The Solace of Poor U.S.-Israel Relations
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
Things are not always as simple as they seem; the current crisis in U.S.-Israel relations has a silver lining.
Four observations, all derived from historical patterns, prompt this conclusion:
First, the "peace process" is in actuality a "war process." Diplomatic negotiations through the 1990s led to a parade of Israeli retreats that had the perverse effect of turning the middling-bad situation of 1993 into the awful one of 2000. Painful Israeli concessions, we now know, stimulate not reciprocal Palestinian goodwill but rather irredentism, ambition, fury, and violence.
Second, Israeli concessions to the Arabs are effectively forever while relations with Washington fluctuate. Once the Israelis left south Lebanon and Gaza, they did so for good, as would be the case with the Golan Heights or eastern Jerusalem. Undoing these steps would be prohibitively costly. In contrast, U.S.-Israel tensions depend on personalities and circumstances, so they go up and down and the stakes are relatively lower. Each president or prime minister can refute his predecessor's views and tone. Problems can be repaired quickly.
More broadly, the U.S.-Israel bond has strengths that go far beyond politicians and issues of the moment. Nothing on earth resembles this bilateral, "the most special" of special relationships and "the family relationship of international politics." Like any family tie, it has high points (Israel ranks second, behind only the United States, in number of companies listed on NASDAQ) and low ones (the Jonathan Pollard espionage affair continues to rankle a quarter century after it broke). The tie has a unique intensity when it comes to strategic cooperation, economic connections, intellectual ties, shared values, United Nations voting records, religious commonalities, and even mutual interference in each other's internal affairs.
From Israel's perspective, then, political relations with the Arabs are freighted but those with Washington have a lightness and flexibility.
Third, when Israeli leaders enjoy strong, trusting relations with Washington, they give more to the Arabs. Golda Meir made concessions to Richard Nixon, Menachem Begin to Jimmy Carter, Yitzhak Rabin, Binyamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak to Bill Clinton, and Ariel Sharon to George W. Bush.
Conversely, mistrust of Washington tightens Israelis and closes the willingness to take chances. That was the case with George H.W. Bush and is even more so with Barack Obama. The current unease began even before Obama reached the Oval Office, given his public association with prominent Israel-haters (e.g., Ali Abunimah, Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said, Jeremiah Wright). Relations degenerated in March, when his administration simulated outrage on the 9th over an announcement of routine construction work in Jerusalem, followed by a brutal telephone call from the secretary of state on the 12th and a tense White House summit meeting on the 23rd.
These ugly and virtually unprecedented tensions have had a predictable effect on the Israeli public, making it mistrustful of Obama, resistant to U.S. pressure, while inspiring usually squabbling politicians to work together to resist his policies.
Fourth, U.S.-Israel tensions increase Palestinian intransigence and demands. Israel in bad standing empowers their leaders; and if the tensions arise from U.S. pressure for concessions to the Palestinians, the latter sit back and enjoy the show. This happened in mid-2009, when Mahmoud Abbas instructed Americans what to extract from Jerusalem. Conversely, when U.S.-Israel relations flourish, Palestinian leaders feel pressure to meet Israelis, pretend to negotiate, and sign documents.
Combining these four presumptions results in a counterintuitive conclusion: Strong U.S.-Israel ties induce irreversible Israeli mistakes. Poor U.S.-Israel ties abort this process. Obama may expect that picking a fight with Israel will produce negotiations but it will have the opposite effect. He may think he is approaching a diplomatic breakthrough but, in fact, he is rendering that less likely. Those who fear more "war process" can thus take some solace in the administration's blunders.
The complexity of U.S.-Israel relations leaves much room for paradox and inadvertency. A look beyond a worrisome turn of events suggests that good may come of it.
Apr. 13, 2010 updates: (1) David Makovsky wrote the same but opposite article yesterday in Ha'aretz, "Obama and Netanyahu Can't Afford to Disagree." First, he notes the same historical pattern:
Then he points to the implications for today:
But Makovsky rues the impact of poor U.S.-Israel relations in this regard whereas I applaud them.
(2) Confirming my analysis above, that the Obama administration's anger at Israel is not all bad: 76 U.S. senators signed an AIPAC-backed letter to the secretary of state implicitly criticizing her and her colleagues for the current problems, thereby strengthening the Israeli government's hand. Along the way, the senators also make my third point:
Nov. 2, 2012 update: Uri Elitzur, former chairman of the Yesha council and former bureau chief for Benjamin Netanyahu, echoes my views in Makor Rishon (with thanks for translation to Independent Media Review and Analysis, IMRA):
He then gives examples:
And then gives advice to Netanyahu:
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