On December 19, 2016, The Atlantic weekly magazine published an article by Mr. Shalom Lipner titled: Divergence Grows in the American-Israel Relationship. Mr. Lipner, a former staffer at the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, is currently a Fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy. As such, Mr. Lipner is well-versed in many aspects surrounding the American-Israel relations. I concur with his final statement that future relationship between Israel and the United States could stand some improvements if “maximum candor” is used during the diplomatic discourse. In layman terms, the words “maximum candor” could be interpreted as refraining from intentional, grossly misleading and apocryphal statements.
Make no mistake, all diplomatic discourse between governments may include misleading or even apocryphal statements in order to meet some objectives or achieve goals set by the parties. However, one may expect that a significant level of candor is always necessary in order to advance understanding and cooperation between friendly nations. This is all the more important, in my view, in the case of the Israeli-American relations, simply because any dialogue between the two governments is not a discourse among equals. The dependence of Israel upon the American good will is deep, profound and multi-faceted, including generous economic and military aid as well as tangible and consistent diplomatic support in the global arena shielding Israel from international efforts, considered by Israel as adverse, to bring pressure to bear.
There is no denying that the personal relations between President Obama and Israel’s Premier Mr. Netanyahu had been soured regardless of any conciliatory diplomatic language often used by the White House and the assertions by Mr. Netanyahu, during his recent “60 Minutes” interview and other prior occasions, that the disagreements between the two leaders are rooted in substance and do not reflect “personal” inclinations. Mr. Netanyahu went on to express his nation’s gratitude for the generous American aid but at the same time he stated his commitment to addressing first and foremost Israel’s security and other vital concerns. Of course, this is his undeniable duty.
Nevertheless, the schism between Mr. Netanyahu and President Obama seems to have been widened in recent years, in my view almost solely due to actions taken by Mr. Netanyahu and his government. In the backdrop is the foundation of the American foreign policy for the past five decades with regards to Israel’s settlement activities across the West Bank that clearly spells out the illegitimacy of the settlements, the illegality of the Israeli land-grabbing, and the continued construction of new and expanded settlements. Time and again, in the behest of President Obama, Israel announced a “freeze” on new construction but somehow the Jewish population across the West Bank increased steadily and significantly over the past decade as well as the number of new illegal “outposts” deep within the West Bank that the Israeli government converted (laundered) into settlements.
In fact, during President Obama’s eight-year term, largely due to his administration’s acquiescence, the number of settlements and new Jewish housing units across the West Bank reached an all-time record. The level of “candor” displayed by the Israeli government and its prime minister in connection with the public declaration of “freezing” of construction is next to nil. Mr. Netanyahu’s rhetoric suggests deliberate deceptions and lies when he declared that he is fully “focused” on advancing the Two State Solution. Searching for “candor” in that statement is akin to finding a needle in the haystack.
In this context, we recall the insult the Israeli government inflicted upon Vice President Joe Biden during his visit to Jerusalem in 2014 when on that very same day and during his stay in that city, in fact during his conversation with Mr. Netanyahu, Israel announced the construction of some thousands of new housing units in areas east of Jerusalem that are clearly within the West Bank boundaries. It had been widely reported that Mr. Netanyahu approved this action although he later issued a conciliatory statement. It is, of course, clear to all that no such announcement could ever be taken without Mr. Netanyahu’s consent and approval including the timing of its release. There was not a shred of “candor” to be found. Instead it was an exercise in brazen deception and disregard that portrayed Mr. Biden as “unimportant.” Indeed a personal insult to both the vice president and the president.
The rift between President Obama and Mr. Netanyahu became all the more acute over Mr. Netanyahu’s vocal and well-publicized disagreement with the course of action taken by the Obama administration towards addressing the Iran nuclear issue. Iran, being the only sovereign member of the United Nations that publically advocates for the distraction of Israel is and should remain a major concern for Israel. Iran’s nuclear ambitions coupled with overt threats pose a challenge, some would like to believe it is existential, to Israel. Given the genocidal calamity the Jewish people experienced in Europe during the Second World War, Israel’s concerns are very real.
President Obama, during White House press briefings and other occasions, expressed a genuine interest and understanding of Israel’s concerns and of the nature of the Iranian threats. He reiterated the long-standing American commitment to Israel’s security. But he also stated unequivocally that his objectives were to achieve a workable solution to the Iranian nuclear issue via diplomatic efforts absent the use of American military power, although he repeatedly stated that “all options are on the table”. He viewed the severe economic sanctions under which Iran had been living for some time as an effective “weapon” that finally incentivized its leaders to negotiate and come to an agreement.
In parallel to the negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration offered Israel a generous additional military aid package, over and above the aid that Israel have been already receiving annually, to offset disadvantages, real or perceived, that may be related to the agreement with Iran. As reported in the Israeli press, Mr. Netanyahu dismissed the American offer and refused to even consider some preliminary inquiries. This was viewed negatively by the Obama administration and as an overt affront to the president. Mr. Netanyahu’s actions looked more like a poker game that President Obama was not willing to play. President Obama was billed in the right-wing Israeli press (which unconditionally supports Mr. Netanyahu) as Israel’s “enemy” and Mr. Netanyahu, in a typical lack of personal “candor”, remained thanklessly silent.
Mr. Netanyahu professed an extremely militant vantage point that was based on the implementation of stricter economic sanctions coupled with overt and explicit military threats. Reportedly, the Israeli government expanded several billion dollars on preparations for unilateral strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. However, the Israeli government, well aware of the potentially severe consequences both at home and abroad, the unprecedented loss of life and destruction, never resorted to a military action. Instead, Mr. Netanyahu viewed himself free from any and all diplomatic constraints in his quest to derail the American efforts.
The Israeli onslaught included, among other things, a speech by Mr. Netanyahu to a Joint Session of the US House of Representatives. Contrary to universally accepted diplomatic etiquette and protocols, neither Mr. Netanyahu, nor any of his staff, including the Israeli Ambassador, consulted with the President, or at least notified the White House of the invitation to speak to the House. Both chambers of the House are dominated by Republicans who oppose any and all of the President’s policies and who saw in the invitation to Mr. Netanyahu an opportunity to lambast the President. It should be noted that the speech by Mr. Netanyahu took place just one week before the Israeli general elections. Only a fool would be tempted to believe that Mr. Netanyahu, who is well known for his extremely keen political senses, did not have a domestic agenda in mind.
Furthermore, only a fool would have believed that Mr. Netanyahu’s speech would convince the President and provide him with an excuse to abandon the negotiating table in favor of an additional hardline or even a military action. In fact, as widely reported, the Israeli Ambassador to the US, Mr. Dermer, and a staunch conservative Republican from Florida, arranged the invitation with the former Republican Speaker of the House. Thus, the Republicans and Mr. Netanyahu knowingly and intentionally engaged in a purely political double-header: the Republicans could be seen as supporting Israel in its “desperate” struggle to avert a potential disaster brought upon it by a Democratic president, and Mr. Netanyahu could deliver a message of defiance and hardline, defending Israel at all costs, to his supporters and voters at home. President Obama was not fooled. The personal schism between the President and Mr. Netanyahu just got deeper backed by Mr. Netanyahu’s overt deception and lack of “candor”.
Following the general elections Mr. Netanyahu retained the premiership and formed an extreme right government, populated by ultra-nationalist and religious ministers. The year of 2017 is also the year in which the “standard” 10-year military aid accord that was signed in 2006 between Israel and the United States is slated to expire. It is generally assumed that negotiations for the renewal thereof commence at least one year prior to expiration. However, Mr. Netanyahu made it widely known of his refusal to allow any such negotiations to commence and it became a common knowledge that Mr. Netanyahu preferred to wait until a new president occupies the Oval Office hoping to maximize Israel’s gains.
Although Mr. Netanyahu denied any reports indicating his preference towards a Republican president, given his extreme right leanings, it was abundantly clear that he believed that a Republican president would endow Israel with a more generous aid package. President Obama was well aware of Mr. Netanyahu’s lack of “candor” and of his purely political objectives. Nonetheless, the President urged the Israeli government to negotiate in good faith and reach an agreement before he leaves office. Let it be clear — Mr. Netanyahu’s maneuvering was viewed by the White House as another affront to President Obama. As it turned out, news reports indicated that Israel and the United States finalized a new 10-year aid agreement however, some Israeli commentators noted objectively that Mr. Netanyahu’s recalcitrance resulted in a somewhat less-than-desirable deal. Some other reports speculated, with more than a reasonable likelihood of being true, that Mr. Netanyahu’s sudden decision to negotiate was influenced by American polls that at that time suggested Mr. Trump’s defeat in the American general elections. Again, we have witnessed Mr. Netanyahu’s lack of “candor” and personal ill feelings towards Israel’s major benefactor, the American president.
On December 22, 2016, the UN Security Council was scheduled to vote on a resolution put forward by delegates of five countries lead by Egypt declaring the Israeli settlements across the West Bank as a “flagrant violation of international laws” and, among other articles, calling upon Israel to halt its settlement activities. Following an unprecedented intervention by president-elect Trump with Egypt’s President A-Sisi in response to a direct Israeli request, the Egyptian Ambassador withdrew the resolution indefinitely. Only a fool or an ignorant would not consider the intervention by Mr. Trump at the behest of Mr. Netanyahu as a brazen personal affront to President Obama. In America, there is only one sitting president at a time. However, the delegates of the other four members of the UNSC resubmitted the resolution for a vote on December 23, 2016.
Indeed, on that day the UNSC voted nearly unanimously, including the permanent members France, Russia, China and The UK, to accept the resolution with a singular abstention by the US Ambassador thus paving the way for a possible condemnation and potentially additional actions against Israel. Reportedly, the Israeli Ambassador to the UN sharply deplored President Obama personally and the American abstention, and attributed the outcome to a “personal” vendetta by President Obama. Some Israeli members of Knesset shamelessly described the President as “anti-Semite”. Mr. Netanyahu added his voice to the ugly choir but can only blame himself. Through his deceiving actions and inflammatory rhetoric Mr. Netanyahu demonstrated time and again a decided lack of “candor” and a personal disrespect to President Obama. He unbashfully lied to the world when he declared that there is nothing “personal” in his disagreements with the Obama administration. He conveniently forgets that under President Obama Israel enjoys unprecedented levels of American support and cooperation.
During the eight-year term of Mr. Obama, there were other occasions that resulted in personal insults to the President. There is no purpose for any further elaboration in this post. The above are sufficient to demonstrate that a deep personal rift exists between Mr. Netanyahu and President Obama that translated itself into an ever wider divergence. In my view, Mr. Netanyahu is almost solely responsible for this sad state of affairs.
A footnote: I do not espouse any anti-Israel views and wish the citizens of that country all the best. They deserve to live in peace and security. But I strongly believe that the continued Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, the continued illegal land-grabbing by the Israeli settlements in total ignorance of international laws, the continued total disregard of the long-standing bi-partisan American foreign policy regarding the legitimacy of the settlements would one day exact a price. Perhaps the American administration finally acted in accordance with its own long-standing foreign policy that is designed to address American interests, not Israeli misdeeds. Of course, it remains to be seen if any actions by Mr. Trump would signal a significant departure from this policy.