The Washington Post poses an excellent question in its editorial today in which it ponders how best to “reset” relations between the United States and Israel. Though Democrats have spent the last year trying to pretend that all is well in the alliance, the distance that the Obama administration sought to put between the two nations from its first days in office has resulted in tension and an ongoing series of fights over settlements, Jerusalem, borders and how to deal with Iran. The president’s open dislike for Prime Minister Netanyahu while secondary to their policy disputes has also become a major impediment to amity.
While we don’t know who will be sitting in the Oval Office next year, there isn’t much doubt that the winner of the U.S. election will still have to deal with Netanyahu. That means both the president and Mitt Romney need to think how best to repair the damage that has been caused in the last four years. While many foreign policy experts scoff at Romney’s rhetoric about eliminating the “daylight” between the countries that Obama sought, he’s on the right track. Though the Post speculates (probably incorrectly) that Romney is as desirous of Netanyahu’s defeat in the Israeli elections scheduled for just after the U.S. inauguration festivities as Obama, the problem between the two countries is deeper than a personality conflict. It stems from a wrongheaded administration that continues to buy into the delusion that it understands Israel’s security needs and dilemmas better than the Israelis.
As much as many Americans desire Netanyahu’s defeat, that isn’t in the cards. The prime minister was already an overwhelming favorite to be re-elected but the odds of unseating him got a little slimmer today when Israeli prosecutors announced they would appeal former PM Ehud Olmert’s acquittals on corruption charges. Olmert got off with only one ethics conviction that brought no jail time and hoped to mount a political comeback by crafting an unlikely coalition of all of Netanyahu’s rivals. It would never have worked but with the threat of more trials (including one corruption charge on which he has yet to face a jury), the chances that Olmert can pull it off have gone from miniscule to virtually non-existent.
The Post notes that Netanyahu’s conflicts with the United States could cost him votes in January but that ignores the evidence of the last four years in which his popularity has increased every time he battled with Obama. That’s a stark contrast to his first term in office in the 1990s when his problem was Bill Clinton. The reason for the difference is that most Israelis understood Clinton was a genuine friend of the Jewish State. By contrast, polls have consistently shown that the majority of Israelis don’t trust Obama and view with less favor and trust than any of his predecessors. That the president chose to pick fights with Netanyahu on issues of Israeli consensus such as the status of Jerusalem made his defiance of Obama a lot easier.
Those who imagine that Romney would have no conflicts with Netanyahu are almost certainly wrong. The Israeli and American frames of references about some issues are always going to be slightly different even where there is broad agreement. No daylight is a good principle but it will be tested in the future even with the best of wills in Washington and Jerusalem.
That said there isn’t much mystery about what a productive reset would entail. The real problem isn’t Netanyahu’s prickly personality it is the unrealistic assumptions about the Middle East that passes for “realism” in much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
The irony here is that four years of battles between Obama and Israel were all unnecessary. They were predicated on the delusion that if only the U.S. pressured Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, peace would be possible. It was obvious in January 2009 that the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas would never agree to a peace that would recognize legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Obama only made things worse by setting conditions for negotiations that only caused the Palestinians to be more intransigent and made it less likely that they would come to their senses about a realistic deal.
Similarly, the spats about setting “red lines” about Iran’s nuclear program was also the product of American illusions about negotiations succeeding when there was no reasonable hope for this to happen.
If the next president is able to discard these foolish ideas and take a cold hard look at the Middle East as it really is, he will see that the points of conflict with Netanyahu will be minimized.