Under normal circumstances, this combination of tensions would long ago have made America and Israel bitter antagonists, if not outright enemies. But these two democracies—one, the world’s oldest; the other, its most boisterous—share remarkably deep political, cultural, historic, moral and emotional connections. These connections did not erase the tensions, but they did give birth to two policies that effectively mediated them—the Arab-Israeli peace process (born in the Nixon administration) and U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation (born in the Reagan administration). The former was a way to turn the zero-sum nature of the Arab-Israel dispute into a win-win proposition in which Arabs regain land lost in war, while Israel gets the peace and security it has long craved; the latter was a way to inject useful, substantive content into bilateral relations and push the more disagreeable elements to the margin.
It might seem odd to say it in a region that knows so little good news, but both policies have worked beyond the wildest imaginations of the statesmen and bureaucrats who originally conceived of them.
The peace process might not have yet brought lasting peace to the Holy Land, but it has succeeded in shrinking a broad regional confrontation that pitted Israel against the entire Arab world into a much more limited conflict between two communities competing for control of territory west of the Jordan River. At the same time, this shrinking of historic enmities has opened avenues for Israeli coordination with Sunni Arab states based on shared concerns about the spread of ISIL-style extremism and Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. One implication is that the tensions in Jerusalem in recent weeks triggered more reaction in Washington than in any Arab capital except Amman, which has a Palestinian majority.
What makes the Obama-Netanyahu relationship seem so especially troubled is that it comes after 16 years—namely, the otherwise very different Clinton and George W. Bush administrations—in which the United States and Israel shared both an ideological outlook on peacemaking and a practical approach to problem-solving.
Much of that was a function of those presidents’ emotional affinity for Israel; some of that, of course, was fate. Bill Clinton was blessed to have leaders he admired—Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak—as partners for most of his term; similarly, Israel’s leaders in the Bush years—Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert—were soulmates with the post-9/11 crusader. But Clinton also had a first-term Netanyahu as a counterpart for three years, and although he was no more enamored of Bibi on a personal level than Obama is today, the man that many friends of Israel only half-jokingly called “America’s first Jewish president” found a way even to make diplomatic progress during that period.
The Obama-Netanyahu relationship is thus more reminiscent of the cold, calculating, distant relationship of two ex-spies—Bush père, the former CIA director, and Yitzhak Shamir, a one-time Mossad agent—than anything seen since. That the former community organizer and the decorated army commando detest each other and wish each other political failure is well known. However, it is not very consequential. More significant is that each apparently believes the other has purposefully chosen to pursue policies injurious to his partner’s strategic interests.
To caricature, if only slightly, views ascribed to Netanyahu, Obama’s naive outreach to political Islamists (including the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s ruling AK party), his single-minded pursuit of détente with Iran and his refusal to hold Palestinian leader Abbas even partially accountable for stagnation in peace diplomacy, let alone for the Jew-hatred that spews forth from official Palestinian statements and media, suggest the American leader is an Islamist Manchurian candidate.
On the opposite side of the ledger, the president is said to be incensed by Netanyahu’s slavish deference to Israel’s neo-neanderthal right wing, his repeated announcements of provocative settlement plans that seem expertly timed to embarrass Washington, his creativity in finding excuses to avoid even the tiniest step toward compromise with the Palestinians, his timorous reluctance to use political power for any purpose other than to sustain political power and his unabashed embrace of the Republican Party, all of which points to the Israeli prime minister as not just an empty suit tailored by Sheldon Adelson but an unwitting recruiter for radical Islamists.
What is remarkable is that Barack and Bibi had such a deep well of mistrust of each other from the very start. Here, the original sin was, in my view, the Obama administration’s refusal to affirm what insiders call “the Bush-Sharon letters” of April 2004. This was a set of understandings worked out between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon that injected realism into U.S. peace diplomacy by recognizing that there would be no return to the 1949 armistice lines but that a resolution to the conflict would be governed by “new realities on the ground.” That was a euphemistic reference to the existence of a substantial Jewish presence in blocs of settlements just east of the 1967 Green Line, whose growth would be governed by limitations agreed to by Washington and Jerusalem. The letters did not signify that Bush supported settlements; he didn’t. Rather, they signaled his appreciation of the need to contain the U.S.-Israel dispute over settlements lest it undermine larger shared interests between the two countries.
By refusing to endorse the letters, Obama guaranteed that U.S.-Israel relations would face precisely the sort of mini-crises that have plagued his tenure. Indeed, by adopting an unrealistic Palestinian position on settlements, he even made life worse for Abbas by denying the Palestinian leader any wiggle room on the topic. Most importantly, Obama had taken the dramatic step of renouncing a presidential commitment. The rules had changed, and everyone in the Middle East—Israeli, Arab, Iranian and Turk—took note.
Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.