If before the elections in the United States people close to President Obama complained that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had interfered by somehow expressing his wish that Gov. Mitt Romney should be elected, then this week President Obama returned the favor.
Remarks he reportedly made about Netanyahu were perceived by the Israeli premier as a gross intervention in next Tuesday’s Israeli elections.
Jeffrey Goldberg, known for his good contacts in the White House, wrote an article for Bloomberg news agency’s website, in which he quoted President Obama as saying that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” Speaking more specifically — and bluntly — about Netanyahu, Obama called him a “political coward” for not compromising with the Palestinians. “With each new settlement announcement,” writes Goldberg, “in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation.”
The history of U.S.-Israel relations is rich with disagreements between American presidents and Israeli prime ministers. Following the Sinai campaign in 1956, President Eisenhower sent a harsh, indeed, threatening cable to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, for acting secretly with the French and the British against American interests (and for the timing — days before the 1956 elections).
In 1975 President Ford declared a “reassessment” of the American-Israeli relations, blaming Israel for stalling negotiations with the Egyptians. The letter he wrote to then-minister Yitzhak Rabin was no less threatening than that of President Eisenhower: “I have given instructions for a reassessment of United States policy in the region, including our relations with Israel, with the aim of ensuring that our overall American interests are protected.”
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, fuming with rage over Israel after his failed “shuttle diplomacy,” and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, made sure to fulfill the president’s wish. Arms deals with Israel were immediately frozen.
Then in 1981 Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear facility and the PLO headquarters in Lebanon, and also passed the “Golan Law,” implementing the Israeli law on the Golan Heights — actions the United States opposed at the time. Menachem Begin, prime minister at the time, summoned the U.S. ambassador and reprimanded him for threatening to “punish” Israel by suspending the supply of F-15 fighter planes. “Are we a vassal state of yours?” Begin demanded from poor Ambassador Samuel Lewis. “Are we a banana republic? Are we youths of 14 who, if they don’t behave properly, are slapped across the fingers?"
And finally, there was the 1992 feud between President George H.W. Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, when the American president withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees, because of Israeli settlement policy. The feud, I believe, cost the two leaders their reelection.
So is the present friction just another one of those many episodes which pale in comparison to the sound and generally unwavering alliance between the United States and Israel? I sure hope so. After all, with all the aforementioned crises, American and Israeli leaders always found ways to overcome their differences.