Voice

Warning: Turbulence Ahead

Mitt Romney has a point: Barack Obama is no Israel-lover. And if the president wins a second term, expect a major clash with Benjamin Netanyahu.

"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.

Bibi's Suspicions

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.

Obama's Convictions

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.

Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images

Reality Check

Five Reasons Why the Two-State Solution Just Won't Die

For Middle East peace, it's the only game in town.

By all accounts it's time to say a kaddish -- the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead -- over the idea of a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel.

A recent article in the National Interest, running under the cover "Requiem for the Two-State Promise," provides a compelling eulogy and funeral oration all in one. And Stephen Walt, a fellow FP contributor, once again attributing most of the ills of Western civilization to the "Israel lobby," all but buried two states on his blog last week.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, signs of the two-state solution's demise aren't exaggerated.

Israeli settlement activity continues unabated. In fact, in a truly bizarre and tortuous bit of twisted logic, a recent report by a committee created by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually recommended sanctioning the Israeli activity.

The Palestinian national movement is deeply divided between Fatah (itself split) and Hamas, the rival ruling parties, and resembles a veritable Noah's ark, with two of everything: mini-states; constitutions, prime ministers, security services; funders, and so on. And the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) is too busy right now trying to decide whether to dig up the remains of a truly dead entity -- Yasir Arafat -- in an effort to figure out the cause of his demise. Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, Israel -- run by the deepest unity government in its history -- is unified around a coalition agreement that ensures a do-nothing approach on this issue for at least the next year.

As for U.S. President Barack Obama, well let's just say he's busy and not interested in getting into a fight with a tough-minded Israeli prime minister over an idea whose time -- to put it mildly -- hasn't yet come.

Still, hope springs virtually eternal. Anyone truly worried about the demise of the two-state solution shouldn't be. It will live on both as an idea and maybe even a reality if Israelis and Palestinians ever get serious about paying the price and seriously negotiating a solution. And here are five reasons why.

1. An Unsustainable Status Quo

Unlike a deal with Syria over the Golan Heights, the absence of an accord with the Palestinians has always carried a real cost and urgency. Just compare the numbers of Israelis and Syrians who have died as a result of their conflict to the number of Israelis and Palestinians killed by one another since 1967 in theirs. There's simply no cost-free status quo between Israel and the Palestinians. Proximity, demography, and geography guarantee it. The two peoples are living on top of one another. Benjamin Franklin had it right: Proximity breeds children, but also contempt. Violence, anger, and frustration will only grow as occupier and occupied play out their roles in close quarters. And this means continuing terror, violence, confrontation, and repression.

That doesn't, of course, mean the Israelis and Palestinians are ready for a deal or that the two-state solution will be achieved. But the search will continue interminably -- sometimes seriously, sometimes not -- like the quest for the Holy Grail, Elvis sightings, and the search for signs of life on other planets.

2. The Least-Bad Option

Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, Winston Churchill famously observed. And Churchill knew something about Palestine, too. His logic is relevant. In the solution department -- and, trust me on this one, solution departments in capitals all over the world won't stop trying on Palestine -- two states is by far the least objectionable outcome. Not that it's problem- or risk-free. But the other alternatives -- the one state illusion, the Jordan option, Israel's annexation, and the status quo option -- are much worse. Whether it's just as a talking point or an actual initiative, the two-state paradigm is here to stay.

3. Israeli Politics Demands It

Just because Netanyahu may not be all that interested in a serious negotiation leading to an independent Palestinian state doesn't mean that other Israeli politicians aren't. Indeed, in his own government, the prime minister is surrounded by those who have tried to reach an accord (Defense Minister Ehud Barak) or want to (Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz). The recent acquittal of Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister who offered much better terms to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 and 2008 than Barak did at Camp David, in 2000, opens up the possibility of another serious two-stater returning to the Israeli political scene.

But it's not just the politicians. Recent Israeli polls continue to show high levels of support for a two-state solution among the Israeli public. Right now, there's no urgency. Indeed, the national unity government reflects a "we don't want to be bothered with the peace process" mentality and a focus on domestic issues.

But the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in one of its manageable and less urgent phases shouldn't mask the degree to which it can get hot again, or the extent to which Israelis are still troubled by the occupation and the international criticism it causes. Israelis consider themselves a moral people with humanistic values. And while much can be rationalized in the name of security, the occupation is at odds with that self-image. Much like the British in India, Israelis are susceptible to moral considerations, particularly those they impose on themselves. Israel needs a counternarrative, an alternate vision. And with all of its flaws, the two-state solution provides it. Forget the Palestinians -- Israelis need the idea of two states for themselves.

4. The Palestinians Are Stuck with It

Ignore all this talk about Palestinians abandoning the PA, returning the keys to the Israelis, or actively working toward a one-state solution. Palestinians are stuck with the two-state paradigm, and they know it. Since 1994, when the Gaza-Jericho agreement allowed Arafat to return to Ramallah, the Palestinians have been building the institutions and infrastructure of their putative state with the acquiescence and often grudging support of Israel and the international community. If and when Palestinian statehood is ever achieved, Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, will deserve much of the credit for actually constructing the framework of a state even while negotiations remain at an impasse. It's a gamble, to be sure, but one based on a line from one of Kevin Costner's better movies, Field of Dreams: Build it, and -- who knows? -- maybe they will come.

Which is not to say that Palestinians are optimistic. That state-building effort has been going on in various forms for nearly 20 years now. An entire generation of young Palestinians in the West Bank and even in Gaza has grown up with the Israeli occupation, but also with the strange phenomenon of state-building too. There's deep ambivalence here. Earlier this year, Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki found that 45 percent of Palestinians believed that their first and most vital goal should be ending Israel's occupation and building a Palestinian state. At the same time, 68 percent felt that chances for establishment of such a state in the next five years were slim to nonexistent.

The center of gravity in the Palestinian community has now shifted, probably irrevocably, from the diaspora to Palestine, with hopes and aspirations forcibly scaled back. Even in Gaza, the religious manifestation of Palestinian nationalism -- Hamas -- rules over a stable polity and has seen its own visionary goals tempered by the realities of governance and its shrinking options in the Arab world. With Bashar al-Assad's Syria melting down and Iran under pressure, Hamas's external leadership finds itself without a good home -- a development that only reinforces the one the internal leadership already controls in Gaza. It's the irony of ironies that even with the peace process in a coma, the Palestinian leaderhip's default position is -- you guessed it -- efforts to gain recognition at the U.N. for a Palestinian state.

5. Too Big to Fail or Succeed

Without hope and perhaps illusions, there's no life. A Palestinian state might never be born, but it's unlikely to die anytime soon, either. Too many folks in too many places have a stake in keeping the idea alive and working to make it a reality. Let's not forget that we're talking about the Holy Land here: Jerusalem remains the center of the world for millions of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. This isn't some backwater operation in Africa or the ‘Stans. A great many people care about this issue and are simply unwilling or unable to admit that peace in the much- too-promised land might not be possible.

Despite my own annoyingly negative take, solutionists the world over won't let this one go. That includes one Barack Obama, who two days after his inauguration appointed a presidential envoy to work the problem. Should he gain a second term, the president won't be able to resist playing the peacemaker (how serious or successful he'll be is another matter).

So, solutionists and peace processors everywhere: Don't despair. The peace process is like rock and roll -- it's never going to die. And it will be back. And when it does return, standing at the center of it all will be the much maligned, much hoped for, and much overpromised two-state solution.

JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/GettyImages