Washington — Just as the troubled relationship between the Obama administration and the government of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to be getting on track, remarks by top American officials have made it clear that frustration still runs deep in Washington over Israel’s policies.
Over the course of just a few days, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, along with other government officials, talked about their displeasure with Israel policies ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to relations with Turkey and Egypt and, domestically, to limitations on women’s rights and on Israeli civil society freedoms.
Analysts agree that it would be a mistake to interpret the criticism as an orchestrated attack meant to pressure Israel. No actions from Washington that would back up the critical comments appear to be on the horizon. But many see the statements as a sign of a growing gap between the two countries.
“All these issues are bubbling up because Israelis fail to recognize the depth of American concern,” said Dov Zakheim, undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration. Zakheim, who has been involved in relations between Israel and the United States for decades, said, “Israelis thought for years that they could do whatever they wanted and get unstinting support from the U.S., but it is no longer so.” According to Zakheim, the Obama administration, as well as America’s military leadership, feel that Israel “just didn’t work hard enough” to achieve peace, and therefore there is widespread frustration in the foreign policy and national security communities.
Triggering the latest round in tension between Israel and America was a strongly worded speech delivered on December 2 by Panetta at the Saban Forum, an annual weekend seminar hosted by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. When asked about measures that should be taken by Israel to advance the peace process, Panetta, true to his reputation as a straight-shooter, responded, “Just get back to the damn table.”
The Pentagon chief also pointed out the trend of Israel’s growing isolation. And while explaining that there were several reasons for this problem, Panetta seemed to lay part of the blame on Israel when he stated, “I have never known an Israeli government — or an Israeli, for that matter — to be passive about anything, let alone this troubling trend.”
Panetta urged Israel to increase its efforts to reconcile with Turkey. He openly rebuked Israeli arguments about the effectiveness of a possible military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Panetta’s address surprised and even shocked Israeli officials.
The prevailing notion in Jerusalem had been that Obama’s highly supportive speech at the U.N. General Assembly on September 21 signaled recognition from the United States that it is the Palestinians’ refusal to negotiate that has led peace talks to a dead end. “The Israeli interest is not to keep the current situation as it is,” Israeli Cabinet minister Dan Meridor told the Forward on the sideline of the Saban conference. “It is an illusion to think you can maintain the status quo. It is in Israel’s interest to solve the conflict.”
But Panetta’s comments suggested that Israel isn’t off the hook yet. In Washington’s view, it appears, the Netanyahu government, like the Palestinians, requires more prodding in order to engage in talks.