Whither US-Israel Relations?

Reprinted below is a fascinating roundtable discussion with professors Gilboa, Inbar, Rynhold, Singer and Steinberg of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (just published in the center’s October news bulletin), moderated and summarized by yours truly. Read the entire publication online at www.besacenter.org

BESA Center Roundtable: Wither US-Israel Relations?

Are US-Israel relations truly improving? What have the two administrations learned to do differently over the past two years? What strategic approach should Netanyahu adopt in dealing with the Obama administration? How are the changes underway within US Jewry impacting on diplomacy? BESA Center associates offer their views.

After almost two years of friction, the administrations of President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu seemed to come together over the summer of 2010 with a more coordinated series of messages on the key regional issues: confronting Iran and negotiating with the Palestinians. Is there an Obama learning curve? Has Netanyahu changed?

Prof. Eytan Gilboa: Obama is seeking to rectify the grave mistakes he made early in his term, however, there is no certainty that he has drawn all the necessary lessons from his failures and from the experience of his predecessors.

Obama estimated that the Iranian threat, the wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority’s decline would create an opportunity for a comprehensive peace breakthrough, which all sides would be interested in. Yet to his regret, he discovered that he has no partners for taking this road: Israel and the Palestinians did not embrace his assessment and it took too long for him to realize his strategy isn’t working.

Obama erred by pressing Netanyahu to end all construction in the territories, allowing the Palestinians to climb higher up on the tree of demands. His effort to engage Iran also wasted precious time, leading many in the region to doubt the strength of his convictions. And even now, I am not sure he understands that America cannot impose a “settlement” on the regional parties. Any US attempt to dictate the outlines of an Israeli-Palestinian deal will fail – until the parties themselves are ready for such an arrangement.

Prof. Gerald Steinberg: The highly publicized reconciliation with Netanyahu, as well as the pressure on the Palestinian leadership to drop conditions for direct talks, indeed suggests a readjustment in the White House. However, there is no evidence that the White House advisors and members of the Mitchell team who had pushed for the ill-advised “tough” policy with Netanyahu have been reassigned, and they may reassert their views at a later stage.

Prof. Efraim Inbar:  Obama is learning the limits of politics when it comes to dealing with Israel. It is better to work with the Israeli Prime Minister than against him; hence, Obama’s newfound praise for Netanyahu and closer coordination with him. But Obama’s learning curve is tactical only. His heart is not at secure borders for Israel.

Dr. Max Singer: I think that the most that can be said is that Obama is learning to “watch out” for Israel. Too much wrestling with the Netanyahu administration can be very unhealthy for his presidency.

Dr. Jonathan Rynhold:  I think that Obama has gained a deeper appreciation for the geopolitics of the Middle East. I don’t think he has changed his views on Israel, but he has acquired a healthier respect for Israel’s role in the region in the context of events in Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq and ongoing difficulties with the Palestinians. However, his abiding desire to bring about a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace has not faded, and he can still be expected to impose the full weight of his presidency on this matter.

What should Netanyahu’s strategy be for dealing with the real conceptual and policy differences it has with the Obama administration?

Prof. Efraim Inbar: The US remains the dominant power in the Middle East and world affairs and despite unfounded talk of hegemonic decline, it will remain so for many years to come. The strength of the US-Israel relationship is also a key factor in Israel’s deterrent power. Thus, Israel must work to prevent any semblance of open confrontation with Washington, even if policy differences are real. Netanyahu will have to bob and weave as best he can to both accommodate and brush off Obama. Gaining time is an important part of this strategy because I believe that time is on Israel’s side.

Dr. Jonathan Rynhold: Netanyahu must go farther than that. He has to remain credible with the administration regarding peace diplomacy. He has to abide by the ‘Hippocratic diplomatic oath,’ i.e., “Do not do any damage!” This means maintaining the settlement freeze and not building in sensitive areas of post ’67 Jerusalem settled predominantly by Arabs. Second, he needs to continue to put forward reasonable positions focused on consensual positions among Israelis and American Jews on security and refugees, as indeed he has done.

Third, he should continue to advance the West Bank economy. From this position, he will be well placed to stand up to any US pressure on those core issues which are of a vital interest to Israel and keep enough of the burden of proof on Mahmoud Abbas to give him some leeway. 

In the end, Netanyahu may have to go even further if Abbas abandons direct talks. Then, Netanyahu should very seriously consider moving to a unilateral mode of diplomatic action, adopting plans for an interim settlement – along the lines proposed by Shaul Mofaz or Ehud Yaari. He could even fold in Lieberman’s plan for international recognition of the end of the occupation in Gaza.

Against the backdrop of a Palestinian refusal to talk directly with Israel, these moves would probably have wide international support. They would greatly help with demographic and legitimacy issues, without increasing the strategic threat to Israel and without tackling issues over which the sides remain too far apart.

Prof. Eytan Gilboa: Netanyahu should work with Obama and cooperate as much as possible, demonstrate flexibility and establish credibility — but draw red lines. Such a strategy will prevent misunderstandings and unnecessary tension. The Prime Minister must be more definite about Israel’s vital security and identity needs like defensible borders, strategic depth, demilitarization, alliances with other states and Jerusalem.

Dr. Max Singer: I view the Obama administration as a unique aberration in American policymaking on the Middle East. Obama does not reflect mainstream policy thinking or American public opinion on Israel and the Middle East. Consequently, I think that Israel is well placed to help build resistance to Obama’s Mideast policies. Israel has to be prepared to say “no.”

Prof. Gerald Steinberg:  Netanyahu would probably do best with a mixed approach — accept US policies when they are positive or not overly costly and provide realistic alternatives to policies that are overly risky for Israel. Obama has a consistent set of global objectives, and they are unlikely to change. In this framework, Israel can and has influenced tactics and priorities. We see this regarding the negotiations with the Palestinians and in other areas. For example, Obama has given very high priority to efforts to restore the tattered Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has led to increased pressure regarding Israel’s long-accepted exceptionality on this issue. But Obama understood the Israeli red lines, and his statements after the recent NPT review conference reduced the damage significantly.

How do you see the changing role of American Jewry in the US-Israel relationship? Can or should US Jewry take a more forceful role in pushing America to push Israel on peace diplomacy? Can US Jewry be counted upon to defend Israel in a confrontation with the administration?

Prof. Gerald Steinberg: The main long term threat to US-Israel relations is the rise of American Jewish groups, such as J Street, whose leaders have access to the White House, and whose understanding of Israeli and Middle Eastern realities are very limited and distorted. Divisions among the Jewish leadership might undermine the ability of American Jewry to speak strongly and in a united voice on crucial issues involving Israel, particularly regarding demonization and the impact of the Goldstone Report.

Prof. Efraim Inbar: J Street indeed reflects the growing assimilation of American Jewry. I am not sure that Israel can do much about this.

Prof. Eytan Gilboa: J Street will fail. US Jewry can be counted on to defend Israel if the cause is just and if administration policy is too one sided and detrimental to Israel’s security and critical interests. Groups in Israel dissatisfied with the results of Israeli elections should refrain from encouraging American Jews to pressure American administrations into adopting their views and imposing them on Israel.

Dr. Max Singer: US Jewry hasn’t done too badly so far in backing Israel in situations of conflict with Obama. We can still count on significant support.  Even stronger support comes from Christians and traditional American thinkers. 

Dr. Jonathan Rynhold: US Jews remain strongly pro-Israel, but they have become less deferential to the positions of the government of the State of Israel and more open in expressing that politically. This is characteristic both of the American Jewish right and the American Jewish Left. This is not ideal in terms of maximizing the power of the pro-Israel community in the US, but it is what it is and cannot be undone.

It is very important to emphasize that the consensual organizations at the traditional heart of the pro-Israel community — AIPAC, ADL, AJC, the Conference of Presidents and others — remain the most powerful and representative of all American Jewish organizations. Israeli strategy regarding US Jewry should be to ask them to fight on consensus issues — like Hamas and security — and steer clear of issues that divide Jews and Israelis.

Israel should also test the pro-Israel credentials of groups like J Street by examining whether or not these groups are active against the campaign to delegitimize Israel through boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) initiatives. In this context, groups like J Street can bring their dovish credentials to bear, to help expose the fact that the core of the BDS movement is not simply opposed to some Israeli policies but to Israel’s very existence. Let’s see J Street get out there and argue that demonizing and boycotting Israel makes peace less, rather than more, likely.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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