President Obama’s criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu — on the eve of the Jan. 22, 2013 Israeli elections — underlines the secondary role played by the Palestinian issue in shaping U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation.
Since March 2009, Obama has systematically scorned Netanyahu’s policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict in general and the Palestinian issue, Jerusalem and the construction of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, in particular. However, since March 2009, irrespective of harsh disagreements over the Palestinian issue, the mutually-beneficial U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation has expanded, especially in areas which feature the distinctive Israeli added-value: intelligence-sharing, counter-terrorism, homeland security, missile defense, training, battle tactics, joint exercises, pre-positioning of military hardware, medical treatment of soldiers and civilians, research and development, space, commercial and defense industries and high-tech in general. Neither Israel nor the U.S. intends to subordinate primary interests to secondary issues by cutting off their noses to spite their faces.
The volcanic eruption of the Arab Winter since 2010 — independent of the Palestinian issue — has exposed the unpredictable nature, instability, violent volatility, unreliability, inefficiency, intolerance and anti-U.S. terrorism and hostility on the Arab Street. It has highlighted Israel’s unique features as the only stable, predictable, reliable, capable, democratic and unconditional ally of the U.S.
Mutual threats to the U.S. and Israel — such as nuclear Iran, Islamic terrorism, the proliferation of advanced missiles and nuclear technologies, and the clear and present radical menace to pro-U.S. Arab regimes — transcend the Palestinian issue. Moreover, pro (and anti) U.S. Arab leaders have never considered the Palestinian issue a cardinal matter on their agenda. They are currently traumatized by the lethal Iranian nuclear threat, raging Arab Winter, emboldened Islamic terrorism and the erupting Iraqi, Syrian and Muslim Brotherhood lava, which might trigger their downfall.
Notwithstanding Obama’s distrust of Israel’s Palestinian policy, U.S. defense and high-tech establishments trust Israel’s unique contributions to U.S. national security and the economy as a matchless source of cutting-edge technologies, a sterling beachhead in a vital region, a battle-tested laboratory, and the largest U.S. aircraft carrier which does not require U.S. boots on board. Such attributes are doubly crucial while the U.S. reduces its power projection and severely cuts its defense budget.
Obama’s criticism of Netanyahu is not unprecedented. Prime Minister Shamir’s policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the Palestinian issue, was ruthlessly criticized by the U.S. administration. However, in April 1988, at the height of President Reagan’s brutal criticism of Shamir’s handling of the First Palestinian Intifadah, Israel was elevated to the status of a major non-NATO ally. A Memorandum of Understanding was concluded, enhancing U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation in an unprecedented manner. It aimed at leveraging Israeli capabilities in the face of joint regional and global challenges, which superseded the Palestinian issue.
In fact, from 1948 until 1992, all Israeli Prime Ministers faced rough U.S. pressure on Arab and Palestinian-related issues. In most cases, the pressure was repelled, criticism was sharpened, but strategic cooperation surged beyond expectations. Middle East reality overpowered oversimplified policy and moral-equivalency.
While President Obama rebukes Israeli policymakers, the U.S. constituency demonstrates its overwhelming support for the Jewish state. A Dec. 2012 poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that Americans support Israel over Palestinians by a 5:1 ratio, similar to a 59 percent:13% ratio documented by a Nov. 2012 CNN poll. While the executive branch of government is in the habit of criticizing Israel, the coequal, co-determining Legislature — the most authentic representative of the American people — has been a bastion of support for Israel since 1948 and for the idea of a Jewish state since 1776.
President Obama’s preoccupation with the Palestinian issue, and criticism of Israel, is out of the American mainstream.