President Barack Obama has an Israel problem. Almost three years in, the president still can’t decide whether he wants to pander to the Israeli prime minister or pressure him. The approach of the 2012 elections makes the former almost mandatory; the president’s reelection may make the latter possible. Buckle your seat belts. Unless Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu find a way to cooperate on a big venture that makes both of them look good, and in a way that allows each to invest in the other, the U.S.-Israel relationship may be in for a bumpy ride.
The president’s view of Israel is situated in two fundamental realities. The first is structural and is linked to the way Obama sees the world; the second is more situational and is driven by his view of Netanyahu and Israeli policies. Together they have created and sustained a deep level of frustration bordering on anger.
Unlike his two predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama isn’t in love with the idea of Israel. Intellectually he understands and supports the pro-Israeli trope — small democratic nation with dark past confronts huge existential threats — but it’s really a head thing.
Clinton and Bush were enamored emotionally with Israel’s story and the prime ministers who narrated it. Clinton sat at the feet of Yitzhak Rabin — the authentic leader and hero in peace and war — as a student sits in thrall of a brilliant professor (some said like a son to a father). “I had come to love him,” the former president wrote in his memoirs, “as I had rarely loved another man.”
And Bush 43, though often frustrated in the extreme with Ariel Sharon, loved his stories of biblical history and more contemporary war tales. Bush reacted — as he did on so many issues — from his gut, certainly when it came to Israel’s security. While flying with Sharon over Israel’s narrow waist, the then-governor said, “We have driveways in Texas longer than that.”
The main source of Obama’s view of Israel lies in his broader assessment of conflict and how problems are resolved. Obama didn’t get his vision of Israel from the movie “Exodus,” in which the Israelis are cowboys and the Arabs are Indians. Nor does he have Clinton’s Southern Baptist Bible sensibilities or Bush’s evangelical ones relating to Israel as the Holy Land.
Obama’s views came from another place: his own logic, the university environment in which he developed intellectually and his own moral sensibilities. And according to this view, the Arab-Israeli dispute isn’t some kind of morality play that pits the forces of good against the forces of darkness. Instead, it’s a more complex tale, not of heroes and villains but of a conflict between two rights and two just causes. It’s also a conflict that is vital to American interests. And those interests are being threatened by the divide between those who want a solution and are serious about moving toward one, and those who aren’t serious about finding a solution and throw up obstacles. After three years, the president has clearly placed the Israelis in the latter category and the Palestinians in the former.
The tendency to look at Israel analytically instead of emotionally, and to view the conflict through a national-interest prism rather than some sort of moral filter, dovetails with Obama’s poisonous relationship with Netanyahu. Obama doesn’t like him, doesn’t trust him and views him as a con man. The Israeli prime minister has frustrated and embarrassed Obama and gotten in the way of the president’s wildly exaggerated hopes for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he’s been pursuing with more enthusiasm than viable strategy since his inauguration. To make matters worse, when the president went after a settlements freeze, Netanyahu called his bluff and Obama backed down — a terrible humiliation.
It’s worth pointing out that tensions between American presidents and Israeli prime ministers are fairly common, particularly between Democratic presidents and tough Likud prime ministers. Two things tend to ameliorate them, but only temporarily. The first is a joint project, usually an Arab-Israeli peacemaking one, in which both sides invest in the other and come out looking good. Examples include Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin’s peace treaty with Egypt; Bush 41 and Yitzhak Shamir’s Madrid peace conference; Sharon and Bush 43’s “war on terror.”
The second fix doesn’t so much ameliorate the problem as eliminate it. That would be the political defeat of one or the other and the emergence of a new cast of characters that can create a more functional relationship. This is precisely what happened in the case of Bush 41 and Shamir — Clinton and Rabin emerged to take their place. In the case of Carter and Begin, Ronald Reagan became president — one of the most pro-Israel presidents in American history. Even so, he too wrangled with Begin, although the American-Israeli relationship got stronger.
What’s so intriguing about the near future is that neither a viable joint project nor a change in leaders may take place. The Iran nuclear issue is a wild card in all of this. The impact of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear sites can’t be gamed out, but a pretty good case can be made that the consequences would bind the U.S. and Israel closer together, particularly in the event of a tough Iranian response.
In the end, the Barack-Bibi relationship is likely headed south because the trust and capacity to give each other the benefit of the doubt has long ago evaporated. If both are still in office in 2013 when the political dust settles, the game of gotcha will continue. Newly empowered but still wary and suspicious, neither will be in the mood to kiss and make up.
Without some common enterprise to bind them together, and with a great many issues to drive them apart (settlements, the peace process), relations will get worse, taking their toll on the U.S.-Israel relationship; Israel’s security; American interests; and, for certain, any remaining hope for a two-state solution.
• Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations.