A U.S.-Israel strategic relationship that has been a bulwark of Israel’s security for decades may be on the skids — not because of any material change in cooperation between the two military powers but because of the perception that President Barack Obama no longer regards Israel as a critical strategic partner.
That perception may have more to do with the president’s cool, detached approach to most issues than with a determination that Israel is no longer critical to U.S. security goals. But observers say anything that adds to Israeli angst about the critical relationship could have far-reaching — and unintended — consequences.
Barry Rubin, director of Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a persistent and strong Obama critic, conceded that “on the material level” the relationship hasn’t changed. But Rubin said that it has “on the level of trust … since President Obama is obviously so personally cool, since the administration is so clueless about the Middle East. I don’t think Israel has much faith in this government and will not take risks based on its say-so.”
Administration critics say negotiations over a U.S. incentives package meant to win a 90-day, non-renewable extension of Israel’s West Bank settlement-building moratorium have added to the problem, putting elements of the special U.S.-Israel relationship previously regarded as givens on the negotiating table.
“What is most worrisome is that things like arms supplies and voting against unfair anti-Israel resolutions at the UN are being portrayed as favors for which Israel must give things,” Rubin said.
Other observers agree that the atmospherics of the relationship have changed but argue America’s commitment to Israel is as strong as ever — maybe stronger.
“President [George W.] Bush may have a connection to Israel in his kishkes, but he ratcheted down the strategic relationship during his term,” said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist who asked not to be named. “You have to differentiate between the emotional connection and what’s actually happening on the ground.”
If anybody put longstanding strategic “givens” in jeopardy it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who reportedly kept demanding more concessions as part of the incentives package, this veteran activist said.
Hints of a subtle shift come as another “given” in the U.S.-Israel relationship — Israel’s privileged position in the U.S. foreign aid program — could be about to face its biggest challenge in years, not from anti-Israel lawmakers but from a Tea Party movement that will flex its muscles in the next Congress.
Recently Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-Ky.), whose big victory in November could make him the most influential Tea Party member in the next Congress, told AIPAC leaders he disagreed with the pro-Israel lobby group on the importance of foreign aid — signaling, possibly, a more serious push for across-the-board aid cuts.
While foreign aid in general remains unpopular among congressional Republicans, top GOP leaders have signaled no interest in cutting Israel’s aid. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the incoming majority leader, last month floated a proposal to separate Israel’s money from the overall aid package, a move that generated quiet opposition from pro-Israel groups. But Cantor indicated a determination by the GOP leadership not to let Israel’s aid get caught up in what promises to be a budget-cutting frenzy.
Still, the influence of the Tea Party insurgents could combine with broader pressure for major budget cuts to erode support for some of the $3 billion in military assistance Israel says it still needs to retain its qualitative military edge.
Some claims that Obama is jeopardizing the U.S. commitment to Israel are clearly inspired by partisan factors. Administration supporters point to evidence that on the ground, at least, the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and cooperation between the two countries is stronger than ever.
“Over the last year alone, we’ve seen the extra $250 million in U.S. aid for Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ system, another huge amount of U.S. supplies pre-positioned in Israel that it can use in an emergency, a semi-annual security review that apparently went well,” said Robert O. Freedman, a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University and a longtime Middle East analyst. “Everything I’ve seen suggests the security relationship remains very strong.”
A fat incentives package dangled before Israel as a way to win renewal of the West Bank settlement-building moratorium may, in fact, offer proof that Israeli security remains an administration priority, he said.
“With the additional F-35s that are in the package, if Netanyahu doesn’t accept it, if he chooses settlements over security, it will be a huge mistake.” he said,
But Judith Kipper, a strong peace process supporter and director of Middle East programs at the Institute of World Affairs, said negotiations over the incentives package have made some longstanding assumptions in the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship subject to political and diplomatic wrangling.
“It’s codifying things that in the past have been true, unshakable and permanent in the relationship,” she said. “When you start codifying the rules, it means you don’t trust each other any more.”
She called the American offer and the subsequent dickering over terms “humiliating to the U.S.” and said it is the product of “an administration with absolutely no strategic vision.”
Shoshana Bryen, director of security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), said that the incentives package “is a problem. If something is a good idea, it should be seen as good on its face; we shouldn’t be saying ‘if you do something risky, I’ll give you this unrelated benefit.’”
She cited reports of a U.S. pledge that it will oppose a unilateral Palestinian statehood declaration at the United Nations if Israel agrees to extend the freeze.
“Either you don’t want the Palestinians to do it and you act on that, or not. Why does Israel now have to do something in return? This is a horrible precedent.”
Washington continues to vote against biased, anti-Israel resolutions at the UN, she said, but it is no longer “arguing for what we want, we’re just casting votes. There’s a huge difference.”
Bickering over the incentives package, she said, is “worsening a problem” that was already underway as the Obama administration tries to improve relations with Arab and Muslim states by “having less to do with Israel,” Bryen said. “What we see is a conscious effort to diminish that strategic closeness. [Former President George W.] Bush saw Israel as a genuine partner; the Obama administration doesn’t. When he talks about ‘partners,’ he doesn’t talk about Israel.”
That attitude has not filtered down to working levels at the Pentagon, she conceded. “But ultimately, you have to remember that soldiers take their marching orders from the president.”
Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department official who served as a Middle East adviser to six secretaries of state, disagreed that a fundamental shift is under way — but agreed that the Obama administration has fueled that perception, largely through the president’s personal style.
“Will this administration abandon its support for Israel’s qualitative military edge? Clearly no,” he said. “This administration adheres to the elements of that relationship perhaps even more than some of its predecessors.”
Where this administration has been different, he said, is in the murky realm of emotional attachments.
“The last two presidents — Bush and Clinton — had a genuine emotional connection to Israel and what it represents, even while some Israel behavior made them uncomfortable,” he said. “This president doesn’t hate Israel, but he lacks the sentimental and ideological connection that other presidents have had.”
Early in his presidency, Obama “went out of his way to reflect his sensitivity to Arab needs, and simply assumed the U.S.-Israel relationship didn’t need cultivating,” Miller said. “We know this relationship requires constant attention — but I don’t think Obama is put together that way. The Israelis need to be loved; unless an American president can fulfill the emotional as well as security needs, he will find himself down and out in relating to Israel.”
What the administration fails to understand is this, Miller said: “How do you ask both Israel and the Palestinians to make decisions that are incredibly complicated and risky without making these emotional connections? That’s what’s lacking here.”