Ilai Z. Saltzman

Clear and Present Danger

The bombshell dropped by preeminent New York Times political commentator Thomas Friedman last week is still reverberating and captivating the attention of those who closely follow US-Israel relations. In his most recent opinion piece, Friedman argued that given the controversial judicial overhaul, the composition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s radical right-wing coalition government and its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians as well as its position on the Iranian nuclear deal, “a reassessment of the [US-Israel] relationship is inevitable.”

At present, Israel is in flux as the country is undergoing one of the most dramatic periods in its recent history. The controversial judicial overhaul/reform that was introduced in January 2023 generated not only unprecedented domestic unrest but also considerable friction with the Biden administration which refused to invite Netanyahu to the White House thus far. Adding insult to injury, President Isaac Herzog was invited to meet President Biden at the White House and he addressed a joint meeting of Congress.

In response to Freidman’s column, a senior Israeli official was quoted saying “We are not aware of any decision to reassess the relationship on the part of the administration” and an administration spokesperson told reporters “There is no talk of some kind of formal reassessment. The United States and Israel share a special bond, and our enduring commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad.” Still, Friedman’s longstanding acquaintance with Israel and Middle East politics, as well as his close connections with the Biden administration, suggest this was not merely an observation but rather a “friendly warning” that echoed voices and attitudes from within the White House or its orbit nonetheless.

Even if there is no actual initiative to “reassess” the relationship between Israel and the US at present, and the security cooperation between the two countries remains unaffected, a possible reevaluation of the American administration’s stance on Israel is not farfetched given the major disagreements between Biden and Netanyahu. A few days ago, President Biden told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria the White House is practically bypassing the Israeli Prime Minister and is pursuing alternative contacts to coordinate policies without engaging with the elements within the Israeli government he labeled as extreme or obstructionist hoping Netanyahu will “continue to move toward moderation and change.”

We should be mindful that, in the context of US-Israel relations, the term “reassessment” is not new. The most notable case involves the Ford administration which declared its intention to “reassess” the relations with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government in March 1975. President Gerald Ford was furious Rabin rejected the American request for additional Israeli redeployments in the Sinai Peninsula, particularly the withdrawal from the strategic Sinai passes and Sinai oil fields, as part of the intensive negotiations led by Secretay of State Henry Kissinger to sign a second interim agreement with Egypt.

President Ford wrote in a personal letter to Rabin: “The failure to achieve an agreement is bound to have far-reaching effects in the area and on our relations. I have directed an immediate reassessment of US policy in the area, including our relations with Israel, with a view to assuring that the overall interests of America in the Middle East and globally will be protected.”

The Ford administration halted the sale and delivery of arms to Israel, especially the advanced F-15 aircraft, as part of an Israeli request for $2.5 billion in military and economic aid. After an effective Israeli campaign that mobilized pro-Israel Senators and public opinion, the Ford administration decided to reconsider its original stance and offer security guarantees, military and financial aid that alleviated Rabin’s concerns and resulted in an Israeli decision to sign the agreement with Egypt in September.

At this stage, it is unclear whether there is any real traction to Friedman’s statement about the unavoidability of “reassessing” the US-Israel relations beyond the theory this was the Biden administration’s way to vent its growing frustration at the current Israeli government. Ahead of his visit, President Herzog attempted to refute the notion the future of the US-Israel relationship is beyond repair and proclaimed instead that “Israel and the United States are strong and strategic, democratic allies of the highest level.”

The US-Israel relationship is a key component in Israel’s national security, and the US plays a critical part in maintaining stability in the Middle East. Washington’s role in promoting Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian peace is indispensable, and the Abraham Accords are just the latest example of that. The US-Israel strategic military and technological cooperation contributes to the security and prosperity of both countries. Furthermore, Israel’s integration into the US Central Command Area of Responsibility in 2021 further confirmed its growing share in, and contribution to, the American regional and multilateral security architecture.

The ‘special’ aspect of US-Israel relations extends beyond its pure interest-based dimension and revolves around shared values and democratic principles. These are not mutually exclusive aspects but rather mutually reinforcing features of US-Israel relations. Friedman further reported yesterday that during a telephone call between the two leaders, Biden warned Netanyahu: “You are going to break something in Israel’s democracy and with your relationship with America’s democracy, and you may never be able to get it back.” These are not words uttered pro forma and they are authentically reflecting Biden’s deep concerns about the future of Israeli democracy as well as the bilateral partnership.

Netanyahu should keep these facts in mind as he contemplates his next steps in the Knesset and vis-à-vis the Biden administration. If he chooses to persist with his government’s judicial overhaul, the impact on Israel’s relations with its closest ally would be detrimental and long-lasting. That would be Netanyahu’s real historical legacy, something the son of a historian can easily appreciate.

About the Author
Dr. Ilai Z. Saltzman is a Professor of Israel Studies and the Director of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a board member at Mitvim – the Israel Institute of Foreign Regional Policy.
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