Israel's 'Battering Husband Syndrome' and Ongoing Feud With the Obama Administration

Israeli governments have hitherto tried to downplay tensions with their superpower ally because its strategic stature depends on global perceptions of its ties to Washington.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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U.S. President Barack Obama listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., March 3, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., March 3, 2014.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to the foreign media on Wednesday to praise John Kerry, to report on his “good” conversation with the secretary of state and to distance himself from the “distorted” reports about tensions between Jerusalem and Washington. It was, as usual, too little and too late to arrest the latest tide of resentment from flowing into the already brimming reservoir of bad blood between Jerusalem and the Obama administration.

Perhaps the Prime Minister’s Office is finding it hard to keep pace with the seemingly unending stream of leaks concerning the broken lines of communication between the two allies, in general, and Israeli badmouthing of Kerry, in particular. Did Netanyahu hang up on Kerry or was his phone simply out of range? Did Israel turn the tables on the NSA by eavesdropping on the secretary’s conversations? Is it true that Netanyahu told Ambassador Dan Shapiro not to second guess him on Hamas? And did President Obama scold the Israeli PM as if he was a schoolboy or was it all one big misunderstanding?

Most of these questions remain unanswered to this day, but Netanyahu’s long silences following their publication is often taken as confirmation, while his belated and qualified clarifications are viewed as no more than going through the motions, with a big wink in tow.

The prime minister frequently cites his long friendship with Kerry and recites his great appreciation for America’s “terrific” support, but his cabinet’s sometime seems to be suffering from a battering husband syndrome, you will excuse me, in its attitude towards the Obama administration. Israel is well aware of that America provides it with invaluable security support and diplomatic cover, for better and for worse, but in their dealings with Kerry and Obama, cabinet ministers repeatedly allow their hot tempers to run wild and their yearning for cheap political thrills get the best of them. After a few days Netanyahu invariably waxes lyrical about bilateral love and devotion, and sometimes he seems to mean it.

Nonetheless, in the month that has passed since the Gaza conflict began, Israel has repeatedly foiled Kerry’s plans, possibly with justification, but it has done so in a way that has undercut the secretary’s domestic and international stature and made him the object of widespread scorn and ridicule for pundits and politicians alike. In the process, however, Israel has also damaged its own good name, especially among those Americans who may not be overly troubled by the scenes of carnage in Gaza but are nonetheless incensed by what seems to be Israel’s unnecessarily brutal attitude to Kerry. As popular singer John Legend tweeted last week to his millions of followers: “So sick watching our secretary of state have to grovel so hard to tell Israel how much he loves them while Israeli cabinet s**ts on him.”

The overall impression, conveyed in detailed reports in the New York Times and other American news outlets this week, is that bilateral altercations over Gaza have brought U.S.-Israeli relations to an all-time low. Historically, this is a gross exaggeration, given numerous past showdowns, from compelling Israel to withdraw from the Sinai in 1957 to refusing to give it loan guarantees in 1991. Israel has also taken to venting its frustrations in public as well, as Menachem Begin’s bureau did in 1981 when it published his memorable admonition to then American envoy Sam Lewis “We are not a banana republic.” But this was an outgrowth of a serious clash of ideologies in the wake of Israel’s decision to annex the Golan Heights, and not a part of an ongoing and seemingly endless feud with glaringly personal undertones, in a social media age of instant amplification.

Israeli governments have always tried to downplay tensions and highlight agreement with their superpower ally, understanding that Jerusalem’s strategic stature and power of deterrence depend to a large degree on global perceptions of its relationship with Washington. America’s declining dominance of the international arena, Obama’s political weakness at home and Jerusalem’s new found common ground with Washington’s discontented friends in the region, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, may be leading some Israeli decision makers to assume that the Obama administration can be challenged with impunity, or maybe even spurned altogether. It is a potentially dangerous delusion, especially if Washington decides to break with past patterns and await an opportunity to pay Israel back, in kind.

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