What Does Reassessment Mean?

Since the unexpected but resounding victory of Netanyahu's conservative Likud party in last week's Israeli elections, the US media establishment has been focusing on the growing "tensions" between the United States and Israel. The word "tension" usually has a more substantial meaning and normally doesn't apply to a situation where one country receives billions of dollars in aid from another along with unparalleled diplomatic support. However, the standard view is that US-Israeli relations are at an all-time low

 Two corrections are in order. First, US-Israeli relations are not at an "all-time low." Although Israel has been arguably the most important, or at least the most favored, US ally since 1967 many forget that prior to the 1967 war Israel was only a minor US strategic partner. In the 1948 war Israel did not have access to US weaponry but instead received most of its supply from the Soviet Union. Additionally, Israel, along with France and the UK, was prevented by the United States from orchestrating a war with Egypt over the Suez canal in 1956. President Eisenhower even went so far as to address the nation and outline his demand that Israel withdraw from Egyptian territory.

Even after Israel began receiving enormous amounts of US aid the relationship has been far from perfect. During the criminal Israeli bombing of Beirut, President Reagan called then Israeli Prime Minister Begin and accused him of committing a "holocaust." Under the first Bush Administration Secretary of State Baker explicitly blamed Israel for the failure of the "peace process," saying that nothing had made his job more difficult than visiting Israel and "being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive." The first Bush Administration also briefly froze loan guarantees to Israel.  

Under the Obama Administration Israel has thus far been subjected to none of these material consequences for its actions. In fact, quite the opposite. During the bombing of Gaza in the summer of 2014, which killed over 2,200 Palestinians including 500 children, the Obama Administration spoke of the right of Israel to "defend" itself. Israel was granted unanimous support from the US Senate, which pledged additional military aid, and Israel received a re-supply of ammunition from the United States from an on-site cache. The US did voice "concern" from time to time over the loss of civilian life but continues to oppose the ongoing UN war crimes investigation, making any "concern" devoid of material or even diplomatic consequences for the Israeli state. While much is being made of the recent revelations that Israel spied on the US-Iran nuclear talks, Israel has a long history of espionage against the United States and this fact has never fundamentally altered the relationship between the two countries. It is unlikely that the current revelations will either. 

So what of the unprecedented "tensions" between the US and Israel? It is overwhelmingly a personal spat. Netanyahu essentially campaigned against Obama during the 2012 Presidential election and Obama returned the favor by aiding Netanyahu's domestic political opponents. Netanyahu further ventured into US partisan disputes by accepting House Speaker Boehner's invitation to speak to Congress, violating diplomatic protocol. There are some areas of substantive policy disagreement regarding the prolonged Israeli occupation and the proposed nuclear deal with Iran but this is nothing new. From Carter on nearly every US Administration has had similar disagreements with their Israeli client. None of these disagreements has had a significant impact on the material or diplomatic relationship between the two countries.  

This brings us to the second perception that needs correcting. The "reassessment" the Obama Administration is discussing is unlikely to be anything other than some diplomatic reprimands targeted at Netanyahu's coalition. The United States has already made it clear what "reassessment" doesn't mean. It doesn't mean a reconsideration of military or security ties. In Obama's congratulatory call to Netanyahu he reiterated that "Washington's military, intelligence, and security cooperation with Israel would remain unchanged" and that "all forms of security cooperation would remain in place" and "not be subjected to a review." In other words, Washington will refuse to use its biggest bargaining chip to moderate the Israeli government. The US has also made it clear that it will not reverse its opposition to the Palestinians joining the International Criminal Court in a bid to hold Israel accountable for war crimes. At most, a US "reassessment" means that the deployment of vetoes at the United Nations Security Council in Israel's favor may not be as automatic as it has been in the past. The US may also support a Jordanian resolution introduced last December that reiterates the call for a two-state settlement based on pre-1967 borders. 

The "reassessment" is therefore not much of a reassessment at all. The US is simply considering putting slightly more pressure on Israel to accept the two-state settlement that the US has voiced support for during the last four decades while continuing to shield Israel from any consequences, material or diplomatic, for its behavior in the West Bank and Gaza. Additionally, US aid will continue unabated. How successful this "reassessment" will be is dubious. That the US pressures Israel to end the occupation yet supplies Israel with the means to prolong it is nothing less than hypocrisy. Such muddled messaging is unlikely to do much good. 

This is not to say that the relationship between the US and Israel is impervious to change. Israel's global image has taken a nose dive in recent years due to the extent of its brutality in Gaza and the seemingly permanent occupation of Palestinian land. Even in Europe polls show that substantial portions of the population consider Israel a great threat to world peace. In Western countries, including the United States, the movement to divest from Israeli occupation is gaining supporters, especially from among the youth. While the US-Israeli relationship is unlikely to be significantly impacted due to the results of one election, it is not improbable that popular pressure will slowly influence the US-Israeli rapport. It is this possibility that has the greatest potential to inspire a true "reassessment."