Any attempt to understand the recent diplomatic crisis between Israel and the United States should not search for answers in diplomacy manuals. Nor would I recommend looking in history books or standard poli-sci texts. Understanding the current situation requires a different set of concepts, drawn from a much more basic world of experience whose codes of behavior we all implicitly understand, and that is "friendship."
I just returned from the 2010 AIPIC Policy Conference In Washington, D.C., which ended this week. This conference was viewed by many in the Jewish world as "the crucial-decision-year conference", referring to the year when the international community, under U.S. leadership, needs to decide whether the regime of the Ayatollahs in Iran will or will not acquire nuclear weapons. AIPAC convened this year in the shadow of concerns about a "new world order" which will materialize if Ahmadinejad succeeds in manufacturing a nuclear bomb. Such a world order would have destructive geopolitical, economical and security implications for the West and for its allies around the globe, especially in the Middle East. Yet, instead of addressing this burning issue, suddenly all the furor was over the crisis surrounding construction in a Jerusalem neighborhood, and over the implications of this crisis for Israel-U.S. relations.
Undoubtedly, the timing of the decision to authorize the construction in Jerusalem during Vice President Biden's visit to the city was ill-advised, if not fundamentally mistaken. And because what is at issue is friendship, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, apologized, and rightly so, to Israel's closest friend, the United States. But some observers are claiming that the U.S. Administration's decision to ratchet up the crisis to such a high pitch was pointless and caused inestimable damage. Among the various harmful outcomes of this crisis, some have pointed to the damage to vital U.S. interests in the Middle East, chiefly, the diverting of attention from the Iranian issue at such a critical time, when a decision concerning harsh sanctions hangs in the balance. This is not only a vital Israeli interest, but also the most crucial interest of the moderate Arab regimes in the region, the very countries that are major suppliers of energy to Western economies. And when Middle Eastern oil suppliers are in danger, so too are the economic interests of the entire Western world.
Sometimes governments decide to precipitate a crisis with another country, in the hope that this will improve the instigator's geopolitical or economic position. Such tactics are acceptable and even legitimate between sovereign states. The question asked by many who attended the Policy Conference, in a tone at once bewildered and critical, was what the Obama administration thought it might achieve by bringing the unfortunate decision of Israel's Ministry of Interior to such a level of crisis. This is how incoming AIPAC president, Lee (Rosy) Rosenberg, who was one of President Barack Obama's staunchest Jewish allies during his 2008 campaign, phrased it: "Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized -- four separate times -- and said the announcement was hurtful and should not have occurred. In any relationship, mistakes are going to happen, and even the best of friends are going to disagree. Disagreements over policy between the United States and Israel -- between any two allies -- happen. That is a given. But how friends disagree, how they react when missteps occur, that can determine the nature of the relationship....Israel is not the problem. Israel is America's partner".
As in every friendship, there are times when one of the parties has to take the role of the responsible adult. This is all the more so when the adult is the one responsible. It is permissible to make a mistake in the context of a friendship, it is permissible to disagree or even to have an argument. But what is impermissible in a friendship is to humiliate one's friend knowingly, and severely, by doing so in public. When such an affront comes from an administration that upholds dialogue and mutual understanding as key principles, it stings twice as hard. And if the result is that the U.S.'s allies are the losers, then the U.S. too is the loser. And when the U.S. loses, the free world loses too.