Are Israel and the U.S. on a Collision Course?
While the U.S. Obama Administration was quick to condemn the recent Gaza missile attack against Israel, it was not willing to put the blame on PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Since the forming of the new Fatah-Hamas unity government, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will hold Abbas responsible for all attacks generated by the Palestinians against the Jewish State. Israel claims that when Abbas sought world support for the new government, he agreed to honor past agreements with Israel, which included disarming terrorist organizations both in the West Bank and Gaza. The recent rocket attack was in violation of that commitment.
Israeli officials were caught by surprise when only hours after the Palestinian government was formed, the U.S. announced it could work with such a government. The Obama Administration still plans to send funds to the PA, but a fight is expected in Congress in the coming weeks. Hearings on Capitol Hill will deal with laws passed by Congress since 2006. These laws require that America cut aid to any Palestinian government that involves Hamas in the formation; in the sharing of power; and in the day to day governance. Hamas was involved in the selection process, deciding which technocrats would be elected as representatives of the Palestinian people. The input of Hamas in the aspect of governing will be more obvious when the Palestinians elect a president in the next six months.
Israel is trying to convince not only the U.S. but the international community that because Hamas calls for the destruction of the Jewish State world leaders should have nothing to do with this new government. But the U.S. and EU have already established a working relationship with the players involved, and it appears Israel is losing the diplomatic battle.
Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Zalman Shoval, hosted several plenary discussions during the recent 14th Annual Herzliya Conference in Israel. He said that the miscarriage of the nine month peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians; America’s misguided efforts in those negotiations; and, the U.S. decision to work with the Fatah-Hamas government “could create critical and dangerous divergences, with possibly long-term effects.” Shoval added that, though there is a feeling by some Israelis that the U.S. can no longer be relied upon, “Israel has not, and shouldn’t even think of having an alternative to America.”
Speaking at a roundtable discussion titled, “America’s Bond with Israel: Fragile, Handle with Care”, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy, Matthew Spence, agreed. “I don’t feel like the bond between the U.S. and Israel is fragile in any way. I think the bond is strong; the bond is deep; the bond is unbreakable.”
From a military and security perspective Spence is correct. There has been unprecedented defense dialog and shared intelligence cooperation between the two allies. Spence specified the historical levels of military assistance and technology that America has provided to Israel. Additionally, joint military exercises between the two nations have been some of the largest drills conducted in the region.
The U.S. continues to declare America’s commitment to Israel’s security, looking for every opportunity to express this bond. Spence pointed out that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with Israel’s Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon about three weeks ago for the sixth time. “That is the most that Hagel has met with any of his counterparts of defense ministers around the world… I think the important part is that the U.S. firmly is committed to making sure that Israel can defeat any of its enemies or any combination of its enemies in the region. And, that is what we call the Qualitative Military Edge (QME).”
This U.S. pledge was met last year when America gave $3.1 billion to Israel in military aid. Spence claimed it was the highest amount in U.S. history. “That is part of a ten year, over $30 billion commitment to the State of Israel; coming at a time when the U.S. is making difficult budget decisions at home; making painful cuts. But, throughout these cuts, the iron clad commitment to Israel, in very concrete ways, remains.”
Spence failed to point out that, reportedly, at least 75% of that assistance is designated for the purchase of advanced American weaponry. Dr. Michael Oren, former Ambassador from Israel to the U.S., was one of the speakers at the roundtable. He commented, “The fact that Israel and our defense relationship generates tens of thousands of jobs for American workers is not a bad thing.”
A case can be made for Israel and America standing together, shoulder to shoulder, in defense cooperation. But this particular bond does not seem to satisfy the concerns of many Israelis. Nor does the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans (74%) continue to define themselves as pro-Israel.
There are problematic issues that persist which undermine the cooperative efforts of both governments. The U.S. refuses to acknowledge that the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) is part of the homeland biblically promised to the Jewish People. Israelis want to live in their tribal lands, and feel that no other nation should tell them what to do. Oren explained that building in the settlements not only has political ramifications, but also strategic ones for Israel’s security. There’s been a thickening of the borders which were extremely narrow before the 1967 war.
One of the pillars of the U.S.-Israel relationship has been no diplomatic surprises between allies. Israel breached this confidence when it created an incident during U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to Jerusalem in March 2010. At a sensitive time in diplomatic relations, the Israeli government announced new building construction in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. This infuriated the White House.
However, Israel has been surprised by a number of American policy decisions: Obama’s infamous Cairo speech; America’s secret back-channel negotiations with Iran on nuclear issues; and the quick American decision to work with the Fatah-Hamas unity government.
Then there was President Obama’s choice not to recognize the existence or legitimacy of the Bush-Sharon letter of April 14, 2004, which Oren claimed had serious ramifications for American diplomacy. It was an unprecedented move not to accept the validity of an undertaking by a previous president.
In addition, there has been no American distinction made between Israel’s building of settlements in outlining areas of the West Bank, and Israel’s expansion in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Many of these neighborhoods are over the 1948 armistice lines with Jordan, but Israelis living there now are not aware of this. Oren said American condemnation has created a lack of U.S. credibility within the Israeli public. This has also restricted Palestinian decision-making, as they follow America’s lead.
These political actions, coupled with America’s decision to indirectly work with Hamas through the new Palestinian government, has hurt the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Oren was adamant that it has created an impasse. “When Fatah makes a unified government with an organization that declared its goal – not just the destruction of the sovereign state of Israel, but the murder of every Jew worldwide, that elicits a concern…. It’s something we have to stand up to, and rectify, and try to restore that credibility.” In Oren’s view, it is essential for making progress in peace negotiations.
The solution is to start exploring ways in which the two sides can rebuild confidence. Confidence-building measures have been used to coax the Palestinians into peace negotiations. Oren has a different spin on it: “What about restoring confidence-building measures between the U.S. and Israel; and, start restoring some of the fundamental pillars in our relationship?”
That means no surprises, full disclosure, and a sense of trust regarding diplomatic and strategic issues. One of the greatest tests will be what kind of agreement the U.S. and five other world powers will make with Iran. Will it guarantee Israel’s security?
Shoval, who chaired the roundtable session, concluded, “The relationship at present is not fragile, but the relationship must be looked at with care, because there are factors working both in America, but even in Israel, which could affect that relationship in the future.” Shoval said both countries should avoid unnecessary pitfalls.
Continued cooperation between Israel and America; a unified bond between two strong allies; is vital to keeping mutual enemies at bay in the volatile Middle East.