Widening cracks in US-Israeli relations

It wasn’t so long ago that Washington and Tel Aviv had each other’s back unconditionally. While it’s true that there’s always been behind-closed-doors disagreements, but spats were rarely publicized. At one time the relationship was considered almost sacrosanct. Israel was, arguably, America’s proxy in the Middle East creating a balance of power in the oil-rich region, while Israel was dependent on US aid (direct aid estimated at over $130 billion since 1949), loans, subsidies, weapons and diplomatic clout at the United Nations. That tied-at-the-hip partnership is now being questioned.

Isi Leibler, writing in the Jerusalem Post, describes Obama as “an Israel basher engaged in personal savaging and humiliation of Netanyahu.” Obama’s “failed diplomacy” has resulted in the US looking like a paper tiger, he says. Nevertheless, he concedes Israel needs America’s military assistance. He suggests that over the next two years “there must be a concerted effort to retain American public opinion and congressional support . . .” In other words, Israel should tread water until Obama’s term ends.

That alliance has become decidedly rocky under President Obama’s watch. It’s no secret that there’s an absence of chemistry between the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama on a personal level. A strong indication that all was not well emerged in 2010 when, reportedly, Netanyahu was left in a room at the White House to mull Obama’s demand that he halt Jewish settlement expansion, while his host left to have dinner with his wife and daughters with a casual, “Let me know if there’s anything new.”

Netanyahu compounded the tensions by publicly throwing his weight behind the Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election and was slammed for interfering in America’s domestic affairs.

The issue of a Palestinian state, which Obama pledged to bring to fruition early in his presidency, has always been a bone of contention between these two very different individuals. Netanyahu was visibly angered by the US president’s 2011 reference to a state drawn on 1967 borders with land swaps. “Remember that before 1967, Israel was all of nine miles wide . . . and these were not the boundaries of peace. They were the boundaries of repeated wars,” he retorted.

The Obama administration’s latest push for peace is virtually at an end. Still, kudos to US Secretary of State John Kerry who was making serious efforts to get the job done, so much so that, in January, Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon went on the attack describing Kerry’s pursuit “messianic” and “obsessive.” In truth, even the most dedicated mediator is destined to fail when Netanyahu, who holds most of the cards, is uncompromising and knows full well that however he acts, the US can’t or won’t hold his country to account.

No American president is courageous enough to incur the wrath of the powerful pro-Israel lobby and, according to a 2013 Gallup Poll, the sympathies of 67 percent of Americans rest with Israel. Obama has gone as far as he can under the circumstances. He’s hinted that the US might not always be able to protect Israel from “international fallout” at the UN Security Council and other international bodies if it continues with its land grab. Kerry put his head above the parapet with a warning that Israel risks turning into an apartheid state should peace talks fail, a statement on which he was forced to backpedal with: “If I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word.”

Palestine is just one of the issues over which the US and Israel are in disagreement. Moshe Yaalon, who doesn’t mince words, has condemned what he sees as Obama’s foreign policy missteps and accused the superpower of projecting weakness in the face of global problems. The White House’s outreach to Iran, which could result in full diplomatic relations, is a hot potato. Netanyahu is skeptical about Tehran’s true intentions and won’t be convinced that Iran does not pose an existential threat to his country. “What was concluded in Geneva . . . is not a historic agreement. It’s a historic mistake,” was his comment.

Netanyahu was not amused at the punitive measures the US took against Egypt’s interim government and military, which is working to cleanse the Sinai Peninsula of terrorist groups that also threaten Israel. And he was incensed when a White House official confirmed to CNN that Israel bombed a Syrian military missile storage facility in Latakia, a leak that was met with outrage from Israeli officials who described it as “scandalous” and “unthinkable” as it undercuts Israel’s policy of plausible deniability.

The Obama administration was similarly scandalized over Netanyahu’s position on the Ukrainian crisis, which amounts to having no opinion at all. Israel has chosen to remain neutral over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a stance which isn’t playing well in Washington. Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann stated, “We have good and trusting relations with the Americans and the Russians and our experience has been very positive with both sides. So I don’t understand the idea that Israel has to get mired in this.”

Netanyahu made one concession. He withdrew from a concert scheduled to take place in June in St. Petersburg to celebrate Israeli-Russian ties, citing “the political climate.”

And just when one would be forgiven for thinking things can’t get worse, they have. Newsweek has published an exposé of Israeli spying on US leadership figures, including former presidential candidate Al Gore. Israel has forcefully denied the allegations and the country’s minister for Strategic Affairs ,Yuval Steinitz, has accused “someone of trying to maliciously and intentionally harm relations between Israel and the United States.” Who would have thought it when they were doing so well all on their own!

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at heardonthegrapevines@yahoo.co.uk.

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