For White House, Bitter Split With Israel Undoes Years of Careful Progress

Can Barack Obama Mend Fences on Peace Talks and Iran?

Better Days: President Barack Obama spent years trying to get along better with Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s all gone south in just a few days.
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Better Days: President Barack Obama spent years trying to get along better with Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s all gone south in just a few days.

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 15, 2013, issue of November 22, 2013.
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In just a few days, the Obama administration’s years-long effort to mend fences with Israel and build a working relationship with its prime minister seems to have crumbled, as Jerusalem and Washington seem caught up in a brutal and deepening exchange of mutual accusations.

The disagreements erupted with the looming arrival of decision points for the two most sensitive issues in the relationship between Israel and the United States: a nuclear deal with Iran, and the expansion of exclusively Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

By coming at the same time, experts say, the distinct clashes over these two issues have combined to erase much of the progress made in the past year between Washington and Jerusalem.

“I think things are actually worse now than they were in the time of Shamir and Bush,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel from the United States.

Kurtzer, who is now a professor of Middle East policy at Princeton University, was referring to the overlapping tenures of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President George H.W. Bush in the late 1980s and early ’90s — a period characterized by some of the worst tensions in the history of the two countries’ relationship.

Kurtzer was not alone in ranking the current crisis as worse. Exacerbating the dispute is the fact that Israel is now perceived as actively backing an aggressive lobbying campaign in Congress to abort an administrative initiative. Similar fights in the past, whether concerning loan guarantees to Israel or arms sales to Israel’s neighbors, all ended with scars carved deeply into the relationship for years.

“These things cause a cumulative damage to our image in the United States and in the Jewish community,” said Itamar Rabinovich, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 1993 to 1996. Rabinovich, now president of the Israel Institute, warned that Israel is increasingly being viewed “as a trouble maker,” an image that makes Americans distance themselves from Israel. “You think you’re over the crisis and things roll on, but then you see the polls showing that the young generation doesn’t want to get involved with Israel anymore.”

The latest spat unfolded in less than a week. It began with an Israeli announcement of new building plans for the West Bank settlements. The move, a well-known routine in the Middle East peace process playbook, involved an announcement by Israel of its intent to expand West Bank Jewish settlements in order to quell internal protests over perceived concessions to the Palestinians. But the move apparently irked Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in the region.

In a joint interview with Israel’s Channel 2 TV and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, Kerry lashed out at the Israeli government for its settlement moves and, more broadly, for its hard-line stance in ongoing peace negotiations, which are reportedly now at a standstill.

“What is the alternative to peace?” Kerry asked while suggesting that Israel’s continued settlement activity could raise questions about how serious it is in its stated wish to advance the peace process. “The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos. “I mean, does Israel want a third intifada?”

Kerry’s invocation of the possibility of a new Palestinian uprising far exceeded America’s standard condemnation of settlement activity. Some American officials and experts have since speculated that it reflected his anger at leaks from the prime minister’s office suggesting that the United States gave its tacit agreement to the new settlement activity.

Kerry’s harsh words were still echoing in the Israeli media when news came from Geneva that Iran and the six countries negotiating with it on the nuclear issue were about to reach a historic breakthrough. Senior ministers from the six countries, including Kerry for the United States, converged on Geneva for the expected signing of an interim agreement. The deal reportedly would have curbed Iran’s ongoing enrichment of uranium, which many experts suspect is for developing nuclear weapons, in exchange for a partial lifting of international sanctions against Iran. This was then to be followed by negotiations for a permanent long-term agreement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not wait for the conclusion of the weekend meetings; he condemned the agreement nearing completion as “bad and dangerous” for Israel. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister in charge of Diaspora affairs, sent a letter to Jewish leaders in America and across the world, urging them to pressure their governments not to go ahead with the Iranian deal.

The whole matter ground to a halt when France’s foreign minister unexpectedly refused at the last minute to sign the draft agreement that all had participated in developing. But Kerry made clear in public appearances that he was less than happy with Israel’s response as the episode unfolded.

“We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid,” Kerry told NBC’s David Gregory in an interview, suggesting that America did not appreciate being told how to deal with Iran.

On TV news shows and in public statements in the days that followed, the Iran issue and the settlements disagreement were frequently mixed together. This generated a kind of negative synergy. In the past, both sides have gone to great lengths to dispel any notion of linkage between the two issues. Now, the pace of developments on the ground was combining with an Israeli perception that America was applying pressure on both fronts simultaneously to tie the two issues together into one, much larger crisis.

Netanyahu seemed aware of this complicating factor on November 12, when he sought to ease tensions on the Palestinian front and focus on Iran. The Israeli prime minister ordered a hold on a planning process for the building of 24,000 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In a statement, the prime minister’s office made clear Netanyahu believed new settlement planning now would create an unnecessary clash with the international community at a time in which support is needed to block the Iranian deal.

The history of U.S.-Israel relations has known other low points, more often than many remember. The list includes President Eisenhower’s stern warning in 1956 to Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion that relations would be damaged if Israel did not immediately withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula; Henry Kissinger’s 1975 threat of a “reassessment” of. relations between the United States and Israel; and Jimmy Carter’s disputes with Menachem Begin over the Israeli-Egyptian peace process. President Reagan also got into several angry public disputes with Begin over the sale of advanced surveillance aircrafts to Saudi Arabia, Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear facility and its 1982 siege of Beirut.

Still, most experts agree that the lowest point in recent decades was in 1991, when George H.W. Bush and James Baker, his secretary of state, locked horns with Shamir over Washington’s demand that Israel cease its settlement activity on the West Bank as a condition for receiving $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to help it absorb Jews from the Former Soviet Union.

The American stance, Shamir said then, “damages the deepest foundations of Jewish and Zionist existence.”

Pro-Israel forces in America pushed against imposition of America’s condition for the guarantees, leading Bush to publicly describe himself as “one lonely little guy” up against “some powerful political forces” made up of “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.” Bush won the battle. But critics accused the president of conjuring an image often invoked by anti-Semites — an intent the president angrily denied.

Aaron David Miller, a senior American peace negotiator over several administrations, including George H.W. Bush’s, agreed with Kurtzer that the current crisis was worse. He called the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu “the most dysfunctional relationship” any American and Israeli leaders have ever had. Still, Miller, who is now vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that the U.S.-Israel relationship, unlike the Lehman Brothers investment house, is “way too big to fail.”

Until the current blow-up, it had seemed like things were on the mend between the two strategically tied partners, after several rough patches between Obama and Netanyahu. One early clash came in 2010, when Vice President Joe Biden came to Jerusalem on a good will visit and was greeted on arrival with an announcement that Israel intended to build 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian side of the city, whose final status Israel has agreed to negotiate with the Palestinians. A year later, Netanyahu spoke out strongly against Obama’s call for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to create a Palestinian state that would be based on Israel’s 1967 borders, with adjustments to account for some of Israel’s settlements.

After Obama’s re-election, the Americans made a concerted effort to put relations back on track. The move culminated in Obama’s successful visit to Israel last March and in warmer working relations between the two leaders.

The resolution of the current crisis will depend, to a great extent, on how Israel and the United States gear up for the next round of talks with Iran, which are scheduled for November 20. At a mass gathering of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on November 10, Netanyahu made clear his resolve to fight against the still pending interim agreement, and his expectation that American Jews must sign on. Invoking memories of the Holocaust, the Israeli leader stressed the urgent need to stop the deal. “That’s what I expect from every one of you,” he told the leaders, “and I know it’s achievable.”

As the battle shifts to Capitol Hill, pro-Israel organizations now seem determined to use all their clout to push for a tougher stance against Iran. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is planning a “fly in” of its members soon, according to congressional sources, in which key activists and donors from across the country will descend on Washington to lobby their representatives to back increased economic sanctions against Iran — a move the administration adamantly opposes while the current talks with Iran continue.

The prospect of an open battle between mainstream American Jewish leaders and the Obama administration struck Kurtzer as a nightmare in the making. “There needs to be no active lobbying on the Hill against the administration,” he said. “If there will be lobbying, then we’re not getting out of this so fast.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman


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