On Day After Congress Backs Iran Deal, What Will Happen to Israel-U.S. Ties?

Netanyahu and Obama will have to cure the hangover of this bitter battle.

Alfred Moses
Alfred Moses
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President Obama walks across South Lawn of the White House (August 27, 2015)Credit: AP
Alfred Moses
Alfred Moses

Imagine it is now the morning after the U.S. Congress failed to block U.S. President Barack Obama’s deal with Iran. What does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government do?  It failed to scuttle the deal and in the process fractured the American Jewish community, alienated a large swath of its American supporters (Jewish and non-Jewish) and clumsily intervened in American politics, where foreign governments going back to the founding of the republic have rightfully feared to tread, even one that is a close ally of the United States.  Not for the first time in its history, but perhaps most acutely, Israel will be seen by Americans as bumbling, having picked a fight it could not win, battling the president of the United States on his home turf, like David versus Goliath, only this time Goliath won.

Is Israel’s "special relationship" with the United States irretrievably lost? I think not. But there is work to do, on both sides.

The Obama Administration will have every reason politically and strategically to want to repair the relationship with Israel and to rebuild trust between the two countries. 

Politically, Jews remain a key pillar of the Democratic electoral base (favoring the party with 70 percent support in the last two presidential elections), a fact not lost on the president even if he himself will not stand for election. Moreover, Jews in America are politically active as candidates, influential voices and financial contributors to Democratic Party coffers, well out of proportion to the community’s size. Polls indicate that a majority of American Jews supported the president on the Iran deal, but most important Jewish organizations opposed the deal, as did a large number of prominent American Jews.

In its remaining months in office, I expect the Obama Administration to look for ways to rebuild Jewish support for the Democratic Party by extending the olive branch to Israel – both in statements of reassurance about shared values and abiding friendship, and in tangible demonstrations of support, such as enhanced  military cooperation (including advanced weaponry designed to counter an Iran that might look for ways out of the nuclear deal), greater intelligence cooperation, and high level visits between the two countries.

The day after the Iran deal becomes a fait accompli, the United States and Israel will share the same strategic interests as they did the day before: the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS or ISIL) and its followers will still be waging war in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Egypt.  Iran will still be threatening to annihilate the United States and Israel – and, in Israel’s case, actively funding terrorist groups that seek its destruction. The conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims will not have disappeared. In short, instability in the Middle East will still threaten vital American and Israeli interests. Bilateral cooperation between the United States and Israel will be as important then as it is now.

The need to rebuild bilateral ties will be even more important for Israel, as the junior partner in the relationship. By choosing to battle the U.S. president (and losing in an excruciatingly public fashion), Netanyahu is seen by many Israelis as having potentially jeopardized the close military and political relationship with the United States, so critical to its long-term survival in a hostile region. Israel will need to look for ways to rebuild the relationship of close cooperation and trust with the United States that existed before the split over the Iran deal and to find openings to enhance its security in the face of continuing Iranian threats against the Jewish State. As a minimum, this means weapon upgrades from the United States, bilateral military planning and ever-closer intelligence sharing. Netanyahu surely understands that Israel’s support across the aisle and across administrations must again become the article of faith it has been since the Truman Administration. This has existential implications for Israel that no prime minister can ignore.

On a practical level, for Israel to have a realistic chance of accomplishing these goals, it probably needs a new ambassador in Washington, one whose hands are not sullied by Israel’s misadventure in partisan American politics. Israel is blessed with experienced, respected senior military officers and professionals who for years have worked collegially with their U.S. counterparts, know Washington, and are not tied to either U.S. political party or to major political donors in the United States. The prime minister should look to this rich pool of talent in choosing Israel’s next ambassador to the United States. 

The morning after is fast approaching. When it does, Israel and the United States will need to cure the hangover that comes with it. Each will have to do its part to restore the confidence in each other that was lost.

Alfred H. Moses was Special Counsel to the U.S. President (1980), U.S. ambassador to Romania 1994-97; Special Presidential Envoy for the Cyprus Conflict (1999-2001), President of The American Jewish Committee 1991-94, and presently serves as chair of UN Watch in Geneva.  His writings have appeared in major newspapers in the United States, Europe and Israel.