If it is “unbreakable,” “unshakeable,” and “a common commitment,” the United States and Israel are sure to share it, at least that is what American politicians of all stripes have been telling the American people for as long as anyone can remember. There are, of course, influential voices who question the premise of these ties, but for a variety of political, strategic, and moral reasons, Washington and Jerusalem have what is known as a “special relationship.” This is essentially a fact of U.S.-Middle East policy, which is why the current conversation about relations between the countries is so curious. Suffice it to say that Israel’s supporters are deeply unhappy about the way things have gone since almost the moment President Obama took office. It’s true, there were Obama missteps. Sticking it to the Israelis over settlement growth was, in principle, a good thing, but doing it at the same time as offering to talk to the Iranian leadership about anything anywhere was not the best way to start off. Still, this was more clumsy than an effort to undermine that unshakeable bond between Washington and Jerusalem.
Things have only gotten worse since. Some of Israel’s supporters have argued that not only does President Obama have no affinity for Israel, but also, in the words of Noah Pollak of the Emergency Committee for Israel, he has “abused” Israel. This is very tough stuff, the evidence for which is a litany of complaints ranging from the president’s good relations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and fears that the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit would force a discussion of Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear arsenal -- which led Prime Minister Netanyahu to cancel his appearance (he sent a minister instead) -- to Dinnergate. Others have told me that even though the President has said all the right things, they simply do not believe that this administration would come to Israel’s defense. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of these feelings, but tension between American and Israeli leaders is nothing new, though the complaints lodged against President Obama reveal a certain skittishness about the arguments marshaled to justify special relations with Israel.
President Obama is not the first American leader to clash with the Israelis. Indeed, a pattern of friction and cooperation mark the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Presidents Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan (yes, even the Gipper), George H. W. Bush, and Clinton all, at one time or another, had trouble with their Israeli counterparts. None of this was a function of animus, but rather the different way the world looks from Washington and Jerusalem. When, for example, President Eisenhower pressured the Israelis out of Sinai in November 1956 it was due to Cold War considerations. President Reagan delayed the delivery of F-16s to Israel over the IDF’s bombing of PLO facilities in Beirut in 1981 that killed 300 civilians and threatened to widen into a regional conflict that would have implications for U.S.-Soviet relations (not very good at the time). President George H. W. Bush believed that Israeli settlements were in part undermining his ability to establish a New World Order that would be good for Israel’s security. After all, wasn’t the post-Operation Desert Storm Madrid peace conference a step in the direction toward peace and recognition among states that had previously refused to sit down with Israel? For all of President Clinton’s declarations of “shalom chaver” after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and his obvious empathy for Israel, this did not preclude difficult relations between Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu when he served as prime minister between 1996 and 1999. The Clinton administration viewed the Oslo process as not only the pathway to lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but also the means through which democratic change might take place. So for all the alleged hostility that President Obama harbors for Israel, his difficulties are not all that different from any number of his predecessors, even those with solidly pro-Israel credentials.
It is odd that American presidents are supposed to have an emotional attachment to Israel. Some may, but some may not. Does it matter if Jerusalem is Washington’s strategic partner? It shouldn’t, but the emphasis on what a president feels in his heart suggests perhaps that even as folks make the case for Israel’s strategic benefit to the United States, they understand that this may not actually be a strong enough argument. I am not saying that Israel is of no strategic benefit—the prepositioning of equipment (which can be used by the IDF in the event of a crisis), intelligence cooperation, and joint development of weapons systems like the Arrow and Iron Dome are all valuable to the United States, but they are not necessarily decisive. This is why, for pro-Israel groups, it is imperative to know that American presidents feel Israel in their hearts. It makes up for the fact that when you get down to brass tacks, the U.S.-Israel relationship is not as strategic as some might suggest.
Still, I am not sure what all the fuss is about. In a perfect world American and Israeli leaders would get on well, hit the links, and play Matkot while further developing the special relationship. It’s never been perfect, but Israel’s supporters actually now have the next best thing. By virtually all reports, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have a frosty relationship, yet U.S.-Israel relations still work extremely well. According to my friend and colleague Colin Kahl who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East from 2009 until late 2011, the Obama administration did more than any of its predecessors to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge, has forged unprecedented intelligence cooperation with the Israelis, and put together a broad international coalition to sanction Iran over its nuclear program. All of this is intended to help ensure Israel’s security. Against this backdrop, who cares whether President Obama called the Turkish prime minister thirteen times in 2011 or that he did not invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to dinner? The point is that the U.S.-Israel relationship is so robustly institutionalized that even when their leaders do not get along, the two countries do. That’s a good thing, no?