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Widening cracks in the U.S.-Israeli relationship

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The broad smiles on the faces of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they left a seven hour long meeting in Rome, might have been an expression of relief that their meeting was over rather than a sign of overcoming the growing discord between the United States and Israel. The two main issues that divide both countries right now, the peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the rapprochement with Iran, have the potential to deepen the rift between the two countries. Despite common perception, the history of the relationship between the two countries has seen ups and downs as a result of clashing interests, leading the American administration exert pressure on Israel. Unique to the current situation is that the tension affects two major issues at the same time. These two issues are perceived to be essential to both countries’ interests, and the U.S. and Israel disagree not only about the diplomatic process itself, but also the nature of the possible agreement.

The Israeli approach, led by the Israel prime minister, ranges between genuine scepticism to active sabotage on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts. Sadly the Israeli government demonstrates on both issues a lack of diplomatic sophistication, which leaves it with a very limited range of foreign policy options. Traditionally Israel is reluctant to deal with more than one major regional issue at a time, mainly for domestic reasons. The fragmented political and social systems find it excruciatingly difficult generate either the energy for such negotiations, or to mobilise the necessary support in making compromises required for reaching an agreement. The decision makers perceive such a scenario as unattainable, and one which might bring down the government, while also damaging the Israeli society beyond repair. Consecutive Israeli governments have looked at the Palestinian issues as unsolvable and the Iranian nuclear project as intolerable. However, a policy which resists exploring alternatives to the current situation is counter-productive for Israel and the region as a whole.

Israel’s overreaction

Israel’s overreaction towards the current U.S. Middle East Policy is a sign that it believes, that unlike in the past, Obama is ready to translate his declared intentions into proactive policies. In his first term Obama made a very clear pledge to bring an end to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and to usher in a new era in the U.S.-Iranian relationship through candid engagement. His first administration failed in this endeavor due to a number of factors, including his inexperience combined with an obsessive tendency to seek a broad domestic and international consensus where none existed.

The election of Obama for a second term, and the election of Hassan Rowhani, has led the U.S. to reconsider their approach towards the Middle East

Yossi Mekelberg

As long as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad occupied the president’s office in Tehran, and the differences between him and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were minimal in either style or substance, the room for U.S. rapprochement with Iran was limited. Also, on the Palestinian issue, Obama didn’t anticipate facing two very fragmented sides with leadership incapable of taking the necessary steps towards peace, or worse, deliberately hindering a peace process. His inability to influence the Israeli government to halt the expansion the settlements, might not have been the only reason for the failing peace process, but it surely was an overwhelming one. In any case, first term American presidents are always more cautious in pursuing policies which have the potential to upset Israel.

The election of Obama for a second term, and the election of Hassan Rowhani, has led the U.S. to reconsider their approach towards the Middle East. From the beginning of the year the new Secretary of State John Kerry brought fresh impetus to the Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors. So far negotiations seem to stall, despite some claims that progress has been made. Both sides blame each other for the lack of progress in the negotiations, which doesn’t leave much room for optimism. Even confidence building measures, such as the release of Palestinian prisoners, are marred by Israel’s simultaneously announcement of the expansion of settlements. Even if this additional building is taking place where everyone expects Israel to maintain control in the future, it sends a message that the Israeli government is not to be trusted. Netanyahu’s letter to the 500 hundred settlers in Hebron, who live among 170,000 Palestinians in the city, a day before he met Kerry in Rome reveal his lack of sincerity towards the peace process. In it he stated: “The adherence of the sons in the ‘city of the fathers’ withstood the test of exile, and proof of this is the renewed and blossoming settlement in Hebron.” If Obama is serious about achieving peace, this type of Israeli approach is bound to increase tension, especially when reports suggest that Netanyahu instructed his chief negotiators Tzipi Livni and Itzhak Molcho to take a tough line in the negotiations.

Iran and the U.S.

Negotiations between Iran and the U.S. are not expected to be easy either. Khamenei’s speech on Sunday expressed support in negotiations with the United States. Nonetheless, in the same breath, he called the U.S. a smiling enemy that cannot be trusted, as it still imposes sanctions and leaves open the military option. Israel’s position is peculiar in terms of her approach to negotiations. The decision makers in Jerusalem are demanding reassurance about the end result of the negotiations process even before they have entered into their detailed phase. Israel’s retiring national security advisor, and one of the closest advisors to Netanyahu, Yaccov Amidror, clearly reiterated Israel’s approach this week. He described Iran as an existential threat to Israel that is ready to negotiate only because of the impact of the sanctions on their economy and out of fear of military action. The U.S. and Israel do agree on this particular point, but that is where their agreement ends. Israel would like to see the sanctions continue at the same level or even increased, and the maintaining of the military option, as a very realistic option. The rationale is that the sanctions that have brought Iranians to the negotiation table, if continued, will force to them to accept the international community’s demands of halting her nuclear project. The U.S., quite rightly, takes a very different line in which contends that Iran’s motivation in considering negotiations is not what might lead to an agreement. Creating new dynamics in the negotiations process requires some concessions in terms of the sanctions. This is in order to build trust and empower Rowhani within the intricate Iranian political arena.

Evidently these two issues strain relations between the U.S. and Israel and might have long term implications on their close alliance, though it is still a quarrel between friends. The strategic conundrum for Israel is that her strength in the region is strongly linked to the power and influence of the United States in the region. However, U.S. power and influence in the Middle East requires success in the advancing of the Israeli- Palestinian peace process and a successful conclusion to negotiations with Iran. Israeli intransigency on both issues may lead to many undesired consequences, among which would be a collision with her main supporter in world politics and the further dwindling of U.S. influence in the region.

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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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