Israeli-U.S. Relations May Deteriorate at the Foundation, Not the Surface


A fourth Netanyahu government, even with its conservative bent, should not by itself be a cause for immediate concern, at least not more than the third Netanyahu government. But long-term trends should worry those who care about the Israeli-American alliance.

Do not let a humorous President Obama (“John Boehner has already invited Netanyahu to speak at my funeral”) confuse you. The tension between Washington and Jerusalem is not simply about lack of chemistry between leaders. There are fundamental differences between the two countries over policy questions.

The Obama administration is about to place its trust (but verify) in an agreement with Iran over the latter’s militarized nuclear program, while Israel’s government does not believe this to be an effective route. Washington would prefer that Israel relaunches talks with the Palestinians with a view to a two-state solution, while Jerusalem has no intention to do so. But the countries faced policy differences in the past, and overcame them without eroding their strategic alliance. Israel will probably adapt to a P5+1 agreement with Iran, and may even secure some compensation for it.

President Obama may prefer a two-state solution, but he is unlikely to make it a priority in his remaining time in office. Moreover, some experienced civil servants — think Gen. Amos Gilad and Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro for example — are handling in an effective way core aspects of the relationship.

But there are other concerns. First, support for Israel in the United States is slowly becoming a partisan issue. This threatens the bipartisan cornerstone of the alliance and can create damaging consequences. Some American Jews, for example, might be pushed to make the unpleasant choice between supporting their government or Israel’s.

Second, long-term trends in Israel suggest a weakening of liberal democracy, even without the continued Israeli control over the Palestinians. In the long run this will weaken the common values of our relationship. Washington’s true allies are those with which it shares not only interests, but also democratic ideals.

The combination of these two trends may explain why the Israeli public did not punish Prime Minister Netanyahu in the recent elections for his part in the deterioration of US-Israeli relations. In the past, Israelis voted against candidates who clashed with the U.S. But once these clashes could be explained in Israel as reflecting a different set of values, or the result of partisan positions, the political cost of a rift with our greatest ally went dramatically down.

(originally published in the New York Times)

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