The ongoing Gaza crisis seems to have broken a lot of crockery in the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Malicious attacks on Secretary of State John Kerry, tough Obama administration statements on the “appalling” nature of Israeli strikes causing civilian casualties, and greater scrutiny of U.S. missile shipments to Israel have led some observers to conclude that this is among the worst patches in the relationship.
Those worried, or alternatively hoping, that the special relationship is about to become, well, a lot less special better lie down until the feeling passes. However dysfunctional relations are between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the U.S.-Israel bond is based on shared values, politics and mutual interests even in times of tension. And unlike Lehman Bros., it really is too big to fail. The rising threat from the Islamic State and other jihadis will only serve to highlight those bonds.
To be clear, the relationship between the two nations isn’t in the greatest shape. And the dysfunction starts at the very top – the president and prime minister neither like nor trust one another. Netanyahu thinks Obama is bloodless and totally lacks understanding of Israel’s predicament as a small nation in a dangerous neighborhood. And Obama thinks Netanyahu is a modern-day snake oil salesman conning him on Middle East peace and disrespecting U.S. interests.
Crises only tend to make matters worse. Netanyahu worries that the Obama administration doesn’t understand just how venal Hamas and the Qataris who support it really are. Kerry and Obama, already unhappy that Netanyahu wouldn’t go for a framework agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, are persuaded that the prime minister has no peace strategy and isn’t doing nearly enough to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties in its war with Hamas.
What makes the Obama-Netanyahu tango so dysfunctional is that unlike other periods when relations between U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers were tense, these two don’t have a common enterprise (yet) on which they see eye to eye or where cooperation can pay political dividends for both. Whether it’s the peace process, Iran or Gaza, there are genuine differences that make coordination hard.
So, if things are so bad, why aren’t we on the verge of a significant, let alone major, change in the relationship. Here’s why:
Too big to fail: No matter what these two men really think of one another, they still need each other. Netanyahu knows that complete mismanagement of his ties with Washington can undermine his tenure. And from stabilizing Gaza to Kerry’s quixotic quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Obama will need Netanyahu to get anything done.
And then there’s Iran. Agreement or no agreement on the nuclear issue by the November deadline, Obama will need influence with Israel to help sell it or to try to figure out how to forestall Netanyahu from drifting toward a military strike.
Furthermore, Obama has few friends in the region. Relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia are cool, Jordan is a fan but weak, the Qataris can’t be trusted, and a U.S. president is not going to get much from the Palestinians. Ironically, the Saudis, Egyptians and Israelis have more in common with each other right now on key issues than they do with Obama.
With the prospects of U.S. military involvement in Iraq and maybe Syria growing, the U.S. doesn’t need a problem with Israel. Indeed, the Israelis remain central to matters relating to peace and war. And Obama knows it.
Key Arab actors are worse: It’s politically incorrect and terribly inconvenient for critics of Israel to admit, but the most effective talking points for the pro-Israel case are the key Arab actors who make Israel’s behavior appear mild by comparison. U.S. opinion polls continue to show strong support for Israel, partly because of the behavior of Arab actors. It started with 9/11 and al-Qaida and got worse as the Arab Spring devolved into violence, terror and state repression. When you consider Egypt (under the Muslim Brotherhood or the military), Syrian President Bashar Assad’s bloody rule and his use of chemical weapons, and the Islamic State, the sharp contrast between a stable, democratic and pro-Western Israel (occupier of the West Bank or not) and an Arab world melting down into cascading violence and extremism makes the pro-Israel case.
Throw in Hamas, which the Obama administration sees as a terrorist organization, and you begin to see just how tough it is for the administration to beat up on the Israelis.
Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, who has been watching the U.S. public and Israel for a long time, made the powerful point to me in an interview in 2008 that only once has he detected the possibility of a real downturn in U.S.-Israel ties. And that was when Americans saw in Anwar Sadat an Arab hero to whom they could relate. Suffice to say, there aren’t any Arab heroes like him around today.
Obama can’t afford a fight now: Fighting with Israel is a reality for any American president who wants to get stuff done, particularly on the peace issue. But you need to make sure the fight is productive and the timing is right. Obama has fewer than 1,000 days left in his presidency, and he has his hands full at home and abroad. Midterms are coming. The Democrats could well lose both the House and Senate. The last thing he needs is a fight with a U.S. ally with powerful friends in Washington unless that fight is really worth something. And what is worth a fight right now? The defunct peace process? The Iranian mullahs? Hamas?
The answer is that for a besieged president, there’s not much point in making the U.S.-Israel relationship any worse.
The two nations have managed to muddle through serious crises before because the fundamentals of the relationship were more sound than not. More than likely that will happen here too. But don’t look for this odd couple to somehow kiss and make up. Only one thing will really fix the Obama-Netanyahu relationship. And that’s when they both leave office.
Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. His book “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President” will be published in October.