"Washington, we have a problem": How can Israel-U.S. relations be restored?
By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | Spotlight: Israel & The Middle East | June, 2021
Photo: United States government work | Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz
The recent escalation in Gaza has once again unveiled Israel's deteriorated status in the United States. During the events, the Democratic Party and its constituency, including its Jewish voters, were more critical of Israel than before, and the same was true even in Congress - Israel's most prominent stronghold of support.
During the course of the fighting, a majority of 28 out of 50 Democratic senators in the U.S. senate issued a call for a ceasefire that contrasted with Israel's standpoint. A comparison between Operation Guardian of the Walls and Operation Protective Edge reveals a striking difference between the two, for, ten days into the latter, a vast majority in senate had passed a bipartisan and unconditional statement of support for Israel. Clearly, the critical approach to Israel in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has influenced the mainstream among its ranks too, as well as the views held by its strongest allies, such as longtime senator Bob Menendez. When the Gaza campaign ended, these dynamics forced President Biden to underscore that U.S. commitment to Israel's security (and FMF funds) has not changed, and that the region must recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish, independent state as part of the two-state solution.
Despite his declared support for Israel, President Biden's relations with Jerusalem have reached a low, strained point. As soon as he was elected, and before he had even set foot inside the White House, the steps taken by Israel enraged his camp: the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh, attributed in the U.S. to Israel, and perceived as an attempt to thwart the return to a diplomatic route with Iran; last-minute construction permits in Judea and Samaria, some of which were outside the blocs; delay in the recognition of Biden's victory in the elections due to sympathy for President Trump, and more.
The charged atmosphere between Israel and its greatest ally continued after Biden assumed office. He deliberately postponed his first telephone conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and chose not to mention Israel when noting the United States' close allies in his first speech on foreign policy. Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his part, kept voicing his vehement objection to the United States' intention to return to the nuclear deal with Iran, while signaling to the administration that Israel was preparing military alternatives vis à vis Iran.
Strategically, prospects of tension and friction between Israel and the U.S. administration focus on three core issues: Iran, China, and the Palestinian arena.
Iran – Biden and the cabinet members he appointed had drafted the original JCPOA. They believe in it, and view the return to it as a solution for the foreseeable future that will enable them to grapple with more pressing matters on the United States' set of national priorities, at the top of which is the Chinese challenge. For strategic and global reasons, the U.S. administration is determined to return to the nuclear deal, and Israel's efforts to prevent it from doing so emerge as futile.
Under these circumstances, the Iranian challenge and return to the JCPOA, that have become an Archimedean point between Israel and the United States, could reflect negatively on the overall relations between the two allies. Thus, Israel's ability to receive U.S. support and guarantees it requires may be impeded both with respect to Iran and in a wide range of other arenas.
China – The U.S. administration regards victory over China as a historical, almost "religious" task it is determined to complete. First, in its view, China is threatening the U.S. economy, the rehabilitation of which is key to global leadership. Second, China poses a direct and severe military threat to the United States at sea, in the air, on land and in space; as well as in non military areas such as cyber, technology, intellectual property, etc. Third, the U.S. administration is perceiving the competition with China as a struggle for world order, liberty, and the supremacy of the democratic system. Fourth, the U.S. administration is convinced that American global lead in this race is crucial in order to solve the world's pressing transnational issues, such as the climate crisis, proliferation, cyberattacks, pandemics, and more.
The American strategy focuses on the establishment of an international front of democratic countries versus China. In the great power competition, being in the technological lead is key. The U.S. administration is therefore promoting an ambitious technological alliance project between democracies consisting of various aspects including protection and shared development of emerging technologies.
Israel's policy vis à vis China could exclude it from the international front the United States is pursuing. Washington has been clear in its messages to Israel, some of which were made publicly, voicing its concern about the level of its oversight on Chinese investments, particularly in the technological sector, which place American interests at risk.
The Palestinian arena – The Biden Administration is not expected to initiate an effort to renew the peace process because it recognizes that the chances of setting its wheels in motion at this stage are very slim. Nevertheless, the recent escalation in Gaza may lead to increased American involvement in the Palestinian arena, if only in order to ensure that the regional security balance and stability remain intact, with no event threatening to spin out of control, and force the United States to digress from its strategic set of priorities.
Under such circumstances, gaps are still emerging between Israel's policies and the immediate objectives set by the Biden Administration with respect to the Palestinian arena: promoting an international package for rehabilitating Gaza in coordination with the Palestinian Authority; renewing its commitment to Palestinian safety and economy in the West Bank, as well as to strengthening Abu Mazen and the PA (while renewing its ties via the East Jerusalem consulate).
From a broader perspective, Biden personally believes that the two-state solution is the only way for Israel and the Palestinians to move forward. His administration has therefore warned of unilateral steps on the ground that could undermine future prospects of establishing a Palestinian state. Israel's ongoing objection to the two-state solution and the expansion of construction in settlements, particularly the legitimization of unlawful outposts and "a creeping annexation", are expected to cause disagreements between Israel and the United States, making it more difficult for the latter to garner American support for Israel's standpoint vis à vis the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
A new Israeli government: An opportunity for restoring Israel-U.S. relations
The forming of a new government in Israel serves as a clear opportunity for a restoration policy in Israel's relations with the United States. The U.S. administration is expected to welcome both prime minister and senior members of the new government with open arms.
The new government must address the dangerous emerging trends in attitudes toward Israel within the United States, and adjust Israel's policies as well as its relations with the Biden Administration on the three core state security issues (Iran, China, and the Palestinian arena) accordingly.
The incoming government is required to set up an inter-ministerial team that will focus on forming an urgent policy for addressing the challenges posed by Israel having become the key foreign affairs issue dividing the Democratic Party, the severe damage to its being an apolitical bipartisan consensus; and the decline in levels of solidarity with it, even among Jewish Americans, particularly the young generation.
As for Iran, the Israeli government should cease to engage in its futile confrontational attitude toward the return to the JCPOA, for it only leaves it isolated internationally, and could turn the Iranian issue into an Israeli problem. Instead, the Israeli government is advised to pursue quiet bilateral guarantees and understandings with the U.S. administration based on the latter's declared and unequivocal commitment to Israel's national security, as well as the two countries' shared understanding that Iran must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapon. The quid-pro-quo dialogue with the U.S. administration must focus on ways of reaching a stronger and longer agreement with Iran, as well as the steps to be taken in the event that such an agreement fails to be reached: supervision of the Iranian nuclear program to ensure that Iran does not break or sneak out to nuclear weapon; early identification of such activities and guarantees for the thwarting of such attempts within a relevant timeframe; maintaining a credible military threat against the Tehran regime; aspects of force buildup and capabilities, and more.
With regard to China, the Israeli government should set a long-term goal of being incorporated into the democratic states front being established by the United States, including technology aspects (where Israel brings real assets to the table). Israel is also required to decide on a strategy of full support of American interests vis à vis China, while conducting itself in full coordination and transparency with the U.S. administration on all aspects associated with Israel's relations with China.
On the Palestinian challenge, Israel is advised to collaborate with the steps taken by the U.S. to stabilize the Palestinian arena: rehabilitating Gaza; strengthening the Palestinian Authority as a governing system capable of managing the life of the Palestinian population; and avoiding unilateral steps that could threaten long-term two-state solution prospects. President Biden's declared standpoint whereby the states in the region must recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish, independent state could serve as an opportunity in this context.
Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental.
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