Will This U.S.-Israel Crisis Go to Waste?

Looking back at previous U.S.-Israel rifts, the real question isn't whether this one's the harshest (it's not) but whether Obama will take advantage of it.

Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg
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Obama and Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting in the White House. March 3, 2014.
Obama and Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting in the White House. March 3, 2014.Credit: AFP
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

During the Gaza War, the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government became the very worst of friends. There was the phone conversation – leaked to a reporter, then denied by both sides – in which President Obama allegedly told Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel must unilaterally stop fighting. There was another call – leaked, but not denied – in which Netanyahu allegedly told U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro that the administration was "not to ever second guess" him about Hamas. Then came the very public statement saying that the United States was "appalled" by the IDF's "disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school" sheltering Palestinians. U.S.-Israel relations have never been worse – or so says a popular media story line.

The tensions are real. But the claim that they are unprecedented shows ignorance of history, and it reinforces the myth propagated in U.S. politics that the normal state of affairs is "no daylight" between American and Israeli positions. Looking back at previous U.S.-Israel rifts, the real question isn't whether this one's the harshest (it's not) but whether the crisis will go to waste.

The worst American-Israel confrontation was also one of the earliest: In October 1956, in collusion with Britain and France, Israel conquered the Sinai, intending to annex all or part of it. The Eisenhower administration's successful pressure to withdraw included the threat that Israel would be ejected from the United Nations.

The best example of a wasted crisis came during the first Lebanon war. Two weeks into the 1982 war, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin came to the White House, President Ronald Reagan berated him for the death and destruction in Lebanon, and for the damage to America's position in the Arab world. Through the siege of West Beirut, Reagan's dissatisfaction grew. The Reagan Plan, rolled out late that summer, was an attempt to channel the energies released by war toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. Poorly formulated, it was nonetheless a direct challenge to Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's policy of plunging ever deeper into the quagmire of permanent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But in the words of journalist-historian Patrick Tyler, Reagan was a "courtly blunderer," dragged along by events and arguing advisers. The initiative was stillborn, and the Reagan-Begin dispute could be left out of Republican hagiographies.

On the other hand, the mid-1970s confrontation between Gerald Ford and Yitzhak Rabin faded easily from memory because of its positive outcome. According to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the chemistry between Ford, the unelected president, and Rabin, the unelected prime minister, was awful. In March 1975, the Rabin government rejected Kissinger's proposal for an Egyptian-Israeli interim agreement, the second in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. One reason for Rabin's inflexible stand was fear that the leader of the most hawkish wing of Labor, Shimon Peres (yes, Peres), would split the party and bring the Likud to power.

Ford announced a "reassessment" of U.S. policy, including a freeze on new aid to Israel. The rift was much more dramatic than today's. Yet reassessment in Washington sparked rethinking in Jerusalem. Negotiations resumed, and the agreement signed that September was a step toward Israeli-Egyptian peace.

These are only examples, not a full list of crises. True, a succession of U.S. administrations has made many mistakes. But the most consistent one has been to give up easily on peace efforts, out of distraction by events elsewhere or out of fear that public disagreements with Israel will be costly in domestic politics.

Which brings us to Obama and Netanyahu. The bad personal chemistry begins with Obama's preference for diplomatic solutions and Netanyahu's distrust of them. Obama's consistent stand has been that a two-state agreement guarantees Israel's future – a position that fits the long-time American desire to resolve the tension between its support for Israel and its relations with the Arab world. Netanyahu's gut tells him the status quo is less risky than making concessions - a stand that fits beautifully with an ideology of keeping the Whole Land under Israeli control.

In each of his two terms, Obama invested in Israeli-Palestinian peace, then walked away when talks stalled, in large part due to Netanyahu's intransigence. At no point, it seems, was he ready to risk "reassessing" relations. In the meantime, the implosion of Arab countries has only added to America's strategic interest in Israeli-Palestinian peace: Any corner of a critical region that can be stabilized is a bulwark against the realm of chaos.

The Gaza War showed that there is no status quo for Israel to depend on. And it had a domestic American impact: The footage from Gaza has apparently reduced support in the Democratic base for the "no daylight" approach to relations with Israel.

So Obama has a choice: He can leave Egypt the role of negotiating a ceasefire that will inevitably collapse if Gaza remains the embodiment of Palestinian frustration. Or he can reengage, making clear to Netanyahu that American support comes with a condition: finally engaging in serious negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on a two-state agreement. The latter path won't end the public spat between Obama and Netanyahu. But it could mean that the opportunities presented by this crisis don't go to waste. 

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977". Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG

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