international analysis and commentary

US and Israel: A Bickering Couple, But No Divorce


If “states are people too”, as the international relations scholar Alex Wendt has provocatively argued, then few ‘marriages’ are as successful as the one that binds together the US and Israel. While in everyday life, one might argue that most marriages are contracted for either love or interest, the US-Israeli special relationship is actually built on both. Indeed that’s what makes the relationship ‘special’ in the first place. Yet, the two countries seem to have hit a bump in the road as of late. Since the elections of Barack Obama in the US and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, considerable cracks have appeared, leading to what The Weekly Standard, a neoconservative magazine, described on November 6 as “a state of frozen mistrust”. Are the two countries heading for divorce? Unlikely. However, to have a clearer grasp of what has led to the current tensions and whether these are likely to last in the long-run, it is vital to disentangle the strategic imperative (interests) from the moral obligation and shared values (love) that bind the US and Israel together.

Diverging interests
The current chill in relations is a product of two factors which have increasingly put the two countries at odds in terms of national interest: 1) diverging foreign policy priorities, and 2) shifting domestic political climates. First, the chasm in foreign policy priorities between Israel and the US crystallized following the elections of Obama and Netanyahu. While the US swung to the left after eight years of the Bush presidency, Israel instead drifted further to the right. Compared to its predecessors, the Obama administration has been keen to reengage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pursuing a more even-handed approach. This vision contrasts with Mr. Netanyahu’s and his foreign minister’s, the ultranationalist right-wing Lieberman, both of whom are cool towards a two-state solution while warmly supporting continued settlement expansion. Tension between the two leaders is palpable, as was the case during Mr. Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington DC on November 8-9. The trip was long in the calendar of the Israeli Prime Minister, who was invited to attend a conference. The White House, however, waited until the last minute before confirming whether President Obama would meet with him at all.

In parallel, following years of ‘War on Terror’, which left the US reputation in tatters worldwide, President Obama has shown a deep desire to rekindle with the international community and employ diplomacy – rather than unilateral threats – as the main tool of statecraft. The problem is that most of the early attempts at dialogue have been focused on actors that are of special significance to Israel: the Muslim world as a whole, even Islamists (though not unconditionally) and of course the Iranian regime. These efforts have increasingly put it at odds with Israel’s current leadership and its continued build-up of illegal settlements, its public statements for a military strike against Iran and what many consider a disproportionate use of force during the 2008/2009 Gaza war. Although the US is likely to veto any Security Council resolution on the controversial UN-sponsored Goldstone report, which accuses Israel and Hamas alike of war crimes during the Gaza conflict, the report has nevertheless generated further embarrassment and tensions between the two countries (with the US increasingly pressuring Israel to mount an independent enquiry).

Secondly, along with diverging foreign policy priorities, the domestic political climate in the US is increasingly shifting. The evidence is a flair of debates coming to the fore questioning the merits of America’s unconditional support for Israel. At the academic level, prominent international relations scholars such as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, from Harvard and Chicago University respectively, have contended that unwavering US support for most Israeli policies in the Middle East – which they argue is principally the result of a well-organized and powerful American pro-Israel lobby (i.e. AIPAC, but not only) – may be damaging for America’s national interest and Israel’s long-term security. In parallel, in the policy-making world, new lobbies such as ‘J Street’ have emerged. J Street, which calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace”, aims to campaign far more aggressively for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With 78% of the Jewish-American vote given to Obama in the last elections, this new lobby seeks to redefine what pro-Israel means away from what many liberal Jews see as AIPAC’s right wing tilt. J Street’s first national conference this past October received an important stamp of legitimacy from a sympathetic White House with National Security Advisor General James Jones accepting to be keynote speaker. Telling was the absence, although invited, of Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the US appointed by Mr. Netanyahu.

Bickering, but no divorce
In a message to President Shimon Peres, President Obama recently reminded Israelis that bilateral relations are “more than a strategic alliance”. This still seems to be the perception among the American public and officials alike, as Walter Russell Mead (of the Council on Foreign Relations) and Jerome Slater (from Harvard), among others, have recently argued. The central thesis here is that the two countries are intimately tied by a sense of shared identities and common values. In other words, not just interests but also ‘love’ – a shared identity built on historical similarities between America and both ancient Hebrew experiences as well as modern Israel. The two countries share a common heritage as settler states. Both also share a narrative of escaping European persecution, compounded with a Christian guilt and the moral obligation of defending Israel’s security following the Holocaust. The American belief in its ‘exceptionalism’ is reminiscent in many ways of the scripture’s ‘chosen people’. Both societies, which are built mainly by immigrants, are glued together less by ties of past cultural identity than by a set of beliefs in a shared destiny as a people and a nation. Furthermore, both American public and policy-makers view Israel as sharing a common set of values. An understanding which leads America to perceive Israel on the same – and the right – side of history. Israel is seen as the only major liberal democracy in a sea of autocracies, whose cherished ‘democratic values’ and ‘freedoms’ have brought it in conflict with similar enemies: the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Islamic terrorism in recent decades.

Hence, when all is said and done, America and Israel will inevitably tilt towards each other. While Netanyahu has admitted to the possibility of a two-state solution, albeit with a myriad of  caveats, so has Hillary Clinton. On her first visit as Secretary of State to Israel this past October, she started to retract on the issue of settlements, agreeing with Mr. Netanyahu on a partial (not complete) freeze. Although the relationship is currently not in its highs, no divorce is in sight.