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Ahistorical Partisanship

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It is to be expected that in the highly-charged atmosphere of election year politics, both parties will seek to appeal to specific emotive issues. It's also to be expected that groups will select specific facts over others to bolster their arguments. This is normal as far as it goes, and tolerable.

But it becomes problematic when groups ignore history to make their case. This has been in abundant evidence when it comes to sparring over U.S. policy toward Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Josh Block, very partisan when it comes to Israel, demonstrates this in his recent argument in Foreign Policy. Here Block was merely repeating and expanding on Republican (and especially Republican Jewish Coalition) arguments that President Barack Obama and the Democrats more generally don't seem to care about Israel, and might even care more about its enemies.

To make this argument, Block draws on history -- or rather, his perception of history. A main assertion of the article is that for decades the U.S. and Israel settled their differences "in private," and that this fell "out of practice" when Obama took office.

This is historically false. A comparison with previous administrations shows that Obama's disagreements with Israel are actually less public -- and currently less vehement -- than past disputes between the U.S. and Israel.

President Dwight Eisenhower (a Republican) was livid with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (a Laborite) for colluding with Britain and France to invade the Sinai in 1956. At a time when Eisenhower was trying to manage relations with the Soviets, and deal with the implications of the Hungarian Uprising, the president was furious that Israel -- in his view -- undermined his efforts on these fronts.

Eisenhower not only threatened to impose economic sanctions on Israel, he then went about as public as he could: He spoke directly to the American people by radio, noting Israel's refusal to abide by the U.S. request to withdraw from the Sinai, and went to the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly to generate international pressure on Israel (In the end Israel did, under American demands, leave Sinai.).

Another example: The Administration of Republican George H.W. Bush very publicly fought Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in the late 1980s and early 1990s over Israel's settlement policy. Secretary of State James Baker consistently pressured Israel to change its policies: In 1989 he carried this message directly to AIPAC itself. Bush publicly disputed Israel's claim that all of Jerusalem was sovereign Israeli territory, and then refused to grant American guarantees for a $10 billion loan Israel was seeking to absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union -- unless Israel agreed to first stop settlement construction, which Shamir adamantly refused to do. When Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin replaced Shamir in 1992 and agreed to a partial settlement freeze, Bush released the guarantees.

Obama has done none of these things. He has not addressed the American people to plead his case; he has not supported any major anti-Israel UN resolutions; he has made no move to sanction aid to Israel. His very relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have actually improved: It may not be warm, but it's become friendlier than the Bush-Shamir relationship ever was.

There is certainly a healthy policy debate to be had over the Obama administration's Middle East policies. The president himself appears to have to come to office with more than a touch of naïveté, a dose of skepticism about Israel's commitment to peace, and a considerable degree of sympathy for the underdog, which he defined in this case as the Palestinians. He also followed the same pattern as most U.S. presidents in believing he could resist the larger structural forces at play and reshape American policy along his preferred ideas and bring peace to Arabs and Israelis. All of this, one could argue, has put Israel in a defensive position and undermined American leverage over it.

The historical record demonstrates that U.S.-Israel disagreements, including public ones, aren't a Democrat thing -- or a Republican, Labor, or Likud thing. They are cyclical, and dependent on context and particular conditions at the time.

We might note, for instance, that the current differences over Iran stem from two facts in particular: That America doesn't exist in the Middle East and so has different structural interests than Israel regarding a nuclear-armed Iran, and the Obama Administration has been pulling back from the United States' global military engagements, and isn't looking for another one.

These gaps cannot be easily bridged, but they can be managed. Doing so includes better political and military coordination, recognition by both parties that these are legitimate differences, and an acknowledgment that the U.S.-Israel relationship is larger than the Iranian nuclear program and will continue to need management after it is successfully dealt with. Short-term thinking threatens all of this, and is bad for both Israel and the United States.

We therefore need to be careful about making grand, even apocalyptic, statements about the relationship and what troubles it. Doing so undermines realistic assessments about what does need improvement.