President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week with an eye on two fronts: the chaotic Middle East and the domestic political campaign, where Democrats are eager to make sure that support for Israel does not become a partisan issue in 2016.
Both categories of concern point toward a more pragmatic and realistic approach to U.S.-Israel relations for Obama that could reassure a key ally in an unstable region and soothe uneasy Democrats who backed the Iran nuclear deal. The new calibration would deprive Republicans who opposed the deal of political fodder they can use against Democrats.
“Most Democratic members of Congress are and will be relieved if tension between the president and prime minister is relaxed,” said Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman from Florida who is now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. “There is no Democratic member of Congress who benefits from tension in the American-Israeli relationship.”
Having won a victory with the deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program — which Obama regards as a high point of his diplomatic record — the president can now shift the conversation away from Netanyahu’s opposition to the deal and focus on enforcement of the accord. The two leaders vowed to hold Iran’s feet to the fire, and Netanyahu refrained from denigrating the accord.
But with the region in disarray, Obama could also genuinely say he was receptive to Israel’s request for more military aid. A detailed assessment of Israel’s needs will be made — and completed in the midst of the campaign season.
And while Obama said he and Netanyahu explored what concrete steps Israel might be willing to take to ease tensions with the Palestinians, the president did so with limited expectations, thus bringing hope in line with reality.
“If you go to [diplomatic] war with the Israelis for no good reason when you know you can’t achieve a breakthrough on a two-state solution, you risk giving Republicans enormous leverage in the election and put your former secretary of state in an awkward position of walking away from you,” said Aaron Miller, vice president at the Wilson Center.
That former secretary of state — presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton — perhaps has more riding on the condition of the U.S.-Israel relationship than any other Democrat or Republican. Clinton’s husband remains a popular figure in Israel, and she has, in general, taken a tough stance in defense of Israel’s security.
Still, congressional Democrats are concerned.
A Pew Research Center poll in March found that more Americans sympathize with Israel than with the Palestinians in their dispute; 65 percent sympathized with Israel and 46 percent with the Palestinians. Support for Israel was overwhelming among white evangelicals, 87 percent of whom said they sympathized with Israel.
Asked about their view of Netanyahu, Republicans said “favorable” by a margin of 47 percent to 16 percent; Democrats said “unfavorable” by 39 percent to 19 percent. Independents were almost evenly split, with 31 percent favorable and 28 unfavorable.
Senior administration officials said that U.S. politics were not the reason for tempered expectations during the Obama-Netanyahu meeting this week. One administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships, said, “I don’t think it’s politics driving this. It’s an assessment of where things are headed.”
The official said, “Of course, there is another actor in all this: the Palestinians. Ultimately, this is not a conversation between us and the Israelis.”
But he added of Israel that “if they don’t do something, the trends are not good ones. We don’t want to see those occurring.”
When it comes to fending off U.S. pressure to take steps in the West Bank to show continued support for a two-state solution, “clearly time is an ally for Bibi and an adversary for Obama,” said Miller, who was involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations when he was a State Department official. “That has given rise to a certain sense of resignation in the administration.” But he added that Secretary of State John F. Kerry was eager to make progress, hopeful that Israel will be open to ideas for progress.
If the Israeli government considers “anything more than what Palestinians regard as gilding the cage, then Kerry will try to build on that to do whatever he can,” Miller said.
Netanyahu met Kerry on Wednesday, and the State Department later issued a statement saying the two “had a constructive meeting” and “discussed concrete ideas for stopping the violence, improving conditions on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza, and moving the diplomatic process forward.”
What those ideas were remained unclear.
Even though Netanyahu billed his visit to Washington as a chance to mend fences, many analysts believe he failed to address fundamental issues straining the relationship.
At the Center for American Progress, David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Politics, asked the Israeli leader what his “Plan B” was to preserve Israel as a majority Jewish, democratic state if Palestinian and Israeli leaders cannot agree on restarting peace talks. Netanyahu sidestepped the question; instead, he said that “unilateralism works less well than a negotiated solution.” He said that leaving Gaza had only turned it into a “poison dagger” aimed at Israel, and he said Israel must be prepared for a long period of tension.
“I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu achieved one objective, which was to stop the bleeding in the relationship” with the United States, Wexler said. But he added that “the underlying tension and the primary question remain: Will Israel pursue policies that ensure that it remains a majority Jewish and democratic Zionist nation? That question, unfortunately, still remains unanswered. And so long as that question remains outstanding, there will be tension in the American-Israeli relationship no matter who the president is.”