A Milestone In United States-Israel Relations

The fact that we now see strong, public criticisms of Netanyahu from the belly of the Israel-loving beast that is the U.S. Congress suggests that a significant political and historical marker has been passed.

The controversy over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before the U.S. Congress next week has generated intense reactions from Israelis and Americans of all political shades. Its long-term impact is unknown, but its significance to date is that it has provided us with a rare opportunity to see what happens when American congressmen and women are caught uncomfortably between two very powerful forces in their lives: standing with the American president, or standing with the leader of Israel regardless of what that leader does, including directly challenging the American president.

This is not merely a political popularity contest. If it were, Netanyahu wins without a fight because the Republican majority in Congress thinks Obama is a dangerous Muslim immigrant socialist or something nutty along those lines, and Netanyahu can do no wrong in the eyes of almost all members of Congress from both parties. Of course most members of Congress know little about Mideast issues, but rabidly support any Israeli leader, mainly because they fear sparking the wrath of pro-Israel forces in the United States who could jeopardize the congressmen and women’s re-election chances.

It is noteworthy that the most senior American officials pointedly criticize Netanyahu and say his actions threaten the U.S.-Israeli relationship that has always been a bipartisan one in the United States. The fact that several dozen members of Congress also have stated that they will skip the Tuesday speech points to the deeper dynamic that Netanyahu’s speech has unleashed. That dynamic is about what happens when Israeli leaders’ actions go so far they test whether bipartisan support for Israel across the American political system is stronger than what the American president deems important for the American national strategic interest.

This kind of test almost never happens, so members of Congress can routinely support everything Israel does or wants, without paying any political price at home. That pattern has now been disrupted; they must now decide on whether to attend or skip the Tuesday speech, because the Obama administration has pushed back against Netanyahu very openly, personally and forcefully.

The cracks that have opened in the heretofore solid edifice of pro-Israel support in the U.S. Congress are also reflected in other quarters. The leading newspaper in New Jersey, the Star-Ledger, noted in a blistering editorial against Netanyahu two days ago: “…For the sake of world peace, and to put an obnoxious man in his place, our fervent hope is that he loses his election so this (U.S.-Israel) relationship can get back on track… Accepting a Republican invitation to speak without the courtesy of telling the White House is insulting, not just to Obama, but to the one nation that has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel from its birth, and through every one of its wars…Polls show that most Americans stand with Israel. But that support is softening among the younger generation. And if Netanyahu wins re-election, that sentiment is certain to spread.”

Such strong, personalized editorial attacks against an incumbent Israeli prime minister are particularly noteworthy when they include matter-of-fact expectations for softer American support for Israel. We also see signs that the once monochrome American-Israeli embrace is becoming more nuanced, with the United States fully supporting Israel’s security but opposing some specific diplomatic positions that Israel would like the United States to take. This was explicitly mentioned by a Republican congressman, former under-secretary of defense Dov Zakheim, who wrote earlier this week that Netanyahu’s actions could jeopardize Israel-friendly American positions on issues like an Iran nuclear accord, and the current American government opposition to the Palestinian quest for statehood at the U.N. He even hinted that American military aid to Israel could be affected, noting that Netanyahu, “is right to oppose a deal that he views as bad for his country, but he is wrong to put the Israeli-American relationship at risk.”

The likelihood that such shifts or downgrades would occur in strategic ties between the United States and Israel is extremely low to nonexistent, given the huge structural support Israel enjoys in the U.S. Congress. Yet the fact that we now see such strong, public criticisms of Netanyahu from the belly of the Israel-loving beast that is Congress suggests that a significant political and historical marker has been passed. It remains to be seen if this is mostly fleeting anger against a particularly obnoxious and insensitive man who happens to be the prime minister of Israel, or if it reflects deeper concerns among some Americans that their foreign policies in the Middle East on strategic issues like Iran are publicly manipulated by a foreign country.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter at: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global