U.S. and Israel: A recent history of intimacy and distance
U.S. and Israeli administrations have found common cause as well as periods of difficult relations. But the U.S. itself is changing: When we celebrate the 4th of July with our American friends a decade from now we may be celebrating it with a different America.
I spent about four years in Washington in the mid 1990s, from the summer of 1992 to the late summer of 1996. Initially my position was as Israel's chief negotiator with Syria, then as Israel's ambassador to the U.S., with the Syrian negotiations as part of my portfolio. In the event holding these two positions proved to be very fortuitous. For the Clinton administration, an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement was a high priority, and my work on the Syrian track facilitated my work with the president, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, and their teams.
My initial work in the negotiations with Syria was done in tandem with George Bush Sr.'s administration. Needless to say, it was the administration that put the Madrid Peace Process in place. This was the product of two major geopolitical efforts: first, overseeing the transition from the Cold War to a unipolar world dominated by the United States, and secondly, defeating Saddam Hussein at the head of a massive international coalition. Bush Sr. as president and James Baker as secretary of state felt that against this backdrop they could seek to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But the Bush administration I encountered was a diminishing administration. A president with spectacular foreign policy achievements was trailing in the polls due to domestic economic problems. Baker was asked to leave the State Department and come back to the White House in an effort to salvage his friend's campaign. As we now know, this was a failed effort and Bill Clinton was elected president in 1993.
It is quite common for U.S. presidents to distance themselves from projects that are identified with their predecessors. But Bill Clinton adopted the Middle East peace process that had been put in place by Bush, and pursued it with his characteristic passion and enthusiasm. He and his team saw it in geopolitical terms. The real danger in the Middle East was presented by its eastern flank, by Iran and Iraq. U.S. policy had to be two pronged: to contain Iran and Iraq, and help Israel make peace with its immediate neighbors. Once the core area of the Middle East had been stabilized, Iran and Iraq could be confronted more effectively.
This view of the region was shared by Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. A common geopolitical view and the unusual personal friendship that was formed between Clinton and Rabin produced a period of close, intimate cooperation. Being Israel's emissary in Washington during that period was a genuine privilege.
George W. Bush reversed Clinton's approach after his election to the presidency in 2001.He began by distancing himself from the peace process that Clinton had pursued with such passion. The collapse of the Syrian and Palestinian tracks, and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, made that distancing easier.
Bush and his team had a different view of the geopolitics of the region. In their view, a smart policy had to begin by dealing with the two powerful radical regimes, Iran and Iraq, in the Middle East. Once that had been achieved, bringing peace to the region's core area would become much easier. This was supplemented with the ideological imperative of the neo-cons in the administration, and of conservative Republicans: the Middle East should be democratized.
The terrorist attack on the U.S. in September 2001 added a new layer to Washington's global and Middle Eastern policy - the war on terror. In this context the Bush administration and the president himself personally built close cooperation and working relationship with Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert and their governments. For those who thought of the Bush family in terms of Texas and oil, and watched Washington's initial response to the Palestinian-Israeli war of attrition (a more appropriate term, in my view, than intifada), this was a surprising turn of events. All told, with some ups and downs, the U.S.-Israel relationship went through 16 years of close cooperation and - at some points - real intimacy.
The bedrock of this relationship was, and remains, the view of most Americans that Israel is a close ally and that commitment to Israel's security is a crucial component of America's policy in the Middle East. But this alone would not have sufficed. Two other elements played a vital role: the determination of most Israeli prime ministers of this period to move forward in the peace process of their own volition, and their ability to build a relationship of trust with the U.S. president.
This changed in 2009. Barack Obama, like George W. Bush, came into office determined to distance himself from his predecessor and his policies. If Bush seemed to be on a collision course with large parts of the Muslim and Arab worlds, Obama believed that he could repair these relationships. He also believed that reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and breaking the perception of an American-Israeli intimacy were keys to the success of this policy. Unfortunately only a few months after coming into office, Obama encountered a right-wing Israeli government possessed of a very limited view of what could be done on the Palestinian track.
These policy differences and the absence of mutual trust between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu resulted in two difficult years. More recently, with the experience gained by the president, the looming elections in November 2012, and an improved performance on the Israeli side, the emphasis has shifted from the conflict with the Palestinians to the Iranian nuclear issue. Washington and Jerusalem are not in full agreement on this issue, but the degree of consensus is such that it enables them to collaborate in confronting the threat.
These are the developments that we see on the surface. But other developments that are less salient may bring about tectonic changes in America's policy in the Middle East. One is the declining importance of Middle Eastern oil in America's energy market. The discovery of massive quantities of oil, shale oil and gas will make America energy independent in a few years. The geopolitical importance of the Middle East will decline. This trend is reinforced by the recognition that with the rise of China and India, more attention should be paid and more resources should be directed to the Asia-Pacific region. Israel will probably remain important in American eyes, but Israel cannot be detached from its regional context. Demographic trends in the U.S., and the growing importance of Hispanic and other groups that do not have the same attachment to Israel, are likely to have a similar impact.
When we celebrate the 4th of July with our American friends a decade from now we may be celebrating it with a different America.
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's ambassador to the U.S. from 1993–1996, is the author most recently of The Lingering Conflict: Israel, the Arabs and the Middle East 1948-2011 (Brookings Institute, 2011).