Hyperbole and Reality in Assessing the State of the U.S.-Israeli Partnership
By Benjamin Runkle – JINSA Program Director
On the surface, nothing seemed amiss.
President Barack Obama began his remarks prior to Wednesday’s bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by reaffirming “the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel, and our ironclad commitment to making sure that Israel is secure.” Prime Minister Netanyahu responded by thanking the President “for the unflinching support you gave Israel during our difficult days and difficult summer we had” and expressed appreciation “for the continuous bond of friendship that is so strong between Israel and the United States.”
Yet despite the handshakes and statements of concern regarding mutual threats such as Iran’s nuclear program and the Islamic State, the media unsurprisingly portrayed a different narrative lurking just below the surface. The Associated Press coverage of the meeting began: “In a striking public rebuke, the Obama administration warned Israel” on the issue of settlements.” The New York Times noted that President Obama “has long had fraught relations with Mr. Netanyahu” and “did not invite him to stay for lunch after their meeting.” And Dana Milbank of The Washington Post described the two leaders as “old frenemies,” and that “The prime minister’s body language was that of a man suffering intestinal disorder.”
Regardless of both the Obama administration and Israeli’s best efforts to project amity and avoid headlines, the media was intent on noting the frosty relationship between the two leaders and emphasizing increased tensions between the United States and Israel stemming from this summer’s conflict in Gaza. (Milbank specifically noted this was Obama and Netanyahu’s first meeting “since this summer’s war in Gaza strained U.S.-Israeli relations.”
Although there is a great deal of truth to the first observation, suggestions that we may be on the verge of a fissure in the U.S.-Israeli strategic partnership is simply hyperbole that needs to be addressed.
In some cases, analysts depicting an impending split are projecting and engaging in wishful thinking rather than reporting on actual developments. An example of this school of thought comes from long time International Herald Tribune columnist William Pfaff, who recently wrote in the Australian journal American Review that “Nearly every intelligent witness to the nearly seven decades of Israel’s alliance with the United States and Western Europe now understands that the affair is about to be over.” This state of affairs is apparently self-evident enough that Pfaff declines to actually cite any of these esteemed observers. Instead, he launches upon an ahistorical, borderline anti-Semitic diatribe suggesting that Israel only became a state due to “the support of mobilized Jewish national communities” that skewed domestic politics in Europe and America. Pfaff places the blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict entirely on the Jews, and refers to the genocidal terrorist group Hamas as simply the “armed resistance in Gaza” making “demands for civil rights.” Consequently, Pfaff writes more prescriptively than descriptively that “It is time to terminate the Israeli-American alliance,” and he urges the Obama administration to impose a peace settlement upon Israel and to force advocates of a strong U.S.-Israeli partnership to register “as the agencies of foreign governments.”
Less easy to dismiss, and likely more representative of conventional wisdom among the American media elite, is former Clinton administration official and current editor of Foreign Policy David Rothkopf, who recently stated that the U.S.-Israel relationship has arrived “at a moment of reckoning.” During a recent interview of Martin Indyk, Rothkopf accused the Israeli government of sticking “its thumb in the eye of” the U.S.-Israeli partnership, and argues that “recent events may amount to nothing less than a strategic earthquake.”
Putting aside Pfaff’s abject ignorance of both American and Middle East history (American Christians have supported the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel since John Adams and Abraham Lincoln, and Arabs perpetrated large-scale communal violence against Jews in Palestine well before Israel became a state or occupied the West Bank and Gaza in the aftermath of the Six-Day War) and Rothkopf’s hyperventilating (his interview subject, Indyk, is far more circumspect and suggests an evolution rather than an “earthquake” in U.S.-Israeli relations), the facts simply do not support their assertions. First, American public opinion remains solidly supportive of Israel. A 2013 Gallup poll showed that 64% of Americans sympathize with Israel as opposed to 12% supporting Palestinians. In a July 2014 Pew Research Center poll, 40 percent of Americans blamed Hamas for this summer’s violence, as opposed to 19 percent who blamed Israel.
This public support for Israel is reflected in Congress. Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed resolutions supporting Israel’s right to self-defense, and condemning Hamas’s rocket attacks and denouncing the United Nations “biased” report. The Senate resolution (S. Res 526) was passed through a unanimous consent agreement, and the House passed the bill providing $225 million in emergency aid to Israel for its Iron Dome defense system 395-8. In other words, if the Israeli government stuck it thumb in America’s eye, or the U.S.-Israel “affair” is about to be over, this is news to the American people and their representatives in Washington, D.C. As Martin Indyk notes in his interview with Rothkopf, the fundamentals of the U.S.-Israel relationship are strong, and “in the security relationship and the intelligence relationship, those ties have developed over the years to the point that they are now deep and wide.”
To the extent that there is hostility between the United States and Israel, it exists almost exclusively at the Executive level. This should not be entirely surprising given concerns about then-Senator Obama’s choices in advisors (Robert Malley and Samantha Power) and friends (Rashid Khalidi), which raised questions about his attitudes towards Israel as a presidential candidate. This tension between the President and the Prime Minister was exacerbated by Secretary of State’s warning that Israel would become an apartheid state if it did not immediately cede to Palestinian demands, and the President’s inflammatory interview with Jeffrey Goldberg on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit this spring. During Operation Protective Edge, Israeli officials leaked Secretary Kerry’s proposal for a ceasefire that was perceived by not just Israeli cabinet officials but by the Israeli left – no less a stalwart of the Israeli Left than Ari Shavit wrote that Kerry’s proposal amounted to a “strategic terrorist attack” – and the Palestinian Authority as rewarding Hamas’s initiation of the conflict. The State Department claimed this was a draft rather than a final proposal, and that the Israeli leak represented a significant breach of protocol. “It’s simply not the way partners and allies treat each other,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. This may be true, but it is also a highly ironic complaint given that President Obama was caught disparaging Prime Minister Netanyahu to French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011, and that just the week before Kerry offered his ceasefire proposal he was similarly caught on a “hot mic” deriding Israel’s efforts to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza.
Either way, this is likely a temporary chill in the relationship, as no major party candidate for 2016 is likely to have the baggage on this issue that Barack Obama carried. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the demise of the U.S.-Israeli strategic partnership has been greatly exaggerated.
That being said, it would be a grave mistake for supporters of this partnership to allow complacency to set in. The same Pew survey cited above noted that 29 percent of 18 to 29-year olds blamed Israel for this summer’s violence, while 21 percent blamed Hamas. Similarly, in a July 2014 Gallup poll the same age group said by a two-to-one margin (51-25 percent) that Israel’s actions in Gaza were unjustified. Moreover, although polls show that evangelicals remain strongly pro-Israel, Mark Tooley recently wrote in The Weekly Standard that there is also anecdotal evidence that “Postmodern young evangelicals mostly see the two sides as competing, faraway peoples with equally valid narratives.” As Michael Oren has warned, “this is not just a matter of better PR or even enhanced education. Israel must treat the attitudinal and generational shifts . . . not as an image problem but as a strategic threat.”
The good news, perhaps, is that in both the Pew and Gallup polls, there was a clear correlation between a respondent’s level of education and their support for Israel, suggesting that the youth gap may be a problem of low information voters responding to simplistic media coverage of Operation Protective Edge that showed innumerable Palestinian casualties yet no Hamas combatants. And at the risk of appearing self-serving, this reinforces the important role organizations such as JINSA can play in securing the U.S.-Israeli strategic partnership over the next generation by filling in this information gap.