Beneath the recent public embrace, a genuine crisis is emerging in U.S.-Israeli relations. Increasingly, the two countries have fundamentally different strategic priorities. In the past, high-level political understandings narrowed such differences; today, such understandings seem elusive. The trend lines are not encouraging. If left unmanaged, tensions could drive the two sides farther apart, making Israeli behavior more unpredictable and U.S. management of the Middle East more difficult.
President Obama was dealt an unprecedented number of complex challenges in the Middle East. None seem to resonate with the president as much as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he has described as a "vital national security interest." Many administration and U.S. military officials increasingly believe that the United States is paying a high price for allowing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester. They argue that the conflict makes it increasingly difficult for the United States to manage a range of tasks in the Middle East, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to building international support for Iran sanctions. Though the prospects for progress on Israeli-Palestinian talks remain slim, the issue has crept up the administration's priority list. The emphasis on negotiations has put the administration on a collision course with the Netanyahu government.
While the United States has grown to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a priority and threat, the Israeli public and leadership have come to see it as a nuisance. Palestinian terrorism has been largely contained, and the wars in Lebanon and Gaza have brought an uneasy calm to Israel's borders. Still, more serious threats loom. To the vast majority of Israelis, dividing and weakening the country through painful compromises on the Palestinian front when other unprecedented threats persist seems illogical. Even if an agreement were attainable, most Israelis believe it would do little to strengthen their security.
Instead, Israel is fixated on one strategic priority: stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program. All other threats and challenges are secondary. As Israelis see it, a nuclear Iran would fundamentally alter the regional security landscape, emboldening Iran and its allies Hezbollah and Hamas, and subject Israel to an ever-rising series of threats. In all of this, Israelis see the Obama administration's push to resume Israeli-Palestinian talks as a distraction from the core issue of Iran, and perceive America's unwillingness to threaten Iran with the use of force as strengthening Iran's resolve, making a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable. They believe the United States is pressuring Israel to pay a heavy price on the Palestinian issue without promising to prevent a nuclear Iran in return. That is an equation Israelis fundamentally reject. No Israeli government is likely to make historic compromises to Palestinians before knowing how the Iranian threat will unfold. The resultant U.S.-Israeli disconnect will not be mended easily.
To be sure, each side is engaged with the other's priority issue. The U.S. government has devoted significant resources to a broad international effort to stem Iranian proliferation and contain Iranian regional ambitions. Moreover, the United States has gone to great lengths to reassure Israel by upgrading its security and missile defense cooperation, including recently requesting $205 million for Israel to produce the Iron Dome short-range missile defense system. Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government has endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has indicated a willingness to engage in final status negotiations with the Palestinians. Still, the differences and suspicions run deep.
Having raised the Palestinian issue so high on the U.S. agenda, the administration cannot easily backtrack. Opportunities for progress are slim as long as Israelis are preoccupied with Iran and Palestinians remain badly divided both politically and geographically. But while the prospects for success are at their lowest point in two decades, the consequences for inaction continue to rise.
If U.S.-Israeli relations become hostage to progress on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the outcome will likely be a continued Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and a further rupture in U.S.-Israeli relations as Iran approaches its nuclear breakout point. Even as Iran approaches that point, it is unlikely that the U.S. opposition to a military strike against Iran will change. The U.S. unwillingness to use force or at least the threat of force makes Israelis question whether the United States would stand behind Israel at a moment of truth in a potential Israeli-Iranian confrontation. As Iran approaches that critical juncture, Israel's impulse to take unilateral military action will increase. Another military confrontation in the region could, according to U.S. military officials, unleash unintended consequences.
The uncertainty and tension over conflicting priorities hurt both Israel and the United States. Despite Israel's regional power and military strength, only the United States can lead the fight against Iran's nuclear weapons program. Israel can be an asset towards that goal when it cooperates with the United States and acts in a responsible and predictable way. As part of that effort, the Obama administration expects Israeli cooperation on the Palestinian issue as the United States works tirelessly against Iran. The Israeli government must decide how it will go along with the U.S. plan. The stakes have never been higher.
Israel is a crucial part of U.S. policy in the Middle East, but it is only one aspect. To eleven successive U.S. presidents, Israel's leadership has successfully articulated a strategy and vision that complemented broader U.S. goals and made Israel a vital component of pursuing those objectives. Israel and the United States continue to share broad strategic aims, yet ongoing political tension and diverging priorities obscure those aims. Without a clearer Israeli strategy of how Israel fits into America's Middle East vision, the partnership could be damaged irrevocably, with unforeseen consequences for both the United States and Israel.
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