Are America and Israel drifting apart?

Topic A
Sunday, March 14, 2010; A15

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.


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.


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.

Historic perspective is required. In 1956-57 and in 1975, the relationship was in deep crisis. We are not there today.


Public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; former Arab-Israeli peace negotiator for the State Department

In his trip to Israel, Vice President Biden was served up a Jim Baker special, having to deal with a new Israeli settlement after landing in the Middle East.

But the Obama administration can't seem to come up with a Jim Baker response -- a mixture of toughness and reassurance with the Israelis that would drive a coherent strategy. Caught up in tactics, the Obama team can't decide whether it wants to pander to the Israelis or punish them.

Israel is still a small country that feels it's living on the knife's edge. Any American who doesn't get this doesn't get very far.

Yet neither do those who aren't tough when necessary. Just ask Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter or Baker, the only three Americans to ever produce anything in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Each made clear that there was a cost to saying no to the superpower, and in the process they advanced American, Israeli and Arab interests.

Last year, President Obama wasn't reassuring or tough. He called for an unrealistic comprehensive freeze on settlements, including natural growth, and then backed down when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said no, as any Israeli leader would have.

Fighting with the Israelis needs to be worthwhile and part of a strategy to reach an Arab-Israeli agreement. Going after settlements piecemeal will fail.

Instead, if Obama is serious, he'll focus on borders first, and if he succeeds, he'll take a crack at Jerusalem and refugees. A conflict-ending agreement probably isn't possible. But after a decade of more process than peace, it's time to find out.


Vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute

Israel and the United States have been drifting apart for some time, though that pace has accelerated during the Obama administration. The currents that have set Washington and Jerusalem on different courses are complex and cannot be boiled down to one failed mission (that of Vice President Biden) nor an indifferent president (Barack Obama). There is a generational shift underway, driving apart post-Zionist Israel and 21st-century America.

That tectonic drift is, however, exacerbated by movement on the surface -- mostly in the United States -- that is more worrisome. Certainly, Obama is not the first president to believe that the peace process is of paramount importance, a secret to the grand bargain in the Middle East that has eluded us for so long. Nor is he the first to express his pique with the Jerusalem government over settlements in stark terms. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both believed a Palestinian homeland would deliver peace in our time. It might have been hoped that after Sept. 11, 2001, and the revelation that Israel is of little interest to Islamist extremists, the U.S. foreign policy establishment would understand that the bankruptcy of leadership in the Arab world is a more pressing problem for America than the transgressions of a few million Jews, but it has always been easier to blame Israel than to sell reform to tyrants.

Ultimately, the more serious problem for the United States is not a distancing between us and Israel but a failure to grasp that the shared threats to both nations -- the Islamist totalitarianism that has flourished in the oxygen-free environment of the Arab world and the rise of the Revolutionary Guard class in Iran -- will not be mitigated with the resolution of the Palestinians' fate. That President Obama misses this key point is troubling indeed.


Respectively, senior associate member, St. Antony's College, Oxford University; Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group

The current crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations has serious implications, though, in the long term, the least serious is likely to be on the relationship itself. Washington and Jerusalem do not see eye to eye on the peace process -- how quickly it ought to move, in what direction, its connection to other Middle Eastern issues -- and the announcement of new planning for East Jerusalem construction both exposed and exacerbated the differences. For that, there will be a price to pay. But -- price paid -- the ties between the two countries have been too strong for too long for there to be lasting strategic repercussions.

The episode's more meaningful consequence lies elsewhere. Unhappy timing aside, the most telling aspect of the announcement was that it represented the Israeli government's stance on East Jerusalem in all its clarity -- unvarnished and without deceit. In this, it was less act of betrayal than moment of truth, more a message to meditate than a mistake to correct. If the United States intends to bring about an agreement between the two sides, far better that it be aware of their actual positions rather than proceed on the basis of imaginary ones. It might not be pleasant. But at least it would be real.

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