When best friends stray

Unclear whether the Obama-Netanyahu rift is symptomatic of a greater divide

The past three years have seen the ‘special’ relationship between Israel and the United States deteriorate in ways unseen since at least the George H.W. Bush presidency. While American subsidies and loan guarantees, along with American military technology, continue to flow to its client state, the personal antipathy between the countries’ two leaders is a fact that has helped  make Israel a partisan issue. But just as significantly, the divergence between America and Israel’s interests has been growing more pronounced in recent years, particularly where Iran is concerned.

By all accounts US President Barack Hussein Obama is not regarded sympathetically in Israel, where his part-Muslim heritage is a source of suspicion in a country where Muslims are second-class citizens. Furthermore, his early exposure to members of the Palestinian and Arab-American communities in Chicago reinforced the pre-election impression that he would be less indulgent than both presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had been.
When Obama decided to visit Cairo early in his administration many Israelis felt that their fears were validated. Indeed, his Cairo speech — as his address at Cairo University came to be called — condemned Israeli colonization in the West Bank. However mild and obvious the president’s statements may have been, Israeli leadership interpreted them as an early barb issued by a hostile administration.

Since then, tensions between America and Israel have only grown. Several recent incidents either contributed to or highlighted the erosion of the relationship.

In September, the American right and Israelis stridently criticized Democrats for omitting both the word “God” and mention of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital from their platform. The party leadership retreated in short order and engineered a rare amendment to the party platform on the second day of their convention. The vote to amend the platform failed three times before the moderator, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, made the unilateral decision to change the language. The moment highlighted the discontent with Israel among members of the Democratic party’s base — something party bosses are eager to conceal from major pro-Israel donors.

The Democrat’s initial decision to reinforce decades of official American policy came in the aftermath of an all-but-explicit Benjamin Netanyahu endorsement of Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign for president. The message was communicated to Democrats when Romney visited Jerusalem and declared his allegiance to a Likud vision for Palestine and Israel.

Netanyahu’s spectacular arrogance — which has undoubtedly contributed to the erosion in support — was on further display recently when he issued a stern public rebuke to the American president and his Secretary of State, a virtually unprecedented move by a leader of a client state.

“Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” he said on the issue of Iran. Sharp condemnations of his unseemly behavior were quickly issued from all quarters.

When Netanyahu later requested a meeting with the president on a visit to New York, his request was denied. Obama’s decision had the two-force impact of dampening Israeli hopes that America would wage war on Iran on their behalf, and firmly situated Netanyahu in the backseat on Iran policy.

The worsening relationship between the American administration and the Israeli leadership carries several implications for the region. The most obvious is that war against Iran — which American neoconservatives and their Israeli counterparts have been working to develop for years — is not a certainty yet. To be sure, the crippling American pressure and sanctions that have been directed against the Islamic Republic will not likely be reduced in the near term, but the threat of war is greatly diminished nonetheless.

For the Palestinians however, the erosion in American support for Israel is unlikely to impact their near-term outlook for freedom. Obama is aware that he stands to gain little by prodding a recalcitrant Israeli public into adhering to civilized norms of behavior; apartheid is a fairly permanent part of that society now.

Change will hinge on the question of whether the recent diminution of mutual regard between America and Israel is a permanent feature of the political landscape, or whether it is an aberration. Is the erosion in support simply the consequence of a bad personal relationship or symptomatic of a deeper rift?


Ahmed Moor is co-editor of "After Zionism: One State for Israel and Palestine" and a Masters in Public Policy candidate at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government