An insider’s account of the Obama Administration’s rocky relationship with Israel gives pointers on how the relationship might be conducted in the future.
When Barack Obama’s chances of re-election looked uncertain in May 2011, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu came to the White House to lecture its occupant. In front of “astonished” journalists and “furious” White House aides, Netanyahu publicly rejected the framework for peace the President had endorsed the day before.
Bibi wasn’t done. Over the coming months, Netanyahu seemed to be actively intervening in favor of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, an old friend from the Boston Consulting Group. The Prime Minister was campaigning against the sitting Democratic President of the United States, Israel’s most important ally and most faithful friend. Although his motivation was part personal and part political, Netanyahu’s brazen interference in U.S. politics also reveals a new and growing tension in the U.S.-Israeli alliance.Mapping this growing divide, and suggesting a possible “grand bargain” to mend it, is the project of seasoned policy scholars Dana Allin and Steven Simon in their timely and well-considered book, Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the U.S.-Israel Alliance. Allin is a fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and the editor of the Institute’s leading journal, Survival. (Disclosure: Russell Crandall is a contributing editor at Survival.) Simon is a longtime Israel watcher and diplomat who recently served on Obama’s National Security Council as Senior Director for the Middle East and North African Affairs—and thus played a key role in the precarious fishbowl that is the U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship.
Especially in the latter section on contemporary U.S.-Israeli relations, Our Separate Ways benefits from Simon’s just-out-of-government view of Middle East policymaking. This of course involves Washington-Tel Aviv relations, but the authors also effectively incorporate Obama’s policies toward Iran, Syria, and the Arab Spring—all with an eye toward how they impacted the U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship.
Allin and Simon trace the traditional strength of the U.S.-Israeli relationship to two sources: a moral connection and a strategic alignment. Americans have always seen something of themselves in Israel.Americans have always seen something of themselves in Israel. American liberals, Republican and Democrat, supported the first half-century of the Zionist project due to their commitment to civil rights and aspiration to extend the “American covenant” to oppressed peoples everywhere.
At least through the George W. Bush Administration, the affinity Democratic administrations have felt toward Israel, as a general rule, has been based on a shared liberalism. Israeli democracy, the ascendance of Labor in early Israeli politics, and horror at the Holocaust created a strong foundation for relations with American liberals. On the other side of the aisle, religion has played an important role in fostering Republican support for Israel. Evangelical Christians, who vote Republican in overwhelming numbers, continue to back Israel strongly for reasons related to their faith. Indeed, certain popular conservative Protestant eschatologies require the return of Jews to Palestine. Pastor and perennial Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s hardline stance against a two-state solution, for example, can be traced back to his theology. But as Allin and Simon aptly note, apocalyptic eschatology is no foundation for an alliance.
Allin and Simon argue that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is based on more than a moral connection; Israel also has a “real but limited” strategic value to the United States. Despite their self-acknowledged desire to see the alliance strengthened, the authors admirably deflate many of the overdone arguments of both yesterday and today for Israel’s strategic import. During the Cold War, to cite a historical example, American identification with the Zionist project gave the Soviets an advantage in the Arab world. More recently, the authors dismiss Israeli military and intelligence capabilities as largely irrelevant to the U.S. fight to maintain its position in the Middle East. Israel could provide a useful base of operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, but “the realities of Arab politics preclude using Israeli airfields” even to fly missions against ISIS. Allin and Simon could have also mentioned that U.S. support for Israel has become a recurring trope in terrorist justifications of their violence. Bin Laden was particularly fond of citing the “American/Israeli coalition.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears, since the beginning, to have burned through more U.S. political capital that it justifies on purely strategic grounds.
In the end, Allin and Simon don’t completely reject the idea of Israel as a strategic partner, but they nonetheless fall back on the more compelling moral connection:
Protecting Israel is in fact a solemn obligation of American power. It is a moral obligation that derives from the two countries’ long association, from their shared democratic heritage, from their common cultures, including religious cultures and, above all, from the circumstances of Israel’s birth in the Nazi Holocaust—an event of vast scale in the history of human suffering and evil. The Jewish people warrant the protection of their own state, because history taught them in the vilest terms that there is no other sure protection.
But as the authors note, a moral connection, especially one so complicated by “harm” to “stateless Palestinians,” is a tenuous foundation for an alliance.Barack Obama came to the White House seeing Israel as a “flawed miracle.” In the Administration’s view, Israel’s increasingly hardline stance on Palestine had injured its own long-term strategic interests. Obama wanted to engage, even in the face of Israeli skepticism. Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party swept into office just two months after Obama’s inauguration. In their uncomfortable first bilateral meeting, Obama asked Netanyahu to freeze settlement activity as a way of demonstrating good faith to the Palestinians. This took Netanyahu entirely by surprise; Joe Biden had to try to calm Bibi as he paced back and forth in the Vice President’s West Wing office, the blood drained from his face.Joe Biden had to try to calm Bibi as he paced back and forth in the Vice President’s West Wing office, the blood drained from his face.
In May 2009, when Obama and Netanyahu first met as heads of state, the settler population was already “over 478,000.” Ultra-Orthodox Jews “constituted 30 percent of the population” by 2011 and, with their staggering fertility rate of 7.7 children per woman, were busily “creating facts on the ground,” as the saying goes. Any resolution of the conflict, it seemed, had to deal with these settlements.
Obama’s settlement-freeze attempt proved to be a failure. The Israelis dragged their feet negotiating, all the while unleashing “a blizzard of building permits, tenders, and contracts” to bolster settlement growth before the freeze set in. On the Palestinian side, things were little better. The Obama Administration was forced to lean on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to drop another U.N. gambit, which he did at great political cost. The episode left him in no position to engage in the tough, unpopular horse-trading necessary to close a peace deal. He cited Israel’s half-hearted freeze as a reason not to resume talks.
While Biden was visiting Israel, he received a “nearly incomprehensible” insult when the Israeli interior ministry announced that 1,600 new housing units would be built in a contested area. Netanyahu then backpedaled and extended the building freeze. After significant U.S. handholding the Palestinians came back to the negotiating table, but only as the latest freeze was close to expiring.
Obama was in a bind. The Israelis held a relatively strong position; they had unilaterally extended the freeze while the Palestinians had spurned direct talks. That same freeze, meanwhile, was the only solid achievement the Obama Administration could point to in its signature peace initiative. The young, untested U.S. President needed the talks more than Netanyahu did. This sent the Administration on a search for the right cocktail of “political and military inducements” to keep the settlement freeze in place and the talks alive. The eventual recipe—the release of Jonathan Pollard, an Israeli spy, and the sale of a squadron of F-35s—was a stiff price to pay for a two-month extension of a building freeze. Obama’s initiative was alive, but barely.
Then what was heralded as a “spring” swept across the Arab world. Obama wanted to show domestic and international audiences that he “stood on the right side of history” by making a major speech. Such a speech could not avoid mentioning Israel, and so an internal debate ensued. Ultimately, Obama embraced what staffers called the “full Rabinowitz” in his May 2011 speech to a global audience: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Although this was largely in line with the policies of previous administrations, it set off a partisan firestorm in both countries that cast doubt on the willingness of Netanyahu and his U.S. allies to make the sacrifices necessary for peace. As Allin and Simon write, “The entire episode had been nothing less than a fiasco.”
Despite Netanyahu backing the wrong horse in 2012, the Obama Administration made a bid to “reset” the peace process after his electoral victory. Secretary of State John Kerry led the U.S. effort. Progress was fitful and contentious. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon publicly wished that Kerry would win “his Nobel Prize and leave us alone.”Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon publicly wished that Kerry would win “his Nobel Prize and leave us alone.” In the end, mutual reticence on the part of the Israelis and Palestinians, and an accurate if undiplomatic outburst from Susan Rice—“You Palestinians can never see the fucking big picture”—scuttled the negotiations. Netanyahu moved right and won a new round of elections. Peace looked, and continues to look, farther away than ever.
Allin and Simon’s ringside view of the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy is a central strength of the book. The authors give deserved attention to what Kissinger called “the history of things that didn’t happen.” When discussing Obama’s decisions, whether in regard to Israeli negotiations, Syrian red lines, Egyptian protests, or Libyan strongmen, Allin and Simon examine the realistic alternative courses of action and judge the Administration’s moves in light of those alternatives. If, as Machiavelli said, prudence consists of recognizing the least-bad option as the good, then Obama’s Middle East policy deserves respect. Of course, that is the conclusion that the authors would like the readers to come to. Simon played a vital role in shaping many of the policies he defends in the book, so a dose of partiality is expected. But even if Simon is too close to the action to be fully objective, readers certainly benefit from reading this early effort at a history of Obama’s Middle East policy.
In the last part of their book, Allin and Simon map the new threats to the moral foundation of the U.S.-Israeli alliance. Gone is the bipartisan consistency of prior Democratic and Republican administrations, replaced by the “ideological rancor” of contemporary U.S. politics.
The authors warily note the decline in support for Israel on the American Left and among American Jews. Younger American Jews are less willing to confer an “asterisk” on Israel and overlook the conflict with the Palestinians. As Peter Beinart noted in Crisis of Zionism, “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding than many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
A break between the two countries is already being considered. In 2011 Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Liberman, argued that Israel could replace its U.S. alliance with a framework built around Russia, China, and India. These countries could provide many of the strategic benefits of the U.S. partnership “with no strings attached.” This is more than talk; Israel was notably absent from the U.N. vote condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea, despite the longstanding and costly U.S. defense of Israel in the United Nations.
Allin and Simon conclude by proposing a “grand bargain” to alter the troubling trajectory of the two nations and save the future of the alliance. The centerpiece of the proposed deal is an American carrot: Washington would ratify a defense treaty with and formally extend its nuclear umbrella to Israel.The centerpiece of the proposed deal is an American carrot: Washington would ratify a defense treaty with and formally extend its nuclear umbrella to Israel. A permanent deployment of U.S. troops to Israel would act as a “tripwire” and strengthen the security guarantee. Any attack on Israel would necessarily threaten U.S. troops and justify a strong U.S. response.
In return, Israel would freeze settlement activity and open negotiations with the Palestinians, acknowledging that a successful agreement would entail dismantling many existing settlements. Whether or not the Palestinians agreed to a deal, the U.S. treaty would be conditioned on a clear Israeli demonstration of its willingness to be a genuine partner in peace. The 1967 borders would be restored with mutually agreed-upon land swaps, and some refugee resettlement and compensation. Allin and Simon finish their proposal with what they call the “weasel words” of “shared sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem” and a “special status for the Holy Basin.” They acknowledge that the proposal is incomplete and difficult, but they believe it is the best hope of preserving the U.S. alliance with Israel.
However, it is unclear how much the United States would benefit from this agreement. It is not predicated on the actual signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord; Israel just has to offer certain conditions. The United States could find itself giving Israel a nuclear guarantee without resolving Israel’s central liability, the continued conflict with the Palestinians. The treaty could embolden Israel to take more aggressive unilateral action against, for example, Iran. Allin and Simon’s grand bargain may offer a way to preserve the U.S.-Israeli alliance, but by increasing the danger to U.S. interests without the guarantee of a counterbalancing benefit.
In the end, the reader might ask whose core interests are being served by the deal. Could it be that Allin and Simon, who describe themselves as part of a postwar generation “viscerally committed to Zionism,” simply and almost inescapably overestimate the moral and strategic importance of Israel? A related question may ultimately be one of values: Do the historical and moral ties emphasized by Allin and Simon in their pitch for renewed bilateral commitment matter more than the cold-blooded calculations of realism that might suggest the United States would be better off reconsidering its approach entirely? This outstanding book is an excellent place to start answering these wrenching questions.