A core claim of the pro-Israel movement is coming under intensified attack as shifting Obama administration priorities renew questions about whether Israeli and U.S. interests are automatically in sync.
Recent claims by officials here that pressing Israel and the Palestinians to end their conflict is critical to other U.S. interests around the world, including Gen. David Petraeus’ suggestion that the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict was hurting U.S. interests around the globe and putting the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk — comments later taken back by the military leader — set the stage.
But it was an op-ed column by Martin Indyk the former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv — and a onetime official of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby — that some activists say may have opened a door to a seismic shift in the debate over how much U.S. and Israeli interests actually overlap in a changing world.
Some top pro-Israel leaders see the change coming, and they’re unhappy about it.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the argument goes back to the earliest days of the Jewish state’s existence but has gained new power in recent years because of Israel critics like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.
“What we are seeing is a much more open and legitimate-sounding discussion of whether Israel is no longer the security asset to the United States that we assumed, and maybe a liability,” Foxman said.
That has fueled “linkage” theories tying strong U.S. efforts to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to other vital U.S. interests, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the faltering effort to keep Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.
The Obama administration has adopted linkage as a central tenet in its Middle East policy, Foxman argued. And even as the president and his foreign policy team ratchet up statements about undiminished support for Israel, the idea that Israeli and U.S. interests on key issues may be fundamentally at odds erodes an alliance that is critical to Israel’s security and to the confidence of its people in moving forward with peace efforts.
But others argue that the insistence that there is never any gap between U.S. and Israeli interests is often a ploy meant to inhibit U.S. criticisms of particular political positions in Israel.
“This idea that there is no daylight between the U.S. and Israel, which pro-Israel groups have been harping on for years, is offensive to many American Jews,” said M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer, longtime peace process advocate and a blogger who frequently criticizes American Jewish leaders.
Historically, close allies have always quarreled about fundamental policy issues, he said. But in the case of the United States and Israel, even relatively low-key criticisms from Washington are often treated as grave violations of the “special relationship” by Israeli leaders and their supporters here, Rosenberg argued.
More and more, there is an imbalance in how that alliance plays out, in an environment in which Israel’s friends here wield significant political power, he said.
“With so many, the idea of the special relationship is that Israel sets the policy and the U.S. goes along with it,” Rosenberg said. “It’s a bizarre situation in which the tail says the dog must be in total conformance with all its policies.”
But that argument has not affected public opinion. A Quinnipiac poll last week pointed to growing dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations. And it is not visible in Congress, where few challenge the popular view that U.S. and Israeli national interests are almost identical — at least publicly.
Behind the scenes, there’s no big shift, but a bit more nuance.
“There’s some quiet, back-room talking,” said a congressional source who was not authorized to speak on the record. “More and more we are hearing the conversation that there’s a difference between an alliance and doing everything Israel wants, and that there’s a difference between being a pro-Israel activist and being an advocate for one particular government or political party in Israel.”
But congressional sources also say that with critical midterm elections in the offing and Democratic members increasingly nervous that they will be blamed by Jewish voters and campaign givers for rising tensions between the Netanyahu government and the Obama White House, few see any signs the discussion will move into the public realm — or change the broad public support for positions advocated by the pro-Israel lobby.
While “linkage” has been a hot topic since the arrival of the Obama administration and its outreach to the Islamic world, there was a major phase shift in the discussion last week with the publication of Martin Indyk’s op-ed on “When Your Best Friend Gets Angry” in The New York Times.
Indyk argued that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to stay away from Obama’s high-profile nuclear summit in Washington earlier in the month demonstrated the one-sided nature of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel.
“That an issue of as much strategic import to Israel and the United States as Iran could be subordinated to the demands of Netanyahu’s right-wing government underscores the growing divide between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government,” he wrote.
While Jewish leaders argue vociferously against any hint of linkage, Indyk argued linkage is a reality and that Israel’s refusal to acknowledge it and act accordingly undercuts some of its own broad strategic interests, including its interest in stopping Iran from going nuclear.
Indyk writes of a significant shift in thinking in Washington that began even before the Obama administration hit town.
“It actually began three years ago when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared in a speech in Jerusalem that U.S. ‘strategic interests’ were at stake in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a judgment reiterated by Obama last week when he said resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is a ‘vital national security interest’ for the United States,” he wrote. “In other words, this is no longer just about helping a special ally resolve a debilitating problem. With 200,000 American troops committed to two wars in the greater Middle East and the U.S. president leading a major international effort to block Iran’s nuclear program, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a U.S. strategic imperative.”
Shifting U.S. interests mean “Netanyahu must make a choice: take on the President of the United States, or take on his right wing,” Indyk wrote. “If he continues to defer to those ministers in his cabinet who oppose peacemaking, the consequences for U.S.-Israel relations could be dire.”
Others agree that the linkage idea and the corollary that U.S. and Israel interests may be increasingly at odds are gaining traction in mainstream circles, but they argue the results will be damaging not just to U.S.-Israel relations but to American interests.
“The problem is naiveté in the Obama administration,” said Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University. “The president came into office with the assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is by far the most central urgent problem in the region — which it is not — and that it is the key that unlocks everything else in the region. And they believe the [Israeli-Palestinian] situation was ripe for progress, which it absolutely isn’t.”
The ADL’ Foxman said that “all of President Obama’s advisers, except for Dennis Ross, are advocates of linkage. The fact is, this is becoming counterproductive.”
Martin Raffel, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said that while there will “always be disagreements over tactics, perhaps of prioritization, when you look at the broad scope of U.S. and Israeli priorities, our interests do overlap to a very large measure.”
Raffel denied that pro-Israel forces have used the “no daylight” argument to win American acquiescence to Israeli policies, while Israel’s leaders feel no obligation to support U.S. policy goals.
Other pro-Israel leaders have argued that while helping Washington with its foreign policy priorities is important, Israel does not have any margin for concessions that undermine its security.
But Hadar Susskind, director of strategy for J Street, said the alliance has become distorted.
“Our point all along is that this ‘special relationship’ has to be a two-way street,” he said. “There’s no case in which you can say, ‘this relationship is so special that you always have to do what I say, and I don’t have to acknowledge any of your needs.’”
The current imbalance, he said — with Israel arguing that its special relationship requires U.S. acquiescence and Washington frustrated that its perceived needs are often ignored in Jerusalem — is one reason for the current round of U.S.-Israel tensions.
More and more, he said, his group — which advocates a more robust U.S. peace effort and has defended the use of pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians — is “seeing more people, including Martin Indyk, who are willing to acknowledge that reality.”
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