Obama v Netanyahu: The strategic conundrum

Disagreement between the world’s superpower and Israel has proven to be in the interest of peace and stability.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Netanyahu speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington [AP]

The political rift between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become evermore personal with the latter’s visit to Washington this week. But behind the personal and the political spat lies a strategic difference with dangerous implications for the Middle East, indeed the world.

Netanyahu is right about US-Israeli relations; they remain solid. The “special relationship” will most probably endure his bravado, because it’s based on mutual interests, strong lobby and institutional backing in both countries. But the Israeli prime minister is either terribly dangerous or extremely delusional about how the rest of it might play out.

Contrary to his claim at the Israel lobby conference on Monday, Netanyahu continues to undermine the institution of the presidency and Obama personally, knowing all too well that US support for Israel will go on unabated, as their bilateral relations continue to thrive in all spheres.

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Indeed, Obama has embraced Netanyahu’s narrative about Palestine as the historic home of the Jewish people, insisting Palestinians recognise Israel as the “Jewish State” as a precondition to peace. This will in all likelihood continue under, say Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush.

Deeper problem

The deeper more complicated problem with the Obama-Netanyahu barney lies elsewhere.

Since the US elected a left-centre president and Israel chose a rightist leader six years ago, their differences have sharpened over their contrasted perspectives on the Middle East and foreign policy at large, not their bilateral relations.

The rift started after Obama’s re-election in 2012, as he began to decouple the US mindset from that of Israel’s on doctrinal and regional strategies, especially on Iran.

But in order to pre-empt Netanyahu’s rejection of Washington’s change of direction, the president made sure to embrace Israel closely and wholly during his 2013 visit to Jerusalem, just as he began to explore dialogue with Tehran.

The coupling of US-Israeli mindsets has evolved over many years. It started with the Americanisation of the Israeli economy, military and polity in the 1980s and 90s. And was solidified with the Israelisation of George W Bush’s “war on terror” after 9/11.

Obama, who was elected on an anti-Bush agenda, has tried to undo what some Americans termed as the “Israelification” of the US strategic doctrine that led, among others, to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

He therefore resisted all Israeli arguments to handle Iran with the same mindset that led to the blunders in Iraq, and it’s the reason why the president believes Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is counterproductive if not harmful to US interests.

Israeli leaders like to remind the US each and every day, that Israel's feet are too close to the fire; how it lives in a 'dangerous neighbourhood' and must always be vigilant and pre-emptive in its strategic posture to insure its own survival.


US interests

Ever since he took office, Obama signalled to Tehran that he’s willing to extend a hand if it’s willing to unclench its fist and pursue normal relations on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect.

Once again the US president rejected Netanyahu’s emphasis on punitive actions and military solutions to Iran’s nuclear programme, in favour of a political resolution of the conflict with Tehran.

The same applied to Obama’s insistence on a peaceful and speedy resolution of the Palestinian question on the basis of two sovereign independent states. But the administration’s insistence was rebuffed and even ridiculed in Israel as “Messianic” leading to more tensions in the relationship.

But such US-Israeli tensions are not new nor are they harmful. Contrary to conventional wisdom, disagreement between the world’s superpower and its small Middle Eastern ally/client has proven to be in the interest of peace and stability.

Historically, the US has seen the region and the world from a different prism to that of Israel. Its global perspective and international responsibilities require a calmer, more strategic approach to regional problems, imperial as they may be at times.  

When there was a strategic compact, such as under with Nixon-Meir, Reagan-Begin, and George H W Bush-Sharon, their complicity generally culminated in deterioration towards more conflict and war.

On the other hand, whenever Washington diverged from Israel’s positions while insisting it was for its own good, Netanyahu’s predecessors on the right were quick to chastise the US and even accuse it of betrayal. Ariel Sharon went as far as accusing Washington of selling out Israel like Europe betrayed Czechoslovakia before WWII. 

Netanyahu belongs to the same tradition.

Reason to worry

Israeli leaders like to remind the US each and every day, that Israel’s feet are too close to the fire; how it lives in a “dangerous neighbourhood” and must always be vigilant and pre-emptive in its strategic posture to insure its own survival. They’re predictably in denial over Israel’s role in destabilising the Middle East.

But even when Washington guarantees Israel’s security and its military superiority over all its regional enemies combined, Israeli leaders demand that it also see the region from its prism.

But if the US were to act as frantically on Iran, or throw its military weight around the world as Israel does, say in Palestine or Lebanon, our planet would be in dire straits. It tried under George W Bush and the result has been catastrophic.

That doesn’t mean US-Iranian rapprochement is a guaranteed blessing to the region. Or that the US and Iran have suddenly gone peacenik. Far from it. Indeed, judging from their complicity in Iraq and Syria, there’s every reason to worry.

But neither should such a consideration be confused with the importance of a peaceful settlement of Iran’s nuclear programme, as well as a ban on all nuclear weapons in the region and beyond.

The Middle East has endured the US’ unconditional support for Israel despite its decades of occupation.

But make no mistake; the region can’t survive the US acting as an aggressive, paranoiac superpower, or for Israel to act with total impunity.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and the author of The Invisible Arab. His upcoming book is Fatal Attraction: the US and Israel in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.