Bibi Blows Up the Special Relationship

Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington has exposed the dysfunction at the core of the U.S.-Israel alliance. That isn’t such a bad thing.

Bibi Crop

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be the only person who was looking forward to his visit to the United States this week. House Speaker John Boehner, who cooked up the invitation for Netanyahu to address Congress with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, has now been exposed as a narrow-minded partisan who put his party’s fortunes ahead of broader diplomatic interests. The White House is supremely ticked off, with National Security Advisor Susan Rice terming the visit “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship and Secretary of State John Kerry pointedly reminding people of how bad Netanyahu’s past advice has been. A chorus of reliably “pro-Israel” pundits — including some prominent members of Israel’s national security establishment — appear to share Rice’s view (if not her choice of words) and have denounced Netanyahu’s refusal to reschedule in no uncertain terms.

Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the “leviathan among lobbies,” seems to be unhappy about the whole business. Sure, it’s giving Netanyahu a prominent platform at its policy conference this week and is reportedly twisting arms on Capitol Hill to keep more Democrats from boycotting Netanyahu’s speech, but AIPAC appears to have been blindsided by the invitation itself, and partisan wrangling over Israel goes against its entire political playbook.

But in point of fact, AIPAC and other key organizations in the lobby have only themselves to blame. The contretemps taking place now is at least partly the result of the policies they have supported and the tactics they have employed over many years. It’s not the end of U.S. support for Israel, but it may well mark an important and ultimately positive shift in what has become a dysfunctional — even bizarre — relationship.

To be sure, a small part of the problem lies with Netanyahu himself. He seems to get on well with Vladimir Putin, but his bombastic and self-righteous moralism grates on most of the foreign leaders who have had to deal with him. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy called him a liar, and then-President Bill Clinton once responded to Bibi’s antics by exploding, “Who’s the fucking superpower here?” Netanyahu’s lack of chemistry with President Barack Obama is well known, of course, yet Netanyahu has done little to try to win the U.S. president over. Instead, he or his cabinet ministers have repeatedly treated Obama and other U.S. officials — including Vice President Joe Biden and Kerry — with a degree of disdain bordering on contempt.

But as Matt Duss notes in an important piece in Tablet, the real divide is about policy, not personality. The flap over Netanyahu’s speech is exposing what has long been obvious but is usually denied by politicians: U.S. and Israeli interests overlap on some issues but they are not identical. It might be in Israel’s interest for the United States to insist on zero Iranian enrichment and for the United States to go to war to secure that goal, but such an attack is definitely not in America’s interest. Instead, America’s strategic position would be enhanced if it could get a diplomatic deal that kept Iran from going nuclear and opened the door to a more constructive relationship.

Similarly, though Netanyahu and his government remain staunchly opposed to a genuine two-state solution with the Palestinians, that outcome would be very good for the United States. It is definitely not in America’s interest for its closest ally in the Middle East to deny millions of Palestinian Arabs either full equality in Israel proper or any semblance of political rights in the West Bank, and it hurts U.S. interests every time Israel launches another punishing attack on the captive population in Gaza, inevitably causing hundreds of civilian deaths. Such actions — conducted with U.S. weaponry and subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer — do enormous damage to America’s image in the Middle East and have long been a staple ingredient in the jihadi narrative.

Similarly, it might be in Israel’s interest to have its own nuclear deterrent, but having to turn a blind eye to Tel Aviv’s undeclared arsenal makes Washington look hypocritical and undermines its broader effort to limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The point is that no two states have the same interests, and that is as true of the United States and Israel as it is of America’s relations with many other democracies.

The controversy over Netanyahu’s visit has also exposed a core of resentment that the power of the lobby has long suppressed. For decades U.S. politicians and foreign-policy wonks have had to pretend as if the two states were bonded at the hip, and anyone with political ambitions usually has had to utter a lot of pro-Israel platitudes along the way. At a minimum, it has been important to never, ever, say a critical word. This situation has kept plenty of able people from public service and occasionally produces humiliating “confirmation conversions” (e.g., Samantha Power, Chuck Hagel) in which an aspiring presidential appointee suddenly repudiates his or her former views in order to win Senate approval. The end result: It has been very difficult to have a truly open and candid discussion of these complex issues, and especially not inside the Beltway.

But here’s the rub: Most people don’t like being bullied in this fashion. And all of sudden, the Boehner-Bibi ploy has provided them an opportunity to express those resentments, even if only in a veiled and subtle way.

Start with the administration itself. Obama made it clear from day one that he is strongly supportive of Israel and that he believes a two-state solution is essential for Israel’s long-term well-being. His administration has given Israel unprecedented levels of military, diplomatic, and intelligence support. He and his aides (and especially Kerry) have devoted endless hours trying to advance the cause of peace. And what do they get for their pains? The prime minister of a small country that is heavily dependent on U.S. protection announces he has accepted an invitation from a leading politician in the rival party to deliver a speech on Capitol Hill denouncing the administration’s exhaustive, patient effort to stop Iran from getting a bomb. With “gratitude” like that, it’s no surprise that the White House is angry and is willing to take the gloves off a bit in public.

But the problem goes deeper. For years now, nearly every politician and ambitious foreign-policy wonk in the United States has had to toe the AIPAC line, because your career would suffer if you didn’t. As one senator told the Washington Post way back in 1991, “Eighty percent of the senators here roll their eyes on some of the votes. They know that what they’re doing isn’t what they really believe is right, but why fight on a situation where they’re liable to get beat up on?”

Nothing has really changed since then, and anyone who questions the special relationship or the role the lobby plays in preserving it is still likely to be accused of anti-Semitism (if a gentile) or self-hatred (if Jewish). The special relationship has rested to some degree on intimidation, and as noted most people don’t like being bullied. The question, therefore, is whether this flap will turn out to be an isolated incident or whether more people will begin to say what they really think.

Which brings us to AIPAC and other like-minded groups. AIPAC didn’t cook up the idea of bringing Netanyahu back to talk to Congress (again!), and I’ve no doubt that its leaders are upset by the affair. But AIPAC et al. still bear some responsibility for the debacle, for three main reasons.

First, by making unconditional support for Israel a prerequisite for political success in Washington, they have helped create some of the resentment that is now beginning to move out into the open. To be clear, that resentment isn’t anti-Semitism, or even anti-Israeli (save in the case of the usual fringe crackpots) — it is rather the anger of plenty of sensible people, including some staunch supporters of Israel, who nonetheless dislike having to kowtow to a powerful interest group, especially one that is defending an Israeli state that seems to be diverging from many of the values it once shared with the United States.

Second and equally importantly, by constantly pressing the U.S. government to back Israel no matter what it does, the lobby has convinced some Israeli politicians — and Netanyahu in particular — that they can act with a degree of impunity that no other world leaders enjoy. Don’t forget that every U.S. president since Lyndon B. Johnson has opposed Israel’s efforts to colonize the West Bank, and the last three presidents have openly called for a genuine two-state solution. Yet settlements have expanded steadily for more than 40 years, and Washington has done virtually nothing of substance to stop it. By insulating Israel from the consequences of this foolish policy, AIPAC et al. have unwittingly done it great harm and empowered the more extreme elements within Israeli society.

And finally, if Netanyahu doesn’t like the deal the P5+1 has been negotiating, that is partly because AIPAC and Israel have worked overtime to prevent any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, to insist that Iran give up its entire enrichment capacity, and to keep “all options on the table.” That was true before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president, and it has been true since he was replaced by the more moderate President Hassan Rouhani. For more than a decade, both Israel and the lobby have been seeking goals that were unattainable (zero Iranian enrichment) and advocating tactics that were undesirable (punishing sanctions, no negotiations, and perhaps another war). The result of this shortsighted policy? Iran had zero centrifuges in operation back in 2000, and it has more than 11,000 spinning now. The United States could almost certainly have gotten a much better deal back in 2005, when Iran’s chief negotiator offered to freeze the number of centrifuges at only 3,000. Washington refused even to discuss the possibility back then and will be lucky to get that number down to 6,000 in any future agreement.

Is there a silver lining here? Perhaps. The gap between U.S. and Israeli interests appears to be growing, and over time this process could transform the current “special relationship” into something without so many peculiar features and sensitivities. Instead of a relationship of unconditional U.S. support, coupled with endless interference in each other’s domestic politics, the states might evolve toward a normal relationship. They would back each other when their interests coincided, and the United States would still come to Israel’s aid were its survival in jeopardy. But Washington and Tel Aviv would openly acknowledge areas where their interests and values differed, and the U.S. government would be free to challenge any Israeli actions it felt were harmful or unwise.

One can also imagine a gradual evolution in the “Israel lobby” itself, away from one that tends to back the hard-line agenda in Israel and plays hardball in the United States and toward one that more accurately reflects the diverse sentiments within the broad “pro-Israel” community. A powerful “pro-Israel” lobby would be desirable, in fact, if it were pressing Congress and the executive branch to pursue a different agenda than the one that AIPAC and its allies have long promoted.

The current lobby’s influence is not really the problem; it’s the policies that this influence promotes. Ironically, by stubbornly sticking to his own self-serving agenda, Benjamin Netanyahu may have begun a process that might eventually leave both countries better off.

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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