Why Hound Israel, not Afghans?

The recent spat between Washington and Kabul about their countries’ relations invites comparison to the simmering cauldron of United States-Israel diplomacy. Whether the situations mandate similar responses is a matter for fair debate.

Over the weekend, Obama Administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan/Pakistan, took great pains to mend fences with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Laura King in the Los Angeles Times reports that “senior American officials sought on Sunday to smooth over a sharply quarrelsome interlude in U.S.-Afghan relations, with the special envoy to the region (Holbrooke) describing Karzai’s regime as ‘a government we can work with.'”

With U.S. forces now fighting and dying to preserve and promote the integrity of Karzai’s nation, it was essential to end the very public confrontation that started when President Barack Obama made an unannounced visit to Kabul. At that time, he publicly and forcefully urged Karzai to take strong action to end the corruption in his government, referencing the high position held by Karzai’s brother, one of the nation’s more notorious drug dealers.

Karzai’s pushback against the Obama Administration pressure, echoed in statements by Vice President Joe Biden and Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was harsh to say the least. At one point Karzai said that he would “join the Taliban” before he would be pushed around by the United States.

Well, that clearly wouldn’t do. So on the Sunday talk shows and in print media interviews, Clinton, Gates and Holbrooke made a coordinated full court press to reframe Karzai as a dependable ally of the United States.

So how is this situation analogous to the recent U.S.-Israel tiff? In some ways very much, and in others, not at all.

An ill-timed announcement about approval of 1,600 housing units to be built in northeast Jerusalem was made during Biden’s visit to Jerusalem, causing serious public strain between Israel and the U.S. Despite Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s numerous apologies, the dispute escalated in the following weeks. Communications between Netanyahu and both Obama and Clinton, and public appearances such as Clinton’s before AIPAC’s annual policy conference, have seemed frosty at best.

As with the Afghan situation, the parties subsequently made strong efforts to tone down the rhetoric. But the underlying tension of the U.S. side toward Netanyahu — more on the executive side than on the Congressional one, though there are detractors in the House and Senate as well — has seemingly continued to percolate.

It’s fairly obvious that the administration isn’t wildly enamored with Netanyahu’s allegiances to the far right factions in Israel’s Knesset. The public stance of the Obama Administration has been chastised by some as an effort to force Net-anyahu to disengage from some of those influences and to form a more centrist coalition that includes the Kadima Party

One can fairly debate whether the U.S. is actively promoting this course or simply views it as an acceptable one. Diplomacy 101, however, would in either case suggest that talks regarding such matters be backchannel ones. So why, if the administration is willing to go all lovey-dovey with the Afghan president, isn’t it equally desirous of doing so with its staunch ally Israel?

The answer may lie in the respective risk of affecting alienation in the two situations. In Karzai’s case, the continuing potential of Afghan association with the Taliban, al Qaeda, Pakistan fringe groups and drug dealers poses an unacceptable alternative to the U.S.

Israel’s case is different. The U.S. is not at risk of losing Israel as an ally (and quite frankly, despite the protestations of some, neither is Israel at risk of losing the U.S.). But American leadership believes that the resolution of the Palestinian conflict is one of several key elements in building bridges to the moderate Arab states and in further isolating Iran and its terrorism-supporting tentacles (e.g., Syria, Hamas). If some public lashing of current Israeli leadership is a consequence of that approach (along with consequential lashing of the administration by the Jewish community), it appears that the Obama team is willing to incur it.

Some may find the distinction a callous one, with the U.S. willing to trashtalk its longtime friend to garner support from its detractors in the name of peace. And on the surface, it certainly seems unfair. Yet in the end, this period of “friends can disagree” will be measured by its success or failure in building lasting Middle East peace and a strong coalition against the illicit intentions of Iran. As with so many things, only time will tell.