U.S.-Israeli relations after the Israeli elections

In the aftermath of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s surprisingly decisive electoral victory, several American foreign policy pundits, including Richard Haass, rushed out to proclaim that the U.S.-Israeli relationship remains “unassailable.” A few, such as Martin Indyk, more restrained in their analysis, were willing to suggest that Netanyahu’s reelection and his strained relations with President Obama will present a challenge for U.S.-Israeli relations. Both points of view miss the essential problem. The issue is not Netanyahu or his relationship with Obama. Their conflict simply expresses a rarely spoken but nonetheless undeniable truth: U.S and Israeli interests have been diverging for many years. The differences are now so great that even decorum will be difficult to maintain.

In fact, U.S.-Israeli relations have never been as close as the mythology would have us believe. In the past, however, we have been willing to at least pretend at the highest levels and so much has been swept under the rug. So when 34 U.S. sailors were killed by Israel during its attack on the USS Liberty in 1967, the Johnson administration labelled it an “accident.” But even at the time Admiral Thomas Moorer, chief of Naval Operations, and subsequently head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the lack of response to the attack was one of “the classic American cover-ups.” In the late 1980s, an Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard, was arrested for, according to several former secretaries of defense and former CIA Director George Tenet, causing severe and enduring losses to U.S. intelligence. Nevertheless, at the highest levels, no one questioned the fundamental nature of the relationship. (1)

Israel’s actions have often endangered American interests. While the world remains riveted on whether the United States and the rest of the P5+1 can slow Iran’s nuclear program, we often forget that it was Israel who first introduced nuclear weapons into the Middle East. This began with the “presumed” theft of weapons grade nuclear material from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) facility in Apollo, Pennsylvania. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Israel, with assistance from France, avoided IAEA inspections of its fledgling weapons program at Dimona while lying to several successive U.S. presidents about the real nature of its activities.

This record of deceit, and the 100 to 200 nuclear weapons that Israel still conceals, are rarely mentioned in the United States but they assumedly weigh heavily on Iranian thinking. It does not require any sympathy for the repressive regime in Tehran to accept that, just as Prime Minister Netanyahu sees an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat, Iran might logically believe that Israel’s possession of a nuclear arsenal that could wipe out every major city in the Middle East represents a threat to Iran.

Finally to those who see the broad nature of the U.S. relationship with Israel as “unassailable,” I wonder if they have considered the damage such acquiescence to an ally might do. Events of the last few years have clearly demonstrated that on issues such as the creation of a Palestinian state and a nuclear deal with Iran, Israeli and American interests have diverged. Since President Obama assumed office, Prime Minister Netanyahu has twice come to Washington and in the halls of “the people’s house” publicly insulted and embarrassed the American president. U.S. power and prestige are not enhanced when we allow the leader of an allied nation to assail the very cornerstone of a president’s foreign policy particularly while he is engaged in complex thorny negotiations such as the Iran talks. Even this egregious behavior has now been trumped by the prime minister’s disavowal of a two-state solution, a long-standing hallmark of U.S. negotiating policy. Maintaining leadership and credibility requires more than just showing strength to enemies. They also mean ensuring that your putative friends pay due deference to your role.

The Israeli government’s recent behavior demands a strong American response. The United States should make clear that no new settlements on Arab lands will be tolerated and that if they occur the United States will reduce, by gradually increasing percentages, U.S. financial assistance to Israel. The President should also state categorically that not only does the two-state solution remain the cornerstone of United States policy, but also that even though Netanyahu has walked back since his election from his outright rejection of a two state solution he has lost all credibility for truthfulness with the president and that the United States will join the EU’s in promoting recognition of the Palestinian state at the United Nations and in membership in all requisite international organizations. In the U.S. context, these are radical and controversial recommendations. But only by such bold actions will we begin to put the Israeli government on notice that interference in the conduct and substance of U.S. foreign policy is not acceptable conduct for a U.S. ally.

(1) Seymour Hersh, “Why Pollard Should Never Be Released,” The New Yorker, January 18, 1989, pp. 26-33; Richard A. Best, Jr. and Mark Clyde, “Jonathan Pollard: Background and Consideration for Presidential Clemency,” Congressional Research Service Report, January 31, 2001.