The personal relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama is so poor that it could seriously hurt otherwise strong bilateral ties, according to a former top American diplomat and veteran Middle East expert.
“The relationship between the two leaders is worse than I’ve ever seen a relationship between a president and a prime minister,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who served as Washington’s ambassador in Israel from 2001 to 2005. “There’s no trust. There’s a growing lack of respect. There’s a sense of — I’d even say betrayal.”
The bad blood between Obama and Netanyahu “informs the entire relationship because bureaucracies and political systems tend to take their energy from the leadership,” Kurtzer told The Times of Israel on Tuesday in Jerusalem. “And if the two leaders are not getting along, as they don’t, then you’ve got a problem.”
After a 30-year career in the US Foreign Service, during which he also served as ambassador to Egypt and as political officer at the Tel Aviv embassy, Kurtzer today is a professor for Middle Eastern policy studies at Princeton University.
While officials routinely downplay the discord between Netanyahu and Obama, it is no secret that the two leaders have had their share of vehement disagreements and are personally not very fond of each other.
The political relationship between the US and Israel relationship can be divided into three levels, Kurtzer said: between president and prime minister, between ministers and top-tier officials, and the “day-to-day cooperation” that exists between lower-level officials in many different areas.
The first two levels are in bad shape, according to the veteran diplomat. In addition to the Obama-Netanyahu friction, senior Israeli cabinet ministers such as Moshe Ya’alon, Naftali Bennett and Gilad Erdan have launched unprecedented public ad hominem attacks against US officials, he said.
“The third level is the good level, because it’s been sustained and in fact enhanced in this administration,” Kurtzer said. Strategic cooperation between the two countries has actually “increased substantially” over the last six years, he noted. “The amount of money and R&D and technology [the US provides to Israel] makes this a much stronger relations at its foundation.”
A new president will move into the White House in two years, so the current discord at the top and the impact it has on lower-level cooperation is limited by time, Kurtzer continued. In the 1980s several crises strained bilateral ties, but an institutional infrastructure was created to prevent such conflicts from jeopardizing the friendship altogether.
“The two countries said we need to have a sound grounding so that even if the structure is swaying a little bit, it stays intact,” Kurtzer said. “That gives me hope that this will survive. It may take a little bit of repair work, because if in fact there is a swaying at the top you’d have to fix some of the cracks. But I’m not worried that there is some long-term break here from the American side.”
Jerusalem is well advised to seek alliances with other world powers such as Russia and China, the veteran diplomat said. “There are bounds, though. If Israel goes beyond those bounds the United States may decide then that the relationship can change, or should change.”
In the past, US-Israel ties were tested when Washington objected to Jerusalem transferring advanced technology to Beijing, notably the sale of the Phalcon airborne early warning system which Israel canceled under intense American pressure in 2000. In May of last year, Netanyahu on a visit to Beijing oversaw the signing of a $400 million trade agreement and agreed to expand cooperation in various areas, including technology.
“If the Israeli-Chinese relationship gets into sensitive areas it could lead to some serious problems,” Kurtzer warned. “At the end of the day, if Israel thinks the technology relationship with China trumps the American relationship, then the US may start to shut down the technology or some of the R&D funds that we provide.
“This is not a projection or a prediction, but it’s something that I think we have to discuss with each other,” he continued. “It is good when Israel is increasing its relationships with China and whomever else it can. But in sensitive areas of military and security relationships — there is a limit.”
Contacted for comment, the Foreign Ministry acknowledged that Israel’s relationship with China had let to friction with the US in the past but declared that there was nothing in the works that would be the cause of concern.
Kurtzer, who visited Israel this week to attend the National Library’s first Global Forum, also defended Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East policies. Israelis who criticized Kerry’s indefatigable diplomatic efforts in the region, arguing that he fails to understand the Middle East, “are one hundred percent wrong, not 95 percent and not 96 percent,” he said.
“All of us have gaps in what we understand. If Israel’s track record in understanding the Middle East was perfect it could cast stones at other people’s understanding.” But nobody, even Israelis, fully comprehends the complicated workings in the region, and Kerry should be lauded for his energy and his readiness to tackle all burning issues, Kurtzer insisted. “You can’t have it both ways and say, as some Israelis and others do, that the US is a receding power and withdrawing, and then criticize the secretary of state for wanting to do as much as Kerry wants to do.”