If all goes according to plan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will call on President Barack Obama at the White House next week for a visit postponed after Israel’s interdiction of the Gaza flotilla in June. All signs point to a continuation of the kiss-and-make-up efforts by two leaders who understand that public friction between the close allies serves the interest of neither.
That’s important. Symbols of a healthy alliance are critical to reassuring an Israeli public with good reason to be nervous about peace plans that seem ungrounded in harsh Middle East realities and to the plans of an administration that needs Israel as a partner, not an antagonist, as it pursues its wide-ranging foreign policy interests.
Symbolism is important in U.S.-Israel relations — but so is substance. And here there are worrisome indications that the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government continue to move in different directions, as Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren allegedly warned his colleagues the other day.
While making significant concessions to soothe Washington, Netanyahu seems to believe the time is not ripe for major advances in a long-stalled peace process, though some restless Mideast experts worry that the continued status quo will not help Jerusalem’s cause in the long run.
The Obama administration, while chastened out of its early optimism that a neophyte president would quickly broker progress, still clearly sees progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front as critical to its other regional and worldwide priorities. Pursuing peace is laudable; creating unreasonable linkages between a stubborn, vastly complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other U.S. interests can ultimately harm that effort by undermining Israeli confidence in U.S. involvement and convincing the Palestinians that they need not live up to their own obligations while waiting for American peacemakers to force Israel into concessions.
This isn’t to say the Obama administration should rubber stamp every last decision made by the Netanyahu government, though.
If the U.S.-Israel relationship is a genuine alliance, as we like to believe, it requires that both sides, while pursing their own national interests, take into account the strategic needs of their partners. That kind of give and take has too often been absent from U.S.-Israel relations. We hope next week’s Washington visit by Netanyahu will help restore it. Both leaders need to do more to show the U.S.-Israel alliance is a two-way street.
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