President Barak Obama's re-election raises the question of what will happen to U.S.-Israel relations during his second term. What marred his relationship with Israel during his first term were the broad conceptual gaps between Washington and Jerusalem over key issues in the Middle East. Obama began his term advancing a policy of "engagement" with Iran, while Israel had witnessed all the failed attempts at diplomacy with Iran that were tried in the past and believed that Tehran was simply playing for time. In the peace process, Obama appeared to believe that achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement was a pivotal factor in stabilizing the Middle East and in removing the main obstacle that prevented America from forging a close relationship with the Arab world.
According to The Washington Post, during a famous meeting with American Jewish leaders in July 2009 that was widely quoted during the presidential campaign, President Obama was critical of how his predecessor, President George W. Bush handled U.S.-Israel relations: "During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states."
The underlying assumption in Obama's analysis was that showing Israel a cold shoulder would get it to make new concessions in the peace process while at the same time elevating America's standing in the Arab world. According to this strategy, however, the administration was still willing to maintain close military ties between Israel and the U.S. security establishments and even enhance aspects of strategic cooperation.
What will happen now? Obama's foreign policy has been a mixture of his own personal convictions and the conventional wisdom that came out of the American foreign policy establishment back in 2009 through its think tanks and newspaper pundits inside the capital beltway. Regarding the 2003 Iraq War, as a senator he proved to be an independent thinker who expressed his opposition to the war well before it became a popular position. But on Iran, the call for diplomatic engagement with Tehran was already a popular position when he was elected president that was backed by former secretaries of state like James Baker and even Henry Kissinger.
President Obama still wants to try negotiations with Iran one more time. It has been rumored that the administration has opened a channel with Tehran by using Obama's close adviser, Vallerie Jarrett, who spent many years in Iran earlier in her life. The administration will have to face Iranian recalcitrance if these talks become serious. What Obama has demonstrated in the past is that he is capable of shifting course and adopting policies he previously opposed as his own, if he becomes convinced. It is useful to recall that the administration originally rejected Congressional proposals for new severe sanctions on Iran in late 2011, fearing that they would lead to a rise in the price of gasoline. But Obama changed course and featured his Iran sanctions in the election campaign as one of the pillars of his foreign policy.
Like in the Iranian case, Obama's positions on the peace process can also be traced to intellectual currents that had been promoted in Washington during the previous eight years before his election in 2008. After the failure of the 2000 Camp David Summit and the 2001 Taba talks, a whole cottage industry of former officials from the Clinton administration popularized the idea that "we all know what the shape of the peace settlement is and all we have to do is create a political bridge to get there."
There were also Israeli ex-officials coming to Washington in that period perpetuating the myth that Israel and the Palestinians had been extremely close to reaching an agreement and that just a little work was left to bridge the gaps. The popularity of this belief created a rising degree of impatience in Washington with Israel. For these impressions had a strong impact on several of the key individuals who surrounded Obama at the beginning of his first term and helped cloud the U.S.-Israeli relationship
In the meantime, while this American consensus about the peace process grew, the people of Israel had gone through the Second Intifada, marked by a wave of suicide bombings in most of Israel's major cities, an escalation of rocket attacks on southern Israel after the Gaza Disengagement and most recently rising strategic uncertainties surrounding the Arab Spring.
True, there were some experienced officials, like Dennis Ross, who did not buy into the popular mythology about past negotiations. Nonetheless, a gap began to grow between how many U.S. experts of the Middle East perceived the requirements of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and what the vast majority of Israelis thought. In summary, the problems that Israel faced with the Obama administration during its first term were based on much broader trends, about how the American establishment came to perceive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that were not necessarily specific to Obama himself.
The White House learned that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was far more complicated than what many experts in Washington described back in 2009. At the beginning of President Obama's first term, the Palestinians felt they were perceived by the White House as a close partner for peace and hence all U.S. diplomatic pressure would be placed on Israel. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did not prove to be a reliable partner. In fact, it soon became clear that his expectations were so high at the time that he believed Washington would deliver Israel on a silver platter. In May 2009, he told Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post that his only role was to wait for the Obama administration to force Prime Minister Netanyahu to accept a settlement freeze.
And two years later, he criticized Obama in a Newsweek interview and rebuffed repeated U.S. requests to not get the U.N. involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would force the U.S. to use its veto in the Security Council. Obama was told that if he just used the phrase "1967 lines" in a public address, then Abbas would come back to negotiations with Israel without prior conditions. More than a year after Obama went out on a limb and made reference to the "1967 lines," Abbas has still refused to negotiate with Israel.
It is probable that President Obama will look at the Middle East peace process far more realistically in his second term. It is now obvious that the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Middle Eastern stability is much harder to argue, since it has become clear as day that the series of revolts known as the Arab Spring had nothing to do with the Palestinian issue. U.S. diplomatic traffic from its posts in the Arab world that are now public due to WIKILEAKS indicate that the Iranian threat is a far more urgent issue than what happens with the Israeli settlements for many Arab leaders.
It is now clear that the key to U.S. relations with the Arab leaders of the oil-rich Persian Gulf would be an effective policy to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program as well as its regional adventurism. Equally, given the daily violence in Syria between the pro-Iranian Assad regime and the Syrian rebels backed by the Sunni Arab states, it will be vital for the administration to provide a more effective approach to bringing that bloodshed to a halt.
Obama still believes that U.S. diplomatic involvement is important, though it would be surprising if he expected that a full Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement were possible at this stage, in contrast with the conventional wisdom when his first term began. Of course if Israeli spokespeople were now to raise this possibility, they could set the administration down this path again. But right now with Abbas continuing down the unilateral path by seeking to upgrade the status of the Palestinian observer mission at the U.N. to a non-voting member, the prospects for serious negotiations do not look promising.
Historically, when U.S.-Israeli relations have undergone tense periods, realities on the ground in the Middle East brought the U.S. and Israel closer together. In the far more severe cases of U.S.-Israeli disagreements, President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Ben Gurion had their troubles over the Sinai Campaign in 1956. At the time, the U.S. was seeking to build a bloc of Arab states against the USSR known as the Baghdad Pact. But when the Hashemite regime in Iraq fell and Nasserist forces threatened Lebanon, the U.S. and Israel were drawn into new levels of cooperation. Similarly, though President H.W. Bush had tense relations with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over the issue of settlements, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the U.S. and Israel drew together as allies very quickly.
Presently, there are a host of Israeli commentators who foresee a difficult period for Israel because, as they argue, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bet on the wrong horse. Never mind, as David Makovsky writes in Foreign Policy, the Israeli leader never came out and endorsed President Obama's opponent, Governor Romney, they still are trying to paint baseless scenarios of doom and gloom. Over the last four years, there is no escaping the fact that the U.S. and Israel had real differences over policy. But at the end of the day, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is based on common interests and shared values and those will continue to form the fabric of the ties between the two countries in the years ahead.