On March 18, the day after Israel went to the polls, it looked like the score for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was 1-1: He had won reelection but lost the White House. On his way to winning, it seemed, he had created an unprecedented crisis in United States-Israel relations, especially in trust between the two countries’ leaders.
To some extent this was an optical illusion: The election results weren’t as clear-cut as reported, and the spat between Washington and Jerusalem is not the first. But it definitely escalated during the campaign, and a central task facing the new government is improving relations. What is to be done?
First, a word about the election results. Netanyahu’s Likud did win 30 seats, compared to 24 for the left-wing Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog. But in a multiparty system, things are complicated. The total for the right-wing bloc of parties dropped to 57 seats, down from 61 last term. To form a government, Netanyahu had to reach agreement with all the other right-wing parties plus the centrist Kulanu Party—a challenge even greater than the one he faced after the 2013 election.
As for clashes with United States administrations, perhaps the worst was set off by Israel’s 1956 conquest of the Sinai. Under intense pressure from President Eisenhower, Israel withdrew. Another case: Ronald Reagan is remembered as a pro-Israel president. But his presidency began with an open rift with Israel over his decision to sell AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Menahem Begin saw this as a direct threat to Israeli security. Pro-Israel lobbyists took the fight to Congress, where the attempt to block the arms deal failed in a 52-48 Senate vote. But in the midst of the battle, Reagan promised to maintain Israel’s military advantage. After the vote, relations between the White House and Jerusalem recovered.
Now, though, several different factors are compounding the crisis. Most prominent is the preliminary accord with Iran on its nuclear program. President Obama sees it as making both America and Israel safer; Netanyahu describes it as a threat to Israel’s existence. Netanyahu’s early March speech to Congress, against a deal that had not yet been reached, became a cause of tension in itself: It placed Netanyahu inside the American political debate and on the G.O.P’s side, against the president.
Netanyahu’s pre-election declaration that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch also put the prime minister in direct conflict with United States policy of seeking a two-state accord. He contradicted his own earlier commitments, and his attempt to walk back his statement after the election further damaged his credibility with the White House. Finally, there was Netanyahu’s Election Day appeal to voters, warning that “droves of Arabs” were descending on the polls, threatening the rule of the political right. That brought public censure: White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Netanyahu’s statement undercut the “democratic ideals that have been…an important part of what binds the United States and Israel.”
In light of these disagreements, media coverage that stresses poor personal chemistry between Netanyahu and Obama does a disservice to both of them. Their worldviews and stands on specific issues diverge. Personal tension is a result, not a cause.
Politically, though, no American administration can afford an ongoing clash with Israel. Strategically, no Israeli government can allow fraying of ties with the United States. I will leave it to analysts writing from inside the Beltway to suggest what Obama can do to mend the break. Writing from Jerusalem, I can point to four areas in which the new Israeli government can help.
The Iran dispute: The reality is that Israel does not have a choice between the preliminary accord with Iran and one it would like. As negotiations continue, the alternatives are a final deal close to the parameters announced on April 2 and no deal. If the talks fail, Israel’s position in Washington and European capitals will suffer if it is seen as a contributing factor.
The smart move is to stop the public campaign against America’s position. Criticism should stay in one-on-one meetings. Taking a cue from the AWACS experience, Israel should seek compensation in the form of increased military cooperation with America. Counterintuitively, it is best for Israel if an accord with Iran is reached quickly. A major cause of tension with America will evaporate.
The Palestinian issue: This is tougher, because the disagreement is not going away. Netanyahu’s new narrow coalition is solidly right wing, pro-settlement and opposed to Palestinian statehood. Even if Netanyahu were ready to risk that coalition by recommitting to a two-state solution, he would no longer be believed in Washington.
What the Israeli government can do is avoid confrontations. For instance, Israel collects customs and taxes on goods headed for the parts of the West Bank administered by the Palestinian Authority. It is supposed to transfer the funds to the P.A. monthly, but has sometimes held up the money during disputes with the Palestinian leadership. It would be prudent to refrain from doing so in the future.
Though freezing construction in East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements would improve the atmosphere, it is unlikely under Netanyahu’s coalition. Still, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu Party, with near-total control of housing policy, can minimize flare-ups with Washington. To solve Israel’s housing shortage, he should concentrate on building in urban areas inside the Green Line. Ostensibly, Kahlon’s brief is domestic—but the choice of where to build is a foreign policy issue.
The Arab minority and Israeli democracy: Knesset members on the right want to enact laws that would weaken Israel’s Supreme Court. The court’s rulings have defended civil rights. Such legislation would do further damage to Israel’s image as a democracy. In coalition negotiations, though, Kulanu rejected all such legislation. If Netanyahu needs a pretext within his own party for blocking these measures, Kahlon’s party has provided it.
The government can also show through positive actions that the Arab minority is fully part of Israel. The United List, which received the votes of most Israeli Arabs, has stated that its focus is improving the well-being of its constituents. The government should play ball, making a public effort to provide equal funding to Arab communities and equal opportunities for Arab citizens.
Israel, Republicans and Democrats: Israel needs to reestablish its neutrality in American politics. It can start by setting a policy that foreign-born Israeli diplomats will not be posted to the countries of their birth. This is a graceful way to replace the current ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, whose close ties to the G.O.P. have caused friction with the administration.
Netanyahu should also avoid a repeat of his political embrace of Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign, especially during Romney’s visit to Israel. The government can establish neutrality in the 2016 campaign now. It should announce a standard protocol for any visiting American candidates. Their host should be President Reuven Rivlin, not the prime minister; they should be offered the same menu of meetings and tours; their visits should be of the same length.
American and Israeli interests will never be identical, and the idea that there should be no daylight between their policies is unrealistic—particularly when the two countries have leaders from opposite sides of the political spectrum. But the goal of any Israeli government should be to minimize friction and reinforce the underlying alliance. The new government cannot waste time in returning to that approach.