Not since the November 1, 1973 meeting between Prime Minister Golda Meir, under fire for the failures that led to the Yom Kippur War, and President Richard Nixon, already deep into the Watergate scandal, have American and Israeli leaders met at a time of such internal political turmoil in both countries.
As thousands of advocates for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship gather in Washington for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference this week, the fraught situation in both governments raises the question of how to manage the U.S.-Israel relationship through choppy waters and bumpy roads.
There is no denying that President Trump is very friendly toward Israel. But more than good feelings are necessary to make the relationship as productive as it can be. Serious, professional work by well-organized governments makes a difference, too.
Already I can hear readers spitting out their coffee. What??! A representative of the Obama Administration will give lectures on how to manage the U.S.-Israel relationship? Wasn’t that a period of major bilateral tensions? Give me break!
The criticism is fair, up to a point, considering the far-too-frequent public disputes, which both sides contributed to, during those years. But it is also not the whole picture.
During the same period that we had serious policy disagreements, most prominently over the Iran nuclear deal and the issue of West Bank settlements, the bilateral relationship grew significantly stronger in numerous ways.
It grew stronger in the area of security cooperation, which resulted in more frequent and more sophisticated joint military exercises, and culminated in the $38 billion military assistance Memorandum of Understanding, which will enable Israel to purchase at least 50 F-35 aircraft and maintain its qualitative military edge for decades.
It grew stronger in intelligence cooperation, upgrading the partnership to a level of intimacy the United States enjoys with few other countries, and enabling more real-time sharing of information and strategic deployment of our assets against common threats.
It grew stronger in the area of technology development, especially in missile defense, leading to the full deployment of Iron Dome and breakthroughs in the development of David’s Sling and Arrow 3. Israel’s recent successes in detecting and destroying Hamas’s terrorist tunnels have also been enabled by a joint U.S.-Israeli research and development program launched in 2015.
It grew stronger in diplomatic coordination, as the two countries worked together week in and week out for eight years to snuff out or counter attempts to delegitimize Israel in international organizations, notwithstanding our disagreement on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 in December 2016.
It grew stronger in responding to disasters, such as when the entire U.S. interagency mobilized to help provide assistance to Israel during the 2010 Carmel fires.
And it grew stronger in the economic and commercial sphere, where the two governments advanced efforts to support the vibrant private sector partnership, by lowering barriers and increasing opportunities for investors and entrepreneurs in both countries to meet and work together.
What all these advances had in common was that they resulted from an effort, at least on the U.S. side, to ensure that the bilateral relationship, and the policy that guided it, were spread across all parts of our government.
The National Security Council at the White House provided the connective tissue between disparate initiatives, but there was a broad understanding across the government of what we were trying to achieve - a stronger, deeper partnership in all realms, and how each department could contribute.
There will always be a few key, high-level individuals managing the relationship and making decisions on the most sensitive matters, but others in the government need to be involved, informed, and coordinated.
Lately, one has the impression that the relationship has been shrunk down to three or four people on each side. Trump White House paranoia about the loyalty of career officials, whom they deride as the "deep state", surely contributes. So does the failure to fill many senior State Department posts. Israeli coalition politics, with cabinet portfolios spread across multiple parties and no foreign minister, are a factor as well.
A structure like this one creates problems that benefit neither country.
First, it makes it difficult for officials below the top level of government to follow-up on decisions made by their seniors. If a decision is made by the inner circle, but is not communicated to the working level, it may never be implemented. A poorly staffed government, as exists on the U.S. side, compounds the problem.
Israeli officials these days often have no counterpart to call, or only much more junior officials, clearly cut off from the decision-making level, which has clearly contributed to misunderstandings on sensitive issues, like the arrangements in southern Syria intended to keep Iranian forces and proxies away from the Israeli border.
Second, this structure weakens the United States in other ways, harming our ability to effectively support Israel in various arenas.
There has never been a Secretary of State as excluded from the U.S.-Israel relationship as Rex Tillerson. He has never made his own visit to Israel, and his regional tour, with no stop in Jerusalem, following the Iranian drone incursion on February 10, made him look irrelevant. Why would other governments take him seriously when he raises Israel’s concerns?
The absence of confirmed U.S. ambassadors in Cairo, Amman, Riyadh, Doha, and Ankara underscores the department’s weakness and inhibits U.S. assistance to Israel in regional coordination against common threats, like Iran’s growing military entrenchment in Syria.
Finally, this structure injects chaos when someone leaves or gets in trouble. If all the eggs of the U.S.-Israel relationship are in Jared Kushner’s basket, what happens when that basket self-immolates, as is going on now? Over-investment in one or two individuals, no matter how supportive, actually weakens the structures that the bilateral relationship needs.
Other governments, particularly in the Gulf, have made a similar mistake, leaning far too heavily on Jared Kushner as the be-all and end-all of their relationships with the United States.
That’s because of the terrible distortion of the U.S. government under the Trump Administration - from a collection of professional departments to a family-run business, complete with a crown prince and blatant misuse of government positions to advance private commercial interests.
As Kushner goes down, those governments must ask themselves, now what?
During the Obama Administration, I sometimes heard it said that we were relentlessly on-message, that Israeli officials would hear the same thing from whoever they talked to on the U.S. side. I considered that to be a major compliment in the management of the administration.
That kind of coordination, which integrates all departments of government, actually gets more done. It enables serious follow-up and implementation of decisions. It avoids creating confusion and illusions about U.S. policy, by hearing different things from different people, both on issues where we agree and those where we differ. It ultimately makes for a healthier and stronger relationship, one that can weather even serious policy disagreements.
President Obama used to say that government officials are like runners in a relay race, carrying the baton for a while and then handing it off to the next runner. That is true across administrations, but it is also true during a single administration, when most people only serve in their posts for about two years.
When Jared Kushner has the baton pulled from his hand, who is going to carry it for the U.S.-Israel relationship in the coming years?
Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa, in the Obama Administration. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro
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