Why the Mistrust Between U.S. and Israel?

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 13, 2010, issue of January 22, 2010.
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Like a couple that just can’t get along, even when they agree, Washington and Jerusalem have spent early January locked in squabbles.

Beneath the media radar, the America-Israel strategic relationship is flourishing after running into problems at the end of President George W. Bush’s tenure, according to Israel’s Washington ambassador, Michael Oren. Yet, relations between Jerusalem and Washington are still marred with problems of miscommunication fed by mutual suspicion.

Since the beginning of 2010, officials in Israel and the United States have been forced several times to clarify, explain and retract statements and remarks misunderstood by the other side. And as diplomats from both countries tried to put out the flames, the Israeli media seemed to be adding fuel to the fire.

This latest outburst of tensions, experts argue, has little to do with the real state of affairs and does not reflect current relations between the Obama administration and the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Rather, it is a residue of the difficult start-off that both leaders had experienced when coming into office.

Last year “was a rough year in terms of bilateral relations, and that puts people on a hair trigger,” said David Makovsky, co-author of the 2009 book “Myths, Illusions & Peace: Finding a New Direction in the Middle East.” “Everyone is more realistic now, and both sides came off their opening demands, but because of the 2009 bumps, people are hypersensitive.”

This sensitivity became apparent after an hour-long interview that the administration’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, gave on January 6 to Charlie Rose on PBS. Pressed by the interviewer to list the sticks the United States could use in order to pressure Israel to move forward with the peace process, Mitchell answered, “Under American law, the United States can withhold support on loan guarantees to Israel.” He mentioned that Bush did so in the past. Mitchell immediately explained that “you have to keep open whatever options, but our view is that we think the way to approach this is to try to persuade the parties what is in their self-interest.”

But the message Israelis got from the interview was that America is threatening to cut aid to Israel if no concessions are made.

“Mitchell Threatens: Diplomatic Standstill Will Endanger the Loan Guarantees” read the headline in Israel’s most popular newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. The paper with the second highest circulation, Yisrael Hayom, spread Mitchell’s photo over its front page, with the title, “The Threat.”

Israeli officials quickly shot back at what they, too, saw as a veiled threat coming from Mitchell. Finance minister Yuval Steinitz declared that Israel can do quite well without American loan guarantees.

The issue even reached American Senator Joe Lieberman, who was on a congressional delegation in Israel and stated that American lawmakers will never allow the administration to cut back on aid to Israel.

Urgent phone calls between Jerusalem and Washington led the administration to issue a clarification.

“I know that Senator Mitchell’s interview with Charlie Rose [on January 6] caused some angst in various quarters, perhaps in Israel,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said. “Just to clarify this, he wasn’t signaling any, you know, particular course of action.”

According to former American ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, the tense relations in the past year have led the sides to be “a little nervous” and have caused Israelis to misunderstand the message coming out from Washington. “Israelis are misreading the administration,” Kurtzer said. “This administration wants to press for progress in the negotiations, but this doesn’t mean pressure.”

But with the backdrop of a mutual suspicion between Washington and Jerusalem, what in different times could have been taken by Israelis as a mere statement of existing laws was seen as a glimpse into the administration’s ill-will toward Israel.

Such was the case a few days earlier, when an Israeli newspaper received a leaked cable from the country’s consul general in Los Angeles, Jacob Dayan, in which he detailed a conversation with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. According to the leak, Emanuel said that the Obama administration is “tired of Israel” and frustrated with the lack of progress. The report quoted Obama’s chief of staff as warning that the moment will come when the administration will give up on its peace efforts.

This time, the angry phone calls came from the White House and were directed at the Israelis. According to an informed source from each side, the administration demanded an immediate retraction from the Israelis, arguing that Emanuel’s friendly conversation with the Israeli diplomat on the sidelines of a fundraising event was misunderstood and misquoted. The Israeli embassy in Washington, which according to diplomats was embarrassed by the leak of a confidential document, issued a statement in which Dayan expressed his “deepest regrets for the distortion of Mr. Emanuel’s views in this harmful article.”

The Israeli media’s quickness to amplify any sign of discord between Washington and Jerusalem taps into a popular sentiment of mistrust that Israelis hold toward the Obama administration. A recent poll conducted by the New America Foundation found that a majority of Israelis do not believe that Obama is pro-Israel. While the survey showed a good approval rate for Obama in Israel, it indicated that he still has a problem in coming through as supportive of the Jewish state.

Some observers in Washington believe that this sentiment is also the reason for interpreting signals from administration officials as anti-Israeli. “There are people out there that feel the administration is out to get Netanyahu,” said an insider who follows Middle East policy closely, and another argued that some in the Israeli leadership are using the local media to exaggerate tension in order to appease Netanyahu’s opponents from the right.

But while newspaper headlines focused on real or perceived threats, the reality on the ground indicated a much rosier picture of relations between America and Israel. The Obama administration and the Netanyahu government are now in agreement on the need to renew peace talks as soon as possible, while Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas refuses direct talks before a complete settlement freeze is put in place.

“I think relations between Netanyahu and Obama are more stable than before,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Then why the constant sense of tension?

A possible explanation may be found in a recent article in Yedioth Ahronoth by leading Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea. He quoted Netanyahu saying in a private conversation shortly after taking office that he feared problems in communicating with the new Democratic administration in Washington. “I speak Republican,” the Israeli leader explained.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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