The root causes and dire consequences of US-Israeli mistrust
Jerusalem and Washington blindsided each other during the Gaza war, and their dysfunctional ties now threaten Israel’s sought-after diplomatic and psychological victory over Hamas
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.
The Israel-Hamas ceasefire went into effect last Tuesday, launching a week of fevered speculation about who won the 50-day conflict. Finding a winner may be hard, but finding some of the losers, less so. Along with the casualties on both sides, one clear loser was the US-Israel relationship.
On July 27, three weeks into the war, after Hamas had rejected Egypt’s proposal and before most of the war’s dead had died, US Secretary of State John Kerry powwowed with his Qatari and Turkish counterparts in Paris in an attempt to hammer out a draft that might entice Hamas to halt its fire.
The Paris talks produced a preliminary draft, effectively an agenda of issues that mattered to Hamas and Israel that would be taken up in the talks in Cairo under Egyptian auspices. The US quickly sent this document to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “for comment and input.”
American officials were stunned by the Israeli response. Incensed at the contents of the draft, Netanyahu brought the text to the eight-member security cabinet, where it was voted down 8-0. News of the document’s contents and the Israeli cabinet’s displeasure leaked immediately, and Israeli media began to speculate whether the US was intentionally undermining Israel’s position.
The US believed the document was a secret consultation. But Netanyahu was so horrified by its contents — as were America’s favorite cabinet ministers, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid — that he decided to use it to send a message both to America and Hamas. There would be no enticing, and nothing on offer, until the Islamists’ fire at Israel stopped.
Even now, weeks later, it is hard for Israelis to understand how that crisis looked to the Americans. The US was under the impression that its task, which it was carrying out to help Israel, was to entice Hamas to Cairo, where the actual talks on an actual ceasefire would begin, and where the US would emphatically support the united Israeli-Egyptian position. Kerry would achieve this, he believed, by agreeing to place Hamas’s demands as issues for discussion on the Cairo agenda — not acquiescing to the demands, but simply agreeing to talk about them once the rocket fire stopped.
By “front-loading” the issues Hamas wanted to talk about, and perhaps delicately understating those that Israel wanted to talk about, American diplomats hoped Hamas might be convinced, with the cajoling of their supporters Turkey and Qatar, to cease fire and go to Cairo.
The US saw the document as a tactical carrot, and believed it was coordinated with Israel.
Kerry remained in “near-constant contact with Israeli, Palestinian Authority and Egyptian officials to keep them up to date and gain their input on all the discussions,” an American official said in defense of Kerry after the crisis had erupted.
The draft of the ceasefire agenda “had nothing to do with satisfying Hamas demands and indeed no new preconditions for a ceasefire were added to the original Egyptian initiative,” continued the senior official. “Rather, it was about establishing the ability to convey a clear message and to receive a response.”
But this American “help” was badly misdirected. Kerry did not understand that, for Netanyahu, the ceasefire talks themselves were a central part of the conduct of the war. In his pursuit of deterrence, Netanyahu cared more about why Hamas stopped its fire than when. Netanyahu never sought to conquer Gaza or annihilate Hamas in response to the rocket fire and the cross-border attack tunnels, but to exact an intolerable cost and force a clear-cut capitulation from Hamas for its aggression, demonstrating that the terror group’s strategy of permanent psychological pressure on Israel’s civilian population could not garner any benefits and would bring only destruction.
Kerry’s very willingness to entertain Hamas’s demands, the very notion of attempting to entice the enemy to the talks while rocket fire continued, was seen in Jerusalem as an attempt to let Hamas gently down from the tree before it had learned the lesson. Well-intentioned or not, Kerry’s actions undermined Netanyahu’s fundamental war strategy.
Was Paris a gambit intended to bring Hamas to Cairo, as American officials suggested, or were US diplomats willing to hand Hamas diplomatic achievements to end the fighting sooner, as Netanyahu suspected? Even if the Americans intended the former, they might, through carelessness, achieve the latter. And the fact that the Americans were surprised by the Israeli reaction suggested to many in Jerusalem that the US did not understand the Israeli strategy in the first place.
Meanwhile, the US was unwilling to grant Israel its most critical request — that Washington pressure its (and Hamas’s) ally Qatar to squeeze Hamas politically and financially. The US has vast interests and assets in Qatar, including Fifth Fleet bases and billions in arms sales this year alone — arguably more hard interests and tangible assets than in Israel or Gaza.
All these factors paint a stark picture of US-Israel relations when they mattered most.
The US believed it was putting its political capital and regional alliances at the service of Israel’s own preferred recipe for ending the conflict (the Egyptian proposal), and was stunned and insulted at Israel’s entirely undiplomatic response to these efforts.
Israel, too, was stunned, and emerged from the crisis with a deep distrust of American intentions. The suspicion that Kerry misunderstood Israel’s strategy, the concern that American assistance was limited (and perhaps skewed against Israel in this case) by its other regional alliances, and the memory of similar clashes in the past served to plant seeds of mistrust that were unbridgeable in real time.
The two governments were reaping what they had sowed.
The cost for Israel
US-Israel tensions and misunderstandings were laid bare in the Gaza conflict. In its wake, the costs are becoming evident as well.
Even a week after the end of hostilities, Israel and Hamas are still working to define the conflict as an achievement for their side. To secure its narrative of a devastating loss for Hamas, Israel yearns to impose on Hamas the most incontrovertible evidence it can muster of that loss — a unified Arab and international demand that the organization disarm.
Israel believes this goal is achievable, if only because so many different players favor it. The biggest winner of Gaza’s disarmament would be the Palestinian Authority, which would stand to regain control of Gaza, of Palestinian politics generally, and of Palestinian policy toward Israel.
The depth of Israel-PA agreement on this narrow question is remarkable. As The Times of Israel’s Avi Issacharoff has noted, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s representatives have made clear to Hamas in recent days that if the Abbas-led government in Ramallah, and Abbas’s Fatah organization, do not get to operate in Gaza freely, “there will be no wages paid to Hamas officials and responsibility for rehabilitation of Gaza will fall on Hamas’s shoulders alone.”
Such a policy — conditioning rehabilitation on Hamas surrendering control — would be deemed cruel coming from Israel. But it is coming from Palestine. Abbas supports the demand for full disarmament as well, just not when it comes from Israel. Meanwhile, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, not to mention the US and EU, all seek the weakening of Hamas.
But Israel’s best hope for actually constructing an international agreement on Gaza’s disarmament does not lie in bilateral agreements with these countries, some of which are still officially opposed to Israel’s existence.
Last week, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni proposed that Israel seek a UN Security Council resolution demanding that Hamas disarm. The passage of such a resolution would clarify to the world — and to Gazans — the conditions under which Israel and Egypt would allow Gaza’s rehabilitation, and show that the international community supports this stance. (And disarmament, it goes without saying, is the only possible path for the restoration of Gaza into the hands of the PA, without which no comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace is remotely conceivable.)
But, Israeli diplomats are quick to warn, such a resolution would not be cost-free. The UN drafting process — much of it driven by Israel’s enemies, and much of the rest by friendlier but nevertheless critical detractors — would see language and assertions added to the resolution that run counter to Israel’s interests and narrative of the conflict.
In other words, the move could backfire. In fact, it almost certainly would backfire — without America.
Through its veto and its alliances, the US would find it far easier than Israel to shepherd a disarmament resolution through the Security Council that Israel could stomach and that Hamas could not pretend, as it has with so many other blows in recent weeks, was another “victory.”
To be sure, Israel has not lost America, not by a long shot. Indeed, some reports in regional media suggest the US may already be working on a disarmament resolution at the UN.
But the simple fact that Israeli and American officials had so much trouble conducting joint diplomatic policy at such a critical moment for Israel demonstrates the pitfalls of the almost-permanent crisis of trust between Jerusalem and Washington. It suggests that the two governments don’t communicate well at the highest levels, that this leads them to question each other’s motives and to wonder about their mutual dependability and predictability, and thus limits their ability to cooperate on shared interests.
In this case, the apparent difficulty the two administrations have in working with each other could conceivably rob Israel of its best shot at reframing the international narrative of the conflict in a way that places the responsibility for any future failure to rehabilitate Gaza squarely on Hamas’s belligerency. The strains and breakdowns in the US-Israel relationship, in other words, could deny Israel what would be the single greatest achievement of the last war, since the irregular, psychological sort of war fought by Hamas isn’t won by tank columns, but by tenacious, ruthless reduction of the other side’s options not only in the military arena, but in the diplomatic and psychological ones as well.
The cost for America
Inevitably, the US suffers less from the breakdown in trust, for the obvious reason that America itself, and its interests, are so much larger. But America, too, stands to lose from the failure of Israeli and American officials to successfully coordinate policy in wartime — and more so, perhaps, for the Obama administration than for its recent predecessors.
Left-wing American writer Peter Beinart has called US President Barack Obama a “fierce minimalist.”
“When it comes to the Middle East,” he wrote on Monday in The Atlantic, “Obama is neither a dove nor a hawk. He’s a fierce minimalist. George W. Bush defined the War on Terror so broadly that in anti-terrorism’s name he spent vast quantities of blood and treasure fighting people who had no capacity or desire to attack the United States… By contrast, Obama’s strategy — whether you like it or not — is more clearly defined. Hundreds of thousands can die in Syria; the Taliban can menace and destabilize Afghanistan; Iran can move closer to getting a bomb. No matter. With rare exceptions, Obama only unsheathes his sword against people he thinks might kill American civilians.”
This reading of Obama’s policy, by an observer generally supportive of this policy, makes it clear that America under Obama no longer relies as heavily on military power to influence world affairs. Instead, the White House relies on the diplomatic and economic leverage the US wields by sheer dint of being as big and rich as it is.
This emphasis on diplomacy suggests American diplomats now bear a heavier burden. Under Bush, their primary task was to convincingly explain the goals and ideals behind the administration’s use of hard power. Now the political architecture of an American-led world is increasingly held together — or, perhaps, not held together — by diplomats who cannot rely on the persuasive power of American firepower to get their point across. The firepower is still there, of course, but the world that sits across the table from American diplomats is growing increasingly aware that it will not be used.
And so America’s diplomats must try to fill the vast gap left by their country’s reduced appetite for resorting to hard power through sheer talent and intelligence (in both senses). As America grows less imposing, other countries’ interests and political needs increase in importance, and so America’s representatives must become better at ascertaining and interpreting them.
Part of this slow-moving but nevertheless visible American reemphasis on diplomacy must include demonstrating to a skeptical world that in a time of declining military commitments, America’s diplomatic and economic friendship remains a valuable asset because it is a dependable one.
It doesn’t help that an ally like Israel, so clearly and often defined as one of America’s “closest friends,” so regularly finds itself in confrontation with the superpower, and so often claims the superpower has turned its back on it. Many in the region openly wonder if this signals a broader American unwillingness or inability to support friends and allies.
Pundits often frame the meta-narrative of American foreign policy in sweeping, emotional terms — “America is naive,” “America is disengaging,” “America is feckless.” But there is a limit to the usefulness of such language. Ultimately, a great deal of America’s influence and ability to pursue its interests in the world depends on the perceptive, effective day-to-day conduct of its diplomatic relations. In Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine, the most biting criticism is not that the American military (or, rather, its commander-in-chief) was cowed, but that American diplomats were repeatedly surprised by events. If an America that once ran the world through its military has decided to shift that burden onto its diplomats, the latter must do, and be seen to do, a better job of it.
Much now depends on the disarming of Gaza: the healing and future happiness of Gazans, the safety of Israelis, the perception among Middle Easterners that Islamist radicalism has finally sustained a meaningful reversal in the region. It is no accident that the issue has united Israel and the PA, not to mention the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians and others — or that the two powers that actually border Gaza have set disarmament as the precondition for the Strip’s rehabilitation.
But achieving Gaza’s disarmament, like so many other things in this burdensome world, depends in no small measure on the capacity of the world’s most significant power to interact intelligently and productively with a now-worried Israeli partner, a suspicious region and a skeptical world. Is America up to the task?
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