Washington — In recent months, the tensions that have characterized relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government have largely receded into the background.
The Obama administration is preparing to stand virtually alone with Israel at the United Nations in opposing the Palestinians’ statehood push. A consensus is emerging within the administration that Turkey is more to blame than Israel for the crisis in their relations. And officials in the United States and Israel are basking in the afterglow of Obama’s intervention with Egypt to facilitate the rescue of six Israelis during the storming of their Cairo embassy earlier this month.
Yet amid this flowering of good feelings, some observers are pointing to what they see as deeper undercurrents of disquiet in the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a respected Washington think tank that has been consulted in the past by officials of both countries, published a paper last week suggesting that their ties may be changing — and not for the better.
“The United States and Israel have changed and continue to change, but the two countries’ relationship has not kept pace,” said the report by Haim Malka, deputy director of the CSIS’s Middle East program. “For years the growing differences have been papered over, but continuing to do so is both unsustainable and counterproductive.”
The strains transcend any single administration, Malka says, and have resulted in deep-seated disagreements, particularly over the necessity of arriving at an agreement with the Palestinians, with Israelis skeptical of the likelihood of an accord and Americans seeing such a settlement as vital to the interests of both countries.
Dov Zakheim, a former top Pentagon official in Republican administrations who also is deeply involved in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities, also expressed concern about the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“The biggest problem Israelis have: Israelis think they know the United States — they really do, especially the ones with American accents,” he said at the Sept. 16 release event for Malka’s report in an apparent reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was educated in the U.S.
“This peace process is a major priority for the United States across the board,” Zakheim said. “It is not just realist Republicans, not just liberals, but the national security community. Israelis are having difficulty coming to terms with that.”
Indeed, discontent with the current state of the Israel-U.S. relationship has been in evidence increasingly in the last couple of years in Washington’s defense establishment — usually a redoubt of pro-Israelism:
n Anthony Cordesman, a former top U.S. intelligence official who has consulted a number of times with the Israeli government, last year penned a paper for the CSIS titled “Israel as a Strategic Liability?”
n Gen. David Petraeus, the new CIA chief and former head of the U.S. Central Command, testified before the U.S. Senate last year that the failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel.”
n Robert Gates, the recently retired defense secretary who is the architect of what both sides see as the closest Israel-U.S. security ties in recent history, reportedly suggested over the summer that Netanyahu was an ungrateful ally who gives nothing in return for American support. According to Bloomberg News columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, Gates’ assessment, delivered to Obama’s national security team, met with no objections. Gates, significantly, is that increasingly rare Washington breed — a technocrat admired by Democrats and Republicans.
David Makovsky, a top analyst at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he does not believe there is a major rift on the horizon, but he added that the Middle East’s current volatility introduces an element of uncertainty into the alliance.
“The Arab Spring is the new X factor,” he said, referring to the unrest sweeping the region. “We’re in a new period, and it’s hard when you’re in the middle of something to analyze the relationship, and we have to admit that it’s fluid.”
A top European diplomat who is charged with monitoring the U.S. Middle East posture dismissed talk of a U.S.-Israel rift as “very theoretical.” The diplomat, who asked not to be further identified, said the United States was “covering” for Israel at the United Nations, which is its “traditional role.”
Mark Quarterman, who spent 12 years as part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and now directs the CSIS’s Program on Crisis, Conflict and Cooperation, said “there has been very little change between the Bush administration, the Obama administration and generally across administrations” in voting against resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and trying to keep it off the Security Council’s agenda.
The Obama administration has said it will veto the Palestinian statehood bid if it comes to a vote in the Security Council, and the U.S. will likely stand alone with Israel and a handful of other countries should the Palestinians seek enhanced status through the General Assembly. As the General Assembly begins its session Wednesday, Obama is slated to meet with Netanyahu but not Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The U.S. also has tried to help Israel in its increasingly acrimonious diplomatic fight with Turkey. Sources in frequent contact with the Obama administration say that while officials express frustration with Netanyahu’s refusal to apologize for the deadly May 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish-flagged ship aiming to break Israel’s Gaza blockade, they are quick to acknowledge that such an apology would not have changed the Islamist Turkish government’s determination to ratchet up confrontation with Israel.
Conservative critics of the Obama administration say the president’s policies in the Israeli-Palestinian arena have fueled the Palestinians’ push at the United Nations.
“Unfortunate errors by the Obama administration have encouraged the Palestinians to take steps backward away from peace,” Republican presidential contender Rick Perry wrote in a Jerusalem Post Op-Ed. Perry, the governor of Texas, wrote that Palestinian leaders perceive a “weakening of relations between Israel and the United States, and are trying to exploit it.”
Meanwhile, the Emergency Committee for Israel, a conservative group, has launched a campaign describing Obama as unfriendly to Israel.
Many pro-Israel Democrats fume that such attacks have the potential to harm the U.S.-Israel relationship. Israel’s best asset is bipartisan support, they say, and attacking Obama and the Democrats on the issue could indeed lead to deeper divisions.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” a top congressional Democrat told JTA.
Netanyahu and his team, for their part, have been sounding positive notes about the administration lately. The prime minister lavished praise on Obama for his Cairo intervention, saying that Israel owed Obama “a special measure of gratitude.”
“We’ve enjoyed a period over the last four months of very close coordination with the administration, probably the best coordination that we’ve had over the last two-and-a-half years over the range of issues,” Netanyahu aide Ron Dermer told Politico. “I think that we’re definitely in a good place, with the U.S. administration and us seeing a lot of things eye to eye.”