You may have seen that Israeli officials announced this evening that US House Speaker John Boehner will leave at the end of March for a
10 day victory tour through Israel. The trip, purportedly, was planned during Netanyahu’s visit to Washington earlier this month, which is to say, before Netanyahu’s election victory. But it seems clear that had Netanyahu gone down in defeat, the trip might have been reconsidered. In any case, the announcement is being treated in DC and media circles as another headache, defeat, setback – what have you – for President Obama. This probably makes sense if you operate in DC’s win-the-day mode. But by any real measure of the fundamental security relationship between the two states, that idea is nonsense.
Israel is a junior member in a security alliance in which the needs of each partner are deeply imbalanced. There’s nothing wrong with that. The two countries do share a range of common values and are bound together by a deep mutual affinity. That is as good a reason as any for an alliance. But the equation of need between the two states is profoundly unequal.
It is true that Israel can become a problem for a US president – but not nearly as big a problem as the US can become for an Israeli Prime Minister. And scarcely at all for a president in the last two years of his second term who will never face voters again.
Israel relies on consistent support across the US political spectrum. That has been the case for some thirty years. Prior to the mid-80s, it was basically the same back into the Johnson administration, though it was more clearly tilted toward the Democrats. But the consistent support across different political constellations is the key. That consistency is key because it means the support is relatively immune to shifts in US domestic politics.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Ron Dermer seem to assume that President Obama is an aberration or that they will seal an alliance with the US Republican party that will make him irrelevant. But President Obama is not an aberration. A future Democratic president – whether it was Hillary Clinton or someone else – would not be greatly different. People think she would be; she wouldn’t. (This is a misunderstanding of her own views and the political realities she would operate in.)
Nor is the new Likud-GOP alliance sufficient. Democrats will win the presidency again. Indeed, over the last half dozen elections, their record has been strong. But even if that doesn’t hold up, they will hold the White House again and they’ll hold the Congress again. This is the nature of a two party system. The consistency of support is critical to Israel’s reliance on great power protection, both in indirect military terms (arms supplies and worse case scenario military support) but even more for diplomatic protection.
So in this back and forth, every smackdown and burn and other episode of trash talk may make people feel good and it may have advantages for the GOP. But by definition, it’s a set back for the Israelis. Even if Netanyahu is “winning” in his battle with the White House, he is actually losing, because his country’s interest is to maintain as cordial and as close relations with the United States as possible – in a way that transcends partisan divisions within the US. ‘As possible’ is key because there will be real differences not only of opinion but fundamental interests that force disagreements. But there is nothing to be gained for Israel to be embedding itself on one side of a partisan war within the United States. In this kind of effort, every time you lose, you lose; and every time you win, you lose.
In the last two days, there have been numerous articles saying the White House is ‘furious,’ ‘seething,’ ‘angry,’ and all the rest. That’s not my read about how President Obama operates, though I have no doubt they are not happy. They shouldn’t be seething. If they are, they shouldn’t be showing it publicly. This fundamentally is not about personalities or hurt pride. Now on two different fronts, Prime Minister Netanyahu has put himself foursquare in opposition to US policy. On the Iran front there is a major division within US politics. On the principle of two states, there is not. This has been bipartisan US policy for more than a decade.
Abandoning the two state model creates grave danger for Israel and the United States – indeed, far greater danger for Israel. The US will and should continue its maximal support of military and intelligence cooperation. But the diplomatic heat shield the US has supplied now seems clearly counterproductive. The US has studiously opposed and blocked international resolutions that in fact support standing, bipartisan US policy. It seems clear that that approach is counterproductive. It creates a bubble in which rightwing Israeli governments can continue policies which are bad for Israel and bad for the United States. All the way, Europe keeps moving on a path toward some sort of economic sanctions which the US would be hard-pressed to block and which would be devastating to Israel (roughly 1/3 of Israeli imports and exports are with the EU.)
Ben Gurion famously said that the pre-state Zionists should fight the war as though there were no white paper and the white paper as though there were no war. (Here’s the historical context of that remark.) It now seems clear that US efforts on the diplomatic front – blocking any pressure for a two-state settlement – has had no positive effect. It has only enabled a process of cowardly kicking the can down the road and further embedding the Israelis in the West Bank. It also makes any future settlement not impossible, as some wrongly claim, but just much more painful and damaging. That is bad for everyone. And continuing that makes no sense.
It’s not about pique or anger. If the people at the Obama White House are feeling that, they should stop feeling that. And if they can’t stop feeling it, they should stop broadcasting it. As they say in the local parlance, the facts on the ground have changed. So US policy should change. Not on security, which should remain just as robust, but on the policy of blocking all external diplomatic pressure on the reasoning that leaving the Israelis free to settle things with the Palestinians between themselves is only way to reach a settlement. It is clearly not. So the policy should change.