The United States and Israel do many things well together. We do strategic cooperation, security planning, intelligence sharing, economic and trade relations, and cultural interaction. Every day, scores of official and unofficial interactions take place between our governments and our two peoples, and for the most part, they are extraordinarily productive and mutually beneficial.
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The one thing we are not doing well together these days is quiet diplomacy. In fact, “quiet” is not a word that American officials recognize in the same sentence as “Israel.” Put bluntly, there’s too much noise about critical security issues. Sensitive diplomatic discussions have a way of finding their way into the press—primarily the Israeli press, but also sometimes the American press. The language used by officials – again, primarily Israeli, but sometimes American – is highly charged and quite unusual in the discourse between allies. This week, for example, Haaretz described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public comments as "an unprecedented verbal attack on the US government.” The issue: Netanyahu was upset that the United States did not share his views about Iran and would not set “red lines” that would serve as a kind of automatic tripwire for a military attack against Iran.
Why is this so that our two countries cannot now talk quietly and civilly to each other? It really isn’t because of strategic differences. In past weeks, senior officials, including Ministers Ehud Barak and Dan Meridor, have hailed the strength and depth of our bilateral discussions on Iran and other issues. High-level visits take place every week. We share information and analysis, and for the most part we agree. So, why the outburst from the Israeli prime minister, which can only give Iran satisfaction of seeing discord between the two allies?
The near-absence of quiet diplomacy in the bilateral American-Israeli relationship would be unfortunate if it were only a problem of the confidentiality of diplomatic exchanges. It is actually a crisis of significant dimensions, for the hyperbolic accusations, chatter, leaks, and distortions that increasingly mark our public discourse toward each other actually undermine our mutual security and undercut the possibility of accomplishing important national security objectives. This really must change.
Those who argue that diplomacy is not an important tool for advancing Israel’s national goals have not studied history. The creation of the state itself and the early recognition it garnered benefitted from astute diplomatic maneuvering by Zionist leaders and Israel’s nascent diplomatic corps. There was a healthy complementarity among the various means adopted by Zionists and Israelis leaders, including interacting with the world and the region. Over the ensuing decades, diplomacy helped Israel build significant trade and security relationships around the globe. Indeed, the quieter many of these contacts and exchanges were kept, the more beneficially they developed over the years.
It is only in recent years that Israel and some in the United States have begun to disparage diplomacy, going so far as to equate it with treason. To try to deal with an issue through diplomacy is mischaracterized by some as catering to the whims of an enemy or “throwing in the towel,” giving up before accomplishing stated goals. This is wrong, short-sighted, and self-defeating.
It is also only in recent years that differences between our two governments have spilled over so intensely into the public domain. It is entirely inappropriate for an Israeli leader to talk about an American president or about American policy with the tone used recently. Prime Minister Begin once said famously to the American ambassador that Israel is not a banana republic; neither, it should be said now, is the United States. Israel, of all countries, needs to treat the United States and American leaders with respect, even if there are policy differences.
So, it is time to go back to basics. Israel and the United States must continue to talk intensively and to try to narrow differences in analysis and policy, but they must do so quietly and diplomatically. There is too much at stake to conduct exchanges between us any differently.
Daniel Kurtzer is the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. During a thirty-year career in diplomacy, he served as the United States Ambassador to Israel and to Egypt.