“A cold man who is developing a grudge against Israel is now sitting in the White House,” a leading Israeli journalist wrote some years back. Today, many in Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, might share this view.
At the same time, there is no love in the White House towards Netanyahu. Daniel Kurtzer, Washington’s ambassador in Israel from 2001 to 2005, told the Times of Israel last week that “(t)here’s no trust. There’s a growing lack of respect. There’s a sense of — I’d even say betrayal.”
Both leaders have their own reasons. President Obama may think that Netanyahu, contrary to his rhetoric, did everything possible to curtail the option of a Palestinian state, thinking only about his own political survival. Obviously, expansions of settlements and insults amed at Secretary of State John Kerry by top Israeli ministers didn’t help.
Netanyahu, for his part, has understandable grudges against the Obama administration, which he perceives as soft on a nuclear-armed Iran, naïve on the situation in the Middle East and quick to blame Israel for the collapse of the peace talks with the Palestinians.
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But if Ambassador Kurtzer is right, then the Israeli government must not let relations deteriorate further: These days, Jerusalem needs Washington more than ever.
Since the Gaza war, sentiment against Israel has shifted significantly in Europe, and even in the United States. And the Palestinians have just launched a campaign to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution that will recognize a Palestinian homeland as a state, with all the negative ramifications for Israel, including being dragged into the International Court of Justice at The Hague on charges of illegal occupation. Europeans are receptive. The only way to stop it is through a U.S. veto.
This time, however, a frustrated administration might opt not to fight this anti-Israel motion with the same passion it has done before, thus sending a strong message to the rest of the world. With an indifferent United States, many countries might eagerly follow in the footsteps of Sweden and the United Kingdom, where motions to recognize the “State of Palestine” have already passed.
Traditionally, support for Israel in the United States has been based on three pillars: The White House, Congress and public opinion. Polls show that public support for Israel has eroded in the wake of the Gaza war, especially among young Americans. Netanyahu, wary of the White House, may think that Congress — which soon may be dominated by Republicans — will limit Obama’s capability to pressure Israel.
That course could well backfire, because it will make the support of Israel a partisan issue. Worse, still, it will only further infuriate President Obama. And it is the president, not Congress, who sets foreign policy.
Making the president of your best ally angry at you is a bad policy. Alas, it happened in the past. The quote opening this column, about the cold man sitting in the white House with a grudge against Israel, was written by journalist Dan Margalit, not about President Obama, but rather in 1975, about President Gerald Ford.
Ken Stein and Rich Walter of the Center for Israel Education, remind us how in 1975, when Israel refused to yield to American pressure for a withdrawal in Sinai, President Ford — a Republican — told Sec. of State Henry Kissinger that the United States would not “isolate itself from the rest of the world to stand behind Israeli intransigence.”
A “reassessment” of U.S.-Israeli relations followed, which included the freezing of arms delivery to Israel, and Sec.Kissinger recommended that “every department should put Israeli activities at the bottom of the list.”
Unlike four decades ago, there is no such reassessment, yet. However, alarm signals are sounding. Recently, speaking to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama reflected on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a tone unheard before: “There comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices.” And when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visited Washington last week, the White House and the State Department rejected his requests for meetings with Vice President Joe Biden, national security adviser Susan Rice and Sec. of State John Kerry.
Kerry is now struggling to resurrect a cohesive policy for the United States in the Middle East. If building a coalition against the Islamic State weren’t difficult enough, then the Palestinian move in the United Nations threatens to disrupt things even further. The only way to dissuade the Palestinians to suspend this move is by bringing them back to the negotiating table with Israel. That will not happen without cooperation from Jerusalem. For Israel, then, doing nothing is not an option anymore.
Here is an opportunity for Netanyahu. He should accept the proposal made last week in Cairo by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi — another ally Israel shouldn’t alienate — that Israel adopt the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and move toward establishing a Palestinian state.
By doing so, Netanyahu will serve the most vital interest of Israel: to remain both Jewish and democratic. At the same time, he will help Kerry reestablish his position in this region as someone who can deliver.
When he sits at the table in a regional conference, Netanyahu should not compromise on Israel’s security. But he will, however, have to make painful concessions in territory. When this happens, it is better to have a grateful American ally backing him than an indifferent, even hostile one.