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.
Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to President Obama’s criticism by declaring that “only the citizens of Israel will decide who will best serve the vital interests of the state of Israel.” This is absolutely true, except that one of the most vital interests of Israel is the strong bond with the United States, expressed, among other things, by close relationship between the leaders of the two countries.
Indeed, American presidents have occasionally been furious with Israel, but after awhile, reason on both sides as well as diplomacy prevailed. This time, however, the friction seems a bit more problematic than the previous ones.
If anything should really bother Israelis, it’s that Obama, according to Jeffrey Goldberg, has become indifferent to Netanyahu. That is alarming indeed. It’s better to have an angry president who cares about Israel, and still wants to have a dialogue, than a president who seems like he has had just about enough of the Jewish state and its conduct.
Assuming that Netanyahu is reelected next week, his urgent goal will be to rehabilitate his relationship with Obama — a second-term president, not in need of anyone to be reelected. After all, the clock of the Iranian nuclear threat is still ticking, and Israel shouldn’t be left alone in that arena with a confrontational American president.
The same goes for anti-Israeli motions in the United Nations: Who says an American veto is a given anymore?
In tackling this issue, Netanyahu will have to consider what kind of coalition he forms: A right-wing one, which will push for more settlements and subsequently might only widen the gap between him and Obama; or a more centrist one, which will indicate to Washington that he still stands by his 2009 Bar Ilan speech, namely, for a two-state solution.
By opting for the latter, by the way, he will subscribe to the will of two-thirds of Israelis, regardless of how they cast their votes next Tuesday.
Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.