Are America and Israel drifting apart?

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Post asked former officials and policy experts whether there is a divide between the Obama administration and the Jewish state. Below are responses from Elliott Abrams, David Makovsky, Aaron David Miller, Danielle Pletka, and Hussein Agha and Robert Malley.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS

Senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

The current friction in U.S.-Israel relations has one source: the mishandling of those relations by the Obama administration. Poll data show that Israel is as popular as ever among Americans. Strategically we face the same enemies -- such as terrorism and the Iranian regime -- a fact that is not lost on Americans who know we have one single reliable, democratic ally in the Middle East.

The two problems that bedevil relations with Israel are Iran policy and Israeli settlements. On Iran, we say nuclear weapons would be "unacceptable" but want to rely solely on sanctions to stop them -- and administration officials go out of their way to say any use of force would be catastrophic. Not surprisingly Israelis wonder if we're serious -- and if, as is likely, sanctions prove too weak to succeed, so will many Americans.

On settlements, the Obama administration demanded a 100 percent construction freeze, including in Jerusalem, something never required before even by the Palestinians as a precondition for negotiations. This stance cornered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who could demand no less, and led the U.S. administration last week to "condemn" the announcement of plans for Israeli construction that is years away. The verb "condemn" is customarily reserved by U.S. officials for acts of murder and terrorism -- not acts of housing.

As this example shows, the Obama administration continues to drift away from traditional U.S. support for Israel. But time and elections will correct that problem; Israel has a higher approval rating these days than does President Obama.

DAVID MAKOVSKY

Distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; co-author of "Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East"

Widespread editorial comment in Israel has unequivocally blasted the Israeli government for embarrassing Vice President Biden during his pitch-perfect fence-mending visit, using language far sharper than U.S. condemnation. Coupled with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's apology to Biden for the moves made by lower-ranking officials, this does not suggest a nadir of ties in which the two sides are being deliberately confrontational.

While unintended and too soon to know for sure, the episode may have sparked a fresh public debate in Israel about the need to develop a more calibrated approach regarding new housing in East Jerusalem.

The incident may require more fence-mending of a different sort, but it does not mark a historic low in ties. Take the critical area of Iran. One needs a scorecard to tally the number of distinct visits back and forth at the top of the national security and foreign-policy apparatus of both countries -- just in the past two months. Among those going to Israel -- apart from Biden -- were national security adviser Jim Jones; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen; CIA Director Leon Panetta; and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry. Among the Israelis coming to the United States were Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and national security adviser Uzi Arad. This does not even count lower-level working visits on this issue.


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