"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.