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July 20, 2018 9:51 am

The US-Israel Strategic Relationship: An Israeli Minister’s View

avatar by Tzachi Hanegbi

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US President Donald Trump at the White House. Photo:
Reuters / Kevin Lamarque.

The US-Israel relationship has a deep and long history — on many levels, and across a wide spectrum of issues paramount to both nations. From Harry Truman’s recognition of the state of Israel to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as its capital, the US has played an outsized role in Israel’s ongoing story. Every American administration, Republican and Democratic alike, has made its mark on the relationship. There have always been disagreements between Israeli and American administrations, as there are occasionally between even the most steadfast of friends. But taken as a whole, the strategic relationship has endured and strengthened over time.

I have served in the Knesset for 28 years, including 11 years as a minister and ten as the chairman of various legislative committees. Throughout my career, I have been consistently struck by the depth and breadth of the ties between the two nations.

In recent years, this relationship has seen moments of great cooperation and friendship, but also periods of significant tension. At times, particularly during the Obama administration, Israel’s core interests were overlooked and our actions and motives were misunderstood by Washington. I’m sure this feeling was mutual. Both in good times and in bad, relationships take work, and as I have learned, with each US administration, the challenges and nuances of the dialogue are a bit different. How we navigate the international waters when our biggest ally sees eye to eye with us — and, perhaps more interestingly, how we manage to do so when our interests do not align — is what I will examine below.

 Common values, shared interests

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The first time that I had an opportunity to witness first-hand the unique relationship between the United States and Israel was in my capacity as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s chief of staff in 1986. In meetings between Prime Minister Shamir and US Secretary of State George Shultz, disagreements arose, particularly concerning the Reagan administration’s initiative to convene an international peace conference. Prime Minister Shamir opposed this idea and was adamant that only direct negotiations between Israel and our neighbors could bring peace. Despite this disagreement, it was fascinating to see how the meetings remained friendly and intimate. This was in marked contrast to meetings with other nations — even allies — where disagreements often created a feeling of tension and animosity.

To me, at the core of our partnership are the shared values and beliefs of our two nations, such as liberty, the rule of law, entrepreneurship, and the free market. At the next level is the relationship between our respective security and intelligence communities, which has been vital to the foreign policy and national security interests of both sides. And the top level is the political echelon: Several US presidents and Israeli prime ministers forged a close personal relationship, and even mutual admiration, that further enhanced and strengthened the strategic ties between the nations.

Surely, tensions and disagreements at the political level may arise — and have arisen — from time to time. But because of the depth of the relationship as a whole, these do not undermine the core of the alliance.

For example, national security experts in both countries overwhelmingly agree it would be detrimental to our armed services and intelligence agencies, as well as the national security of our nations, to allow strategic cooperation to suffer because of a political disagreement.

But how should the Israeli government, as the representative of the Israeli people, make foreign policy decisions when Israeli and US interests seem to be heading different ways? It goes without saying that our mandate and ultimate concern is to protect and serve Israel and the Israeli people. However, since we view the bond with the US as a strategic asset for Israel, we often ask ourselves how our decisions may affect US interests, and the robustness of the relationship between the two nations.

Against this backdrop, we acknowledge that Israel at times must defer to what the US sees as a fundamental interest — not only because the balance of power and resources tilt strongly in our ally’s favor, but because Israel views a strong and engaged US as a strategic asset important to our overall national security.

The Obama years

The Obama presidency was one of the most challenging times for the US-Israel relationship. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu famously, and openly, clashed. Nearly all of these clashes focused on two issues — Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, and the Iranian nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On both issues, the Obama administration made policy decisions that we felt had adverse effects on the Middle East and ran counter to our core interests.

Many aspects of the strategic relationship flourished during the Obama presidency, even while there were public disagreements over the Iran deal and settlement construction policy. Military cooperation and aid to Israel reached unprecedented levels, including joint development and US funding of the Iron Dome missile interceptor system. And, of course, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu concluded the largest ever memorandum of understanding on foreign aid for a period of 10 years.

​​Nevertheless, there were times when tensions seemed to reach almost unbearable levels. In 2015, Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the US Congress to express Israel’s opposition to the emerging agreement with Iran. In Israel, across the political spectrum — including in large factions of the opposition — there was a consensus that the nuclear agreement posed grave dangers to Israel and the world. The prime minister very clearly laid out these dangers.

In Israel, while there were some voices in opposition, the prime minister received broad support for his decision to address Congress on this critical issue. However, in the US, especially within the Democratic Party, Netanyahu’s move was viewed as a personal insult to President Obama. We gave considerable attention for those voices, but the prime minister felt that while there was an element of risk in openly clashing with the administration, the issue was vital to our national security, and that ultimately the countries’ relationship is stronger than the chemistry between their leaders.

I was the only member of Knesset to accompany the prime minister to Washington for his address, and in my conversations after the speech with members of Congress from both parties, I was impressed that they appreciated it was an exceptional moment. And while it was clear to me we cannot dictate or change their feelings about the interests of the US, I felt from them genuine sympathy for Israel and for the prime minister’s decision to openly express our concerns.

President Obama’s approach to the Middle East

Public opinion polls consistently showed that the Israeli public was very skeptical of President Obama’s policies towards Israel and the Middle East. While many saw Prime Minister Netanyahu as responsible for this, the fact is President Obama’s actions early in his presidency set the stage. Six months into his term, at a meeting with American Jewish leaders, President Obama made clear that he sought to create public daylight between the US and Israel. When he made his first trip to the region, he not only excluded Israel from his schedule, but delivered a speech in Cairo that Israelis found deeply troubling. In one passage, he suggested that the legitimacy for Israel’s establishment and existence was rooted in the Holocaust, borrowing a narrative commonly used to delegitimize Israel, rather than the Jewish people’s millennia-old connection to our ancestral homeland.

These were critical missteps. Trying to achieve progress between Israel and the Palestinians by creating a gap between Israel and the US sends the wrong signals to both parties. When the US appears at odds with Israel, the Palestinians harden their position. Israel has historically been more willing to take chances, or “risks for peace,” when Israel trusts the US administration. This was not the case with President Obama, and it hurt his ability to make progress on an already extremely difficult issue.

The Obama administration put the onus on Israel, believing it was Israel’s responsibility, as the stronger power, to make concessions. It prioritized the settlement issue above all others, making sustained negotiations, let alone reaching an agreement, far more difficult. The heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009 was the same as it was in 1948 (and the same as it is now). The reason for a lack of peace and a viable peace process has not changed. The conflict is not about the borders of Israel or any Israeli action; it is about Israel’s very existence.

The Obama team never appreciated this fundamental fact. That is why they believed pressuring Israel was the path to peace. But pressuring the party committed to peaceful coexistence is not the way to reach peace.

We also found challenging the Obama team’s belief in the flawed concept of “linkage” — the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is linked to all other ills in the region, and that a Palestinian state would serve as a panacea for the entire Middle East. To begin with, this has little basis in reality — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not, after all, bombing his people because the Palestinians do not have a state, and the Sunni-Shia divide will not miraculously heal if the Palestinians achieve sovereignty. But more importantly, making clear to the Palestinians that the US viewed their aspirations as the key to solving regional issues important to American interests was a tactical blunder. It served to toughen Palestinian demands to the point where true progress was all but impossible.

 The Trump administration: A new era?

The Trump team came into office without the type of long-term policy experience most administrations bring to the table. President Trump was elected in large part to change things in Washington, and many of his choices for posts important to Israel lacked a long track record to analyze. And while President Trump had just run an extraordinary, and obviously effective, campaign for the presidency, he was far better known for his success as a developer and television personality than for his views on the complicated issues facing the Middle East.

Of particular concern were some pronouncements, under the slogan of “Make America Great Again” — which sounded neo-isolationist. As I mentioned earlier, American engagement and leadership in the world, and in particular the Middle East, is very important to Israel’s strategic outlook. If the US were to withdraw from the world and look inward, it would be negative for Israel and many other states across the region and around the world.

Now that the Trump administration has spent over a year in power, most of the neo-isolationist concerns — as they relate to Israel — appear to have been unfounded. The president has surrounded himself with individuals broadly in sync with Israel’s views on the challenges and opportunities of today’s Middle East.

President Trump and his team, including new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, view Iran as an aggressor and a problem to be confronted in the region, rather than a partner to be engaged and appeased. While this perspective is very encouraging, the coming months and years will be critical to see how they put positive inclinations into practice.

President Trump recently withdrew the US from the JCPOA, and announced the reimposition of US sanctions on Iran. There are some who believe this will isolate the US. While the move has alienated some American partners in Europe and elsewhere, it is extremely difficult to truly isolate the most powerful economic and military power on Earth. Just as the international community went along, largely against its will, with crippling sanctions against the Iranian regime before the JCPOA, it will accept American sanctions against Iran now.

Israel stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the US and President Trump as he moves forward with steps to truly prevent Iran from reaching the nuclear weapons threshold, halt its ballistic missile production, and reign in its malign activity across the region. And the Sunni Arab world also supports strong moves that reassert American leadership in the region.

A regional approach to the peace process

The Trump administration, and in particular Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt, has made clear it believes that a regional approach is necessary to reach a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Trump team correctly views the region as the key to solving the issues between Israel and the Palestinians, rather than the other way around. Nothing will make a regional approach more feasible than weakening Iran. The Iranians abhor the idea of Arab-Israeli reconciliation as a threat to their aspirations in the region. It appears the Trump administration is moving towards holding Iran accountable for its actions. This is good news for the entire Middle East. 

That being said, direct face-to-face negotiations leading to compromise is still the only way to reach a viable deal between Israel and the Palestinians. However, there are issues, such as refugees, that will require the cooperation of surrounding nations. And on the political level, the broad backing of the Arab world will make it easier for the Palestinians to make difficult compromises.

In the not-too-distant past, the notion of Arab nations helping Israel forge a lasting peace was fanciful at best. But in today’s Middle East, Sunni Arab states are fully cognizant they face real threats — most significantly, from Iran and international terror groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. One country they do not see as a threat is Israel. And significantly, they have come to realize that Israel shares their assessment and is a uniquely qualified partner in facing down threats to regional stability and prosperity.

The Trump administration is still relatively new. There is hope in Israel that a new approach can sideline bad actors while empowering those who strive for peace and prosperity. Nothing President Trump can say or do will make it easy to achieve the “ultimate deal” or any deal at all. But the US is still, without question, the world’s one indispensable nation. With clear-eyed and strong leadership, it is possible to make positive changes even to the most intractable conflicts.

An enduring partnership

Notwithstanding which president or party controls the White House, the bonds between Israel and the US are strong and deeply rooted. This relationship makes me optimistic about my country and the Middle East as a whole.

Times and faces have changed, but the US has been Israel’s most valuable and trustworthy ally throughout my life in politics. That being said, it is not something Israel, or the US, should ever take for granted. Like any meaningful relationship it takes work to maintain, and the regional and political dynamics we face today create both challenges and opportunities. As we move forward in a chaotic region and a chaotic world, I am confident that Israel and the US will continue to work together to advance peace and prosperity whenever we can, and to stand by each other’s side even when we cannot.

Tzachi Hanegbi heads Israel’s Ministry for Regional Cooperation. He has served in the Knesset since 1988, including eleven years in several ministerial positions, and six years as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Hanegbi has headed the Ministries of Health, Justice, Internal Security, Environmental Protection, Transportation, and Communications, and was also minister in charge of Israel’s intelligence services and the strategic dialogue with the United States. Hanegbi served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces. He earned a B.A. in International Relations and an L.L.B from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

This article originally appeared in The Arena — Journal of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations, published by the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at IDC Herzliya, chaired by Ambassador Ron Prosor.

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