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Is Obama’s Special Relationship With Bibi Broken?

How to tell whether or not the tension surrounding the Israeli prime minister’s upcoming visit is just fodder for headlines or a sign of something worse.

President Obama's Official Visit To Israel And The West Bank Day One
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an official welcoming ceremony on his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport on March, 20, 2013 near Tel Aviv, Israel. This will be Obama's first visit as president to the region, and his itinerary will include meetings with the Palestinian and Israeli leaders as well as a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. (Photo by Marc Israel Sellem-Pool/Getty Images)

Next week Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu plans to address a joint meeting of Congress. InvitationGate has already triggered a fierce debate and generated some pretty tough words between the prime minister and the Obama administration. National Security Advisor Susan Rice told Charlie Rose on Feb. 23 that the partisanship engendered by Netanyahu’s upcoming visit was “destructive of the fabric of the [U.S.-Israeli] relationship.” On Wednesday, Netanyahu accused the Obama administration and its allies of “giving up” on stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Kerry got into the act too by mocking Netanyahu’s support for the Iraq War and saying he was also wrong on the U.S.-Iran interim agreement.

So what’s really going on here? Is InvitationGate just another episode in the ongoing soap opera that has passed for the pseudo-relationship between Obama and Netanyahu or could it reflect a more permanent dysfunction in relations between the two countries? In short, is this brouhaha a headline or a trend line?

The answer to that question may not be available anytime soon, at least not until the alternative can be tested: Will a new U.S. president — perhaps a third Bush or a second Clinton, let’s say — and another Israeli prime minister get on any better? But right now, that’s still very much a thought experiment. Indeed, depending on the results of the March 17 elections, this very odd couple may have to endure their disgruntled relationship for another 18 months.

But with just a few days to go before Bibi’s big visit, how can we put InvitationGate into perspective and assess its real impact? Here are a few thoughts to get you ready for the main event next week and to help you navigate what may follow.

First, the Obama-Bibi disconnect is hardly the first manifestation of serious tension in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Other U.S. presidents have tangled with tough Israeli prime ministers.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened sanctions (and he was serious) over Suez if Israel didn’t withdraw its forces; during the Ford administration, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger threatened reassessment over Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s failure to sign a second Sinai disengagement; President Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin went at it over settlements; President Ronald Reagan delayed F-16 deliveries over Begin’s extension of administrative law to the Golan Heights; and George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker delayed — with the aim of denying — housing loan guarantees because of Yitzhak Shamir’s settlement policies. In 1990, Bush, believing that Shamir had lied to him about settlements during their first meeting, would square off in a nasty battle over housing loan guarantees to Israel, one that included a bruising tousle with AIPAC and Baker telling Congress in open testimony that Israel should call when it was serious about peace (he even provided the White House phone number).

And it’s important to keep these moments of pushback by U.S. presidents fresh in our minds, especially in face of the urban legend that the White House is Israeli-occupied territory and rolls over every time Israel or its supporters say “boo.” Still, what’s happening now between Obama and Bibi stands out as perhaps one of the worst, if not the worst, dust-up since the two countries created what became known as the “special relationship” beginning in the period after the 1973 war.

Second, however deep those tensions ran in those past relationships, previous administrations and Israeli governments actually produced stuff like peace treaties, peace conferences, and disengagement agreements. In this case, for the past five years, we’ve seen tension without much production. And the perfect storm that brought on this latest contretemps — clashing interests over an Iran deal and a Republican-controlled Congress unhappy with the president’s foreign policy all set against the backdrop of impending Israeli elections — isn’t going away. Deal or no deal with Iran, the divide between Netanyahu and Obama isn’t going to get any smaller. There are probably no resets here. One or both will need to leave the scene if trust and confidence is to be restored.

Third, at the same time, it’s critical to realize that InvitationGate or any other problem between Washington and Jerusalem goes well beyond personalities.

There is one elemental fact in the U.S.-Israeli story that must be factored in — always. Where a nation stands on a given issue is often determined by where it sits. No matter how close the United States and Israel may be as friends and allies, there are practical limits to how much the United States and Israel can agree on.

This has little to do with personalities and everything to do with geography and history. Israel is a small country in a dangerous Middle East that’s only getting worse. America has its own interests and a global role to play and can’t be expected to agree or support Israel on every issue. U.S. and Israeli interests simply can’t align across the board. And expecting them to do so puts unrealistic strains on the friendship. And that’s doubly true when the issues on the table are loaded with potentially existential security challenges also pregnant with political consequences. Strict alignment of interests on one such issue would be hard; on two, particularly Iran and the Palestinians, it’s hard to imagine, regardless of who is prime minister and who is president. In a way, Obama and Netanyahu are saddled with mission impossible and face the kind of complex challenges — perhaps even problems without comprehensive solutions — that neither of their immediate predecessors faced.

Fourth, the blowup over Netanyahu’s speech to Congress has created an image of an Israel that is going its own way. The Netanyahu-Obama relationship has been tense for so long that it’s now even on the radar screen of the public — and one that’s willing to weigh in. A recent CNN poll found 63 percent of Americans opposed to House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu. Another poll, commissioned by the pro-Israeli Israel Project, found more public support for Netanyahu presenting his views but were opposed to both the way Boehner and the Obama administration had handled the invitation. As the Gallup sympathy polls conducted since 2001 reveal, support for Israel runs deep, largely because of the perception that the United States and Israel share common values in a turbulent Middle East. Still, the argument that the occupation of the West Bank, Israeli settlement policies, and the changing demographic character of the Israeli electorate are eroding the democratic and even Jewish character of the state can over time erode that sense of value affinity, particularly among a younger generation of Americans. That Israel and the United States appear to be at odds with one another at the official level can only reinforce the perception among the public that something is amiss. Indeed, when the image of Israel as an ally of the United States changes in the mind of America, so too will the U.S.-Israeli relationship change — for the worse.

Fifth, the above leads to perhaps the most damaging feature of InvitationGate: the way a traditionally bipartisan issue — deemed to be a long-standing national interest — has been compromised by the partisan tactics of both the prime minister and the Republican leadership and perhaps some Democrats too.

This business played out in a way that it was seen to be far more than only being about Israeli fears of a bad U.S. deal with Iran. The prime minister might have approached both Republicans and Democrats in a more direct manner and asked for an opportunity to speak to Congress, or even to a bipartisan group of senior lawmakers. The White House would have still been opposed. But Netanyahu would have demonstrated that he was prepared to go to great lengths to defend Israeli interests and still preserve bipartisanship. But InvitationGate wasn’t just about Iran. It was also about how Netanyahu could frame a campaign commercial weeks before the Israeli elections and how the Republicans could steal a march on the president, put a unique stamp on the party’s foreign policy, and slam an Iran deal that the Republicans fear, too. And those factors made a legitimate concern also a highly politicized one.

Finally, while it’s by no means a perfect alignment, there’s a growing tendency for Republicans to identify with Likud and harder-line Israelis while parts of the Democratic Party align with Labor and the left. The CNN poll cited above also found 52 percent of Republicans supporting the Boehner invitation to Netanyahu and only 14 percent of Democrats. The partisan divide is certainly the case when it comes to the Palestinian issue, settlements, and the occupation of the West Bank. And the longer this issue remains unresolved, the more fractious both the Israeli and American political scene is likely to become and the greater the danger to the bipartisan support we’ve witnessed in years past.

So what does all of this really mean for the future of the U.S.-Israeli relationship? Public sympathy for Israel remains strong and the pro-Israeli community, together with a largely pro-Israeli Congress, will make supporting Israel a key factor in U.S. election politics. The behavior of any number of actors in the region — from Iran to the Islamic State to Hamas to Assad to Hezbollah and the other, many cruel realities of the neighborhood — will solidify the special relationship.

I’ve said many times now that, unlike Lehman Brothers, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is too big to fail. I’d bet that under either a third Bush or a second Clinton, things might not be great between the United States and Netanyahu, but they would be better than they are right now. And a violent and dysfunctional Arab world remains the most compelling set of talking points for an enduring U.S.-Israeli relationship. But that doesn’t mean these ties are immune from stress or that we’re in for a smooth ride ahead.

So buckle your seat belts. Beginning next week that ride could get a whole lot bumpier.

Marc Israel Sellem-Pool/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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