U.S.-Israel tensions? Yes. A crisis? I don’t think so

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

The other day I was struck by a couple of lines in a Ha’aretz story about ongoing U.S.-Israel talks over Washington’s demand for a settlements freeze – a debate that could ease a little with today’s report that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is freezing some construction in East Jerusalem.

The most interesting line in the story was this: “The settlement issue has given rise to the worst public tensions between Israel and its closest ally in nearly two decades.”

You want tensions? How about threats of aid cutoffs or reductions? How about new limits on loan guarantees until Israel complies with U.S. demands? How about decisions not to sell Israel certain weapons programs already promised? How about a Secretary of State who says “bleep the Jews?”

That’s tension,  not like the relatively tame back and forth and apparent desire on both sides to avoid brinkmanship we’ve seen in recent months.

I’m not saying the  policies of the two governments are chugging along on the same track when it  comes to the urgency of negotiations for  a two-state solution. Clearly they’re divergent on the question of settlements and East Jerusalem.

But it also seems to me that both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while deriving some benefit from the impression they’re standing each other off, seem to be working hard to keep the lid on the conflict.

At home, Netanyahu gets some positive benefit from saying “no” to Washington as he tries to placate restive right wing members of his government who already think he’s given up too much.  Obama, by mostly holding firm on settlements, gets  credit with the Arab and Muslim states whose support he deems critical for a variety of U.S. interests in the region.

But neither seems to want an all-out brawl; it’s not like during the first Bush administration, which favored the bash-them-over-the-head-until-they-say-holler-uncle approach to U.S.-Israel diplomacy.

The Obama administration is coupling its unrelenting but relatively mild pressure on Israel with repeated statements about this president’s unwavering support for Israel and an understanding of its security needs, and it has been careful to avoid even implied threats.

Netanyahu has rejected the demand for a complete settlement freeze, but he seems determined to find some politically palatable ways to satisfy an administration that isn’t going to back down on the core issue – at least very far. That includes his grudging acceptance of a two-state solution and today’s report of a freeze on some East Jerusalem building.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t those here and in Israel who  have a strong vested interest in portraying this relatively mild disagreement among friends as a pitched battle. That starts with  Israeli right wingers who see U.S.-Israel conflict as a good thing because they believe it decreases the likelihood Israel will be forced into negotiations to give up more land, and who are portraying the Obama administration as implacably hostile to the Jewish state.

Some on the left, too, would like to see the impression of conflict intensified because they dislike and fear Netanyahu, and hope a new crisis in relations will help topple his government, as it did in the late 1990s.

Will today’s stresses eventually escalate into diplomatic warfare? Maybe; there are a huge number of variables in the mix, and the issues are difficult and complex for both sides.

Some on the left will argue that without threats, U.S. pressure to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the peace table will amount to nothing. This is the Middle East, after all, and they could be right.

But for now, calling today’s standoff a major diplomatic crisis is a misstatement, at best, a deliberate self-fulfilling prophecy at worst.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.