Politics & Policy

The U.S.-Israeli Divergence

Two countries, two sets of priorities.

Today, at one of the most dramatic moments in Israel’s short history, U.S. and Israeli officials view the purpose and spirit of their bilateral relationship differently. That much was confirmed by Monday’s meeting between Pres. Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at which the two leaders seemed to operate off two different scripts.

At the top of the agenda for Washington is the Palestinian issue. The Obama administration has made it clear that, notwithstanding the most recent Israeli elections — in which Israelis voted strongly to depart from past policies of restraint and conciliation toward the Palestinians — it expects Israel to aggressively pursue the “peace process.” Little is being asked right now of the Palestinians. As Washington sees it, the ball is in Israel’s court.

For Israel, negotiating with the Palestinians is a dead-end diversion from the existential threat posed by Iran. Split between Hamas and Fatah, and marked by internal violence and weak political institutions, the Palestinians are in no position to forge a lasting agreement with Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu, along with most other Israel politicians, believes the Palestinian question cannot be solved at the current moment.

Moreover, many Middle Eastern actors have recently reevaluated the Palestinian issue. Across the region, it is a significantly lower priority than curbing Iranian power. Not only is Tehran funding its terrorist clients Hamas and Hezbollah; it is also threatening to foment Islamist unrest that could bring down the regimes of Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, and possibly even Saudi Arabia. For these countries, as for Israel, the Palestinian issue is important, but Iran comes first. This is why Netanyahu decided to visit Egypt and Jordan before visiting Washington: to emphasize that for those living in the region, Iran takes precedence over the Palestinian morass.

On arms control, the United States has already begun to shift its tone, which probably suggests a shift in substance. The Obama administration is pressuring Israel to sign both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, which could lead to Israeli disarmament. Before the summit, U.S. officials asked Israel to come prepared with ideas on how to implement this dramatic new vision. Again, for Washington, the ball is in Israel’s court.

On Iran, the Obama administration signaled before the summit that it would consider an Israeli strike on Iran to be an impetuous and useless act. From the defense secretary to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the message was clear: Do not strike Iran — it will not help and it will inflame the world. Even at the summit, while President Obama suggested that he will give diplomacy a chance until the end of the year, he said the next move after that will be tougher sanctions. Israel, on the other hand, says that time is running out and all options are on the table — which is diplomatic code for “We may strike.”

Washington views Israel’s mere discussion of striking Iran as an aggressive act that will incite the Middle East and make an Arab-Israeli peace even more remote. Hence the alacrity with which U.S. officials express their opposition to an Israeli strike — a unique historical spectacle of a nation publicly criticizing an ally over a decision that it has not yet made.

And yet, the Obama administration has offered no clear strategy for preventing a nuclear Iran. Israel — and not just its Likud government — believes it is facing an existential threat from Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This sentiment runs deep in Israeli society. The core of Zionism is the principle of Jewish self-defense. A state built by the children of Holocaust survivors, Israel is grounded in the belief that Jews should never again find themselves vulnerable. This is the reason that Israel has developed a strong military: In some ways, the country has created for itself a fortress of protection. But Israel now faces the possibility that a messianic regime in Tehran aspires to annihilate the 6 million Jews of Israel. If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it will finally have the means to do so. Israelis see no other response but to defend themselves. In Israel, the Iranian question is above partisan politics and not left to chance. The memories of the past resonate too strongly for that. The Israeli prime minister thinks that he faces a Churchill-like moment and that he must defend his nation.

Washington does not see Israel’s dilemma so starkly. The Obama administration believes that Iran can be persuaded to give up its nuclear pursuit, or at least be kept at bay. U.S. officials view a negotiated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians as the first step toward resolving some of the region’s thorniest questions. And they view strong progress on arms control by Israel as a precondition to winning Iran’s compliance with the NPT and its abandonment of a nuclear program.

The West’s response to Israel’s insistence on defending itself is ironic. Two generations after World War II, Washington is choosing to ignore and diminish the genocidal threat that Israel now faces. Israel is essentially being told that its concerns about Iran are exaggerated. It is being categorized as a nuclear hold-out like North Korea. It is being pressured to make concessions on the Palestinian issue, despite the fact that most in the region believe the Iranian threat is more important.

The message from Washington is becoming clear. Israel is expected to pursue a two-state solution with the Palestinians, to join America’s ambitious disarmament agenda, and to refrain from striking Iran. The Obama administration, which is energetically soliciting our enemies’ friendship, is at the same time putting the onus on Israel, our strongest regional ally, to prove its worthiness to us.

When in the winter of 1177 the Holy Roman emperor Henry IV visited Pope Gregory VII at his temporary residence in Canossa, Italy, his journey became a symbol of humiliation and degradation. The pope, angered by Henry’s attempt to independently appoint bishops, had excommunicated him. When Henry went to seek the pope’s forgiveness, he was made to wait outside the city gates for three days, during which time he fasted and prayed for the opportunity to see the pope.

This is the script the Obama administration seems to be bringing to U.S.-Israeli relations. It’s time for Washington to change course. Otherwise, the West will have morally and politically failed the Jews once more, as they face another leader bent on their destruction.

– Meyrav Wurmser is director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Hudson Institute.

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