The Coalition Time Out
Israel watchers have been expecting icy relations between Obama and Bibi to worsen -- but the post-election period may offer an unexpected thaw.
The formation of a narrow right-wing government in Israel has triggered a tsunami of speculation that the cold war brewing between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama is bound to get a lot colder.
Supporters of Israel, primarily in the pro-Israeli Jewish community in the United States, worry greatly that a second-term U.S. president freed from the constraints of reelection pressures, and already angry and frustrated with Netanyahu’s behavior, will take him to the woodshed and pressure Netanyahu on settlements, and, if necessary, add America’s support to the growing campaign for Palestinian statehood at the U.N. Critics eagerly anticipate and hope for the whipping. After all, given the history of tensions in the relationship, isn’t a worsening of ties inevitable? In the last 20 months of the Obama administration aren’t we going to see a collision between a willful U.S. president and a tough-talking prime minister playing games on Palestinian statehood and presiding over a coalition of Haredis and right-wing Zionists?
Not so fast. I don’t doubt the mistrust and animus on each side. Nor do I trivialize the divide that separates Obama and Netanyahu on a variety of issues. At the same time, I’m not all that sure that the expected confrontation is as inevitable as it might appear — at least for much of 2015. And here’s why.
Selling the Iran deal and the double whammy
Governing is about choosing. And right now the Obama administration’s main priority is negotiating, selling and implementing the Iran deal. The last thing the president wants or needs now is to open a second front with Israel on either Iran or the Palestinian issue. What’s more is that once the deal is concluded we’ll be entering a fairly prolonged period where implementation of the deal will be key. Congress and every 2016 presidential candidate will be watching like hawks to see if the administration has been snookered by Iran. And so will the Saudis and Israelis. The process of reassuring the Gulf Arabs will ramp up into high gear at this week’s Camp David summit. So there will have to be an Israeli piece of the reassurance package as well. The actual conclusion of a U.S.-Iran deal will be huge news, create piles of broken crockery in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and to secure formal Congressional buy-in will require more than just a set of “just get over it” talking points for Israel. This is likely to take the form of more military hardware and intelligence cooperation. Nor should we rule out — even with the White House’s recent cold-shoulder policy — an Obama-Netanyahu meeting.
Then there’s the separate but very much related question of selling more military hardware to the Gulf States. It’s the cruelest of ironies for the prime minister that not only is he getting an Iran deal he hates; he’s also going to be faced with the prospects of more arms for the Arabs. And this is the double whammy that will likely require the administration to use more honey on the Israelis and less vinegar, most likely in the form of enhanced military cooperation, intelligence sharing, and the transfer of sophisticated aircraft like the F35 (which the United States has already authorized). It really will be tough for the president to shower the Arabs with hugs, kisses, sophisticated weapons and presidential summits and leave the Israelis out in the cold. Politically it creates a terrible optic and really does impose limits on the White House’s cold war with Netanyahu – ultimately setting up constraints on how far and fast this White House will be able to push the Israelis on any number of issues from settlement activity to pressuring Jerusalem at the U.N., and ultimately on a two state solution. In going for the Iran deal, the Obama administration may well have hung a closed for the season sign on any prospects of a Palestinian one, already a long shot.
A national unity government?
Hope springs eternal. And the Obama administration will react very carefully to the new Israeli government until it’s unmistakably clear that it won’t evolve into one that offers the prospects of a better relationship with Israel, some movement on the peace process, or the prime minister takes some action that Washington feels warrants a blast.
The reaction to last week’s announcement of additional housing units in a Jerusalem neighborhood that has previously drawn a severe reaction from the administration, this time only elicited a ho-hum expression of concern and disappointment. A national unity government with Isaac Herzog on balance doesn’t seem likely. But neither Obama nor Netanyahu has any stake in intensifying their food fight until that idea either is put to rest or comes to fruition.
If it’s the latter, then much of the tension will diffuse from the U.S.-Israeli relationship as Israel puts on a kinder and gentler face. If as is more likely, Netanyahu manages to expand his government by getting Avigdor Lieberman or others to join, Washington will have to calibrate how it wants to react based on what might be more provocative Israeli actions, for example on settlements.
Why fight without a purpose?
I’ve argued many times that American presidents face two kinds of fights with Israeli prime ministers: productive ones and unproductive ones. The former means that pressure, tension, and political capital expended is worthwhile because you actually get a result — a peace agreement or Israeli cooperation on some big issue like a peace conference at Madrid in 1991 that justifies the political pain at home.
The other kind of fight is one in which you try to make a point rather than a difference; in the end, you get all the downsides and none of the benefits. And the Obama administration has become a master of the unproductive fight. Whether it’s over settlements or Netanyahu’s comments about Palestinian statehood, the administration makes statements that alienate the Israelis and the pro-Israeli community in the United States without achieving anything of consequence. The president is unwilling or unable to apply real pressure, so he uses words. And that only undermines U.S. credibility in the Middle East and internationally without any sustainable gains.
It may well be that for any number of reasons — including the need to sell the Iranian deal, and pressure from Democrats and the pro-Israeli community — that the administration has begun to dial down its public fight. There appears to be more adult supervision in handling the U.S.-Israeli relationship in the White House. And it makes sense, particularly in the aftermath of Netanyahu’s reelection. The president may be frustrated. But he can’t afford to create the impression that he doesn’t accept the results of a democratic election. Pressure with purpose at a time when it might actually achieve something makes sense. A policy based on frustration, disappointment, and anger doesn’t.
The peace process
Assuming the Iran deal gets done and is actually implemented, the remaining area of prospective tension between Washington and Jerusalem is the Palestinian issue. The administration has intimated that it may find it difficult to defend Israel in international fora without an Israeli commitment to a two state solution. There almost certainly be continuing tension over settlement construction as there has been in the past. But a major confrontation over a non-existent peace process? Or a big row over a peace plan that’s just a thought experiment or fantasy in someone’s mind? What would be the point? The Palestinians are headed for more activity designed to pressure Israel in the international community, including the International Criminal Court. But it seems highly unlikely that the Obama administration will ride that train. Even Democrats who don’t like Netanyahu’s policies toward the Palestinians won’t buy on to that.
There is the possibility — and the administration has intimated it now several times — of trying to get a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolution to embody the elements of Palestinian statehood. The French are seized with this idea, as are the Arabs. But is this worth a fight? What will it achieve? Could the Americans even buy on to a draft that the Arabs and Palestinians would support. Even if they could, what’s the point?
Far better, though still flawed, from an American negotiator’s perspective, would be a possible scenario where an effort is made on the part of Obama to outline a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, much in the way President Bill Clinton did in December 2000 shortly before he left office. This way Secretary Kerry or some future Secretary of State wouldn’t compromise U.S. bridging proposals, make them radioactive by embodying them in a UNSC resolution, and create the impression that the United States was no longer the key mediator. The other downside of a UNSC resolution is that would bind its successor with an internationalized negotiating framework that might strip a future U.S. negotiator of flexibility. Netanyahu would object to this kind of action too. But it wouldn’t expose the administration to critics inside Congress who will argue that the president was endorsing an imposed solution and shifting the focus from bilateral or even trilateral negotiations to negotiations to international arena. Since neither a UNSC resolution of the Obama parameters will have much of an effect on the ground, the administration should choose a route that best protects it credibility at home.
The next 20 months will not be easy ones in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. But they won’t necessarily lead to an escalation or a qualitatively different level of dysfunction than we’ve seen in the Netanyahu-Obama soap opera so far. Netanyahu’s goal is to outlast this president and wait for a friendlier one — any Republican would fit that bill; and so would the election of Hillary Clinton whose street cred with the Israeli public and the pro-Israeli community in the US is better than Obama’s and who has already made clear in her memoir Hard Choices that she believes unproductive fights with the Israelis get you nowhere. Netanyahu has no desire for a major fight now; he’ll have his hands full managing his government. If Netanyahu again intervenes in U.S. politics and makes a concerted effort to sink the Iran agreement or engages in a frenzy of settlement activity that goes beyond anything we’ve seen, relations could worsen.
But even if they do, how bad could things realy get? The administration isn’t going to sanction Israel, cut off aid, or unilaterally impose Palestinian statehood. Despite Obama’s frustration (and even anger) with Netanyahu, Israel will remain a close ally in a region where America has few stable friends and where even America’s partners and certainly its enemies are behaving far worse than Israel.
Anyone pining for a major meltdown in U.S.-Israeli relations ought to take a deep breath and lie down until the longing passes. And that goes as well for anyone looking for a much-improved U.S.-Israeli partnership. Indeed, the latter is unlikely to come only when you have a different Israeli prime minister in Jerusalem and another president in the White House.
Marc Israel Sellem-Pool/Getty Images