U.S and Israel: An Always-Complicated Relationship Hits Bottom

Image: U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington October 1, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR48IZD© Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / REUTERS

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Relations between the United States and Israel have always been a bit complicated and combative, especially involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

During the later 1980s, George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, barred Netanyahu from the State Department after he criticized the United States. In 1996, President Bill Clinton had his share of frustration. “Who’s the f@%&-ing superpower here?” the former president reportedly told aides after first meeting Netanyahu, who was then serving his first stint as Israeli prime minister.

Outside of those instances, American presidents and Israeli prime ministers often have butted heads over settlements and the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

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But with Netanyahu set to address Congress on Tuesday – without first notifying the Obama White House – and with him likely to criticize the Obama administration’s nuclear talks with Iran, it’s hard to remember a time when relations have been worse between the two countries.

“It has always been complicated – nearly always. And now it’s the worst since the creation of the state [of Israel],” says Steve Rabinowitz, a DC-based Democratic Jewish strategist.

Foreign-policy scholar Aaron David Miller doesn’t go that far, explaining that the relationship was worse during the Eisenhower years over the Suez Canal. But he notes, “It’s close – if not the worst – in the modern era.”

Several different episodes have marked the rocky Obama-Netanyahu relationship. In 2010, Israel announced new housing settlements – at the same time that Vice President Joe Biden was in the country.

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Then, just days later, President Barack Obama reportedly snubbed Netanyahu when he was visiting the White House.

During the 2012 presidential race, Netanyahu implicitly – if not openly – backed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Last year, an unnamed Obama administration official described Netanyahu as a “chickenshit” to the Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg when it comes to trying to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

And now topping it all off is Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, which Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice called “destructive” to the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

“What has happened over the last several weeks, by virtue of the invitation that was issued by [Speaker John Boehner] and the acceptance of it by Prime Minister Netanyahu two weeks in advance of his election, is that on both sides, there has now been injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate. I think it's destructive of the fabric of the relationship,” Rice told interviewer Charlie Rose.

Viewing the tension through the lens of domestic politics

One way to view the increasing tensions between Obama and Netanyahu is through the lens of domestic politics – with the Republican Party having more of an alliance with Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party, and with Democrats having more of an alliance with Israel’s centrist and liberal parties.

“By and large, the Republican Party tends to identify with harder-line Israeli prime ministers, and the Democratic Party tends to identify with the more centrist prime ministers,” especially when it comes to the peace process, explains Miller.

So take that dynamic and add it to today’s more polarized American politics where “one party will do anything it can to contradict the president,” says Rabinowitz, the Democratic strategist.

Prominent Jewish Republicans, on the other hand, point the finger at President Obama for being hostile to Netanyahu from the get-go.

Why the relationship will endure these strains

Despite the poor relations between Obama and Netanyahu, Miller argues that overall U.S.-relationship is going to endure the recent stresses and strains.

“Unlike Lehman Brothers, the U.S. –Israel relationship is too big to fail,” he explains, given that Israel is the United States’ top ally in the messy Middle East. “We align with the Israelis because they share our values.”

But it’s probably going to take another U.S. president – and new Israeli prime minister – to get the relationship back on track.