Middle East atemporal

Mai 1, 2012

The Real Problem in U.S.—Israeli Relations

Filed under: Uncategorized — mihaibeltechi @ 6:38 am

Of all the foreign relationships of the United States, perhaps none is
as closely watched and incessantly scrutinized as its relationship with Israel. Like
a couple in counseling, U.S.—Israeli relations are the subject of endless analysis.
Both supporters and critics are forever on the lookout for the slightest signs of
tension or unease, with the former anguishing over them, and the latter
celebrating. While there was little to pay attention to during the years of the
Bush administration, given its tight and largely uncritical embrace of Israel, the
tenure of the Obama administration has provided ample opportunities for
U.S.—Israel watchers to speculate on the troubles between Washington and
Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. By now, the nature of this debate is entirely
predictableon one side are those who decry President Obama’s alleged failure
to resolutely support Israel,
and on the other are those who defend the
president’s pro-Israeli record.
Both sides, however, are focusing on the wrong issue. The real debate is not
over whether Obama is pro-Israel enough. The real debate we should be having is:
how much do U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East really overlap today?
Put simply, the fundamental problem in U.S.—Israeli relations is not a matter of
individuals, however important they may be, but increasingly divergent interests.
The ‘‘Blame Obama First’’ Crowd
To many Israelis, and Israeli supporters in the United States, the reason for the
tensions between the United States and Israel in recent years is simple:
Dov Waxman is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate
Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He is the author of The Pursuit of Peace
and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and
co-author of Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Copyright # 2012 Center for Strategic and International Studies
The Washington Quarterly • 35:2 pp. 7187
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012 71President Obama is not really pro-Israelor at least not in the way that
right-wing, hawkish Israeli and American Jews, and most Republicans,
understand the term. For them, being
‘‘pro-Israel’’ means providing uncritical support
for Israeli governments. It certainly doesn’t mean
lecturing Israel on what’s best for it, or applying
any kind of pressure on itboth of which
President Obama has done. By this narrow
definition, Obama is certainly not ‘‘pro-Israel,’’
but then neither are many American Jews, nor
even Israelis for that matter, who also don’t
blindly support the Netanyahu government.
But it is not only right-wing Israeli and American Jews who question
Obama’s pro-Israel credentials. There is a widespread sentiment within Israel
and the American Jewish community that President Obama is not emotionally
or instinctively pro-Israel in the way that his recent predecessors have been
(notably, presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton). While Obama is
credited with helping Israel on occasion (at the United Nations for instance,
or when the Israeli embassy in Cairo was under siege), he is not regarded as a
‘‘true friend’’ of the country. However baseless this belief may be, it has
endured despite the best efforts of President Obama and his supporters to
dispel it. Indeed, within parts of the American Jewish community, it has
become something of a cliche´ to say that Obama does not have a feeling in
his ‘‘kishkes’’ (meaning ‘‘guts’’ in Yiddish) for Israel.
The persistence of the belief that Obama is not sincerely pro-Israel is also,
it must be noted, a result of the constant efforts of Republicans to woo Jewish
voters and donors. There is nothing new about this attempt by Republicans,
but with Obama in office it has gained new momentum and hope.
Republicans appear to be convinced that this time, unlike all previous
instances when the great Jewish defection from the Democratic Party was
supposed to occur, large numbers of Jewish voters will really abandon their
traditional Democratic affiliation and vote for a Republican presidential
candidate. Although this scenario remains highly unlikely (notwithstanding
last year’s upset Republican win in New York’s heavily Jewish 9th
congressional districtAnthony Weiner’s former seat),
it entices
Republicans who hope to make Obama’s stance on Israel a partisan ‘‘wedge
issue’’ in 2012. Thus, the incessant criticisms of Obama’s attitude toward Israel
by Republican politicians and commentators should really be seen as
electioneering, not objective analysis.
How much do
U.S. and Israeli
interests in the
Middle East really
overlap today?
Dov Waxman
72 THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012Not only is much of the criticism of Obama’s approach to the U.S.
relationship with Israel tendentious (and quite possible disingenuous), it is
also highly selective. The assertion that Obama has ‘‘thrown Israel under the
bus’’ (in Mitt Romney’s words) is belied by the fact that U.S.—Israeli defense ties
have actually increased during the Obama administration.
This is not to say
that Obama’s handling of relations with Israel has been flawless by any means.
The president and others in his administration have undoubtedly made
numerous tactical mistakes, some of which have been very costly. Most
egregiously, Obama has not visited Israel or directly spoken to the Israeli
public, although he has addressed the Muslim and Arab publics in Ankara in
April 2009, Cairo in June 2009, and at the State Department in May 2010. But
while the administration has been guilty of mishandling the relationship at
times, it cannot fairly be accused of reducing U.S. support for Israel, as many of
its critics charge.
If President Obama, therefore, is not to blame for the recurrent U.S.—Israeli
tensions that have arisen during his term, who or
what is? Some analysts have suggested that the
trouble lies in a clash between two very different
leadersObama and Netanyahu.
they come from different campsObama is
a liberal, Netanyahu a conservativeand
personally they don’t seem to like or trust each
other very much.
The lack of personal warmth
between them has been on full display in their
White House meetings, most notoriously in May
2011 when Netanyahu publicly lectured a
stern-faced Obama in front of the press, after the president stated in a speech
at the State Department the day before that the borders of a future Palestinian
state should be based upon the 1967 ‘‘Green Line’’ with mutually agreed land
Although the personal chemistry of leaders can certainly make a difference in
interstate relationshipsthink of the close relationship between President
George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for exampleit does not
fully account for the tensions in U.S.—Israeli relations during the Obama
administration. After all, these tensions are not just limited to Obama and
Netanyahu. They are more widespread and deeply rooted. They stem from more
than merely a personality clash between the two leaders. At the root of the
tensions are differing strategic perspectives. Only by recognizing this can we
really understand the problem in U.S.—Israeli relations today.
At the root of today’s
tensions are
increasingly differing
strategic perspectives.
The Real Problem in U.S.Israeli Relations
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012 73Common Interests, Divergent Strategic Perspectives
Over a century ago, British Prime Minster Lord Palmerton famously stated that,
‘‘Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent
interests,’’ and ever since the expression has become one of the guiding dictums
of a Realist approach to foreign affairs. When it comes to discussing U.S.—Israeli
relations, however, there is a tendency to ignore this hard truth. Instead, both
American and Israeli officials tirelessly insist that, as President Obama put it in
his address to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)
conference on May 22, 2011: ‘‘The bonds between the United States and
Israel are unbreakable.’’
While these words may be comforting to supporters of
the informal alliance between the two, they evade the fundamental reality that
both states are guided by their perceived national interests, and it is these
interests, not their mutual affection, that will ultimately determine the nature of
their relationship. The more these interests are perceived to align, the better this
relationship will be.
To be sure, the United States and Israel
continue to share many common interests in the
Middle East. They both oppose Iran’s nuclear
program and want to weaken Tehran’s regional
influence; they both want to counter the
proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of
mass destruction in the region; they both want to
stop Islamist-inspired terrorism (whether by
al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, or other Islamist
and jihadist groups); and they both want to
support pro-Western regimes, such as Jordan’s, and maintain some kind of
stability in the region. In principle, both also want a peaceful resolution of the
Arab—Israeli conflict, involving ‘‘two states for two peoples’’ (i.e., a Jewish state
and a Palestinian state) and ‘‘normalization’’ between the Arab world and Israel.
On paper, or in speeches then, everything looks good. The challenge,
however, comes when translating these broad goals into actual policies and
deciding which to prioritize. All too often, the United States and Israel have
different priorities and favor different strategies. In other words, it is not so much
that the two countries really want different things; it is that they don’t see
eye-to-eye on how to achieve the things they both want. As CSIS analyst Haim
Malka succinctly put it in a recent report on the future of the U.S.—Israeli
alliance: ‘‘Increasingly U.S. and Israeli responses to their common challenges
and threats differ significantly.’’
To make matters even more difficult, these different American and Israeli
responses to the challenges they face are increasingly perceived on both sides as
The two countries
also don’t see eyeto-eye on how to
achieve the things
they both want.
Dov Waxman
74 THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012harmful to their own interests. While U.S.
officials complain that Israel is not sufficiently
attentive to U.S. interests and that its actions are
sometimes detrimental to them, Israelis criticize
what they regard as American naivete´ in Middle
Eastern diplomacy and its damaging
consequences for Israel. In short, both sides
believe that the policies of the other are
undermining their national interests.
this, it is hardly surprising that there is tension
in the current U.S.—Israeli relationship.
Broadly speaking, the Netanyahu government in Israel perceives the current
U.S. strategy in the Middle East as timid and shortsighted. They see it as
signaling weakness to regional adversaries (notably Iran), lacking commitment
to regional allies (such as Israel and Saudi Arabia), and opening up a potential
power vacuum that could be exploited by outside powers (particularly Russia and
China). All of this is bad for Israel. Conversely, in the eyes of the Obama
administration, Israel currently has no coherent strategy at all. They see the
strategy as appearing to be stuck somewhere between denial and
defiancedenial about the long-term trends that will eventually turn the
country into an undemocratic state, and defiance of any pressure exerted upon it,
even when well-intentioned. As Israel’s closest if not only ally, this is also bad for
the United States as it has to pay a diplomatic price for Israeli stubbornness.
Along with these general perceptions on both sides, there are three main issues
about which the United States and Israel have divergent strategic perspectives,
and which have been the main source of U.S.—Israeli tensions in recent years: 1)
the Israeli—Palestinian conflict; 2) the Iranian nuclear program; and 3) the Arab
Spring. At the heart of these disputes have been basic disagreements between the
two countries concerning how they should pursue their goals, how important these
goals are, and what goals they should even be pursuing.
Different Strategies: The Israeli—Palestinian Conflict
While the United States and Israel agree on many things about the
Israeli—Palestinian conflictthe desired outcome; the need for direct,
bilateral negotiations between the two parties in order to resolve the dispute;
and the unacceptability of Hamas as a negotiating partnerthere are still some
major points of disagreement between them. The most obvious concerns Israeli
settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalema subject of
longstanding disagreement between Israeli and U.S. governments. Every
previous U.S. administration has opposed Israeli settlement construction
(some more vociferously than others, particularly the administration of
Both sides believe
that the policies of the
other are undermining
their national
The Real Problem in U.S.Israeli Relations
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012 75George H.W. Bush), and every Israeli government
has balked at stopping this construction (although
some have slowed it down, while others have
speeded it up).
There is, therefore, nothing new about the
Obama administration’s repeated condemnations
of settlement building by the Netanyahu
government, except that it has been more vocal
and unambiguous about it (recall the outrage
expressed by administration officials when Israel
announced plans to build new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem while
Vice President Joe Biden was visiting the country in March 2010). In the words
of Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff: ‘‘We were enunciating
twenty-plus years of U.S. policy. The difference was we weren’t just
lip-synching it.’’
Where the Obama administration has differed from its predecessors in its
approach is in the importance it has placed on the issue. This is not because of
any lack of pro-Israel sentiment on the part of President Obama or his deputies,
but because the Obama administration, along with many experts inside and
outside the U.S. government, recognizes that settlement building is a critical
issue and has a major impact on the Israeli—Palestinian peace process. Instead of
regarding the continued expansion of Israeli settlements as merely a nuisance,
the United States has come to understand the importance of the issue for
Palestinians and accept that it is a major impediment to progress in the peace
Although in the past, the Palestinians were willing to negotiate with
Israel while Israeli settlement building continued, they have become less willing
to do so as they see the expansion of Israeli settlements as gradually eating away
the land available for a future Palestinian state. Thus, as the Palestinians have
become more steadfast in their opposition to Israeli settlement construction, the
Obama administration has, in turn, sought to apply greater pressure on Israel to
stop its settlement activities. This is why soon after coming into office the
Obama administration demanded that Israel freeze settlement construction. As
Professor Shai Feldman explained:
Observing, accurately, that the Palestinian side had no trust in Israel’s new Likud-led
Israeli government, the Obama administration assessed that a dramatic step needed
to be taken to build such trust and thereby improve the environment for the
proposed talks. Since the epicenter of the Palestinians’ distrust of Israel was the
latter’s ongoing expansion of the settlement projectone that the Palestinians saw
as inconsistent with negotiating the end of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian
landsit was not unreasonable for the U.S. to push for a freeze on settlement
The two countries
differ on how to
prioritize the
conflict and Iran.
Dov Waxman
76 THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012Whereas the Obama administration believes that a cessation of Israeli
settlement building would increase the chances for peace process success, the
Netanyahu government believes that settlement construction basically makes no
difference to Israeli—Palestinian negotiations. It contends that, in the past, peace
negotiations took place and made progress while Israeli settlements continued to
expand. As far as it is concerned, the Palestinian insistence on a complete Israeli
settlement freeze is just a smokescreen designed to enable it to avoid entering
into substantive negotiations with Israel. What is at issue, then, is how much
settlement building really matters, practically and symbolically, to the prospects
for Israeli—Palestinian peace.
While the bilateral disagreement over continued Israeli settlement building
has received a lot of media attention, far less has been given to a much more
important and fundamental disagreement: the role that the Israeli—Palestinian
conflict plays in the wider political dynamics of the Middle East. Does the
conflict radicalize Arab and Muslim public opinion? Does it make it harder for
moderate regimes in the region to support pro-Western policies? Does it allow
Iran to exploit the issue for its own regional ambitions? To many within the U.S.
foreign policy and national security establishment, the answer to all these
questions is an unequivocal ‘‘yes.’’
The belief in what is termed ‘‘linkage’’
between the Arab—Israeli conflict and other issues of U.S. concern in the Middle
East is now widely held by current and former U.S. officials (both Democrat and
Republican), as well as most Middle East experts.
‘‘Linkage’’ does not, as it is sometimes caricatured, mean that Arab—Israeli
peace is the antidote to all regional ills. It simply means that it would help the
United States deal with the region’s other problemsfor instance, facilitating
containment of Iran since it would weaken Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas,
while making it easier to mobilize the Sunni Arab world against Iranand
contribute to a better, less toxic atmosphere in the region. There is a growing
consensus in the United States, especially inside the Beltway, that the
Israeli—Palestinian conflict harms U.S. interests in the Middle East, even if
uttering it aloud is still considered politically risky for elected officials. This
consensus view was clearly voiced by General David Petraeus, then head of U.S.
Central Command (now director of the CIA), in his March 2010 testimony to
the Senate Armed Services Committee when he stated that:
the [Israeli—Palestinian] conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a
perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question
limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in
the [area of responsibility] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the
Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to
mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through
its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.
The Real Problem in U.S.Israeli Relations
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012 77The Obama administration shares this view and believes that resolving the
Israeli—Palestinian conflict would make a major contribution to regional
stability. Other U.S. administrations have also believed this, but none has
been as open and explicit in expressing it. Members of the Obama
administration have just said publicly what previous administrations have only
discussed privately. Even as a candidate for president, Obama openly talked
about the linkage between the Israeli—Palestinian conflict and other U.S.
interests in the Middle East, stating in an interview: ‘‘this constant sore [the
Israeli—Palestinian conflict] does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a
resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant
jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security
interest in solving this. . .’’
He has not changed his tune since becoming
president, declaring on one occasion, for example, that: ‘‘the absence of peace
between Palestinians and Israelis is an impediment to a whole host of other areas
of increased cooperation and more stable security for people in the region, as
well as the United States.’’
Although Obama may well see a Palestinian state
as a moral right, it also, perhaps first and foremost, is a strategic necessity for the
United States as far as he is concerned.
Although Israel also supports the establishment of a Palestinian state,
least in theory, it is much less eager to see one emerge any time soon. Prime
Minister Netanyahu may have officially endorsed the two-state solution (in his
much-publicized speech at Bar-Ilan University on June 14, 2009),
but his
support for it is half-hearted at best.
He has done little or nothing to promote
it; he is certainly in no rush to bring it about. Netanyahu seems to believe that
the establishment of a Palestinian state, while maybe in Israel’s long-term
interest, is not in Israel’s short-term interest given the risk that such a state could
come under Hamas’, and by extension Iran’s, control.
For him, and many
others in Israel’s military and security establishment, allowing for the
establishment of a Palestinian state is a dangerous gamble, and Netanyahu’s
instinct is to play it safe and play for time. This Israeli policy of procrastination is
clearly causing mounting frustration within the Obama administration.
Even if Israel were willing to move more quickly and boldly toward the
two-state solution, as the Obama administration urges, it does not accept the
American view that a resolution of the Israeli—Palestinian conflict would have a
major positive impact upon the wider Middle East. Indeed, many Israelis think
that their conflict with the Palestinians is really a consequence of the region’s
problems, not a cause of them. Israelis also resent the notion of linkage in so far
as they suspect that it implies that Israel is somehow at least partly responsible
for the problems of the Middle East, and thus indirectly for America’s problems
in the region too.
Dov Waxman
78 THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012The more U.S. officials become convinced that there is indeed a linkage
between ending the Arab—Israeli conflict and securing other U.S. national
interests in the Middle East (and even beyond the region), the harder they will
push for a resolution of the conflict, even if this means pressuring Israel, and the
more Israeli officials will push back and resist. Inevitably, this is a recipe for
serious tension in U.S.—Israeli relations no matter who is in office.
Different Priorities: The Iranian Nuclear Program
On two key issues in the Middle East, the Israeli—Palestinian conflict and the
Iranian nuclear program, both the United States and Israel want the same
thingsa two-state solution and a termination of Iran’s nuclear activities.
Where they crucially differ, however, is on how they prioritize these issues.
Israel’s primary concern is the threat from Iran, not its conflict with the
Palestinians (which is manageable as far as many Israelis are concerned). For the
United States, by contrast, Iran’s nuclear program, although a major challenge, is
not as great a threat as it is to Israel. Hence, stopping it is not quite as urgent or
For Israelis, Iran has become their bogeyman. It is almost universally seen as
the country’s greatest enemy and biggest threat. Needless to say, such a
perception is not unfounded given Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, its
ballistic missile capability, and its ongoing nuclear programthe purpose of
which, it is assumed, is attaining nuclear weapons. As public anxiety over the
threat has mounted in Israel in recent yearsstoked in part by apocalyptic
warnings by leading Israeli politicians (often invoking the Holocaust and
equating Iran with Nazi Germany and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with
Adolf Hitler
)the perceived threat of Iran has come to eclipse all other Israeli
national security concerns including the Arab—Israeli conflict. The popular
consensus is that the advent of a nuclear Iran would pose an unprecedented,
even existential threat to the Jewish state.
Given this, most Israelis support a
unilateral Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations if sanctions
and diplomacy fail to persuade the Iranians to stop their nuclear enrichment
program, while they are almost evenly divided over whether Israel should launch
an immediate attack against Iran.
No matter how frequently and emphatically Obama administration officials
vow to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, and imply they might be
willing to use military force if necessary, the fact remains that the United States
is not as threatened or worried about the Iranian nuclear program as Israel is.
This fact is simply the result of geographythe United States is much farther
away from Iran than Israel and much bigger than Israel. Iranian missiles cannot
reach the United States, and even if they eventually could, they cannot destroy
it. The United States and Israel, therefore, have fundamentally different threat
The Real Problem in U.S.Israeli Relations
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012 79perceptions of Iran. For the United States, it is
undoubtedly a strategic nightmarepossibly
spurring regional nuclear proliferation and
undermining global efforts to promote
nonproliferationbut it is not even a remote
threat to America’s existence, as it is to Israel’s.
The United States could live with a nuclear Iran
and simply seek to contain it (as it did with the
Soviet Union during the Cold War); Israel can’t, or
at least it doesn’t seem to think it can. As Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Silvan
Shalom recently put it: ‘‘Israel cannot live with the idea that lunatics like the
Iranian regime will be the one that can take a decision if they would like to
destroy the state of Israel or not.’’
What really separates Israel from the United States when it comes to Iran’s
nuclear program, therefore, is not their different intelligence estimates of how
close Iran actually is to developing nuclear weapons or what their timetables and
‘‘red lines’’ are for deciding when to militarily attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, as
media reports often suggest,
but their assessments of whether a military strike is
in fact really necessary and worthwhile. The costs and benefits of overt military
action against Iran are quite different for the United States and Israel. Faced
with a perceived existential threat, a preemptive military strike, no matter how
risky and costly, might ultimately be worth taking for Israel. For the United
States, it is almost certainly not (a covert military campaign is a different
This explains the concern in Washington that Israel might decide to
launch an attack against Iran without seeking American permission first, and the
Obama administration’s constant effort to reassure Israel of the U.S.
commitment to its security (it would also explain why President George W.
Bush, despite his much-touted support for Israel, refused to give Israel the green
light to carry out an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities when then-Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert allegedly asked for permission back in 2008
American assurances, however, do little to assuage Israeli fears about Iran and
anxiety that the United States may eventually, albeit reluctantly, accept a
nuclear Iran rather than risk another Middle Eastern war. This all adds up to a
lingering Israeli suspicion that the United States will not want to attack Iran’s
nuclear facilities and won’t allow Israel to either, and a lingering American
worry that Israel will one day attack Iran itself without forewarning the United
Statesanother recipe for U.S.—Israeli tension.
Different Goals: The Arab Spring
Throughout President Obama’s term, the underlying and long-running
disagreements over the centrality of the Israeli—Palestinian conflict and the
Israel and the
United States have
had fundamentally
different responses
to the Arab Spring.
Dov Waxman
80 THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012urgency of the Iranian nuclear threat have been behind much of the tension in
U.S.—Israeli relations. Then, in 2011, the ‘‘Arab Spring’’ happened. The
revolutions and uprisings that rocked the Arab world, overthrew regimes, and
redefined Middle East politics have left the United States and Israel cheering for
different sides, at least some of the time. After always supporting the same team
in the Arab worldpro-Western autocracies (most notably, Hosni Mubarak’s
regime in Egypt and the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan)for the first time, the
United States and Israel don’t seem to be rooting for the same people.
Simply put, Israel appears to be rooting for the survival of the ruling Arab
autocrats (obviously, because of fear rather than affection), while the United
States has tilted in favor of the Arab masses in the streets demanding dignity and
change (albeit belatedly, hesitantly, and very selectively). These different Israeli
and American responses to the Arab Spring have been most apparent in the case
of Egypt, where the Obama administration supported President Mubarak’s exit
from power and the democratic transition in the country, while the Netanyahu
government openly backed Mubarak and the military council that took his
place. But the two countries’ differences have also surfaced in their attitudes to
the Syrian uprising, which the United States supports but Israel is deeply
ambivalent about (though no fan of Bashar Assad’s regime, Israel fears instability
and chaos in Syria).
The Arab Spring, then, has increased the divergence in U.S. and Israeli
strategy toward the Middle East. Although the United States and Israel have
traditionally both favored and sought to uphold the status quo in the region, this
is less the case today, as the Obama administration has supported to varying
degrees rebellions across the region from Tunisia in the West to Yemen in the
East. Again, similar to the Iranian threat, geographic proximity is a critical
factor. For Israelis, the Arab Spring is not a distant event as it is for Americans,
but something all around them on, and even spilling over, their borders. The
danger of virulently anti-Israeli (and even anti-Semitic) Islamist governments
coming to power through democratic elections is real, immediate, and could
have catastrophic consequences for Israeli national security, most seriously if a
Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Egypt annuls the
Egyptian—Israeli peace treaty.
If the Arab Spring does in fact usher in a more democratic Arab world, Israel
stands to lose, at least in the short-term. Since Arab public opinion is staunchly
pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli, empowering it is bound to affect the tenor and
conduct of Arab foreign policies toward Israel and the Israeli—Palestinian
conflict. The public belligerence and private cooperation which characterized
several moderate Arab states’ interactions with Israel over many years will
certainly be jeopardized. This does not necessarily mean that Israel will become
embroiled in new conflicts with Arab states, but it does make life more difficult
The Real Problem in U.S.Israeli Relations
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012 81for Israel in the region, at least so long as it maintains its occupation of
Palestinian and Arab lands.
Whereas Israel is likely to suffer as a result of more democracy in the Arab
world, the United States hopes that it will eventually benefit. Whether or not this
hope is unduly optimistic, it has guided the Obama administration’s reaction. It
apparently believes that if the United States publicly supports freedom and
democracy in the Arab world, instead of trying to maintain regional stability and
the existing order, it can win popular support among Arabs. While it may not
become pro-American, the ‘‘Arab street’’ could at least become less anti-American
if the United States is perceived to be ‘‘on the right side of history.’’
Supporting Arab democracy and winning Arab hearts and minds in the
process appeals to the deeply held optimism and democratic faith of Americans.
Israeli Jews, by contrast, are accustomed to seeing Arabs as implacably hostile to
Israel, and political change in Arab and Muslim lands as potentially dangerous to
their securitythe example of the 1979 Iranian revolution is always in the back
of their minds. Thus Americans, and the U.S. government, hope for the victory
of democratic forces in the Middle East as the Arab Spring unfolds, while Israelis
fear the worst.
Even if democratization in the region brings Islamist-backed governments to
poweras has already happened in Tunisia, Libya, and, most significantly,
Egyptthe United States appears to have to come to terms with this apparently
inevitable outcome, while Israel has not. U.S. officials have finally come to recognize
that not all Islamist movements are alike and not all are necessarily beyond the pale.
Those that are democratically-inclined and willing to respect the rights of women
and non-Muslim minorities are worth engaging. In any case, the United States has
little choice but to engage with them given their strong domestic support (hence the
Obama administration’s tentative outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,
which now dominates the country’s newly elected parliament). For Israel, on the
other hand, no matter how democratic they may purport to be, Islamists are not to be
trusted. They should certainly not be allowed to take power.
Not only do the United States and Israel view the popular Arab revolts that
have upended regional order through different lenses, they also regard each
other’s reaction to these dramatic changes as problematic at best. The Obama
administration’s support for Arab uprisings, especially in Egypt, is widely seen in
Israel as na¨ıve and even a bit reckless.
Conversely, inside the Obama
administration and among some U.S. commentators, Israel’s ostrich-like
response elicits frustration and annoyance.
Here too, these mutual attitudes,
and the occasional tensions they arouse, are more a product of divergent U.S.
and Israeli national interests than of different personalities at the helm of their
Dov Waxman
82 THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012Changing the Conversation to What Matters
The relationship between the United States and Israel has always had its ups and
downs, its moments of crisis, and periodic tensions. The last four years, during
the tenure of the Obama administration and Netanyahu government, are no
exception. Although it may be politically convenient or psychologically
comforting for some to lay the blame on President Obama himself or his
administration more generally for all the tensions that have emerged, it does not
help to understand what has really troubled U.S.—Israeli relations in recent
Instead of discussing Obama’s ‘‘kishkes,’’ we should be focusing on U.S. and
Israeli interests and asking how much they really overlap in practice. This is not
the same as asking if Israel is a strategic asset or burden to the United States, as
many now do. That is a sterile debate that all too often pits Israel’s advocates
against its opponents and ultimately gets us nowhere. Rather than framing the
question in terms of whether aligning with Israel helps or hurts the United
States, we should examine the policy areas in which they disagree and try to see
if these disagreements can be bridged or narrowed. In other words, we should be
engaging in a substantive discussion about the perceived interests of the United
States and Israel and how to align them more closely, not merely reciting these
interests or arguing about whose interests are being undermined by whom.
As two states of very different size in very different areas, and with very
different capabilities (one a superpower, the other a regional power), it should be
expected that the United States and Israel will not agree on everything and will
sometimes have different concerns. The sooner we are able to recognize this fact,
the sooner we will be able to have a more productive discussion about
U.S.—Israeli relations. Given the tensions that will continue to surface in this
relationship, regardless of who gets elected president in November, it is essential
that we are able to have this discussion. Without it, misunderstandings and
resentments on both sides will steadily accumulate and gradually sour the
U.S.—Israeli relationship. For the sake of that relationship, therefore, more
honesty and openness are badly needed, and less partisan polemics.
1. See, for example, Dan Senor, ‘‘Why Obama Is Losing the Jewish Vote,’’ The Wall Street
Journal, September 14, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB100014240531119043
2. For example, Natasha Mozgovaya, ‘‘Obama campaign does not shy from his record on
Israel,’’ Ha’aretz, September 5, 2011, http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/focus-u-s-a/
The Real Problem in U.S.Israeli Relations
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012 833. The Obama administration has repeatedly supported Israel at the United
Nationsmost notably when it sided with Israel over the Goldstone Report, which
accused Israel of committing war crimes in its 2008-2009 Gaza War, when it vetoed a
UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement building in the
Occupied Territories, and when it condemned and threatened to veto the Palestinian
Authority’s application for UN membership.
4. See for example, James D. Besser, ‘‘Strategic Ties And Obama’s Kishkes,’’ The Jewish
Week, November 30, 2010, http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/international/strategic_ties_and_obamas_kishkes.
5. On Obama’s ‘‘Jewish problem’’ in the 2012 election, see John Heilemann, ‘‘The Tsuris,’’
New York Magazine, September 18, 2011, http://nymag.com/news/politics/israel-2011-9/;
and Laura Meckler, ‘‘Jewish Donors Warn Obama on Israel,’’ The Wall Street Journal,
May 19, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB100014240527487035091045763316
6. Charles Levinson, ‘‘U.S., Israel Build Military Cooperation,’’ The Wall Street Journal,
August 14, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870332100457542
7. Aaron David Miller, ‘‘Bibi and Barack,’’ Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2012, http://
8. President Obama inadvertently indicated his personal dislike of Prime Minister
Netanyahu when a private conversation between him and French President Nicolas
Sarkozy at a G-20 summit in November 2011 was picked up on a microphone and
overheard by reporters. See ‘‘Sarkozy calls Netanyahu ‘liar’ in remarks to
Obama,’’ The Financial Times, November 8, 2011, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/
9. ‘‘Remarks by the President at the AIPAC Policy Conference 2011,’’ The White
House, May 22, 2011, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/22/remarkspresident-aipac-policy-conference-2011.
10. Haim Malka, Crossroads: The Future of the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership (Washington,
D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2011), p. 56, http://csis.org/files/
11. Ibid., p. XVIII.
12. Quoted in Heilemann, ‘‘The Tsuris.’’
13. President Obama clearly expressed this view in an interview with Fox News:
‘‘Additional settlement building does not contribute to Israel’s security. I think it
makes it harder for them to make peace with their neighbours. . .it embitters the
Palestinians in a way that could end up being very dangerous.’’ Quoted in ‘‘Israel defies
US on settlements,’’ The Financial Times, November 18, 2009, http://www.ft.com/intl/
14. Shai Feldman, ‘‘Beyond September: Lessons from Failed Mideast Diplomacy,’’ Middle
East Brief no. 54, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, August 2011, http://www.
15. Malka, Crossroads, p. 66.
16. ‘‘Statement of General David H. Petraeus, U.S. Army Commander, U.S. Central
Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the posture of U.S.
Central Command,’’ March 16, 2010, http://armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2010/
17. Quoted in Jeffrey Goldberg, ‘‘Obama on Zionism and Hamas,’’ The Atlantic, May 12,
2008, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2008/05/obama-on-zionism-andhamas/8318/.
Dov Waxman
84 THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 201218. ‘‘Remarks by President Obama and President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in
Press Availability,’’ The White House, May 28, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/
19. The official platform of the Likud Party (the dominant party in Israel’s current coalition
government), however, still opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state. See http://
20. See ‘‘Full text of Netanyahu’s foreign policy speech at Bar Ilan,’’ Ha’aretz, June 14,
2009, http://www.haaretz.com/news/full-text-of-netanyahu-s-foreign-policy-speech-atbar-ilan-1.277922.
21. Moreover, the kind of truncated Palestinian state that Netanyahu envisages is one with
limited sovereignty and probably covering only the Gaza Strip and about 50—60 percent
of the West Banka far cry from what Palestinians are seeking.
22. Most Israeli Jews share this view. In a survey taken in September 2011, 54 percent
of Israeli Jews believed that it was not in Israel’s interest for a Palestinian state to
be immediately established. ‘‘The Peace Index: September 2011,’’ The Israel Democracy
Institute, http://www.peaceindex.org/indexMonthEng.aspx?num232&monthname
23. For an expression of this, see Thom Shanker, ‘‘Defense Chief Says Israel Must Mend
Arab Ties,’’ The New York Times, December 2, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/
24. In a 2006 speech, before he became prime minister for the second time, Netanyahu
drew a direct analogy between Iran and Nazi Germany, repeatedly declaring: ‘‘It’s 1938
and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs.’’ He also
claimed that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ‘‘is preparing another
Holocaust for the Jewish state.’’ See Peter Hirschberg, ‘‘Netanyahu: It’s 1938 and
Iran is Germany; Ahmadinejad is preparing another Holocaust,’’ Ha’aretz, November
14, 2006, http://www.haaretz.com/news/netanyahu-it-s-1938-and-iran-is-germanyahmadinejad-is-preparing-another-holocaust-1.205137. More recently, speaking at a
ceremony held at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial, in January
2011, Netanyahu stated: ‘‘we, the Jewish people, cannot ignore the lessons learned from
the Holocaust as they apply to the present day. New oppressors deny the Holocaust as
they call for our destruction. Iran and its pawns, Hezbollah and Hamas, call for the
annihilation of the Jewish State and openly act to that end. . .Iran is even arming itself
with nuclear weapons to realize that goal, and until now the world has not stopped it.
The threat to our existence, to our future, is not theoretical.’’ See ‘‘PM Netanyahu’s
Address at the National Ceremony Opening the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance
Day at Yad Vashem,’’ January 5, 2011, http://www.pmo.gov.il/PMOEng/Communication/PMSpeaks/speechshoa010511.htm.
25. In a survey taken in February 2007, 82 percent of Israeli Jews said that a nuclear-armed
Iran would constitute an existential danger to Israel. See ‘‘The Peace Index: February
2007,’’ The Israel Democracy Institute, http://www.peaceindex.org/indexMonthEng.
aspx?num5&monthnameFebruary. There is, however, some disagreement within
the Israeli political and security establishment over whether a nuclear-armed Iran
would actually pose an existential threat to Israel. For instance, Tamir Pardo, the head
of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, has recently suggested otherwise. See Barak Ravid,
‘‘Mossad chief: Nuclear Iran not necessarily existential threat to Israel,’’ Ha’aretz,
December 29, 2011, http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/mossad-chief-nucleariran-not-necessarily-existential-threat-to-israel-1.404227; see also Dalia Dassa Kay, ‘‘Do
The Real Problem in U.S.Israeli Relations
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY j SPRING 2012 85Israelis Really Want to Bomb Iran?’’ Foreign Policy.com, January 11, 2012, http://
26. In a survey taken in March 2009, 54 percent of the Israeli public wanted Israel to bomb
Iranian nuclear sites if the international community failed to stop Iran from developing
nuclear weapons. See http://truman.huji.ac.il/poll-view.asp?id257. More recently, in
a November 2011 poll, 41 percent of Israelis supported an immediate strike against
Iran’s nuclear facilities, and 39 percent opposed it. See ‘‘Haaretz poll: Israelis evenly
split over attacking Iran,’’ Ha’aretz, November 3, 2011, http://www.haaretz.com/
27. James Reynolds, ‘‘Israel’s fears of a nuclear Iran,’’ January 20, 2012, BBC News, http://
28. See, for example, Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel, ‘‘Israel and U.S. at odds over timetables
and red lines for Iran,’’ Ha’aretz, January 15, 2012, http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/
29. The United States and Israel are widely suspected to be engaged already, individually or
jointly, in a covert military and intelligence campaign to sabotage and disrupt Iran’s
nuclear program. On America’s ‘‘secret war’’ against Iran, see David E. Sanger,
‘‘America’s Deadly Dynamics With Iran,’’ The New York Times, November 5, 2011,
wanted all; Eli Lake, ‘‘Operation Sabotage,’’ The New Republic, July 14, 2010, http://
http://www.tnr.com/article/world/75952/operation-sabotage; and Seymour Hersh, ‘‘Preparing
the Battlefield,’’ The New Yorker, July 7, 2008, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/
2008/07/07/080707fa_fact_hersh. On Israel’s see, Ronen Bergman, The Secret War with
Iran (Free Press, 2011).
30. Jonathan Steele, ‘‘Israel asked US for green light to bomb nuclear sites in Iran,’’ The
Guardian, September 25, 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/sep/25/iran.israelandthepalestinians1. The fact that the Bush administration did not supply Israel with
‘‘bunker-busting’’ bombs, which Israel could have used to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities,
also suggests that it opposed an Israeli military strike. See Thom Shanker, ‘‘U.S. Quietly
Supplies Israel With Bunker-Busting Bombs,’’ The New York Times, September 23,
2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/24/world/us-quietly-supplies-israel-with-bunkerbusting-bombs.html.
31. For a detailed analysis of Israel’s view of the Arab Spring, see Daniel Byman, ‘‘Israel’s
Pessimistic View of the Arab Spring,’’ The Washington Quarterly 34, no. 3 (Summer
2011), http://twq.com/11summer/docs/11summer_Byman.pdf.
32. When asked in a November 2011 survey how the changes in the Arab


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