Israel and America: A tale of two Obamas

Quiet diplomacy has seemed to desert U.S.-Israel relations at the moment

Yossi Mekelberg
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Quiet diplomacy has seemed to desert U.S.-Israel relations at the moment. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, prefer to send messages openly through press conferences and media interviews. The message from Obama is sometimes more subtle and complex trying to convey undying support of Israel, while expressing fundamental disagreements with its government, especially the leader who is heading it. The message from Netanyahu, lacks both nuance and complexity. In his normal pontificating manner, he tells the U.S. administration that it is wrong in its policies on both the Palestinian peace process and the Iranian nuclear program. As usual this is accompanied by utter defiance, and almost an insistence on sabotaging U.S. policies on these two issues. Regardless of Israel’s lack of consideration for U.S. policy direction in the Middle East or its national interests, the Israeli government is adamant that Washington should continue its strategic, military, political and economic support. Interestingly enough the United States almost instinctively complies with these demands.

It is no secret that the U.S. administration hoped for Netanyahu to be unseated in the March elections, leading the way for a new Israeli government with whom the U.S. could find more common ground

Yossi Mekelberg

It is no secret that the U.S. administration hoped for Netanyahu to be unseated in the March elections, leading the way for a new Israeli government with whom the U.S. could find more common ground. Instead the elections produced a government which is even more right-wing, hawkish and religious than the previous one, and less susceptive to Obama’s view of international affairs. Netanyahu, who feels more at home on Capitol Hill than in the Knesset, knows that his greatest asset in derailing Obama’s policies on both Iran and Israel-Palestine is in exploiting the already deep divisions between the president and Congress in Washington. He has used these constant frictions in American politics very effectively to maintain the pressure on Obama in the negotiations with Iran. He has also succeeded in averting any American retribution for the collapse of the peace process, a failure which he is widely seen as being responsible for.

Multiple dilemmas

With presidential elections in the U.S. less than 18 months away, Obama is facing multiple dilemmas regarding his priorities for the remainder of his time in office, especially in regards to the MENA region. Ensuring regional stability has proved elusive, as the Middle East is facing more political hot spots and civil wars than ever. The attempt to end direct military involvement following the disastrous aftermath of the 2003 war in Iraq has been futile thus far. The war has come to haunt the United States in the form ISIS and the threat to the survival of U.S. friendly regimes. Consequently, the U.S. military is back in action in Iraq and Syria with no end in sight.

While the outcome of upheavals in Iraq, Syria or even Yemen is of great interest to Israel, it has almost no impact on it. However, Israel has not only great interest, but also crucial influence on two other major American priorities, peace with the Palestinians and to a lesser extent negotiations on Iranian nuclear program.

There was an expectation that once Israeli elections were out of the way, the Obama administration would be less tolerant and more impatient with Netanyahu’s obstructive policies on both issues. Nevertheless, it seems increasingly unlikely that the current American administration is ready to press ahead simultaneously on both the Iranian and Palestinian issues. Congress has made its position clear that it sides with the Israeli government rather than with the White House. Consequently, as time runs out for this American administration, Obama and his Secretary of State Kerry came to the conclusion that reaching an agreement with Iran is a more immediate and achievable priority, and the objective of reaching a peace agreement could be put on the back burner. If an agreement is reached which satisfies the concerns of the P5+1 and the rest of the Security Council, it is very unlikely that the American Congress would block it, not withstanding vociferous objections from the Israelis.

The Israeli-Palestinian track

On the Israeli-Palestinian track on the other hand, a quick glance at the composition of the new Israeli government would leave even the most optimistic of decision makers in Washington extremely skeptical as to whether there is a partner for peace among the Israeli government. It also unhelpful that the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu hit rock-bottom following the latter’s visit to the Congress without an invitation or even notifying the administration. Moreover, he delivered a chastising speech to a joint session, which can only be described as a direct affront to Obama personally and his rapprochement with Iran. The Obama strategy, for now, is to press ahead with negotiations with Iran, accompanied by constant reassurances to Israel in regards to U.S. commitment to Israel’s long term security, and concomitantly criticize Netanyahu in public for his policies and approach.

In a recent wide-scope interview to The Atlantic, Obama reiterated his personal sense of responsibility towards Israel. He even expressed his love for the Jewish state and Jewish values. His words are very much backed up by deeds. It was reported in the last few weeks that The United States Defense Department approved a proposed deal to sell more than $1.8 billion of the most sophisticated munitions, bombs and missiles to Israel. On the diplomatic level the United States blocked an Egyptian plan in the U.N., which would have put pressure to reveal Israel’s nuclear capability. Criticism aside, apparently not much has changed in the U.S.’s unwavering support towards its Israeli ally. However, Obama, in his interview with The Atlantic, sends a clear warning to the Israeli leadership that not living up to both its Jewish and universal values is bound to have profound consequences. In other words it cannot reap the benefits of claiming to be a full-fledged democracy and at the same time violate the basic human and political rights of millions of Palestinians. Moreover, he specifically expressed his irritation with Netanyahu’s promise to his voters during the elections that a Palestinian state would not happen as long as he was at the helm, or his portrayal of the Arab- Israeli citizens “…as an invading force that might vote, and that this should be guarded against.” Since the elections, Netanyahu made a very unconvincing U-turn about opposing a Palestinian state and expressed an even less sincere apology to the Arab-Israeli citizens for what could only be seen as a bigoted and hurtful comment against them.

The question remains as to how Obama is going to square the circle between his commitment to Israeli security, and distancing himself from Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government. He is convinced that Israeli long term security could only be guaranteed via a just peace agreement with the Palestinians, and also an agreement with Iran on abandoning its enrichment of uranium to weapon grade levels. Enhancing Israeli military capabilities and providing it with almost blanket diplomatic support might mitigate Israeli objection to a deal with Iran, but is very unlikely to make her more conducive to agree with the necessary concessions required to bring about a two-state solution. Obama faces a real conundrum, which I doubt he is willing, ready or even politically strong enough to resolve. Rebuking Netanyahu is one thing, to pursue a pro-active policy to alter his approach is completely another, and this is where President Obama is unfortunately falling short.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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