As we noted here, an Atlantic article by Jeff Goldberg has reignited the smoldering war of words and emotion between Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration. Capturing most of the attention is an unnamed administration official calling Netanyahu, among other things, a “chickenshit.” It’s important to understand the aim of the barb – namely that Netanyahu is too scared of losing power in Israel to take the steps necessary to achieve a settlement or even a substantial improvement of relations with the Palestinians.
Personally, I think this leaves untouched the great question about Netanyahu, namely, whether he is at his core principally an ideologue or a political opportunist. Or to map the question more clearly on to the issues at hand, is Netanyahu a pro-settler, territorial maximalist who is willing to do or say anything, kick the can down the road at every opportunity, to hold on to all the land between the Jordan and the Sea or is he unwilling to take the risks required to seek a settlement, as Ariel Sharon appeared to be doing when he was felled by a stroke in 2006. To add more tragic dimension for the Zionists among us, as Rabin was willing to do in 1994-95. I genuinely don’t know the answer to this question. And more importantly, I’m not certain Netanyahu does either. What is indisputable, though embarrassing on many levels, is that Netanyahu has and continues to dominate the Israeli political scene like no one since Ben Gurion who left the Prime Ministership for the last time 51 years ago.
To understand this latest spat it’s important to understand two things – first, the campaign of public derision against top administration officials by members of Netanyahu’s government (though seldom Netanyahu himself) over the last three years and second what happened when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon visited Washington last week.
Given the historic alliance and military and intelligence ties between Israel and the United States, a visiting Defense Minister usually meets with all the big people in Washington. But Yaalon has repeatedly denigrated the President and Secretary of State John Kerry, notoriously calling Kerry “messianic” and “obsessive” in his focus on brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
On the eve of his trip, Yaalon expressed confidence that he and the Obama administration had gotten past this earlier unpleasantness. And he was apparently caught off guard when he was very publicly denied meetings with numerous key officials. Not only this but the White House made a point of releasing the news of the snub just as Yaalon was leaving. It was no overstatement when the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz referred to this as a public humiliation of Yaalon.
Israel has always been ready and willing to go it alone when it feel it needs to – sometimes wisely, other times to its great misfortune. And this isn’t the first time when there’s been tension in the US-Israel relationship. President Clinton helped nudge Netanyahu out of office during his first premiership in the late 90s, for instance. But the Israeli security establishment and the country’s political elite has historically been acutely sensitive to Israel’s need for a great power ally or protector. And for decades that has meant the United States. But paradoxically, key Israeli leaders have grown increasingly contemptuous of the US leaders and in some cases the relationship itself, even as the need for US support has grown in the face of mounting hostility toward Israel in Europe and other parts of the world.
Hawks in the US and Israel will say this isn’t about the Israel and the US, it’s about Israel and the Obama administration. And there is certainly some truth to that; the situation would be different under a Bush or Romney administration. But it’s mainly wrong. And as Goldberg suggests in the substance of his piece, the breakdown is being driven principally by, caused by Netanyahu’s government. If only to drive home the point, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett – who manages to embody almost all of what is worst in the evolution of Israeli politics over the last fifteen years – launched a new fusillade after the release of Goldberg’s article, lashing out about Obama “throwing Israel under the bus” and demanding Obama publicly name, reject and apologize for the comments in the Atlantic.
A number of commentators have pointed out over night that unlike Clinton did in the late 90s, Obama has no other figure in Israeli politics waiting in the wings to take over. So perhaps, Obama has no cards to play. But given the relative need of each country for the other, this is a darkly comedic point for anyone who cares about Israel’s future. Indeed, Bennett, in his furious spinning and issuing of demands, looks very much like that classic cartoon of the man standing on the branch who confidently thinks he’s sawing off the tree.
Israel’s habitual critics greatly over-emphasize Israel’s immediate reliance on US military and economic support. Both are helpful but Israel would be a potent military force all on its own, certainly in the current climate of disarray in neighboring states. Israel not only has a powerful army but a robust arms industry and what is in many ways a thriving tech-driven economy. Of course, Israel is a nuclear power. Israel would not thrive without US support but it would be able to survive in the medium term pretty well. The longer term is a different story and the US’s cultural and diplomatic umbrella is a much, much bigger deal.
The current blow-up in relations would be quite different if it were about genuine, existential security realities on the Israeli side. But it’s not. The US has been quite supportive of Israel on the Iran front – even though much of the focus on Iran has been something Netanyahu has used to avoid discussion of the Israel-Palestine question. And the blow-ups are not really about demands that go to post-Palestinian settlement security issues – like the status of the Jordan Valley, for instance. The primary irritants have been continued settlement growth handed out to the rightists in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition and often timed not only to demonstrate hostility to any future settlement with the Palestinians but actually to demonstrate hostility to the US government itself. In other words, the US relationship is being degraded mainly on the altar of Israeli domestic politics. And all while Israel’s need for a robust relationship with the US grows in relative terms.
The painful reality, for some of us at least, is that many on the Israeli right – and let’s be honest, the fractured Israeli body politic which keeps it in power – has become so accustomed to the sheltering warmth of the US protective relationship that they don’t realize just how cold it could be on the outside. Sort of like teenagers bucking at parental authority who have little sense of what it might be like to support themselves on their own.
Israel needs the US-Israel relationship vastly more than the US needs it. The situation would be changed by a GOP administration in 2016. But the big picture would not change. Nor would the danger Israel is courting.