The period of Obama’s presidency signaled worrying trends regarding the future of U.S.-Israel relations, the depth of support for Israel, and an emerging foreign policy doctrine that does not necessarily align with Israeli government policies. Opinions are split as to what extent these trends will continue to define the U.S. approach to Israel and American foreign policy in the future. The answer to this question will greatly impact the resilience of the triangular relationship: Jerusalem – Washington – the U.S. Jewish community.
Israel has become a partisan issue in the United States in recent years. The Pew Research Center determined that in relation to the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, a majority of Americans remain on Israel’s side (54 percent vs 19 percent). However, support for Israel diminishes significantly among liberal Democrats. Forty percent of them support the Palestinians while 33 percent support Israel. The change in this faction – which is gaining strength within the Democratic party – in taking the Palestinian side has doubled since 2014 (21 percent vs 40 percent).24 Other political decisions and the overall direction taken by Israel also influence Americans’ view of it. Thus, the Washington Post published an editorial against the NGO Bill (January 2, 2016) entitled “A Danger to Israeli Democracy,” in which it warned of an erosion of democratic values in Israel. 25 Even the State Department’s spokesperson released a public statement regarding this bill (July 12, 2016) saying that the U.S. is “very concerned by the potential impacts of this legislation.” 26
Ambassador Dan Shapiro, questioned the manner in which Israel relates to the harming of Palestinians, “At times there seem to be two standards of adherence to the rule of law: one for Israelis and another for Palestinians” 27 (January 18, 2016).
American Jewish leaders have expressed concern about the erosion of a consensus in America that there is a deep foundation of shared core values at the base of the special relationship with Israel. They warn that the statement: “This isn’t the Israel we knew” is heard more and more frequently, and that this fuels de-legitimization and calls for boycotts against Israel, especially among young liberals.
The Obama administration doubts the Israeli government’s commitment to the vision of a twostate solution. This is the case despite Netanyahu clarification in a meeting with Obama (November 9, 2015): “I remain committed to the vision of two states for two peoples with a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as the Jewish state.28 Secretary of State Kerry warned at the “Saban Forum” (December 5, 2015) of a deterioration toward the reality of one state without a Jewish majority, and called on Netanyahu to prove his support for a twostate solution is “not just a slogan.” Following Israeli announcements on settlement expansion beyond the 1967 lines, the State Department spokesperson harshly criticized Israel (July 28 2016), noting the “provocative” actions that “are the latest examples of what appears to be a steady acceleration of settlement activity that is systematically undermining the prospects for a two- state solution.” 29
The Israeli-American agenda remains packed with significant issues, even in the final months of Obama’s presidency. A new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Israel and the United States for defense aid over the coming decade was signed (September 14, 2016), following a difficult negotiation period, during which Netanyahu had said: “Perhaps we will not succeed in achieving an agreement with the current administration and will need to reach an agreement with the next administration.” 33 Israel explained that its defense needs are growing due to weaknesses in the nuclear agreement, the lifting of sanctions on Iran and the thawing of tens of billions of frozen dollars that will allow Iran to increase its subversive behavior in the region and allow it to continue arming Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Arab states are purchasing advanced arms in light of the Iranian threat that could, eventually, be turned against Israel. Additionally, Islamic terror is creeping up on Israel’s borders, while the threat of ballistic missiles aimed at Israel grows.
According to the MOU, Israel will receive a sum of USD 38 billion over ten years (2019-2028). Israel commits to not appeal to Congress for additional funding for defense expenditures, and even commits to return any funding Congress appropriates without the administration’s approval. Israel will also gradually reduce the 26 percent of the defense aid that it can currently direct toward Israeli defense industries. Critics of the MOU claim that Israel would have been spared these harsh limitations were Prime Minister Netanyahu more careful in his relationship with President Obama, and had he avoided conflicts with him. According to them, the nominal growth in the agreement (from USD 3.5 billion per year in the previous decade to USD 3.8 billion per year for the next decade) does not make up for the decline in the value of the dollar and increasing prices for weapons systems. The agreement’s supporters, however, claim that the United States has never granted such a large sum of defense aid to any other nation, and that the deal ensures the continuation of the special relationship with the United States that is critical to Israel’s resilience.
Following the signing of the MOU, perhaps the issue of greatest controversy relates to the possibility that President Obama may withhold the U.S. veto – and maybe even promote – a UNSC resolution that would define the parameters of a final agreement between Israelis and Palestinians (discussed in the previous section). President Obama will likely leave certain decisions on a range of issues related to Israel to his successor, each of which requires a deep strategic dialogue between the two countries:
- Will the view in Washington that the Middle East is less important define the next president’s foreign policy?
- If and how does the U.S. intend to rebuild the trust it has lost in the eyes of many in the Middle East?
- How will the U.S. ensure strict enforcement and verification over Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement?
- How will Washington react to defiant behavior by Iran in areas not covered by the nuclear agreement?
- Does the U.S. wish to remain dominant in defining Syria’s future so that it doesn’t turn into a forward base for Iran and anti-Israel jihadist elements?
- How will the U.S. conduct its campaign against ISIS: will it continue the current strategy, influenced by a reluctance to embark on another ground campaign in the Middle East, or will it employ a more aggressive strategy to hasten the defeat of ISIS?
- How will the next administration handle the balance of power between Iran and Saudi Arabia? Will it continue to grant legitimacy to Iran’s desire to be a regional power at the expense of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni camp?
- Will the next administration continue to promote cooperation with Egypt, or will relations cool based on its discomfort with the regime’s retreat from democratic values and human rights?
- Will the next American administration continue to significantly support Jordan to ensure its stability?
- Will the next administration try to grant momentum to the emerging relationship between Israel and the moderate Sunni states?
- How will the next administration prepare for the expected leadership change in the Palestinian Authority?
Will the next administration seek to lead a renewed Israeli- Palestinian peace process, or will it accept the “internationalization” of efforts to reach a solution to the conflict? Jerusalem’s ability to conduct a strategic dialogue on these issues in order to achieve positive results (from its perspective) depends on Israel’s willingness to fulfill – at least in part – some of Washington’s expectations. Ambassador Shapiro expressed this in a piercing question: “What tools can Israel provide to assist us in our global diplomatic defense of Israel, to which we will always be committed?” (January 18, 2016).