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.
It is difficult to gauge the rationale for Panetta’s public comments, given the apparent lack of any plan to follow them up with actions. The comments appear only to give increased ammunition to Obama’s Republican opponents in the midst of an intense election season battle for Jewish support, without any compensatory gain in terms of changing the situation in the region. Experts believe that Panetta’s statements reflect more the need of administration officials to vent their feelings than a planned drive to move Israel on the peace process.
“The pursuit of Arab-Israel peace is closed for the season,” said Aaron David Miller, public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Miller, a former State Department peace negotiator, said that administration officials are plainly “fed up” with the lack of response on the Israeli side and of having virtually no avenue to promote the peace process.
“It would be a mistake to interpret this as putting the burden on Israel,” said Robert Wexler, president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Wexler, a former congressman who is now active as a surrogate for Obama’s re-election campaign, said that the administration is not angry at Israel. “This is not about frustration. It’s about not being complacent,” Wexler said.
For all the attention Panetta garnered, though, disagreements over dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict are not new. But some other recent statements by administration officials have injected new issues into the already tense relationship.
During a closed-door session at the Saban Forum conference, Clinton reportedly lashed out at attempts by Israeli lawmakers, with some backing from the Netanyahu government, to limit the activity of civil society nongovernmental organizations. She was also said to have expressed anger at accounts of increased gender segregation in Israel. Clinton took particular issue with reports that women are required to take the back seats on certain bus lines in Israel, a demand that reminded her of Rosa Parks and America’s civil rights struggle.
In a recent conversation with senior aides to Netanyahu, Dan Shapiro, American ambassador to Israel, also conveyed Washington’s dismay with recent proposed legislation to limit foreign government funding for NGOs deemed critical of Israel.
Meanwhile, adding to tensions between the Obama administration and the pro-Israel community is an unrelated comment made recently by Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium. Gutman escribed different types of anti-Semitism in Europe in a speech to Jewish leaders and explained that one aspect of Jew hatred was “largely born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem.”
Jewish organizations as well as Republican presidential candidates immediately blasted the Obama administration for what they said was an attempt to blame Israel for European anti-Semitism. The White House issued a statement highlighting the president’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, and Ambassador Gutman, who is Jewish and a son of a Holocaust survivor, expressed his regret over what he called a misinterpretation of his comments.
Several American scholars have been warning in recent years that gradual shifts in Israeli society — toward more religious and less democratic values — could endanger the future of the special relationship between the United States and Israel. A paper published by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed to such a “value gap” as the main trend line threatening America’s basic friendship with the Jewish state.
Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, one of the largest groups supporting progressive NGOs in Israel, said Clinton’s remarks reflect growing unrest in the United States over actions taken by the Israeli government to limit civil society discourse. “Everyone should see it as a five-alarm fire,” Sokatch said. “If Israel drifts away from values of Western democracy, then change to relations with the U.S. will be inevitable.”
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli envoy to Washington, chose to shoot back at America. “On many issues we are better than the U.S.,” Shoval said. While expressing his own objection to recent actions taken in Israel to limit women’s rights, Shoval touted the political independence of the Israeli legal system, Israel’s rejection of capital punishment and the country’s liberal abortion laws. “Most Americans don’t doubt the shared values with Israel,” he concluded.
Israel’s image in the United States as an open and democratic society is still strong and will remain so, Miller said. Americans understand the challenges facing the young Israeli democracy, he argued, and the fact that Arab countries surrounding Israel behave “much worse.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com