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2013-2014 Annual Assessment

We cannot ignore the duality that characterizes the relations in the triangle of Jerusalem, Washington, and the American Jewish community. On one hand, there is a deepest sense of friendship that is evident in the United States’ massive practical support for Israel, particularly in the area of security. On the other hand, there is evidence of mutual anger and frustration. A reasonable scenario in which the differences between Washington and Jerusalem over the Iranian and Palestinian issues intensify may put the American Jewish community between a rock and a hard place. Public expressions of the pent up tensions that currently exist erupt from time to time in different ways. Thus, for example, the incident (January 14, 2014) that forced Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon to apologize for his harsh comments (“Messianic,” “Obsessive”) in attacking Secretary Kerry. And a repeat incident (March 18, 2014) in which Yaalon cautioned that if the American administration continues to show weakness in the international arena, U.S. national security would be seriously damaged48 – a remark that drew the harshest of responses from the administration.

The potential for tension on the other side of the Atlantic was also evident this year in the case of AIPAC’s involvement in an effort to pass congressional legislation to tighten the sanctions against Iran while negotiations with it were taking place. AIPAC and Israel were portrayed as trying to work against the president’s policy, and as those who were eager to involve the United States in a new war in the Middle East. While advocates of the legislation claimed that the talks’ success demanded keeping pressure on Iran, the administration explained that the enactment of additional sanctions would weaken Rouhani and the moderates in Iran, and would break up the Western coalition on Iran. AIPAC backed off the effort and thereby enabled its opponents to claim that it has lost some of its power.

The possibility of further strains in U.S.-Israeli relations, therefore, is growing as two strategic issues that have great implications for Israel’s future unfold. The first involves the scenario of an Israeli strike on Iran against the wishes of the American administration or of U.S. support for an agreement with Teheran that is unacceptable to Israel, and the second involves a scenario in which Israel is increasingly viewed as not having met Washington’s expectations with regard to progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Either of these is likely to strengthen the emerging – though as yet far from dominant – point of view in the United States in which Israel is portrayed as a state whose diplomatic foot-dragging and aggressive regional approach are harmful to U.S. national interests and with which American friendship is becoming increasingly costly. Advocates of this line in the United States claim that their country is liable to be dragged against its will into another war in the Middle East, that its image in the Muslim world is being damaged, that it is being pushed into isolation in international forums, and that it is being subjected to harmful criticism because of its support for Israel.

On the other hand, we cannot ignore the growing sense among Israeli decision-makers that the United States is no longer the same resolute and effective superpower Israel could depend upon in dealing with strategic challenges and in moments of truth. The image portrayed is of a weakened power that is seeking to renounce its role as “global policeman” and to lower the profile of its involvement in the region. Israelis view the erosion in U.S. standing and its unwillingness to exercise its deterrence capacities (such as against Russia, Iran, and in the Syrian arena) as having a harmful spillover effect on Israel’s deterrence capability.

The differences between the countries came to light in an interview President Obama gave to Bloomberg reporter Jeffrey Goldberg.49 Obama stated that the only factor preventing the creation of a regional front against Iran is the lack of a solution to the Palestinian issue. He accused Israel of failing to offer an alternative vision for how it will survive – in the absence of the two-state solution – as a Jewish and democratic state living in peace with its neighbors. He claimed that construction in the settlements has continued aggressively over the past two years – more so than anything seen for a very long time. And he warned Israel: “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.” The meaning of this statement is that, in the event that the negotiation route is blocked, the United States may no longer be able to protect Israel effectively against an international de-legitimization campaign as it has in the past. This warning was repeated in the remarks of White House official Philip Gordon, Obama’s representative at the conference on peace initiated by the Haaretz newspaper (July 8, 2014): “How will Israel remain democratic and Jewish if it attempts to govern the millions of Palestinian Arabs who live in the West Bank? How will it have peace if it is unwilling to delineate a border, end the occupations, and allow for Palestinian sovereignty, security, and dignity? How will we prevent other states from isolating Israel or supporting Palestinian efforts in international bodies if Israel is not seen as committed to peace?”50

But it was Secretary Kerry’s comments in a closed meeting that have provoked the most anger in Israel and among American Jews (April 25, 2014): “A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens – or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.”51 Although Kerry later apologized, it did not conceal the mood prevailing in the administration: a mix of significant criticism of Israel’s conduct, and reassuring rhetoric about the resilience of the relationship between the two countries. Thus, for example, the American envoy to the peace talks, Martin Indyk, said that “Unlike the ‘reassessment’ Kissinger did in the Ford administration, there is one significant difference: President Obama and Secretary Kerry would never suspend U.S.-Israel military relations as their predecessors did back then.”52 Tension between the two countries were also evident in the Israeli reaction to Indyk’s emphasizing Israel’s role in causing the talks to break down (mainly settlement construction and its failure to release a final set of prisoners). Unnamed official sources attacked Indyk personally in the strongest terms, calling him a “hypocrite” and accusing him of not taking responsibility for his part in the talks’ failure.53

Tensions between Washington and Jerusalem do not skip over U.S. Jewry. Critical comments about Israel (particularly Kerry’s use of the phrase “an apartheid state”) have drawn outraged responses from Jewish spokesman in the United States, but they have also caused discomfort as American Jews increasingly find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The delicacy of the Jewish predicament in the United States was revealed when it became known that Pollard’s release would likely be an element of the deal to extend the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. For example, former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, who opposed the deal, claimed that he has known Jews who were removed from Israel-related government projects after Pollard’s imprisonment, and that Americans with Israeli relatives have sometimes been denied top security clearance. Ambassador Dennis Ross, who supported the deal, has said that the Pollard case strengthened the stereotype that Jews cannot be trusted on issues related to Israel.54

U.S. Jewry is therefore likely to be challenged more stringently as gaps between Israeli and American positions become wider. The more Israel presses to “mobilize” American Jews behind the effort, and the more Israel operates in the administration’s political back yard (especially if perceived to be favoring Republicans), the more difficult the situation may become. Such a reality could discomfit the American Jewish community and make intra-Jewish divisions highly conspicuous, especially given the claims that American foreign policy in the Middle East is influenced by Israel and the Jewish lobby in a way that conflicts with United States’ own interests.