News Analysis

For Israeli leaders, snubbing the U.S. may not be a political win

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; 7:00 PM

So who wins politically when the United States and Israel feud?

The jury is out. But a look a history suggests that the politics of snubbing the United States is not as politically beneficial to Israeli leaders as some of the pundits here have suggested.

Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, reportedly told his consuls general this week that U.S.-Israeli relations were at their lowest point since 1975.

That year Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pressed the center-left government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to abandon a pair of militarily important passes in the Sinai Peninsula.

Israel captured the Egyptian territory in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and Kissinger wanted an Israeli good-faith gesture to promote a peace process between the countries. Rabin held firm for months, eventually agreeing under U.S. pressure to a withdrawal from the passes and a presence in the heights above them.

Rabin had served as Israel's ambassador to Washington, and had a good sense of how the place works. He lost his job the following year in a dispute with the religious parties in his coalition having to do with observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

Oren is an excellent historian, his "real job" before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu named him his top envoy to Washington.

But 1992 may be better point of reference for what happens to U.S. and Israeli leaders when they can't get along.

Then as now, an American president (George H.W. Bush) and his secretary of state (James A. Baker III) warned Israel against building in territories it captured in the 1967 war, specifically in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The pair was working to begin peace talks amid the first Palestinian intifada.

The Likud-led government of Yitzhak Shamir ignored the demand, and in response, Bush and Baker declined to guarantee $10 billion in loans that Israel needed to build housing for a wave of Soviet-state immigrants flooding into the country.

Neither side budged.

But in parliamentary elections that year, Shamir's party lost, effectively ending his political career. Many Israeli analysts attributed the defeat to his fight with the United States. Bush lost his election that year, too, but largely because of the flagging U.S. economy and not his policy toward his Israel.

Netanyahu, also a Likudnik who only reluctantly endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state and only then with many caveats, has bristled at President Obama's call for a settlement freeze.

But he has announced a 10-month building moratorium in the West Bank, although he has stated pointedly that it does not apply to Jerusalem. Both Israel and the Palestinians claim the city as their capital.

Last week, during Vice President Biden's visit, Israel's Interior Ministry announced plans to build 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem. Biden immediately condemned the plan.

An angry Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Netanyahu soon after demanding that the project be canceled. The Israeli prime minister has since apologized for the timing of the announcement -- calling it "regrettable" -- but not for the building itself.

The conventional wisdom in Washington holds that Netanyahu orchestrated the whole thing as a show of strength toward and independence from the Obama administration, which is held in low esteem by the hawkish members of his coalition. The announcement did indeed draw praise from the nationalist-religious parties that help make up his government.

But Oren's warning suggests rising Israeli anxiety over the state of relations and the Obama administration shows no sign of cooling off, despite the sense that only masochistic U.S. politicians pick fights with Israel because the powerful Jewish lobby punishes anyone who does so at the polls. Days after Clinton's call, David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, called the announcement an "insult." And on Tuesday, Clinton reiterated her call for Israel to prove its commitment to the Middle East peace process.

Why is Oren concerned? And why should Netanyahu share that concern?

First, it's worth keeping in mind that opinion polls often show that a majority of Israelis supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. That is the Obama administration's policy, which Israeli building in the territories severely undermines.

Moreover, secular Israelis view religious settlers as a drain on the national treasury and certainly not worth a fight with a superpower ally that provides the Jewish state with $3 billion a year in military aid.

Next, think back to 1992. Picking a fight with the Bush administration cost Shamir his job. Who succeeded him as prime minister?

Rabin, who immediately pledged to cease construction of what he called "political" settlements in the territories. Perhaps he, too, remembered 1975.


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