One of the repeated refrains you hear from American and Israeli leaders about the close relationship between their two nations is that there must be no daylight between them.
This week there was a genuine sunburst separating the two nations.
First, Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that the failure to negotiate a final status agreement with the Palestinians could lead to a "third intifada" and further international "isolation" for Israel. Days later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only blasted US diplomatic efforts to reach a deal with Iran over its nuclear program but openly encouraged American Jews to speak out against the potential agreement.
While both sides have tried to tone down the rhetoric, the public spat is not an isolated incident. It's an inevitable outcome of the United States pursuing a policy agenda in the Middle East that is increasingly divergent from Israeli interests – one that Netanyahu and the Israeli government seems incapable of fully acknowledging.
The most notable flashpoint between the US and Israel is quite obviously Iran. Since taking office, President Obama has sought a deal to end Iran's efforts to build a nuclear weapons. While this is clearly in Israel's interest, it's the outlines of a possible agreement that is the problem. The Israeli position of no uranium enrichment, even for peaceful purposes, the removal of all enriched uranium from Iran and the shutting down of all enrichment facilities is a negotiation non-starter – and stands in sharp contrast to the US position.
Israel, which faces a much more serious threat from a nuclear Iran than the US, is, of course, welcome to take a more hardline position. However, such opposition does not occur in a vacuum. Accusing the US of basically selling out Israel after President Obama has spent the past five years working diligently to stifle Iran's nuclear program is both unfair and also diplomatically unwise. It risks creating a significant rift with Israel's closest and most important foreign ally (and provider of several billion dollars in foreign assistance). Ultimately, no bond is more important to Israel's long-term security than the US-Israel relationship and Bibi's recent statements are widening the gaps between the two countries and in a way that is more likely to harm Israel than the United States.
Even worse, Netanyahu appears focused on trying to torpedo any chance of an agreement, altogether.
This is a dangerous game that if successful would not only create a fundamental breach between the US and Israel, but would almost certainly increase the likelihood of Iran actually getting a clear nuclear capability. Without a deal, Tehran will have little reason to stop its uranium enrichment program (even if remaining still short of producing an actual nuclear bomb). A deal with Iran remains the best hope of delaying that possibility – short of the use of military force – which is far from guaranteed to work in delaying Iran's nuclear ambitions and would even further isolate Israel.
But the Iran negotiations are only one part of the current rift between Washington and Jerusalem. There are also the current peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. It should perhaps go without saying that the right wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu did not willingly and happily join these negotiations. And the betting odds are that Bibi will ultimately balk at the concessions necessary to make peace. Coming on the heels of this week's Iran blow-up, failure to reach a deal risks putting Israel in a potentially intractable position.
If no deal occurs, will the United States blame both sides equally, hold the Palestinians responsible (as was the case after the Camp David negotiations in 2000) or will they be openly critical of Israeli (ie Netanyahu's) intransigence? Will the continuation of the status quo – and a permanent occupation of Palestinian territories – fundamentally change US attitudes toward Israel? No one can say for sure, but as tensions in the US-Israel relationship grow greater over Iran such thoughts should not be far from Netanyahu's mind. If he is counting on Obama to continue expending significant political capital for a leader who undermines not one but two of his key foreign policy objectives, he might be in for a surprise.
Of course, Netanyahu has played this game for a while with the Obama Administration. After all, he basically endorsed Mitt Romney during the 2012 election. Part of Bibi's calculation is almost certainly that he could always depend on strong support from the American Jewish community and in turn Congress.
Yet even here Bibi is doing himself no favors. On Sunday, he spoke in Jerusalem to the Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly – an influential group of North American Jewish leaders. In disparaging the potential "bad deal" with Iran, Netanyahu went beyond mere criticism and said to his co-religionists:
We are the Jewish state. We are charged with defending ourselves and we are charged with speaking up. And it is time now to speak up – all of us. All of us have to stand up now and be counted.
The next day Israeli right-winger – and member of Netanyahu's government – Naftali Bennett made clear what this meant, "Before the talks resume, we will lobby dozens of members of the US Congress to whom I will personally explain during a visit beginning on Tuesday that Israel's security is in jeopardy."
The US-Israel relationship is so unusual that such comments rarely seem to garner much attention. But they are amazing nonetheless. A close ally of the US makes clear its intention to lobby the US Congress to scuttle a US foreign policy objective in defense of another country's security. Try to imagine any other nation doing something like that.
Netanyahu's words are even more troubling because he is basically asking American Jews to put their religious allegiance ahead of their national one.
Together, these comments are both an affront to the American government and to American Jews who though welcome to live in Israel have chosen to express their religious and cultural identity in the United States.
But putting aside propriety, Netanyahu is misjudging American Jews (pdf) and their attachment to the Jewish state. Such demands for tribal solidarity will be welcomed by some but ignored – and even further alienate – by the increasing number of American Jews who feel less and less of a connection to Israel.
In the end, it's hard to see how widening fissures with the one country essential to Israel's security – and pursuing policies that will further isolate Israel – is a smart political play. But then again, no one ever accused Benjamin Netanyahu of being much of a long-term thinker.
To be sure, part of what we are seeing is the inevitable push and pull between close allies. But there is something much deeper going on here. The Obama Administration has made clear both in actions and in words that it wants to lessen its presence and role in Middle East politics. The current Israeli government doesn't appear to have gotten the memo. Netanyahu may win the battle on Iran and even with the Palestinians, but he – and the nation he leads – runs the very real risk of moving forward increasingly on its own.
© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited