The tension in U.S.-Israel relations was manifest this past week as an extraordinary troupe of Obama administration officials visited Jerusalem. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Advisor James Jones, special Middle East envoy George Mitchell and new White House adviser Dennis Ross all showed up in Israel's capital in an effort to...well, to do something. It was not quite clear what.
Since President Obama came to office on Jan. 20 and then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 31, the main motif in relations between the two governments has been friction. While nearly 80% of American Jews voted for Mr. Obama, that friction has been visible enough to propel him to meet with American Jewish leaders recently to reassure them about his policies. But last month, despite those reassurances, both the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League issued statements critical of the president's handling of Israel. Given the warm relations during the Bush years and candidate Obama's repeated statements of commitment to the very best relations with Israel, why have we fallen into this rut?
U.S.-Israel relations are often depicted as an extended honeymoon, but that's a false image. Harry Truman, who was a Bible-believing Christian Zionist, defied the secretary of state he so admired, George C. Marshall, and won a place in Israel's history by recognizing the new state 11 minutes after it declared its independence in 1948. Relations weren't particularly warm under Eisenhower-who, after all, demanded that Israel, along with Britain and France, leave Suez in 1956. The real alliance began in 1967, after Israel's smashing victory in the Six Day War, and it was American arms and Nixon's warnings to the Soviet Union to stay out that allowed Israel to survive and prevail in the 1973 war. Israelis are no fans of President Carter and, as his more recent writings have revealed, his own view of Israel is very hostile. During the George H.W. Bush and Clinton years, there were moments of close cooperation, but also of great friction-as when Bush suspended loan guarantees to Israel, or when the Clinton administration butted heads with Mr. Netanyahu time after time during peace negotiations. Even during the George W. Bush years, when Israel's struggle against the terrorist "intifada" and the U.S. "global war on terror" led to unprecedented closeness and cooperation, there was occasional friction over American pressure for what Israelis viewed as endless concessions to the Palestinians to enable the signing of a peace agreement before the president's term ended. This "special relationship" has been marked by intense and frequent contact and often by extremely close (and often secret) collaboration, but not by the absence of discord.
Yet no other administration, even among those experiencing considerable dissonance with Israel, started off with as many difficulties as Obama's. There are two explanations for this problem, and the simpler one is personal politics. Mr. Netanyahu no doubt remembers very well the last Democratic administration's glee at his downfall in 1999, something Dennis Ross admits clearly in his book "The Missing Peace." The prime minister must wonder if the current bilateral friction is an effort to persuade Israelis that he is not the right man for the job, or at least to persuade them that his policies must be rejected. When Israeli liberals plead for Obama to "talk to Israel," they are hoping that Obama will help them revive the Israeli Left, recently vanquished in national elections. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Obama and his team wish former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had won the top job and view Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud Party with some suspicion. The result, of course, is to make personal relations among policy makers more difficult, and to make trust and confidence between the two governments harder as well.
But the Obama administration has managed to win the mistrust of most Israelis, not just conservative politicians. Despite his great popularity in many parts of the world, in Israel Obama is now seen as no ally. A June poll found that just 6% of Israelis called him "pro-Israel," when 88% had seen President George W. Bush that way. So the troubles between the U.S. and Israel are not fundamentally found in the personal relations among policy makers.
The deeper problem-and the more complex explanation of bilateral tensions-is that the Obama administration, while claiming to separate itself from the "ideologues" of the Bush administration in favor of a more balanced and realistic Middle East policy, is in fact following a highly ideological policy path. Its ability to cope with, indeed even to see clearly, the realities of life in Israel and the West Bank and the challenge of Iran to the region is compromised by the prism through which it analyzes events.
The administration view begins with a critique of Bush foreign policy-as much too reliant on military pressure and isolated in the world. The antidote is a policy of outreach and engagement, especially with places like Syria, Venezuela, North Korea and Iran. Engagement with the Muslim world is a special goal, which leads not only to the president's speech in Cairo on June 4 but also to a distancing from Israel so as to appear more "even-handed" to Arab states. Seen from Jerusalem, all this looks like a flashing red light: trouble ahead.
Iran is the major security issue facing Israel, which sees itself confronting an extremist regime seeking nuclear weapons and stating openly that Israel should be wiped off the map. Israel believes the military option has to be on the table and credible if diplomacy and sanctions are to have any chance, and many Israelis believe a military strike on Iran may in the end be unavoidable. The Obama administration, on the other hand, talks of outstretched hands; on July 15, even after Iran's election, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "we understand the importance of offering to engage Iran....direct talks provide the best vehicle....We remain ready to engage with Iran."
To the Israelis this seems unrealistic, even naïve, while to U.S. officials an Israeli attack on Iran is a nightmare that would upset Obama's outreach to the Muslim world. The remarkable events in Iran have slowed down U.S. engagement, but not the Iranian nuclear program. If the current dissent in Iran leads to regime change, or if new United Nations sanctions force Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program, this source of U.S.-Israel tension will disappear. But it is more likely that Iran will forge ahead toward building a weapon, and U.S.-Israel tension will grow as Israel watches the clock tick and sees its options narrowed to two: live with an Iranian bomb, or strike Iran soon to delay its program long enough for real political change to come to that country.
Israel believes the only thing worse than bombing Iran is Iran's having the Bomb, but the evidence suggests this is not the Obama view.
If Iran is the most dangerous source of U.S.-Israel tension, the one most often discussed is settlements: The Obama administration has sought a total "freeze" on "Israeli settlement growth." The Israelis years ago agreed there would be no new settlements and no physical expansion of settlements, just building "up and in" inside already existing communities. Additional construction in settlements does not harm Palestinians, who in fact get most of the construction jobs. The West Bank economy is growing fast and the Israelis are removing security roadblocks so Palestinians can get around the West Bank better.
A recent International Monetary Fund report stated that "macroeconomic conditions in the West Bank have improved" largely because "Israeli restrictions on internal trade and the passage of people have been relaxed significantly." What's more, says the IMF, "continuation of the relaxation of restrictions could result in real GDP growth of 7% for 2009 as a whole." That's a gross domestic product growth rate Americans would leap at, so what's this dispute about?
It is, once again, about the subordination of reality to pre-existing theories. In this case, the theory is that every problem in the Middle East is related to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The administration takes the view that "merely" improving life for Palestinians and doing the hard work needed to prepare them for eventual independence isn't enough. Nor is it daunted by the minor detail that half of the eventual Palestine is controlled by the terrorist group Hamas.
Instead, in keeping with its "yes we can" approach and its boundless ambitions, it has decided to go not only for a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but also for comprehensive peace in the region. Mr. Mitchell explained that this "includes Israel and Palestine, Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon and normal relations with all countries in the region. That is President Obama's personal objective vision and that is what he is asking to achieve. In order to achieve that we have asked all involved to take steps." The administration (pocketing the economic progress Israel is fostering in the West Bank) decided that Israel's "step" would be to impose a complete settlement freeze, which would be proffered to the Arabs to elicit "steps" from them.
But Israelis notice that already the Saudis have refused to take any "steps" toward Israel, and other Arab states are apparently offering weak tea: a quiet meeting here, overflight rights there, but nothing approaching normal relations. They also notice that Mr. Mitchell was in Syria last week, smiling warmly at its repressive ruler Bashar Assad and explaining that the administration would start waiving the sanctions on Syria to allow export of "products related to information technology and telecommunication equipment and parts and components related to the safety of civil aviation" and will "process all eligible applications for export licenses as quickly as possible." While sanctions on certain Syrian individuals were renewed last week, the message to the regime is that better days lie ahead. Of this approach the Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid told the Wall Street Journal, "The regime feels very confident politically now. Damascus feels like it's getting a lot without giving up anything." Indeed, no "steps" from Syria appear to be on the horizon, except Mr. Assad's willingness to come to the negotiating table where he will demand the Golan Heights back but refuse to make the break with Iran and Hezbollah that must be the basis for any serious peace negotiation.
None of this appears to have diminished the administration's zeal, for bilateral relations with everyone take a back seat once the goal of comprehensive peace is put on the table. The only important thing about a nation's policies becomes whether it appears to play ball with the big peace effort. The Syrian dictatorship is viciously repressive, houses terrorist groups and happily assists jihadis through Damascus International Airport on their way to Iraq to fight U.S. and Coalition forces, but any concerns we might have are counterbalanced by the desire to get Mr. Assad to buy in to new negotiations with Israel. (Is the new "information technology" we'll be offering Mr. Assad likely to help dissidents there, or to help him suppress them?)
Future stability in Egypt is uncertain because President Hosni Mubarak is nearing 80, reportedly not in good health, and continues to crush all moderate opposition forces, but this is all ignored as we enlist Mr. Mubarak's cooperation in the comprehensive peace scheme. As we saw in the latter part of the Clinton and Bush administrations, once you commit to a major effort at an international peace conference or a comprehensive Middle East peace, those goals overwhelm all others.
Israelis have learned the hard way that reality cannot be ignored and that ideology offers no protection from danger. Four wars and a constant battle against terrorism sobered them up, and made them far less susceptible than most audiences to the Obama speeches that charmed Americans, Europeans, and many Muslim nations. A policy based in realism would help the Palestinians prepare for an eventual state while we turn our energies toward the real challenge confronting the entire region: what is to be done about Iran as it faces its first internal crisis since the regime came to power in 1979.
Mrs. Clinton recently decried "rigid ideologies and old formulas," but the tension with Israel shows the administration is-up to now-following the old script that attributes every problem in the region to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while all who live there can see that developments in Iran are in fact the linchpin of the region's future. The Obama administration's "old formulas" have produced the current tensions with Israel. They will diminish only if the administration adopts a more realistic view of what progress is possible, and what dangers lurk, in the Middle East.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was the deputy national security adviser overseeing Near East and North African affairs under President George W. Bush from 2005 to January 2009.
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