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A New U.S. President Won’t Mean a New Bibi
Whether it’s Clinton, Sanders, Cruz, or Trump, when it comes to Israel, it doesn’t matter who wins the U.S. presidential election—working with the Israeli prime minister is going to be an uphill battle.
To hear the presidential candidates tell it — regardless of their political party — you’d think we’re on the verge of a new and glorious age in U.S.-Israeli relations no matter who succeeds President Barack Obama.
Hillary Clinton asserted in December that she would take the U.S.-Israeli relationship “to the next level.’” On his work with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Marco Rubio trumpeted that it is “only the beginning of what I will do as president in support of Israel.” Jeb Bush said that the Obama administration has gone “behind Israel’s back,” and promised to “rebuild the trust that has been badly eroded during this administration.” Donald Trump swears that he will do more for the country than anyone else: “I’ve devoted so much time over my life to Israel,” he said recently. “The other politicians, they can talk, but believe me, they haven’t done what I’ve done.” And Ted Cruz has made it clear he is on the side of the Jewish state, saying, “The Palestinians have turned down every reasonable offer of peace. And I believe America should stand unshakably alongside the nation of Israel. If I am elected president, that is exactly what we will do.”
Some of this pro-Israel campaign love fest is of course to be expected in an election year, particularly on the Republican side where candidates are already exploiting the bad relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to own the Israel issue and hopefully use it against the Democratic nominee, particularly if it’s Hillary Clinton, Obama’s first-term secretary of state. Much of the pro-Israeli tropes are driven too by genuine upset over the Iran deal — another issue on which the Republicans are trying to hammer the administration and Hillary.
Indeed, the already accepted conventional wisdom seems to be this idea that no matter who sits in the White House in 2017 — whether it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz — there will be a profound change for the better in relations with the Netanyahu government.
But this, of course, is wrong.
Here’s a news flash for those pro-Israel voters who think that getting rid of Obama is going to return U.S.-Israeli ties to the good old days. Despite the pro-Israel rhetoric of the campaign, the next president isn’t going to enter the promised land of tension-free U.S.-Israeli relations. It won’t be Obamaland anymore. But my guess is that within six months — a year tops — the next president and Netanyahu will be annoying the hell out of one another. And here’s why.
First: There are no more “good ole days” coming for the U.S.-Israeli relationship, if there ever were any.
I’ve written repeatedly that unlike Lehman Brothers, the U.S.-Israeli relationship really is too big to fail. And that’s not going to change. As the Arab world melts down and Iran rises, the United States will continue to look to Israel as the only reliable ally in a turbulent region – stable and bound by shared values and many common interests.
But the special character of the bond doesn’t mean it will remain free of conflict, tension, or a variety of irritants. Indeed, on the substance of the issues, particularly on the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu is Mars, and the Americans are much closer to Venus. Anyone looking for the kind of closeness that played out in the 1990s when then President Bill Clinton and then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin bonded in a way that has not been seen before or since, or even for the reasonably good Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush days, ought to get a grip and realize that those times really were the exception, not the rule.
And while former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren hammers the Obama administration for forsaking the two rules that have kept Israel and the United States close — no surprises and no daylight between the sides — the fact is that those rules have been broken almost as frequently as they’ve been adhered to and not just by the Obama administration. And the next president will soon encounter the reality that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is not some precious talking point or slogan on a pedestal, but a living breathing one where the interests of both countries can simultaneously collide and coincide.
Second: Bibi’s still in charge.
I’ve been as critical as anyone about the way the Obama administration has handled what has been an eight-year soap opera of ups and mostly downs between the United States and Israel, particularly the tendency to pick gratuitous and unproductive fights. But the relationship has never been one of hand clapping. And the Israeli prime minister has done more than his share to aggravate it.
In 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu will surpass David Ben-Gurion as the longest-governing prime minister in Israel’s history. And through most of his political life he’s been suspicious of the United States and worried that Washington was either too naive or self-interested to truly understand Israel’s needs and requirements. Obama may be gone next year, but Netanyahu’s suspicions of Washington will remain as will the issues that reinforced them — the Iran agreement and an unresolved Palestinian issue.
At Davos, John Kerry proclaimed that the war with Israel over the Iran agreement is over. But the struggle over its implementation isn’t. And as Netanyahu warned on “implementation day” and afterward, Israel will be Iran’s watchdog and will press the international community to hold its feet to the fire. But even if Washington and Jerusalem manage to manage the Iran issue, there’s still the Palestinian issue to aggravate relations.
Third: Governing isn’t campaigning.
On the Republican side, even the most pro-Israeli campaign rhetoric usually gives way to the realities of governance. Ronald Reagan — perhaps the most instinctively pro-Israeli Republican president ever — wrestled with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin over a peace plan that bore his name and over Lebanon. In 1981, the Reagan administration actually placed a hold on delivery of F-16s to protest Israel’s extension of administrative law to the Golan Heights. The George W. Bush administration would fight with the Israelis publicly over Sharon’s West Bank policies, including settlements. And despite repeated campaign promises by both the Republicans and Democrats alike to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, no administration has ever followed through. This time around, assuming the Jerusalem language is in either platform, the same thing is certain to happen.
But isn’t this batch of Republicans different than most traditional candidates? And isn’t there a strong desire within the Republican Party to send a strong signal that the Republicans, not the Democrats, have Israel’s back? Wouldn’t you expect a consistently pro-Israel right or wrong position from the likes of Ted Cruz or Donald Trump? Or even from Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or Marco Rubio, who has taken to calling the West Bank and Gaza “Judea and Samaria” and has threatened to tear up the Iran agreement on his first day in office?
All of this may be fine during the campaign. But once the governing starts, the poetry, as the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo believed, turns to prose. There are European and Arab allies to be managed and previous administration commitments to be maintained. Indeed, neither of the putative shredders — Rubio or Cruz — are likely to tear up an Iranian nuclear agreement now endorsed by a U.N. Security Council Resolution and key U.S. allies and risk a crisis in the first year of a presidency. A number of the other presidential pretenders — Bush, Christie — strike me as centrists and pragmatists likely to hew to traditional U.S. positions on settlements, Jerusalem. None will be as active as Obama on the peace process or look for a fight with Netanyahu.
At the same time, none seem the type to be easily pushed around either. Sooner or later, all will have to react to some Israeli action that will make the Europeans or Arabs unhappy, or contradict U.S. policy. And like the last Republican who ran on a strong pro-Israeli position, George W. Bush, a new president will react: Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2004 while hammering Israeli actions, Bush 43 sounded very much like President Obama. “Israel should impose a settlement freeze, dismantle unauthorized outposts, end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people, and avoid any actions that prejudice final negotiations,” he said.
Bush had an Iraq war coalition to maintain and pretending to act on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and criticizing Israel was a way to keep Europeans and Arabs on board.
Indeed, there’s no telling in which direction one of the many still-hopeful presidential candidates might actually move with regards to Israel at this point in the election. In a fascinating and illuminating moment while speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition in December, Donald Trump refused to commit to recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as a precondition of getting to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Is this an indication that Trump would be tough or anti-Israel? Absolutely not. Does it suggest that this self-styled Republican candidate might be more pragmatic on Israel than some of his campaign rhetoric suggests? You betcha.
Fourth: What would Hillary do on Israel?
If the Republicans are likely to be tougher on Israel than their campaign rhetoric might suggest, what can we expect from Hillary Clinton should she become president? I’d suggest we saw the first part of that movie while she was secretary of state. Like President Obama she feels strongly about a two-state solution, and is probably more knowledgeable about the issues given both her and her husband’s involvement; she also knows Netanyahu, and had her run ins with him but also seems better positioned to manage Israel too. After all, she’s a Clinton; someone who has a natural pro-Israeli sensibility and is wary of alienating Israel by asking for things she knows Israel can’t deliver, such as a comprehensive settlements freeze.
As president, Clinton would likely avoid the drama of the Obama administration. She readily admits in her book Hard Choices she was never comfortable backing Bibi into a corner on settlements; and I doubt if you would have had the backbiting array of chickenshit comments from her White House meetings. In other words, her approach would likely be to try to find a way to work with Netanyahu before considering confronting him. She’ll do the necessaries on protesting Israeli settlements and occupation practices, but will try to avoid the tensions with Bibi that turned the U.S.-Israeli relationship into one long roller coaster ride — mostly downhill. I can see her trying to work on some regional peace framework involving the Arab states (which Netanyahu would welcome) and pressing him on the Palestinian issue (which he won’t). All in all, there will be tensions aplenty but none that will likely rival or surpass the lowest point of the Obama-Bibi relationship.
Even though the next president will undoubtedly have a less contentious relationship with Bibi, whatever honeymoon a fresh start provides will likely be short-lived. Where you stand in life has a lot to do with where you sit; and Washington and Jerusalem are in very different places, these days especially. Indeed, don’t let the campaign talking points fool you. There won’t be a transformation in U.S.-Israeli ties, a change in the unresolved Palestinian issue, a resolution over Israeli settlement construction, and U.S.-Iran policy will ensure an agenda full of problems. A newly installed American president and an old Israeli prime minister will be wrestling and struggling to manage these issues for a long time to come.
MARK WILSON/Getty Images