Jun 3rd 2009

The End of the Special Relationship?

by Shlomo Ben Ami

Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

TEL AVIV - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent visit to Washington highlighted fundamental disagreements between Israel's current government and President Barack Obama's administration. Netanyahu persists in questioning Obama's infatuation with the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he refuses to see the link that Obama believes exists between an Israeli-Palestinian peace and his capacity to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Nor is Netanyahu especially happy with Obama's reluctance to set a firm deadline for talks with Iran. Israelis believe that Iran is galloping into the nuclear club, and will shrewdly use the prospect of talks with the US to pre-empt tougher sanctions or a military strike.

Crises and profound disagreements are not new in the relations between these two unequal allies. But, however fundamental the current differences might be, it is the underlying suspicion that Obama is poised to shift America away from its unique relationship with the Jewish state that most worries Israelis.

A convergence of interests and a profoundly emotional attitude to Israel's story and to the Jewish narrative since the Holocaust have been the motive forces behind what is perhaps one of the most intriguing alliances in international relations. In fact, there is no single, exclusive explanation for America's persistent vindication of its commitment to Israel, and for the uniquely vigorous resonance that Israel's cause has had in the United States.

American presidents since Harry Truman, the first world leader to recognize Israel in 1948 (against the advice of then Secretary of State General George C. Marshall), have embodied in varying degrees either the emotional or the realpolitik aspect - some represented both - of the relationship. The suspicion today is that Barack Obama is committed to neither.

Obama is a revolutionary phenomenon in American history; he certainly does not fit the traditional pattern of American presidents after World War II. He was far less shaped by religious and biblical teachings than all of them, and the narrative of Jewish history and of Israel's heroic emergence out of the ashes of the Holocaust is not the primordial sentiment in his attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. The narrative of the Palestinian tragedy is certainly no less central in defining his view of the Middle East.

But even when US administrations have not embodied an emotional attachment to Israel, they have still backed Israel's cause, provided that doing so can be sustained by considerations of realpolitik. That was clearly the case with Richard Nixon, who never suffered from an excess of love for Jews, but was nonetheless one of the staunchest allies that Israel ever had in the White House.

Devoid of sentimental attachment to Israel's cause and deeply disturbed by its policies in the occupied territories, Obama represents the specter of a White House where neither love nor interests are shared with the Jewish state.

The thrust of Obama's Middle East policy - reconciling America with the Arab and Muslim world - clashes with Netanyahu's strategy. For Obama's emerging policy assumes that the best way to address the challenge of Islamic terrorism and stop the region's decline into uncontrolled nuclear proliferation is to force Israel to stop building new settlements, withdraw from the occupied territories in order to allow the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and make peace with Syria by giving back the Golan Heights.

But this does not necessarily mean that we are witnessing the end of the US-Israel "special relationship." Even a revolutionary president will not depart from America's core commitments to an Israel that fights for reasonable and morally defensible positions.

So far, Obama has been careful not to depart from any of the traditional American positions pertaining to Israel's security. He has accepted the logic of Israel's special nuclear status and its position as a major recipient of American military aid. Moreover, the watchdog of Israel's interests, the US Congress, remains vigilant.

Netanyahu knows that the daunting task of maintaining Israel's relationship with the US is as much a vital strategic necessity as it is a compelling domestic requirement. There is bound to be more convergence down the road, when he decides to define Israel's real, not ideological, red lines.

It is because Netanyahu is driven by an almost Messianic determination to prevent Iran from acquiring the means to destroy Israel, that he might be amenable to a fundamental change in his position on Palestine, provided Obama makes visible headway in his drive to stop Iran's nuclear program. In Netanyahu's view, solving the Palestinian problem would not remove the Iranian challenge; rather, it is the neutralization of that existential threat that would pave the way to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu also knows that the Arab side's failures have nurtured radical Zionism. As John Kerry, the Chairman of the US Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee, put it, "this peace process is not a one way street" in which the onus is put exclusively on Israel. It remains to be seen if the abysmally dysfunctional Arab world and the powerful non-state agents in its midst, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, will respond the way Obama expects.

More importantly, the Palestinian leadership must reshape and reunite its polity to face the challenge of statehood. So far, the task of reconciling Hamas and Fatah seems to be no less daunting than that of striking a peace deal with Israel.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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