The New Context of US-Israel Relations

Historically, remarks about Israel by State Department spokespersons, or White House officials, or even the President or Secretary of State, must be read in a complex political context. They are efforts to persuade and reassure, goad and challenge, or otherwise pressure Israel, its supporters in the US, including Congress and American Jews, while simultaneously signaling to these communities and internationally that American support remains strong.

To its detriment, the Obama administration abandoned such stratagems and nuance long ago. New administration remarks, quoted by American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, depict an American-Israeli relationship in crisis.

A deeper reading, however, shows a flailing administration lashing out in frustration at Israel because it can, and possibly because it has no one else to lash out at about its own failed policies. As much as a crisis in US-Israel relations, the current remarks represent a new low for the conduct of American foreign policy as a whole, from which the Obama administration is unlikely to recover.

Goldberg quotes unnamed officials as bearing “red hot anger” against Netanyahu about Israeli settlement policy. In turn, Netanyahu is described as having “written off” the Obama administration and its foundering efforts to reach an agreement with Iran that would actually prevent development of a nuclear weapon.

These mutual grievances are well-known. What is most shocking about the remarks made to Goldberg are the personal insults leveled at Netanyahu himself; “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” the official was quoted as saying. Moreover, he is a “coward.” Moreover,

“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars… The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not [Yitzhak] Rabin, he’s not [Ariel] Sharon, he’s certainly no [Menachem] Begin. He’s got no guts.”

Needless to say, no other regional leaders, from far more stubborn and intransigent figures like Mahmoud Abbas, to mass murderers like Bashar al-Assad, have been demeaned this way. Indeed, when has any international leader ever been spoken about in such terms by American officials?

The remarks reflect familiar themes but with a new twist and a new urgency. As ever, the unnamed administration commentators express no awareness of Netanyahu’s domestic political circumstances. To recognize this would require the tiniest modicum of sympathy and the willingness to engage him in a search for compromise. There is none.

This is typically short-sighted; who does the Obama administration think might replace Netanyahu as Prime Minister? Has no one at the State Department taken notice of the shattered and demoralized state of the Israeli left, not to mention the general shabbiness of Israeli politicians across the political spectrum? This is not to defend Netanyahu but only to point to the very real, perhaps looming, issue of his replacement.

Insulting Israeli officials to their face is now the defining characteristic of US-Israel relations. The recent visit of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to Washington was characterized by petty American snubs, such as refusal to schedule meetings with Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry. Ya’alon was punished for remarks made earlier this year criticizing the US administration, in particular Kerry’s “messianic” quest for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Ya’alon has since bent over backwards to apologize for his impolitic, if accurate, comments and to put the best face on what he characterizes as US-Israeli “disagreements” regarding the peace process. But the personal and unforgiving style of the Obama administration was fully on display in what one diplomatic correspondent called Ya’alon’s “hazing.”

Apparently, Israel is expected to simply take the insults and in turn, respond positively to insults intended influence Israeli politics. Had the commentators been nominally familiar with Israel they might have realized that much of Israeli political culture to the right of Ha’aretz will at least temporarily rally around Netanyahu before indulging in recriminations and bloodletting. Few, however, are likely to ever trust the Obama administration.

As usual, the Obama administration’s efforts will backfire; pique makes it doubly destructive. It will have the effect of strengthening precisely those elements to Netanyahu’s right that feel he has not been aggressive enough in the ongoing cold war with the Palestinian Authority and the summer’s Gaza war against Hamas. It will also embolden Palestinians to advance both the emerging Jerusalem intifada and efforts in international forums to isolate and sanction Israel. And other countries will observe the Obama administration’s destructive approach to the “unshakeable” US-Israeli alliance and redouble their efforts to run from their alliances. The damage will not simply be confined to Israel.

But the tone of the remarks must be read at several levels. At last the insult-laden, back-stabbing Chicago politics that Obama himself imbibed as a young community organizer – the essence of Saul Alinsky-style politics of targeting, personalizing and freezing an opponent – have trickled down from the top of the administration to unnamed foreign policy officials, in the same manner than Obama’s jokes about the IRS auditing his political enemies were interpreted by underlings as license to do precisely that. Nothing is merely political; everything is eventually personalized, and in doing so, inevitable disappointment magnified into a kind of rage. This is a new and dangerous turn in American politics, a true “paranoid style.”

But the coarseness on display may not simply be an expression of administration frustration with Netanyahu and Israel, but also with the course of American foreign policy as a whole. Not a single success exists, anywhere – from the Russia reset, the pivot to China, the red line in Syria, the alliance against ISIS, combating the ‘mortal threat’ of global warming – the list is nearly endless. Who would not cry out in anger at this record?

Finally, the remarks may also reflect the administration’s domestic political frustrations. The Obama administration has felt free to treat Israel in a singularly abusive manner with the assurance that American Jews will nevertheless vote for the Democratic Party. It is premature to predict whether in this election American Jews will defect in any numbers to the Republicans. It is therefore tempting to suggest that the administration’s recourse to lashing out at Israel reflects both deeper fears and deeper prejudices.

But the collapsing fortunes of the administration and the Democratic Party as a whole, and Obama’s personal approval rating, have intensified the search for scapegoats and punching bags. Netanyahu, the “chickenshit,” the “coward,” who, like the world and the American people, has failed to live up to Obama’s expectations, performs that role once again.

To be sure, Netanyahu’s approach to negotiations with the Palestinians has been ham-fisted. Fixated, perhaps properly, on Iran but unable to see that patient and concerted diplomacy is necessary on both tracks, if only to maintain the hope that progress can be made on the “peace process,” he has succeeded at neither.

Faced with the collapse of the Middle East into chaos and bloodshed, Netanyahu could yet opt for daring moves, like unilaterally defining Israel’s border with the Palestinian Authority. In the new Middle East, however, as in the old, such moves are more usually regarded as concessions to be pocketed rather than courageous gestures to be matched. Now, with trust between the US and Israel virtually wiped away in a flurry of schoolyard insults, such moves are less likely than ever.

But the Obama administration came into office eager to downgrade US-Israel relations and a messianic faith in its own ability to shape the world through words. As the latter has shattered against countless international realities, it is left only with the former, at which it appears determined to succeed.

About the Author
Alex Joffe is a historian and archaeologist. He is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum.