does not want these weapons and that it makes no sense to provide Israel with the means to attack Iranian sites while the U.S. is intent on ensuring Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement would be self-defeating.

Even if differences over the security assistance package can be managed and overcome, Israel’s metrics for measuring Iranian compliance with the agreement’s provisions are very likely to be far more stringent than those of the United States and its negotiating allies.  This will exacerbate strains in the bilateral relationship almost daily.  Furthermore, Iranian aggressive actions in the Middle East – support for the Assad regime in Syria and for the Houthis in Yemen and for Hezbollah in Lebanon – will assure a steady diet of Israeli actions and words, including demands that the United States sanction Iran and pull out of the nuclear agreement.  Netanyahu’s address to the United Nations General Assembly indicated no signs of letting up in his effort to scuttle the agreement.

Weathering the storm

There are some who believe the U.S.-Israeli relationship is too deeply rooted to fail, in view of the persistent popular support for Israel among the American public and the dynamics of a political system that gives leverage to one-issue lobbies and major individual donors.  In the short term, this is likely to be the case.  However, if the United States and Israel try to paper over differences in policy – with respect to either Iran or the peace process – it will only be a matter of time until the next crisis in relations.  Indeed, only a firmer strategic understanding between the countries, including on how to advance peace with the Palestinians, will help ensure the continued vitality of the bilateral relationship.

This article was published as a part of an hbs North America series on US-Israel relations. To read more from this series, click here