The Jerusalem-Washington relationship does not follow the common bi-lateral pattern, and must be examined in a tri-lateral framework: Washington, Jerusalem, and the Jewish community in the US. US Jewry, which constitutes a major part of the fabric of this relationship, has a profound effect on its contents, and is in itself influenced by the dynamics within it. US attempts to promote the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians in the passing year, which have yet to bring about a significant breakthrough, have manifested two key components of these dynamics: (1) Sympathy and deep understanding of Israel’s concerns and needs, along with the administration’s frustration and criticism of Israel’s settlement policy (the administration is highly critical of the Palestinian side as well); (2) The administration is mindful of the political and financial might of the Jewish community in the US (especially towards the mid-term elections on November 2, 2010). At this point it is hard to determine to what extend the current American policy towards Israel is a “voluntary” product of its deep-rooted empathy and sympathy towards Israel and the Jewish people (an attitude that is deeply anchored in the American public and Congress), and to what extent it is a product of cold calculations, political timetables, pressure equations and “hand-forcing”. As the American policy towards Israel is increasingly more affected by the latter, the danger of negative policy changes increases as well. Along with generous manifestations of friendship, in the past year Israel has also had the opportunity to experience Washington’s “cold shoulder.” This was clearly demonstrated in the White House preventing the craved photo-op at the meeting between President Obama and Netanyahu (March 23, 2010).
The Palestinians have realized the importance which the American administration attributes to the positions of the Jewish community in the US. Along with criticism, US officials are careful to describe the depth and quality of the American-Israeli relationship.
The President’s fundamental attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the importance he sees in its resolution are part of a broader conception and a comprehensive strategic perspective. It is not the product of a single man’s mind, but rather the reflection of deep trends and a fairly broad American consensus on foreign policy. The establishment of a Palestinian state is perceived as consistent with a deep American interest. General David Petraeus explained this reasoning to the Senate’s Armed Services Committee (March 16, 2010):
The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR (US Central Command’s Area of Responsibility). Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.4
And indeed, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu was forced to accept the two-states principle (Bar Ilan Speech, June 14, 2009), and even passed the decision to freeze housing construction in J&S for ten months (November 25, 2009). The disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem on the subject flared up seriously during Vice-President Biden’s visit to Israel, when in the midst of the visit (March 9, 2010), the plan to build 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo was made public.
Along with the criticism, administration officials are careful to describe the depth and quality of the relationship between the two countries. Thus, for example, in an address by Special Assistant to the President, Dennis Ross, to an AIPAC function (October 25, 2010), he stressed that the strategic dialog between Jerusalem and Washington is unique in its intensity and depth and range of issues, and that this degree of operative-defense coordination is unprecedented. Among other things, Ross mentioned the President’s decision “to supplement our annual $3 billion in military assistance to Israel with a $205 million request to Congress to support […] the Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system”, the joint military exercises with the IDF, US diplomatic support in defeating efforts by international forums to single out or de-legitimize Israel, and the successful coordinated opposition to the IAEA General Conference singling out Israel’s nuclear program for rebuke.
The sensitive nuclear issue should be examined in the context of President Obama’s overall nuclear policy. In his Cairo speech, the President expressed a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. It is important to emphasize that what may seem at a first glance as a utopian wishful thinking has actually won the support of esteemed figures such as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and other senior officials,5 and under certain circumstances in the future could become a concrete policy, which has implications for Israel. Thus, the final resolution document of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (May 28, 2010) included a clause calling upon Israel to join the NPT treaty, and accordingly, to open its nuclear facilities to the inspection of IAEA. Another clause calls for the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other non-conventional weapons (biological, chemical); for which a regional international conference should be convened in 2012. To promote the idea of the conference, a special coordinator will be appointed and supervised directly by the UN Secretary General. While the US announced that it “deeply regrets” that the Conference’s resolution is focused on Israel, media sources have publicized that the US had in fact conceded to pressures from Egypt and other Arab countries in order to prevent the conference from ending in failure once again. This is despite the fact that there are historical understandings between Jerusalem and Washington since 1969, which were continuously renewed by all succeeding administrations, including Obama’s, according to which the US shall not exert pressure on Israel to join the NPT and open its nuclear facilities to external scrutiny. Indeed, to Jerusalem’s relief, in the press conference following his meeting with Netanyahu at the White House (July 6, 2010), President Obama clarified “that there is no change in US policy when it comes to these issues. We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it’s in, and the threats that are leveled against it, that Israel has unique security requirements. It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. […] And the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests.” In that spirit, at the 54th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (September 20-24, 2010), the US worked hard to block a resolution calling upon Israel to join the NPT and subject its facilities to IAEA inspection. This sensitive issue will probably continue to top the agenda and Israel will continue to need American assistance (for instance, Iran insists on including the eradication of Israel’s nuclear capabilities on the agenda it seeks to impose on the discussions of its own nuclear capability).
In reference to the nuclear issue, Obama clarified: “Israel has unique security requirements, and must be able to respond to any combination of threats in the region”
The passing year has exposed the sympathetic and supportive face of the American administration, but at the same time its ability to be irate and angry with Israel. Israel’s immense dependency on the US requires very careful conduct and avoiding the portrayal of Israel as a “spoiled brat” who keeps acting in contradiction to the American interest, as written by Thomas Friedman in reaction to Israel’s refusal to accept the President’s request for a construction freeze extension:
>How spoiled Israel has become that after billions and billions of dollars in U.S. aid and 300,000 settlers already ensconced in the West Bank, Israel feels no compunction about spurning an American request for a longer settlement freeze (The New York Times, October 19, 2010).
If the peace process is stalled and Israel is portrayed as the guilty party, the Jewish community in the US may find itself in an inconvenient position
If the US indeed pursues its declared intention and leads the parties in the coming year to a detailed discussion of the permanent agreement issues, it is also safe to assume that it would put pressure on Israel (as well as the Palestinians) to agree to painful bridging formulas. As a result, tensions may rise in the Washington-Jerusalem relationship. Tensions could also flare up, of course, in case Israel is portrayed as the guilty party for the fact that the peace process is stalled. The Jewish community in the US may find itself in an uncomfortable position, especially in light of the claims that American foreign policy in the Middle East is influenced by Israel and the Jewish lobby in a manner that is contrary to US interests.
This reality, in which Israel is named as the party that hindered the effort to make peace may lead, among other things, to the exacerbation of violence in the territories, a unilateral American plan for a permanent agreement, the increased political isolation of Israel, the rekindling of de-legitimization moves, and acceleration of the trend by world countries to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 border, as already proclaimed (December 2010) by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
The central and most urgent topics on Israel and the Jewish people’s agenda – the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Iranian nuclear threat – each bear weighty strategic implications. These issues, which are affected by the dynamics in the global arena and the US global standing, are involved in another strategic component whose importance cannot be overestimated – the Jerusalem-Washington-US Jewry triangle. The maturation of these issues into decision points may confront Israel and the Jewish people in the coming year with the need to make fateful historic decisions.
- The president tried on several occasions to send positive signals to Tehran. Thus, before the Iranian New Year (March 19, 2009), he sent a video message in which he expressed his wish for dialog and thawing; again, in his Cairo speech (June 4, 2009) he presented in an almost symmetrical manner the wrongs done by Iran alongside with the wrongs done by the US (when in 1953 it took part in the overthrow of “a democratically elected Iranian government”), clarifying that he understood those who protest against a reality in which “some countries have weapons that others do not”).
- Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Secretary of State, remarks at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy Seventh Annual Forum, Washington, DC (December 10, 2010).
- Palestinian spokespersons said that in the absence of progress in the process as outlined so far, they will consider approaching the international community and the UN for recognition of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders (an idea rejected both by Israel and the US).
- Statement of General David H. Petraeus, US. Army Commander, US Central Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee On the posture of US Central Command, March 16, 2010.
- “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, By George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn.