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An Unbreakable Bond?

Simon Roughneen, June 28, 2010

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis attempted to allegorize about a reality that he admitted he could not know, but tentatively hoped to suggest. The U.S.-Israeli relationship, to most, seems like an unbreakable bond, and any potential divorce might be regarded as unimaginable.

But when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets U.S. President Barack Obama on July 6, they will discuss a relationship that is on the rocks, despite an annual $2 billion in aid and—in keeping with the traditional parameters of the relationship—Obama's repeated commitment to Israel's security. Stirring things up in advance, Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren spent Sunday and Monday denying media reports that he told Israeli diplomats that a "tectonic rift" was emerging between the two countries.

The summit will be a reprise of a stillborn meeting originally scheduled for late May, which Netanyahu cancelled after nine Turks were killed by Israeli commandoes onboard one of the six boats attempting to breach the blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. In the aftermath, whatever Obama's private thoughts, he refused to join the chorus condemning Israel. But American policymakers felt themselves to be caught between a rock and a hard place, and beyond this incident, there are divergent worldviews coloring thinking in both administrations.

Much has been made of Obama's attempts to "reach out" to the Muslim world, and his sackcloth-and-ashes pose for perceived American foreign policy sins-of-the-fathers. But In Israel his Cairo Speech was taken as a signal that this American administration does not see Middle East geopolitics in the same light as its ally, and therefore puts Israel in danger.

It is not the first time that the two have quarreled, with tetchy relations apparent during the Bush I administration. Alon Pinkas is former Israeli consul-general to the United States. Speaking to a seminar of foreign and Israeli journalists at the IDC Herzliya last week, he said he believes that a turning point has been reached in bilateral relations. "In reality, U.S. interests in the Middle East are with the Arab world. That is where the oil is, and Israel is just one small country surrounded by 290 million Arabs," Pinkas said.

That is just part of the bigger picture. Both Obama and Afghanistan-bound General David Petraeus believe that "solving" the Israel-Palestine conflict will contribute to U.S. strategy elsewhere—particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, an unproven and hazy thesis that fits in well with Obama's hoped-for outreach to the Muslim world.

Again, this is being noted by Israelis. Dr. Jonathan Fine teaches at the IDC Herzliya. Reminding the United States that Israel is dealing with much the same ideological opponents in Hamas as the jihadists the U.S. faces in Afghanistan or Iraq, he lamented that "the Obama effect" means that the United States does not receive anywhere near the same condemnation as when Israel attacks its nearby enemies or engages in a clumsy and deadly attempt to stop boats reaching Gaza. America's targeted assassinations and drone warfare continue in south Asia, in greater number and to deadlier effect than during the Bush II era.

Israel feels it has been sacrificed on the altar of another Obama initiative, which might otherwise be described as inherently laudable. At the recent Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, Obama endorsed a resolution that omitted any mention of Iran but specifically targeted Israel, demanding that it sign the NPT and allow inspections of its facilities. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the specifics, the disparity between including Israel and excluding Iran was glaring to Israeli policymakers.

Netanyahu has already signaled his willingness to concede in the face of international pressure by the recent announcement to ease the Gaza blockade, which the United States regards as untenable. In doing so, he may have left himself vulnerable domestically, with the so-called "centrist" Kadima Party led by Tzipi Livni leading the charge. She is seen by many in Washington as less hard-line than the current coalition, with whispers that the United States might work behind the scenes to unseat Netanyahu, who is seen as beholden to religious parties in his coalition and therefore unable to meet the U.S. halfway on issues such as settlement expansion.

After the announcement that the Gaza blockade would be relaxed, Livni accused the Netanyahu Government of making policy at the dictates of international opinion. Previously she accused the incumbent of destroying Israel's position in world opinion, by its reaction to the flotilla. So before Netanyahu goes to the White House, it seems that Livni has her sights trained on him, irrespective of whether he aligns more closely to Obama on settlements, Gaza or Iran, or whether another row ensues. It is just a few weeks since Vice President Joe Biden was humiliated in Jerusalem by the announcement that Israel plans 1600 new houses in East Jerusalem. In contrast with the visiting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu did not get the customary White House lawn press and photo-op with the U.S. president during his most recent visit to the United States.

He is likely to this time, though cynics might feel this is more about Obama playing to domestic politics than a reappraisal of how the U.S. administration views Israel. Well-known foreign policy analyst Anthony Cordesman recently rationalized that Netanyahu's government is becoming a "strategic liability" for the United States, saying, "It is time Israel realized that it has obligations to the U.S., as well as the U.S. to Israel, and that it becomes far more careful about the extent to which it tests the limits of U.S. patience and exploits the support of American Jews."

That support will weigh on Obama's mind as he continues his introduction to what Harry S Truman described as a problem unmatched in its complexity and potential for controversy. While 78 percent of American Jews voted for Obama in 2008, it seems many might be having second thoughts. With midterm elections looming and the passage of the healthcare bill tempered by spectacular losses such as Republican Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts, Obama may not want to see the relationship with Israel deteriorate on his watch, for now at least.

Old-school powerhouses in the American-Jewish lobby have rowed in behind the Israeli Government and lambasted the Obama administration's cool approach to the "special relationship" between the two countries, though there are divergent views within the constituency.

Stephen M. Walt co-authored The Israel Lobby and U.S. foreign policy, a provocative take on the influence of the Jewish lobby in the United States. He said, "Here are some new pro-Israel groups like J Street that are trying to encourage smarter policies, and there is a much more open discussion of these issues now (due in part to the rise of the Internet and the blogosphere), but the raw political power of AIPAC et al is still formidable."

An April survey by Quinnipiac University showed 67 percent of Jews as disapproving of Obama's "handling [of] the situation between Israel and the Palestinians." In another poll, support for President Obama in the Jewish community dropped to 58 percent, a loss of 20 points since the 2008 election.

However, other data suggests that the majority of American Jewish voters are card-carrying Democrats and liberal progressives first, with Israel policy less of a priority. This makes them somewhat of an anomaly in a party whose supporters are far less likely to be supportive of Israel than Republicans: 48 percent among Democrats, 85 percent among Republicans.

This article was originally published by the Asia Times: www.atimes.com/.

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