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One sentence that explains the breakdown in US-Israel relations

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Obama in the White House
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Obama in the White House
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the US until 2013 and now a center-right member of the Israeli legislature, is on a bit of an anti-Obama book tour at the moment. His new book criticizes President Obama his nuclear negotiations with Iran and blames him for, in Oren's view, "deliberately" causing the acrimony in the US-Israel relationship.

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has interviewed Oren in great depth, engaging him, sometimes contentiously, on the assertions in his book, on Iran, and on Israel. The whole thing is worth reading. But there's one sentence I wanted to pull out.

In introducing the Q&A, Goldberg makes a really important point. The breakdown in US-Israel relations, at its most fundamental level, is not about disagreements on Iran and it's not about Obama. It's about a choice that Israel has made, and continues to make, about what kind of country it wants to be. Here is the sentence I mentioned, which sums up about as well as one sentence could the most important cause of US-Israel tension:

It is Israel’s policy of continued settlement in the West Bank—settlement that endangers the two-state solution, and therefore Israel’s future as a democracy and as a haven for the Jewish people—that puts daylight between Jerusalem and Washington, not a president who calls Israel out for its settlement policy.

As Goldberg explains, treating Obama as some major break in US policy misunderstands the fundamental problem here. "For four decades, successive Israeli governments have publicly rejected American demands (requests, pleas, remonstrations, etc.) to stop planting settlements on the West Bank," he write. "A president comes along who makes the traditional American case with a bit more alacrity, and all of a sudden the sky is falling."

Of course there is more going on here than this one single issue, as Goldberg writes. (My colleague Zack Beauchamp has done some excellent work showing how changing US demographics, as well as growing political polarization over Israel, are fueling the US-Israel crisis.) But this one issue is really important. Israeli policy in its conflict with the Palestinians, and its deepening occupation of those Palestinians, puts the country increasingly at odds with American foreign policy, American politics, and American values.

My own view is that Goldberg has correctly identified the single most important cause of US-Israel tension, but that the ramifications are potentially even greater. As I wrote in a very long article this spring, Israel cannot maintain both its democracy and its occupation of the Palestinians. Day by day, it is choosing the latter, and thus willfully surrendering the former. If this continues, it will create even more distance between the US and Israel.


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