It Takes Two

Jewish Light Editorial

The hard-fought Israeli elections are finally over and the clear winner – like it or not – is incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, his Likud Party and their center, right-wing and center-right coalition partners.

So what now?

These past few months have been described by many observers of the Middle East scene — across the ideological spectrum — as perhaps the low point in relations between the United States and its staunch ally and sister democracy in the region.

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Just to look back, the relationship between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama and his administration has been “frosty” for years; the two leaders seem to have an almost visceral dislike for and distrust of the other. These pre-existing tensions were drastically exacerbated when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress without the normal diplomatic or collegial courtesy of even informing the White House or State Department, a most egregious breach of protocol.

Netanyahu delivered a powerful message of opposition to a proposed nuclear deal with Iran being negotiated by the United States in concert with its Security Council partners plus Germany. Yet despite the merits of the speech, the way in which the invitation was proffered and accepted poisoned the already bitter relations between Washington and Jerusalem.

This was quickly followed by the ham-fisted letter signed by 47 Republicans, addressed to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, warning that any deal agreed to  by President Obama could be immediately set aside by his successor or greatly modified by an act of Congress. The fact that the letter was signed only by Republicans further eroded historic bipartisan support for a robust U.S.-Israel relationship that has existed since the very inception of Israel in 1948.

It is extremely unwise for Republicans to embrace Likud as a “sister party,” and it is no less unwise for Democrats to be seen as akin to the Israeli Labor Party or Zionist Front. Both the Netanyahu speech invitation and the GOP letter to Iran’s leader made a bad situation even worse.

Then came the election and, on the very eve of the voting, Bibi flatly stated that there would be no Palestinian state created while he was prime minister. This stance was a major blow to the consensus that has existed between Israel and the United States, that to achieve peace, a two-state solution is absolutely essential.

The prime minister also set off alarm bells with a fear tactic of warning Israeli Jewish voters that “Arabs are being bused to the polls in droves” to vote for the unified Arab list. This latter statement was widely seen as blatantly racist.

In a post-election interview with Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, Bibi walked back from both of his controversial positions, stating that he still favored a two-state solution but only under the “right circumstances,” and that he was “proud to be the prime minister for all Israelis.” On Monday Netanyahu formally apologized for his statement about Arab voters.  Yet the mixed messages left many unsure of his actual intentions.

President Obama waited an unusually long time before he called Netanyahu to congratulate him on his election victory, though Secretary of State John Kerry did call Bibi almost immediately after the elections results were finalized. In his conversation with Netanyahu, Obama congratulated him on his election victory but warned that the U.S. was reassessing its degree of support for Israel at the United Nations Security Council.

Obama also stressed that the U.S.-Israel relationship would remain unshakeable, including the annual foreign assistance to Israel and the critically important military cooperation on such weapons defenses as the Iron Dome, which proved so vital to Israel to fend off rocket attacks by Hamas from Gaza. But some administration and State Department spokespeople suggested that the U.S. might not veto another bid to have Palestine become a full member of the United Nations as an independent state.

There is much too much at stake for U.S.-Israeli relations to be frosty, tense or hostile. Bibi and Obama have contributed to the personal mistrust that has built between them, and it is time for the healing to begin. What’s done is done. If Bibi has walked back  from his election eve threat to block a Palestinian state, he should be given the benefit of the doubt, and he must ensure that his future actions support his statements. The sincerity of his convictions can be tested at an early date.

Both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are intelligent leaders of historically close sister democracies. In these volatile times, with groups like ISIS, Hezbollah, Boko Haram and Hamas rampaging across the region, it is absolutely essential for the U.S.-Israeli partnership to be reaffirmed and put back on a solid footing. 

That is not a unilateral exercise.