The Obama administration and the Netanyahu government are both well trained in handling the occasional US-Israel crisis. For five years they have been bickering and calming down, seething and amending the relations, trading insults and clarifying, lecturing and attempting to converse. It’s been a long and rocky journey from one crisis to the other, and it has rarely been hidden from the public. Yet the two governments have often had an interest to conceal its severity: they generally prefer calling it “differences of opinion”, pretending it’s over “tactical issues” (as if the strategy is still the same) and emphasizing that when it comes to “security matters” – namely, the things that really matter - the cooperation is unprecedented.
They can keep doing that if they want – but at this point it is hardly convincing.
If a crisis is something of a temporary nature, these two governments aren’t just facing another “crisis” over the US’ unexplainable “announcement this week that the United States would work with a new Palestinian government that emerged from reconciliation talks with Hamas”. If a crisis is a temporary misunderstanding, an eruption of disagreement, what the US and Israel have on their hands is much more troubling than another crisis – it is a permanent state of dispute. It seems like something that can no longer be amended.
Three days ago, Rob Satloff of the Washington Institute wrote an interesting short story about the steps leading to the misunderstanding about Hamas. Israel got “assurance” from the US on Hamas, but the two countries cannot agree on its exact details: Israel was led to believe that the US isn’t going to work with a Hamas backed government while the US was only not going to work with a government that “consists of Hamas”. There is something almost comical to this Talmudic debate. Yet, Satloff writes, “it is sadly disconcerting that Washington and Israel do not seem to share identical views on the details of this important U.S. assurance”. It is disturbing because one gets the sense that these two governments no longer aspire to understand one another - their only goal is to mutually manipulate one another.
This should not come as huge surprise, and hence I believe that some of the anger we see on the Israeli side is manufactured. The shock is the beginning of the attempted battle over the new Palestinian government – a war that Israel hopes to wage through Congress. It will hope to sway Congress to its position not because it wants to fight with the Obama administration or because it wants to show the administration who’s boss. It will do it because it has zero, or close to zero, confidence in its ability to convince the administration on this matter and most others. The Obama team, following the failure of the latest round of peace talks, has painted a target on Netanyahu’s back and is now shooting.
And of course, Netanyahu is not blameless in this deterioration into mutual disrespect, mistrust, and detachment. He could have done more to tame his ministers from sticking needles into the peace process trial balloon. He could have shown more good will, and could have been less grim faced. But his faith in the fairness of this specific American mediator has long ago dissipated. On the two main issues of the day – Palestine and Iran (in reverse order) – Netanyahu looks at Obama and realizes that the differences are not tactical and that the gap is not over small details and technicalities. We should assume that Obama sees the same picture: a wide gap, not a small disagreement.
When two governments have little faith in one another and there is a wide disparity in the way they view the most important issues (at least the most important ones for Israel), the only choice they are left with is manipulation. Obama is trying to isolate Netanyahu, to punish him for his alleged misdeeds, and to prevent him from putting pressure on Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas – that is the meaning of the US’ possible recognition of the Fatah-Hamas government. He is also trying to weaken Netanyahu’s position overall, in hope that this will also disable him from disrupting the US-Iran negotiations.
Netanyahu has the opposite goal. He wants to signal to the Palestinians that forming a Hamas backed government has a price. He wants to prevent a bad US-Iran agreement – and in Israel almost all professionals agree that the US is rushing into a deal with Iran that is not even remotely compatible with Israel’s wishes.
So this isn’t a crisis, where the two sides get angry, calm down, sit down to bridge the differences, and move forward together. This is a permanent state of confrontation. Surely, a confrontation between two countries which are also close allies; Surely, a confrontation that is between two administrations and not between two peoples or two states; Surely, a confrontation alongside which there are still wide areas of cooperation. Yet a confrontation it is that is not likely to end anytime soon.
A similar article I wrote for Maariv Daily appeared in Hebrew today.