Bigger than Iran: stormy seas ahead for Netanyahu-Obama relationship

Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, as others have noted, was carefully crafted to achieve his short-term goals – on the Iran issue and in his domestic political campaign – while leaving him room over the longer term to manage his differences with Washington. He did not reiterate his past insistence on zero enrichment, and he did not present a preferred alternative to negotiations – ironically, he seems now to embrace the same “strategic patience” strategy that’s been advanced by the Obama administration, and that he had undermined by pushing for additional sanctions. Substantively, it appears that the main (but not the only) argument he now has with the purported deal is the ten-year sunset clause reportedly agreed to, and the conditions under which that sunset will occur. So in my view, Netanyahu has now moved so as to reduce (not eliminate) his gaps with Washington on the nuclear talks, leaving himself room (if he chooses) to acquiesce when the final deal comes out. In this way, he avoids looking like a spoiler, particularly to a war-weary American public that supports negotiations and doesn’t want a war with Iran.

So much for the substance; what about the politics?

Netanyahu worked to placate angry Congressional Democrats by bending over backwards to praise President Obama and to emphasize the value he attaches to bipartisan support for Israel. Talking to folks on the Hill after the speech, I’m not sure he succeeded – and that’s despite the fact that many Democrats share his concerns about the Iran nuclear issue. The anger at Netanyahu for disrespecting the president, for inserting himself into US partisan debates, and for using the floor of Congress as an electoral backdrop is still there, and may take time to fade. But beyond the immediate issue, I think that the US-Israel relationship – regardless of the Netanyahu-Obama relationship – is headed for stormy seas in the coming years. Here’s why:

1) The public opinion trends show a gap between Democratic and Republican voters on Israel, and Netanyahu’s visit appears to have widened this gap. The members of Congress who skipped Bibi’s speech reflect precisely those public constituencies – minorities and more progressive voters – who when it comes to foreign policy are more skeptical on use of force and more motivated by human rights concerns, making them less sympathetic to this Israeli government’s policies on Iran and on the Palestinian issue. What was already a long-term problem for the US-Israel relationship has been exacerbated and highlighted by Netanyahu’s divisive visit. AIPAC, which invested heavily in the last few years in building support for Israel among progressives, now must try to rebuild on the wreckage of the last few weeks.

2) Netanyahu’s failure to discuss the Palestinian issue during his visit was notable, and troubling. Congress is currently debating whether to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority in response to its accession to the International Criminal Court, and there is great sympathy for Israel on the issue. Members of Congress do a lot to support Israel in dealing with Hamas and the PA but, like Israeli voters, they don’t see the current Israeli leadership offering a way forward on the issue. The lack of any Israeli roadmap for its future relationship with the Palestinians may well cause increasing frustration on the Hill and in the executive branch as time goes on, as Israel continues to expect strong support in facing the “delegitimation” campaign of its adversaries, but continues settlement activity and puts forward no strategy of its own for resolving or even addressing the conflict.

In this context, the miserable state of Israeli-Palestinian relations and the worsening environment inside both Gaza and the West Bank loom large over the coming weeks and months. My trip to Israel a few weeks ago underscored to me, not just how volatile are relations between Israelis and Palestinians, but also how sharp and consequential are the dilemmas facing the Israeli government in managing a potential crisis. Should Hamas provoke a new round of violence, or should Israeli-PA security cooperation break down (a subject for a separate post), Israel really should approach crisis management with a far-sighted sense of where it wants to go, and what outcomes it wants to avoid. And, ideally, it would face such a crisis with the support of an American administration who understands Israel’s vision, goals, and strategy. The breakdown of trust between Washington and Jerusalem could easily make such cooperative crisis management much harder – but as bad as that may be, the lack of clear Israeli goals for its future with the Palestinians is what will make US-Israel cooperation harder and harder over time.