Article Library / 2015

2014-2015 Annual Assessment

Recent months uncovered some silver linings in Israel’s standing in the international system. These were expressed, for example, in the IAEA General Assembly’s decision to delay the Arab League initiative to censure Israel and try to place its nuclear sites under international supervision.20 Also the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India, who is known for his friendship to Israel, opens new opportunities to increase Israeli cooperation with an India that is becoming more and more central to the global economy.

The manner in which China is focusing its investment efforts in Israel is particularly impressive. From Beijing’s perspective, Israel is a strategic “trade junction” for China’s economy leading to Europe. In parallel to the large trade deals, such as purchasing control over Makhteshim or Tnuva, China stands to, in the coming years open and operate large transportation projects in Israel estimated in the tens of billions of shekels.21 Israel’s attraction of foreign investors and the high regard for Israel’s high-tech sector, point out the significant achievements and the potential promised in the Israeli market. However, the difficult diplomatic situation could serve as an obstacle for Israel’s economy that could become an increasingly common target for BDS and de-legitimization efforts.

Israel is often criticized and its international status is eroding due to a number of factors, including the violent conflicts with the Palestinians, the lack of any progress toward a peace settlement with the Palestinians, construction beyond the 1967 borders, and claims of abuse of the democratic rights of Israel’s Arabs. The tensions in the special relationship between Israel and the U.S. also work to diminish Israel’s status as they signal a break in support for Israel from the world’s strongest power.

Operation Protective Edge brought about a crisis in Israel’s relations with a number of South American countries, which recalled their ambassadors in protest (Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Peru). Other countries enacted a freeze, limitation, or reassessment of arms sales to Israel (Spain, the UK and even the U.S.).22 The fighting in Gaza interrupted the thawing of relations that had begun between Israel and Turkey. In the weeks before Operation Protective Edge, there had been increased signals that the two countries were close to completing a conciliatory agreement. However, in light of the military conflict with Hamas, Erdogan reverted to his harsh anti-Israel rhetoric and claimed: “I cannot think of any positive developments with Israel as long as I am in office… Israel is committing terror right now. Israel is committing genocide.”23 Despite the political tension, economic relations between Israel and Turkey continued to develop throughout 2014, with Israeli exports to Turkey at around 3 billion dollars (Turkish export levels to Israel were similar).24

As far as settlements are concerned, recent months were chock-full of international reactions in response to building or Israeli announcements of its intention to build in Judea and Samaria. These reactions are not just rhetoric either. Thus, 17 EU countries issued warnings to their citizens regarding investing or transacting with businesses based in the settlements or entities connected to them.25 Israel’s isolation was once again evident in the UN Human Rights Council, which voted to adopt (July 3, 2015) the UN investigative report on Protective Edge (which found both Israel and Hamas responsible for war crimes). Forty-one countries voted in favor of censuring Israel, five abstained (including India, which had not previously refrained from such criticism), and the U.S. was the lone vote against.26

Israel often responds to criticism of its behavior with harsh language that intensifies and exacerbates the diplomatic discourse and highlights Israel’s isolation. Thus, after Sweden gave notice that it intended to recognize an independent Palestinian state, the Swedish ambassador was summoned for a “rebuke” in the foreign ministry,27 and Foreign Minister Lieberman responded that, “The Swedish government should understand that Middle East relations are more complex than a piece of self-assembled IKEA furniture, and the matter should be handled with responsibility and sensitivity.”28 Prime Minister Netanyahu also criticized Europe’s relationship with Israel in harsh terms: “We saw today shocking examples of European hypocrisy. It seems as if there are too many people in Europe, the land in which six million Jews were slaughtered, who haven’t learned a thing. But we in Israel learned the lesson. We will continue to defend our people and our state against the forces of terror, tyranny and hypocrisy.”29 Even the carefully groomed relationship with Russia has taken a hit of late in the wake of the framework agreement with Iran, and Putin’s unfreezing the S-300 missile deal with Iran. In response, Israel lowered the rank of its attending representative at a ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the USSR’s victory over the Nazis (May 9, 2015).

Recent months have also been filled with incidents that show the tension and strained relations between Israel and the U.S. – in policy and strategy matters as well as the personal relations between Obama and Netanyahu. Israel and the U.S. disagree on a few key issues. Chief among them are the Iranian nuclear program and the Palestinian issue, specifically construction beyond the 1967 borders. The White House’s discomfort with Israeli policy has prompted sharp reactions from all levels in the White House. When the White House refers to construction plans on Givat Hamatos which is beyond the “Green Line” in Jerusalem, it noted: “This development will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies; poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians, but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations.”30

Columnist Jeffrey Goldberg famously quoted senior administration officials who called Netanyahu a “chickenshit” and a “coward.” Goldberg continued, quoting the official who remarked that: “The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, “The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not [Yitzhak] Rabin, he’s not [Ariel] Sharon, he’s certainly no [Menachem] Begin. He’s got no guts.”31 Netanyahu, from his point of view, harshly rejected the criticisms regarding construction in Jerusalem and called them “statements disconnected from reality.”32

The American criticism touches also on deeply shared values that are at the base of the special relationship between the two countries. The U.S. State Department, when discussing the proposed “Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people” law stated: “Israel is a Jewish and democratic state and all its citizens should enjoy equal rights. We expect Israel to stick to its democratic principles.”33 The administration also responded sharply to Netanyahu’s warnings to voters on Election Day that Israel’s Arab citizens “are going to the voting booths in droves.” The White House spokesman said in response, “The United States and this administration is deeply concerned by divisive rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens. It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together.”34 President Obama himself stated that the unequal treatment toward Israel’s Arab community “starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.”35 In this spirit, Obama dedicated a significant portion of the long interview he granted journalist Jeffrey Goldberg to a discussion of the ethical values Israel is expected to uphold. The president said, for example, “There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law… I have to show that same kind of regard to other peoples. And I think it is true to Israel’s traditions and its values – its founding principles – that it has to care about those Palestinian kids.”36 This sentiment was reiterated in an interview with Channel 2 when Obama stressed: “I am more worried about … an Israeli politics that’s motivated only by fear and that then leads to a loss of those core values that, when I was young and I was admiring Israel from afar, were what were the essence of this nation.”37

One should not take lightly a situation in which disputes between the U.S. and Israel are diverted to a critique of the shared values between the two countries. Initiatives such as the one aimed at segregating Palestinians and Israelis into separate West Bank busses (May 20, 2015), which ultimately failed, erode the image of Israel as adhering to values like equality and democracy. The “conservative” characteristics of the new government that has taken shape in Israel appear to American liberals as contrary to the very values they hold dear to their hearts.

As the U.S.-led talks with Iran near conclusion, tensions between Washington and Jerusalem are only increasing. Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress (March 3, 2015) was met with rage in the White House, which accused Netanyahu of meddling in domestic American politics in order to improve his reelection chances in Israel. The president and vice president refrained from meeting with the Israeli prime minister, claiming that Netanyahu was destroying a crucial asset in the relationship between the two countries – Israel’s bipartisan support in Washington. The day before Netanyahu’s speech, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said at the annual AIPAC policy conference that it was “destructive of the fabric of the relationship.”38

As far as the administration’s attitude toward the Israeli prime minister, what stands out is the lack of trust. When Netanyahu clarifies that he remains loyal to the principle of a two-state solution (despite that on the eve of Israel’s elections he stated that there won’t be a Palestinian state on his watch), White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough remarked at a J-Street conference that the White House refuses to accept Netanyahu’s clarification: “We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don’t raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations.”39 President Obama himself even responded, saying: “We take him at his word when he said that it wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership and so, that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available … we are going to continue to insist that from our point of view, the status quo is unsustainable, and that while taking into complete account Israel’s security, we can’t just in perpetuity maintain the status quo, expand settlements, that’s not a recipe for stability in the region.”40 Having concluded that the U.S. has serious questions regarding the Israeli government’s commitment to a two-state solution, Obama said, “As a result, the United States is taking a hard look at our approach to the conflict. “41 The president clarified that “at this point, realistically, what we can do is to try to rebuild trust – not through a big overarching deal, which I don’t think is probably possible in the next year, given the makeup of the Netanyahu government, given the challenges I think that exist for President Abbas.”42

When American Jewish leaders asked President Obama if he would soon invite the newly re-elected Israeli prime minister to Washington, he responded that at this time, he would suffice with a phone call.43 At the same time, it was reported that since December 2013, Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer has met only once with the White House.44 This difficult reality was further expressed in an uncharacteristic Israeli Foreign Ministry document leaked to the press that warned that Israel will pay a heavy price on a number of diplomatic and security issues due to the “harsh, continuing and public crisis” in relations with the U.S. The document pointed to a clear connection between the crisis in the relationship and the deteriorated nature of the dialogue and Israel’s ability to advance, with U.S. help, its critical security interests.45

It should be noted that the White House has made every effort to convince Israel and its supporters of U.S. commitment to Israel’s security. This effort is aimed, of course, at persuading those opposed to the Iran deal that Israel will not be harmed and will always have the protection of the United States. Thus, for example, the White House publicized a document that details steps taken by President Obama in favor of Israeli security and economic resilience, “in ways that are unprecedented.”46 From aid money to the Iron Dome system, through U.S. assistance in various international fora (“On five occasions last year, the U.S. cast the only “against” vote on unfair anti-Israel measures in the UN’s Human Rights Council.”47) However, one cannot ignore the fact that the administration delayed a helicopter-based missile shipment and other urgent military equipment during Protective Edge because it was uncomfortable with the continued fighting in Gaza.

The murky relations, continued political deadlock, and settlement construction could lead the U.S. to take concrete steps against Israel. The U.S. could withhold its UN Security Council veto power when the French proposal comes to a vote, especially if the wording seems fair to the U.S. and in line with its principles regarding the outlines of a final status deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The U.S. can also withhold its veto on decisions regarding settlements (as it has in the past), and in a more radical instance could even level sanctions similar to the 1991 freezing of loan guarantees under President Bush Sr. and Secretary of State Baker. The U.S. could also be less enthusiastic when it’s called upon to help Israel in international fora, where Israel is isolated, and could stand less firmly by Israel in various international struggles: against de-legitimization, boycotts, and more. Thus, Under-Secretary of State Wendy Sherman warned: “If the new Israeli government is seen to be stepping back from its commitment to a two-state solution, (it) will make our job in the international arena much tougher… it will be harder for us to prevent internationalizing the conflict.”48 In this vein, President Obama, in his Channel 2 interview, seemed to caution Israel’s citizens directly: “If there are additional resolutions introduced in the United Nations, up until this point, we have pushed away against European efforts, for example, or other efforts because we’ve said, the only way this gets resolved is if the two parties work together. If, in fact, there’s no prospect of an actual peace process, if nobody believes there’s a peace process, then it becomes more difficult to argue with those who are concerned about settlement construction, those who are concerned about the current situation – it’s more difficult for me to say to them, be patient and wait because we have a process here – because all they need to do is to point to the statements that have been made saying there is no process.49

The nuclear agreement with Iran, after it is signed, will be debated in Congress. This reality could lead to another flare-up in the relationship with President Obama. As long as Israel decides to proactively convince members of Congress to reject the deal, the rupture with the U.S. administration will deepen. Likewise, this tension will not elude relations with U.S. Jews. Their support of the Obama administration makes it unlikely that American Jewry will speak in one unified voice against the deal.

The way things are playing out currently could lead the new Israeli government to treat President Obama’s remaining time in office as a period not just for containment, but as one for aggressive activity inside the domestic U.S. arena – with the hope that the next president’s policies will be vastly different. There are, of course, Israelis who wish to maintain a policy of non-involvement in the upcoming elections in America. But even so, there will be others who claim that the U.S. elections are so critical to the Israeli government that it should take a chance and support the campaign of a presidential candidate whose pro-Israel policies are not in question. The “temptation” to do so is encouraged by, among other things, the especially pro-Israel statements of Republican presidential candidates. Thus, for example, Jeb Bush harshly criticized the Obama administration’s policies on Israel, when he said: “Then Obama threatened to downgrade the U.S.-Israel relationship and permit a series of anti-Israel resolutions to pass the United Nations Security Council without firm American opposition…. This is no way to treat an ally.”50 Former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s 2015 book, Ally, and op-eds he has recently published in the U.S. provide ammunition to those who attack President Obama’s Israel policy. Oren’s Wall Street Journal op-ed (June 15, 2015) was titled: “How Obama Abandoned Israel.”51

Finally, one cannot ignore the effect tensions between Jerusalem and Washington have on the U.S. Jewish community. While most U.S. Jews are generally ardent Democrats, many are increasingly displeased with the way the Obama administration handles its Israeli portfolio. According to recent polls, Jewish support for the president dropped in 2015 (according to Gallup, from 61 to 50 percent).52

Israel’s centrality in the highly charged American foreign policy debates is alarming to many Jews. Some of them see a risk that Israel will be blamed for trying to alter American policies “against its interests” (as Israel was blamed in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2002). They also see a risk of Israel becoming a partisan cause in a way that could force them to have to choose between their support for Israel and basically every other issue near and dear to the hearts. This is not to say that levels of American Jewry’s support for Israel are not high – they are. But on issues of dispute Washington and Jerusalem, such as the nuclear deal with Iran or the peace process with the Palestinians, the conversation about Israel often becomes toxic and the mainstream leadership and communities increasingly prefer to leave these issues off their agenda.

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