For Israel and the US, trouble in paradise

While Netanyahu has likened himself and Obama to an ‘old couple,’ recent rhetoric leaves little room for doubt — they’re fantasizing about divorce

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

US President Barack Obama, right, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, October 1, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/ Jim WATSON)
US President Barack Obama, right, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, October 1, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/ Jim WATSON)

WASHINGTON — Ask anyone on the record in Washington, and they’ll tell you there is no crisis. During his visit here this week, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said as much – even while he was snubbed by Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden.

Lobbyists say it when they’re asked about the slow resupply of Israel with arms during and following the war in Gaza over the summer.

Earlier this month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama were at pains to show their friendliness – literally hours before the administration issued an unusually harsh condemnation of Israeli building plans in a contested Jerusalem neighborhood.

You’d think the special friendship was as ironclad as ever, and it’s business as usual. Only it isn’t.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid called a crisis a crisis this week, and although he may have done so largely as a jibe at his own coalition partners, the simple fact remains: ties between Jerusalem and Washington are at a nadir. Hardly a week – and certainly not a month – goes by without insults and recriminations. Diplomatic snubs, critical press secretaries, censorious ministers, and tension-spurring tweets have all conspired to create an atmosphere that is unmistakable – at least in Washington.

If Netanyahu truly thinks that he and Obama are like “an old couple,” as he stated when he was last here a month ago, perhaps the most apt comparison would be to one of those couples that, after weathering 50 rocky years of quarrels, is now fantasizing about divorce. Israel and the US can no longer be mistaken for one big, happy family.

On Iran, for instance, the president and the prime minister are the couple who talk to each other but don’t necessarily listen. An Iran deal is simmering on the stove, and so far, the US has been impervious to Israel’s demands that any comprehensive agreement ensure an enrichment-free Iranian nuclear program. The US’s top nuclear negotiator, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, took the time this week to pillory in a speech those who do not want a nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic. Yes, the administration has been consulting with Israel; no, it does not seem to be interested in Israel’s big message.

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a joint press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri in Cairo, Egypt, on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a joint press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri in Cairo, Egypt, on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

The past few weeks have been characteristic of the recent period in the relationship, with an endless back-and-forth of snipes and barbs. Ten days ago, Kerry spoke at a festive dinner and said that leaders in the Middle East had expressed concern that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “was a cause of recruitment” — for groups like the Islamic State — “and of street anger and agitation.”

Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett promptly played the anti-Semitism card in response to the perceived affront, complaining that “even when a British Muslim decapitates a British Christian, there will always be someone to blame the Jew. There is no justifying terror, only fighting it. To say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is strengthening the Islamic State is encouraging global terror.”

Gilad Erdan, the communications minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, also jumped into the fray, saying that “Kerry is breaking records for a lack of understanding of what is going on in our region.”

Former peace negotiator Martin Indyk fired back a tweet: “There they go again: Israeli rightist ministers attack Kerry for wanting Israeli-Palestinian peace to help fight IS.”

You know things are going badly when it is the often-acerbic Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman who sounds the voice of calm, talking up the many virtues of the relationship with the US.

For a few days, things seemed to be back on track. Ya’alon came to Washington sounding uncharacteristically conciliatory, but was denied requests to meet with a number of officials. And on Friday, the Washington Post published an interview with the minister, who implied that the United States was way out of its depth in the Middle East.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (photo credit:Flash90)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (photo credit:Flash90)

Meanwhile, with sensitivities running high, the State Department dragged its legs before acknowledging that a baby killed in a Jerusalem terror attack on Wednesday was a US citizen; then, much to the consternation of pro-Israel commentators, it wasted little time in announcing that Israeli security forces had shot and killed a Palestinian-American youth who was throwing Molotov cocktails.

The State Department soft-pedaled questions as to why Washington did not call on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to condemn Wednesday’s terror attack, but did quickly express its “condolences to the family” of the teenager killed by security forces and called for Israel to conduct “a speedy and transparent investigation” into the incident.

And that wasn’t even close to being the most strident US criticism of Israeli actions in recent months. During the war in Gaza, the State Department deplored the reported Israeli shelling of an UNRWA school as “appalling” and “disgraceful.”

And yet almost everyone but Lapid is reiterating that everything is more or less fine, as if repeating it, like a soothing mantra, will make it so.

Still, it’s important to bear in mind that this isn’t the first time relations have hit the skids in a big way. Under president George H. W. Bush, $10 billion in loan guarantees were held up by Washington in protest of prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s settlement policy. Then, as now, leaders on both sides stressed the strength of the historical friendship between the two states.

During George W. Bush’s second term, relations also took a turn for the worse – in spite of some very friendly rhetoric – following the Second Lebanon War, when the administration delayed transferring weapons requested by Israel to replenish stockpiles, including the Joint Direct Attack Munition, which turns unguided munitions into “smart bombs.” During that dust-up, the US went so far as to block military contractor Northrop Grummond from revealing details on US-made missile defense technology that Israel hoped to purchase, effectively suspending the deal altogether. An Israeli military delegation’s trip to the US was canceled as media reported that relations had hit an all-time low for the Bush administration.

Then-US president George W. Bush welcomes then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington in May of 2006. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Then-US president George W. Bush welcomes then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to the Oval Office of the White House, May 2006 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Then, as now, both sides appeared to share a vested interest in publicly downplaying the rift. Indeed, the amiable rhetoric averted a larger crisis. But can this latest crisis have a similar outcome?

During the current rough patch, a number of factors have come into play. Kerry has taken the failure to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and all of the rhetoric surrounding it, personally, and the Obama administration has certainly signaled repeatedly that it is unhappy with the vocal right flank of Netanyahu’s coalition. On the other hand, Democrats are particularly concerned about the possibility of losing the Senate in the upcoming November elections, and are not particularly eager to see the administration do anything that could alienate even a single voter in a number of key states. Meanwhile, support for Israel on Capitol Hill is as emphatic as ever, and a number of representatives have signaled their willingness to go head-to-head with the administration over its policies in the Middle East.

In the meantime, Israel also has to play nice. There is simply too much riding on the friendship in the near future – the Iranian nuclear deal, Washington’s support of Israel in UN forums where Abbas is trying to score easy goals – to risk calling a crisis a crisis.

Will Lapid’s very public acknowledgment of the truth make the situation any different? That is unlikely, given his own very clear, and very internal, political motivations. With no resolution in sight, the “old couple” seems set to continue to bicker behind closed doors, and while the president and the prime minister may try to keep their voices down, it will remain patently clear to anyone standing outside that there’s deep trouble in paradise.

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