Trouble in Paradise

“Words matter”. So said White House spokesman Joshua Earnest following the pledge of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on the eve of is re-election to reject a two-state solution.  Since then tensions between the United States and Israel have reached an unprecedented nadir. The Obama administration has been heaping on the pressure with senior figures lining up to pour scorn on Netanyahu’s remarks.

Image courtesy of the White House (Pete Souza), © 2013, public domain

Image courtesy of the White House (Pete Souza), © 2013, public domain

Most dramatically, Obama has refused to accept Netanyahu’s backpedalling over his comments about Palestinian statehood and stated that the U.S. will take his comments at face value and “reassess” the U.S.-Israeli relationship. The question is whether this is mere bluster following Netanyahu’s slight towards the president at his Congress speech or part of a broader long-term decline in relations between the two allies.  The changing geostrategic situation and the shifting American political landscape suggest the latter.

Whatever equivocation Netanyahu now seeks to make, the fact remains that just a day before the national election he stood in an illegal settlement in East Jerusalem and vowed never to agree to a Palestinian state and to continue building settlements in occupied territories. Such comments cannot simply be brushed under the carpet. Progress towards a two-state solution lies at the heart of America’s commitment towards Israel and is the principle caveat for its unconditional support.

Following Netanyahu’s comments, the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, addressed a conference of liberal Jewish activists in no uncertain terms that “an occupation that has lasted for almost fifty years must end”[1]. Such impassioned words are not merely the expression of Obama’s personal ire. A two-state solution has bipartisan backing in the U.S. with the Republican platform listing it as a key pillar for its support for Israel.  James Baker, Former advisor to George H W Bush and now campaign advisor to his brother Jeb, highlighted the fact that “it’s not simply a segment of Democrats and White House officials who are tired with the lack of progress towards an agreement”.  Baker expressed his exasperation with “the lack of progress regarding a lasting peace — and I have been for some time”.  He also pointed out the prevailing view in the American political establishment that, “in the aftermath of Netanyahu’s recent election victory, the chance of a two-state solution seems even slimmer, given his reversal on the issue.”[2]

While Jeb Bush has aligned himself as staunchly pro-Israel going into the campaign, these comments can be taken as a sign of the shifting sands in the American perception of Israel’s approach to negotiations with the Palestinians. Put simply, the Israeli and American stance on the Palestinian issue has reached a critical point of departure. Whilst the American mainstream still believe in a two-state solution, the proposal has died in the Israeli political discourse. The recent election attests to this. While the right refused to cede anything to the Palestinians, the left sought to ignore the issue entirely. Poignantly, a 90-minute election debate with eight party leaders saw the word “peace” mentioned only five times.[3] Netanyahu’s sweeping to victory is merely symptomatic of this trend.

Given that the prospect for peace is as distant as it ever has been, the question is how future U.S. presidents, of either party, will choose to react. It would seem unlikely that any would countenance a rerun of the 2010 debacle over settlement freezes. Following Obama’s request for Israel to freeze settlement building in the occupied territories, the interior minister announced a new round of settlements as Vice-President Joe Biden arrived for an official visit.

This sheer acrimony and dismissal of peace efforts is a reality that future American administrations will have to contend with. If, as has occurred historically, the Palestinian population rise up in violence due to the stalled progress in negotiations, America may be forced react. As Obama’s threatening rhetoric continues to fall flat, the possibility of a U.S. refusal to veto a unilateral UN resolution establishing a Palestinian state is becoming increasingly possible.

State department spokeswoman Jen Psaki refused to deny that America could possibly accept a UN resolution that may be put to them. She cryptically told journalists, “We’re currently evaluating our approach. We’re not going to prejudge what we would do if there was a U.N. action”[4]. At present, the American line is that negotiation is better than unilateral action at the UN. How much further this narrative will have to dip into fantasy before it is junked is yet to be seen.

Beyond this, Israel’s place as a vital regional bulwark is waning. Obama’s ‘pivot’ towards Asia served to underscore America’s lack of appetite for further entanglements in Middle Eastern conflicts. This hands-off approach is set to outlast the current war fatigue as America’s energy interests in the region recede. The advent of shale oil will lead to America producing half the oil it consumes by the end of this decade. By 2035 it is set to become entirely energy self-sufficient.

Israel’s position as a vital security asset may also decline in relevance. If the deal with Iran goes ahead as planned, this may usher in a new dawn for strategic U.S.-Iranian cooperation and stability in the Middle East. America’s air campaign against Islamic State is a case in point. Both states have an interest in defeating IS to protect their respective interests in Iraq. It is alleged that Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s overseas engagements has held back his proxy militias from attacking American assets in Iraq[5]. In return, America has provided Iran with intelligence relating to terrorist threats to Lebanese security agencies known to be under the thumb of Hezbollah. Such groups are Israel’s greatest enemy yet they have aided America’s efforts to quell the fallout of the Syria crisis by locking up cells of the terrorist group known as the Nusra Front.

Despite huge reticence in Congress about any cosying up to the Islamic Republic, Iran is likely to become an increasingly vital ally in combatting America’s greatest threats in the region. Such a situation runs counter to the sentiments of all sides in the Israeli political sphere. They hope to keep Iran as an isolated pariah ad infinitum and Netanyahu and his opposition have condemned a deal with Iran on any terms. The Iran deal is therefore likely to hasten a divorce in U.S.-Israeli strategic interests.

In American domestic politics, the once invincible wall of support for Israel is beginning to crack. Democrats who used to be in the supporting camp have begun to defect. Senior Democrats such as Al Franken and Elizabeth Warren, both of who supported Israel in its most recent conflict with Hamas, decided to Boycott Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. Now many Democratic candidates are being challenged on their views on Israel. This is an unprecedented shift where previously the Israel topic was a wholly uncontroversial area of American politics, garnering unanimous bipartisan backing.

Since President Ford first “reassessed” America’s relationship with Israel in 1975, successive administrations have talked tough on peace and eventually pandered to Israel’s reluctance. With the changing geopolitical environment and the developing domestic political discourse, America may finally summon the gumption to look at its greatest strategic liability and say, “enough is enough”.