Politics & Policy

Israel — Wild Card

President Obama with Israeli prime minister Netanyahu in Israel, March 2013. (Getty)
As negotiations with Iran continue, Israel increasingly finds it can no longer rely on the U.S.

To say U.S.–Israeli relations are on the rocks would be something of an understatement. It has been quite obvious for some time that diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Washington have become badly frayed, with President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu failing to see eye to eye on a range of issues. Even so, bilateral relations are now unquestionably at a new nadir, as a recent bombshell article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic details. 

So, what to make of this rupture, which includes unseemly, insulting remarks directed toward the Israeli premier by an anonymous White House official? If one takes the long view, the current dust-up is likely much ado about nothing. 

After all, in the six-plus decades since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, its relations with the United States have ebbed and flowed along with the prevailing political currents in Washington. This is hardly the first time that the two countries have failed to see eye to eye, and there’s every reason to believe that the “special relationship” will be rejuvenated once there is a political change at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue a little over two years hence. 

Moreover, Israel still enjoys deep and bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, a situation that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. That sympathetic attitude — coupled with the legislative branch’s inherent power of the purse, which has been harnessed to tremendous effect in aiding Israel with its defense requirements — has been enough to sustain bilateral relations in previous times of divergence (for example, during Israel’s exclusion from the anti-Saddam coalition during the first Gulf War). There is every reason to believe that it will do so again now. 

But the current rift between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government is nonetheless important because of one pressing issue: Iran. The late-November deadline for negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program is fast approaching. By all accounts, the two sides remain far apart on what might constitute a workable deal, but recent moves by the White House (to sideline Congress in the negotiations, as well as to relax its demands for constraints on Iranian nuclear development) suggest that the Obama administration is determined to get an agreement, even at considerable political cost. Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq has put Washington and Tehran on the same page in terms of regional policy in the Middle East, at least tactically. It’s no wonder that bilateral ties between America and Iran appear to be, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, moving toward “détente.” 

All this is deeply worrisome for Israel. Since the start last November of the current negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 powers (the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany), officials in Jerusalem have watched them closely — and with growing trepidation. The best possible outcome, from an Israeli perspective, would be a “zero option”: an agreement under which Iran forgoes uranium enrichment entirely. But recent developments have convinced Israeli policymakers that there is zero percent chance of this happening. Nor is a reasonably good deal — one that imposes significant curbs on Iran’s nuclear development — likely either, given the concessions that have been proffered by Washington so far.

As a result, the most likely scenario now facing Israel is a bad deal (which leaves Iran’s nuclear program mostly intact), or the conclusion of negotiations later this month without any deal at all. In either case, Israeli officials have made abundantly clear that a robust response — including the reestablishment of a credible Israeli military option vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program — will become a supreme test of credibility for Netanyahu and his government. 

Against this backdrop, the current crisis in relations with Washington only reinforces the notion, now prevalent in Jerusalem, that Israel can no longer rely on the United States to serve as a steward of its interests in the Middle East. That, in turn, provides Netanyahu and company with more incentive than ever to go their own way in formulating their approach toward Iran — with all that this portends for the region, and for future relations between Washington and Jerusalem. 

— Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. 

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