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Can US-Israeli relations be repaired after Israel’s election?

Regardless of the Israeli election result, larger forces are at play that transcend the personality clash between Obama and Netanyahu and will likely sour the US-Israeli relationship

The fallout from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress on the nuclear negotiations with Iran poses an important question: is there a long-term structural fissure between the US and Israel, or is this simply a personality conflict between Obama and Netanyahu?

With the Israeli elections coming up on 17 March, the answer is particularly important, as it indicates whether a change in leadership can resolve a potential structural fissure, or if it will simply mask over those deep policy differences with more welcoming handshakes and cosmetic smiles.

Obama and Netanyahu certainly do not get along well, indicating that, at the very least, there is a real conflict between leaders. However, this personality conflict has metastasised to the extent that it has laid bare the significant policy disagreements on Iran’s nuclear programme and, to a lesser extent, the Palestinian issue.

This public rift between the US and Israel likely cannot be resolved by a new Israeli prime minister, as Netanyahu’s opponents, if elected, are unlikely to implement significantly differing policies from those of the Likud leader.

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have both made their dislike for one another public, a relative rarity in US-Israel relations. In May 2011, Netanyahu lectured Obama in a joint press conference, cavalierly rejecting a peace proposal the US president had articulated the day before.

A few months later, a “hot mic” caught Obama telling then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, “You’re fed up with [Netanyahu], but I have to deal with him even more often than you.” Next, in a highly unusual intervention in an American presidential election, Netanyahu made his strong preference for Mitt Romney clear, hosting the Republican nominee in his office to break the Sabbath fast together. This ongoing tension culminated in Netanyahu’s 3 March address to a joint session of Congress, in an attempt to derail Obama’s ambitious quest for a diplomatic settlement with Iran on the nuclear issue.

Netanyahu’s apparent scepticism over Obama’s commitment to Israeli security and international position is misplaced. The Obama administration has committed over $900 million to Israel’s missile defence system known as Iron Dome, and has aggressively opposed recognition of Palestinian statehood in international bodies. Furthermore, in 2012, then Defence Minister Ehud Barak said, “this administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security more than anything that I can remember in the past”. Even Netanyahu himself prefaced his congressional address with a nod to Obama’s support for Israel’s missile interceptors and its support at the UN.

While the melodrama makes good fodder for pundits, the reality is that larger forces are moving these states in different strategic directions. Since the election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran, the Obama administration saw a sudden opening to reverse over three decades of enmity and resolve the thorny nuclear issue.

Soon after the election, President Obama placed a historic phone call to his Iranian counterpart; he indicated that the two discussed a shared desire to resolve the nuclear issue. As Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group said at the time: “The biggest taboo in Iranian politics has been broken. This is the beginning of a new era.”

In Tel Aviv, that new era was not greeted with enthusiasm, to say the least. Israel has long objected to the Islamic Republic’s funding of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah as well as the fierce anti-Israeli rhetoric among some of its leadership. Netanyahu in particular has turned perceived fears about Iran into an endless source of political capital, domestically and internationally.

According to Israeli analyst and Brooklyn College historian Louis Fishman, in an email to the authors: “[Netanyahu’s] constant insistence on keeping this on the agenda… ‘raised the bar’ on the debate. Every major Israeli politician has had to take a similar stand, at least officially. Regardless of the extent of the threat, his hammering this in has created a reality that there is a threat.”

Regarding the Palestinian issue, despite the criticism of Netanyahu’s conduct articulated by Zionist List leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, there is little indication that there is the political will in Israel to begin the work of settlement dismantlement in the West Bank, a step that any two-state solution would require. This again continues a trajectory of divergence between the United States and Israel on a key policy area.

With the budding growth of American progressive sentiment on Palestine, Democratic politicians may find it increasingly difficult in the long run to adopt “progressive except Palestine” positions.

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, younger Americans tend to offer less support for Israel than adults over 50. The survey found that “a 39 percent plurality of those over 50 say Israel’s response to the conflict has been about right, compared with 22 percent who say it has gone too far. Among those under 50, about as many say Israel’s actions have been excessive (29 percent) as appropriate (33 percent).”

With Israel both opposed to a deal with Iran as well as unable or unwilling to move on the Palestinian issue, the shifting dynamics of American Democratic party politics are resulting in a partisan divide that is a significant departure from decades-long bipartisan support for Israel.

Clearly, the shift has not yet been felt with regard to the Palestinians. Despite contradicting the official US position on settlements, the US still staunchly supports Israel on the Palestinian issue. However, the newly breaking fault line on Iran and shifting perspectives within the Democratic Party, particularly its progressive wing, could result in a similar divergence on Palestine.

 - Kayvon Afshari is the Director of Communications for the American Iranian Council, a think tank dedicated to improving US-Iran relations and Michael Brooks is a contributor on the award-winning political talk and analysis show The Majority Report. He also hosted Intersection on Aslan Media.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: US President Barack Obama speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, 1 October, 2014 (AFP)