Signs of a rapprochement between Iran and the United States have added a combustible new layer of disagreement to the already thorny relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv. In common with other US partners in the Middle East, Israeli leaders have long expressed concern that their regional interests might be jeopardized in any ‘grand bargain’ that the US might reach with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program. The interim agreement reached in Geneva on November 24 has fueled Israeli suspicions that a damaging gap in strategic vision has opened up with Washington over the most important ‘red line’ issue for Tel Aviv. The result is an atmosphere of incomprehension and disappointment in Israel at the turn of events during the presidency of Barack Obama.
The Geneva interim agreement symbolizes the unprecedented tensions in the bilateral relationship that has for six decades underpinned US policy in the Middle East. Whereas Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, denounced the deal as a “historic mistake,” US Secretary of State John Kerry directly contradicted him, stating that the agreement would make Israel and the region a safer place. Such a blunt exchange of views highlighted the polarization of views that now separates Washington and Tel Aviv and reaches to the very highest levels; President Obama himself added his support for offering Tehran some relief on sanctions in exchange for progress in the nuclear negotiations, as he has urged Congress not to vote to impose even stiffer economic measures on Iran. His comments, like Kerry’s, demonstrate the degree to which the US–Israeli relationship has, at the highest levels at least, degenerated into an acrimonious game of finger-pointing and name-calling as mutual trust between the current administrations in Washington and Tel Aviv has broken down.
Yet it is not merely Iran that has caused unprecedented friction in the strategic partnership that has for decades formed the bedrock of US policy toward the Middle East. In the weeks since the Geneva agreement was reached, Kerry has suggested that failure to reach a final-status agreement on Palestine could lead to a third intifada and more international isolation for Israel, while Israeli leaders have again involved themselves in US domestic politics a year after effectively endorsing Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Thus, Netanyahu has called upon American Jewish organisations to stand with Israel and speak out against the Geneva negotiations, underlining the gap that has opened up between his government and the present White House administration.
The relationship between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations was never good to begin with. Officials in Israel viewed the new US president’s speech in Cairo in June 2009 as dangerously naïve, and ran rings around the administration’s half-hearted first-term attempts to halt the construction of new settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. The sudden outbreak of the Arab uprisings in February 2011 injected further stresses as officials both in Washington and Tel Aviv struggled to comprehend the meaning and magnitude of the cathartic changes sweeping the region. In this, they were certainly not alone, but the perceived US abandonment of its long-time ally, Egypt, and the subsequent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Cairo, shattered old certainties in the Middle East.
Rising concern among US allies in the Middle East is resulting in a realignment of interests in the region. Israel and the Gulf states may make unlikely bedfellows, but they share a deep suspicion of Iranian intentions and a steadfast desire to maintain the sanctions and the pressure on Tehran. A space has opened up for opportunistic leaders, such as French President François Hollande, to emphasise their credentials both in Riyadh and Tel Aviv. In addition to reassuring Israel that France would maintain a hard-line approach toward Iran at the Security Council, Hollande’s government has redoubled its arms sales, including the transfer of sensitive technologies, to the Gulf States, winning market share from American and British competitors in the process.
With President Obama weakened politically by the difficult rollout of the Affordable Care Act, any interim deal at Geneva falling short of (but buying time to negotiate) a permanent agreement with Iran would provide Obama’s critics with plenty of ammunition. In the climate of rancour that has enveloped US-Israel ties, it is likely that senior figures in the Israeli government will join with domestic critics to outflank and out-maneuver the White House, assisted indirectly by France and the Gulf States. From Palestine to Iran, the stage is set for the deepest and most serious crisis in US-Israel ties in decades, precisely because the tensions go far beyond issues of personality to encompass a fundamental difference in the calculation of regional interests.
The counterpoint to this piece can be read here.