"Everybody knows that relations with Israel have never been worse."
So thundered the venerable John McCain, foreign policy preacher and iconoclast par excellence, in a sermon from the mountaintop on one of last Sunday's talk shows. The Arizona senator was commenting on President Barack Obama's claim last week in Palm Beach, one he has oft repeated on the campaign trail, that U.S.-Israeli ties are stronger than ever.
Put aside the senator's characteristic bluntness, and the fact we're in the middle of campaign silly season. Is McCain right? And if he is, what's going on?
Having watched and worked on the U.S.-Israeli relationship for a good many years, I've struggled to gain some perspective on the matter. And the present moment has plenty of competition from the dramatic lows of years past: Dwight Eisenhower's threat to sanction Israel after its 1956 invasion of Sinai, Richard Nixon's threat to do the same if Israel didn't attend the Geneva conference in 1973, the flap between Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Menachem Begin over the president's 1982 Middle East peace initiative (Begin to U.S. Ambassador Sam Lewis when informed of the speech, "Sam, this is the saddest day in my life since I became prime minister."), and George H.W. Bush's war with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over settlements and Secretary of State Jim Baker's denial of loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 as a result.
But these previous lows notwithstanding, McCain is on to something. Crises and tensions have come and gone, but rarely -- if ever -- has there seemed to be such a permanent pall over the relationship. Its dismal state is even more perplexing when one considers that the body of the relationship -- security assistance and intelligence cooperation -- seems sound.
It's the head that's in trouble. Almost four years into their partnership, the two most important players -- Bibi and Barack -- still seem out of whack with one another both personally and on some key policy issues.
What's happening here? I've got a pretty simple diagnosis: Netanyahu's policies and suspicions about American intentions have combined with Obama's seemingly emotionless view of Israel to spell trouble. The absence of a common enterprise makes matters worse.
The Iranian challenge might still provide a grand reunion between the two parties. But if history is any guide, serious clashes between Israeli prime ministers and American presidents are not resolved by reconciliation but by the departure of one or the other. That may mean we're in for an extended period of turbulence: I'm betting that in this case, both Bibi and Barack may be around for the long haul.
This is hardly first time the U.S.-Israeli relationship has suffered from the clash between a right-wing prime minister and an American president. But unlike past occasions, when the right-wing prime minister was confident and secure -- Begin, Shamir, Ariel Sharon -- this time Israel has a leader who feels both insecure and surrounded.
The Likud's previous leaders were genuine and authoritative right-wingers. It's not that they trusted the Americans, though Begin did invest heavily in Washington. They trusted their own instincts and had the power and will to make decisions. Moshe Arens, Shamir's foreign minister, told the prime minister before his visit to Washington in 1989 that the Americans would cut his balls off. No doubt Shamir believed him. But the prime minister was still strong enough to cooperate with the Americans when they asked him in 1991 not to retaliate for Iraqi SCUD attacks, or when Baker pressed him to go to the Madrid peace conference.
Netanyahu is different. He's constantly looking over his shoulder, worried about his coalition and the loyalty of the right. And Bibi trusts no one: He's an ambivalent leader pulled by party, tribe, and family on one hand, and by the need to be loved and successful on the other. His policies, particularly on settlements and peacemaking, seem half-hearted and tentative. One day, he institutes a 10-month settlement freeze; the next day, he orders a building spree. One day, he endorses the principle of a Palestinian state; the next, he opposes the kinds of decisions required to make it a reality. He formed a national unity government to deal with the military conscription debate, then saw it collapse after he wasn't able to reach a compromise on the issue. No wonder the Israeli right, left, center, to say nothing of the Americans, don't really trust him.
If Bibi seems weak, Obama has left no doubt that he has strong views when it comes to the U.S.-Israeli relationship. And he hasn't changed his views of Israel or Netanyahu, even if his first failed run at the peace process and the impending presidential election have caused him to back off.
I've watched a few presidents come and go on this issue, and Obama really is different. Unlike Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama isn't in love with the idea of Israel. As a result, he has a harder time making allowances for Israeli behavior he doesn't like. Obama relates to the Jewish state not on a values continuum but through a national security and interest filter.
It's true that the president doesn't emote on many policy issues, with the possible exception of health care. But on Israel, he just doesn't buy the "tiny state living on the knife's edge with the dark past" argument -- or at least it doesn't come through in emotionally resonant terms. As the Washington Post's Scott Wilson reported, Obama doesn't believe the "no daylight" argument -- that is, to get Israel to move, you need to make the Israelis feel that America will stand by it no matter what. Quite the opposite: Obama appears to believe that Israel needs to understand that if it doesn't move, the United States will be hard pressed to continue to give it complete support.
In this respect, when it comes to Israel, Obama is more like Jimmy Carter minus the biblical interest or attachment, or like Bush 41 minus a strategy. My sense is that, if he could get away with it, the president would like to see a U.S.-Israeli relationship that is not just less exclusive, but somewhat less special as well.
No Common Project
Right-wing Israeli leaders have found ways to cooperate quite closely with American presidents in the past. But this time around, it's not so easy.
There are just no good answers to the region's problems. The peace process is stuck, and Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon seems impervious to sanctions or diplomacy. The Arab world is going through changes that will introduce even more uncertainty into Israeli calculations and make risk-taking on the peace process less likely. And as the president might say, let's be clear: Netanyahu is not going to offer the Palestinians a deal on Jerusalem, borders, or refugees that they will accept. Indeed, on the issue of a peace settlement, Obama's views are much closer to the Palestinians than to Israel.
The Iranian nuclear issue could still push the two countries closer together, even though they differ on the urgency of the threat and how to deal with it. If Israel should strike and the Iranians hit back, America will be most likely drawn in and engaged on Israel's side. Alternatively, if the United States attacks, we could see another Gulf War scenario, where the Americans plead with the Israelis to stay out even if provoked.
There's almost no scenario involving a military strike against Iran -- even if the Israelis struck without American approval -- that wouldn't create a need for intimate cooperation. However it plays out, Israel and the United States could easily find themselves in the same boat, and Obama and Netanyahu would be forced to work together closely as a result.
Short of that, however, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is in for a turbulent period. There will be no transformative moment here for the two main players. If Obama had a wish regarding Israel, it would be that anyone -- Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert -- replace Bibi. And when Bibi blows out the candles on his next birthday, he'll be wishing that Mitt Romney defeats Obama in November.
It's fascinating to consider that in the two most recent cases where American presidents clashed with Israeli prime ministers -- Carter and Bush 41-- both were defeated. Shamir also lost to Rabin in 1992, after clashing with Bush the elder. History could repeat itself in the case of both Obama and Netanyahu -- but what will be more intriguing and entertaining, however, is what happens if they both survive to go another round. Buckle your seat belts. It may be a wild ride.