The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has served among other things to underline and exacerbate the problematic relationship between the Obama administration and Netanyahu's government. It also brought into stark relief Washington's diminished role and influence in the Middle East. The combined effect of these two developments has been a significant lacuna in Israel's national security environment.
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The problematic relationship between Netanyahu and Obama and their administrations became apparent soon after both came into office in 2009. After sixteen years of close, often intimate relations between the U.S. and Israel under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (with some interruptions and occasional periods of tension), the U.S. elected a president who made it a priority to fix America's relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, who saw a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as indispensable for such a rapprochement and who believed
the solution to that conflict should be along the lines of the formula proposed by Ehud Olmert to Mahmoud Abbas in September 2008. He also wanted to "engage" with Iran and Syria.
The Israeli elections of 2009 brought back to power Benjamin Netanyahu. For him, Olmert's formula was unacceptable and who saw Iran and its quest for nuclear weapons and regional hegemony as an existential threat. These divergent perspectives were subsequently aggravated by the Arab Spring of late 2010 and early 2011, endorsed enthusiastically by the U.S. president and viewed with skepticism by the Israeli PM, who regarded these events as a threat rather than a promise. These differences were aggravated early on by a mutual sense of mistrust. Obama saw Netanyahu as being close to his conservative Republican foes, while Netanyahu suspected that Obama wanted to see him replaced.
The controversies generated by the Palestinian and Iranian issues were eventually blunted when Obama abandoned his quest for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and when the interim agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue was reached. Washington and Jerusalem continued to disagree, often publicly, on the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu did and does not conceal his criticism of the Iranian deal, but the threat of an Israeli raid on Iran (an American nightmare) no longer seems imminent. It should be emphasized that throughout this period of tension many aspects of the bilateral relationship, defense cooperation and support in particular, continued to flourish.
Disagreements over the Palestinian issue were rekindled by Secretary of State's nine month effort to resolve after all the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Obama kept some distance from these negotiations, but he resented the blunt Israeli criticism of his Secretary of State; like the latter, he held Netanyahu slightly more responsible than Abbas for the failure of Kerry's mission.
The same years saw a sharp decline in Washington's position in the region. To some extent it was a consequence of America's own choices and changing agenda - the shift to the Asia Pacific region, lessening the U.S.'s dependence on Middle Eastern oil, the determination to end the two failed and costly interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the resistance towards further entanglements in Middle Eastern conflicts. The results were seen all over the region: The refusal to support the Syrian opposition and the failure to respect the president's own red line in Syria; the near collapse of the Iraqi government and state; the chaos in Libya; Saudi Arabia's manifest anger and the bad relationship with General Sisi's regime in Egypt. It is also difficult for Washington (and everybody else) to formulate a coherent regional policy when the region is in such a state of disorder. Washington's traditional partners are gone, angry or difficult to work with (such as Turkey’s Erdogan).
It was against this backdrop that Washington had to deal with the war in Gaza. It gave Israel initial support but when the war lingered, Obama sharply told Netanyahu that he had to end the war. The president hesitated to send his Secretary of State to broker an end to the fighting, knowing full well that it was a difficult task, that their capacity had been weakened and the risk of yet another failure was all too apparent. In earlier cases of asymmetric fighting - in Lebanon and Gaza - the U.S. had acted effectively, either directly or through local partners. The task this time was and still is much tougher. And it led to a particularly bitter twist in the relationship with Israel.
How has the U.S.: Israel relationship come to this? For one thing, the U.S. finds it difficult to conduct itself in the new Middle Eastern environment. Its relationship with Egyptian president Sisi's regime is still awkward, and it must not have realized the full significance of working with Turkey and Qatar as would-be brokers with Hamas. Washington has not yet articulated this clearly, but the subtext of its action and words implies the conviction that Israel erred when it did not conclude a ceasefire with Abu Mazen.
In Israel in turn, some politicians and policymakers, as well as the media, have taken liberties in criticizing, let alone ridiculing, the Secretary of State. Given the overall nature and importance of the U.S. – Israel relationship, even a mistaken Secretary of State should have been dealt with utilizing greater politeness and consideration, not to mention gratitude.
Most of these bilateral problems will not vanish in the coming days as the international pressure on Israel to end the war will increase, while the domestic pressure and the genuine, legitimate need to end it successfully will intensify. There's little chance of a face-to-face meeting between Obama and Netanyahu during which the candid open discussions they have never had will actually take place. But there are other ways for the Israeli leadership to reach out to the president in an effort to agree on the larger political diplomatic context within which this round of fighting should end. And when that happens, and Israel begins to ponder the lessons of this war, it should also think seriously of the implications of Washington's diminished role in the Middle East, and about the need to mend its relations with an administration that will still be in office until early 2017.
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's former ambassador to Washington, is the president of The Israel Institute.