Analysis & Opinions - Crossfire

Playing with Fire

| December 21, 2009

The triangular American-Israeli-Palestinian relationship is fundamentally asymmetrical. Israel is a close ally and enjoys a "special relationship" with the US based on shared values, a strong domestic constituency and an historic American commitment to her security and well-being. Over the decades, Israel has enjoyed broad bipartisan support; small fluctuations notwithstanding, some 60 percent of Americans have consistently been pro-Israel, while only some five percent favor the Palestinians (the remainder have no opinion).

Nevertheless, we are at a turning point in US-Israel relations. The cool wind blowing from Washington since President Barack Obama entered office is not an aberration, a fleeting period of an unfriendly president, but a possible sign of things to come. While overall support for Israel remains robust, Israel has largely lost the support of liberal America and more and more people simply no longer understand or sympathize with her. A "Europeanization" of American opinion is taking place wherein Israel is increasingly viewed as the aggressor and obstacle to peace. For this reason alone, the "special relationship" is under significant strain.

It is further undermined by long-term trends in American society. Although the alienation of the liberal community and assimilation among Jews have been underway for decades, these processes have peaked. Israel-bashing is now the cause celebre among the young and liberal and is making inroads among conservatives as well. One can dirty the waters of a well for just so long and we are at that point now. Future administrations may be friendlier than the current one and Obama himself is not anti-Israel, but we can no longer count on this: the US-Israel relationship appears to have peaked.

Some have concluded that PM Binyamin Netanyahu "got the better" of Obama in recent months, circumventing his demands for concessions and in effect "teaching him a lesson". In the short term he did, indeed, deflect Obama's demands and the administration appears to have gained a more realistic understanding of what can be achieved, based on its experience both with Netanyahu and the Palestinians.

Nothing, however, would be more dangerous than the belief that Netanyahu "won". American presidents do not like to be "taught lessons", certainly not by almost totally dependent client states. Sooner or later, Obama will show who is truly in charge. Although Netanyahu is said to think "American"—he certainly has the accent—his actions threaten to undermine relations with the United States, one of the fundamental pillars of Israel's national security. His grudging concessions to the US (recognition of the two-state solution and temporary settlement freeze) have prevented a crisis so far, but a showdown is likely. At that time, Israel's dependence on the US will manifest itself, especially in light of the Iranian issue.

For the Palestinians, the US is the great "balancer" in the fundamental asymmetry between them and Israel. They are fully cognizant of the nature of the US-Israel relationship. Yet the American role in the peace process and support for at least some Palestinian positions greatly offset Israel's otherwise overwhelming strength. The Palestinians may be closer in outlook to Europe and enjoy widespread international support, but only the US can "deliver Israel" and provide what they seek, an independent state.

Most Americans do not have an instinctive sense of identification with the Palestinians and are repelled by their terrorism, radicalism, corruption and dysfunctionality. Nevertheless, the Palestinian narrative of the origins of the conflict and the means of resolving it is capturing American public opinion. If only Israel would end settlements and the occupation and agree to a Palestinian state, Americans increasingly believe, all would be right.

The Palestinians, however, also risk the dangers of complacency in their relations with the US. The Obama administration will presumably continue its efforts to promote the peace process for the foreseeable future, but ongoing Palestinian intransigence and dysfunctionality may lead the administration to a Bush-style conclusion that the traction simply is not there for significant American involvement. Indeed, US involvement has already lost steam—witness the demise of the Mitchell mission. The ongoing separation between the West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza coupled with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' combination of rejectionism (Olmert's generous offer) and tenuous leadership are taking their toll as well.

Both Israel and the Palestinians constantly vie for US support and are willing at times to make concessions to it that they are unwilling to make to each other. Under presidents Clinton and Bush, US-Israeli coordination on the peace process was great and carefully nurtured by both sides. Under the Obama administration, neither Israel nor the Palestinians appear well coordinated with Washington. In risking American ire, both Netanyahu and the Palestinians are "playing with fire".

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, recently completed a book on Israeli national security decision-making processes.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Freilich, Chuck.“Playing with Fire.” Crossfire, December 21, 2009.