Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not exactly done wonders for the US-Israel relationship. In the weeks before Israel's election, he publicly undermined President Obama in an unprecedented, Republican-hosted speech to Congress, then went home and repudiated the two-state peace process that both American political parties have supported for years. His re-election looks like bad news for the US-Israel relationship, and it is.
But the issues between America and Israel run much deeper than Netanyahu and Obama, and the Israeli leader is a symptom of those issues as much as he is a cause. In Israel, politics are trending to the right, something that helped Netanyahu to victory but that also risks yet more disagreements with the US. Meanwhile, in the US, Israel is becoming a more partisan issue, with Democrats increasingly open to challenging the bipartisan consensus.
The clash between these two allies is built into the identity of the Israeli right and of both American parties. And it threatens some of the foundational elements of the US-Israel relationship.
At its most basic level, this is about policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict
The conflict between Obama and Netanyahu — which really started over Obama's forceful attempt to rein in settlement growth in 2009 — reflects a longstanding source of tension between the United States and the Israeli right. The US believes in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while Netanyahu and the Israeli right are at best skeptical, and at worst actively hostile, to the idea of a Palestinian state.
This has been causing conflict between Americans presidents and more conservative Israeli leaders for over 20 years. George H.W. Bush and allies in Congress refused $10 billion in loan guarantees because Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wouldn't accept Bush's conditions limiting spending on West Bank settlements. George W. Bush rescinded $289.5 million worth of loan guarantees to punish Ariel Sharon, also of the Likud, for settlement expansion.
In 1996, Bill Clinton all but openly campaigned against Netanyahu, inviting incumbent Prime Minister Shimon Peres to visit the White House just before the vote. Clinton (correctly) believed Peres would be more receptive to his push for a peace agreement. Netanyahu won the election, chilling relations between Washington and Jerusalem until Ehud Barak ousted him in 1999.
To date, the US-Israel relationship has weathered these fights. But the events of the past month suggest that not only will these fights continue, but also that something more fundamental is changing to make them more dangerous to the overall relationship.
Israeli politics are moving to the right, meaning more conflict with the US
Netanyahu campaigned by veering to the right, including opposing the creation of a Palestinian state, and it worked. That's partly because of the rightward shift in Israeli politics, but there's more to it. Since the failure of the 1990s peace process, Israelis have grown increasingly skeptical of the prospects for peace, and hence increasingly supportive of right-wing candidates who claim their skepticism about Palestinian intentions has been vindicated by the Second Intifada and the wars with Hamas in Gaza.
Netanyahu was right to wager that opposing compromise with the Palestinians would be a winning political position, even if it upset the Americans. That calculus will hold true for the next generation of right-wing Israeli politicians, as well — with the Americans likely kicking and screaming along the way. That will likely be true regardless of which party holds the White House; both parties have supported the two-state solution.
"The premise of our position internationally has been to support direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians," a senior White House official told the New York Times after the Israeli election. "We are now in a reality where the Israeli government no longer supports direct negotiations. Therefore we clearly have to factor that into our decisions going forward."
This goes beyond just relations with the White House. Surveys of US public opinion show that America's deep, bipartisan support for Israel rests on the sense of a shared democratic identity between the two states. But indefinite occupation of the West Bank — rule over a growing number of Arabs who are systematically denied equal rights and the opportunity to vote — threatens this perception.
"Israel has long been expanding its settlements, the occupation continues, and illiberal legislation has grown, all seemingly undercutting an emphasis on shared U.S.-Israeli values," the University of Connecticut's Jeremy Pressman writes.
In the US, the bipartisan consensus on Israel could become more partisan
So far, the threat to the relationship from Israel's rightward drift has been contained: US public support for Israel has actually increased over the past 15 years. But that masks the last, and most crucial, problem for the relationship: partisanship.
There is a growing divide between Democrats and Republicans on Israel, and it could exacerbate the trends toward conflict created by Israel's rightward shift.
In 1988, Democrats and Republicans sympathized with Israel at about equal levels. Since then, Republican support has skyrocketed, while Democratic support has increased very slightly:
The driver here has been the growth of a strong notion of pro-Israel identity inside the GOP, fueled largely by evangelicals and the Republican turn toward neoconservatism. Conservative evangelicals see supporting Israel as a religious duty, while mainstream conservatives view shared US-Israel values in terms of shared opposition to Islamist fundamentalism as well as shared democratic traits.
Meanwhile, increasingly important Democratic constituencies — younger voters, black voters, Latino voters — all support Israel at lower rates than do other American demographic groups.
This creates a dangerous situation for Israel. Republican politicians have growing political incentives to attack Democrats as insufficiently supportive of Israel. It'll play well to both their base and the median voter. That threatens to code support for Israel, once a bipartisan issue, as a Republican one.
This danger will be especially acute when there is a Democrat in the White House, and when that president fights with Israel — as presidents from both parties are bound to do. In such moments, Democratic members of Congress may well feel pressured to choose between supporting their president and supporting a right-wing Israeli leader. The more this happens, the more Democrats could see support for Israel as a partisan issue and treat it accordingly.
This, of course, is exactly what we saw when Republicans invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress about Iran, in a clear attempt to embarrass the president and torpedo Iran negotiations. Many Democrats refused to attend the speech and criticized the GOP for the invitation. New Iran sanctions became a Republicans-versus-Democrats issue rather than a Israel-versus-Iran issue.
You can even see that playing out in the Israel-Palestine peace process. US policy has been generally consistent from Clinton to Bush to Obama in supporting a two-state solution that would give Palestinians a state. But when the New York Times' Jim Rutenberg asked several leading GOP presidential candidates about Netanyahu's rejection of a Palestinian state, several echoed Netanyahu's skepticism about a Palestinian state.
Sen. Marco Rubio's spokesperson Brooke Sammon, despite first calling a two-state solution "the ultimate goal," pivoted to supporting Netanyahu's opposition to it:
Given the deteriorating security situation that Israel faces in every direction, now is not the time for the United States to be pressuring Israel to make concessions toward a Palestinian leadership that time and again has shown itself more interested in spewing vitriol about Israel and associating with terrorists than in truly pursuing peace.
That statement is very telling. Republicans see an advantage in criticizing Democrats for fighting with Israel over the peace process — an advantage they'll press whenever possible, accelerating the partisan divide on Israel, even on the peace process. Democratic enthusiasm for backing Israeli leaders may wane accordingly.
"The Republican party now has a huge constituency that's pro-Israeli," Brookings fellow Natan Sachs said in the midst of the speech controversy in February. But "younger Democrats look at their leaders and they see Nancy Pelosi irate, and they see the president obviously irate. They're probably taking cues. And I think in the future, you may see a generation of Democratic leaders that's quite different [from the current pro-Israel leaders]."
This tension isn't inevitable — and it's in Israel's interest to make sure it doesn't happen
A break between Democrats and Israel isn't inevitable. It depends on trends in evidence right now — mainly the Israeli right's increasing political strength and growing open hostility to a two-state solution — that may not continue indefinitely.
But Israel should be worried. It depends on the bipartisan US support that helps deliver robust American military aid and diplomatic cover at the UN, even in times of US-Israel tension. It's not that this is all going to collapse overnight, but there are degrees of support, and Israel is too reliant on the US to tolerate that support sliding.
The Obama administration, per the New York Times, is already considering letting through a UN Security Council Resolution that would lay out some parameters for a two-state solution. Netanyahu opposes this (though the Palestinians might not love it, either), as it would increase international pressure to make a negotiated solution happen.
Maybe the White House is just bluffing, but the point is these fights can translate into policy. Trends in both Israeli and American politics are currently pointing toward more spats, which would not collapse the entire relationship outright, but would certainly have consequences.