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The US-Israel relationship in the Twilight Zone

When a high-ranking congressional staffer asked me this summer whether Israelis appreciate all the US does for the Jewish state, my response was an unequivocal "Yes." Sure, people might disagree with some American policy, but they understand the hard work, diplomatic support and financial assistance the United States provides Israel, I said reassuringly.

 
As it turns out, I may have been way off base.
 
Between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's respective visits to Israel in July, a Jpost.com poll asking whether the US "has Israel's back" yielded alarming results.
 
Jpost.com Poll
 
Despite options crediting the US for varying degrees of support, over 55% of the respondents said that Israel cannot depend on the US at all. Only a combined 37% said the US was there for Israel at all, and only some 15% said the US is Israel's strongest ally. 
 
Granted, this was not a scientific poll, and JPost readers are not representative of Israel; they represent the English-speaking community in Israel and foreign readers interested in Israeli news, largely from the United States. Yet the poll offers an alarming insight into the extreme expectations of what it takes to be "pro-Israel."
 
Considering that Israel is still among the top recipients of US aid in the world, for example, it is difficult to understand how 55.81% of respondents could refused to acknowledge American financial backing for Israel. According to a March report from the Congressional Research Service, "The Obama Administration’s FY2013 request includes $3.1 billion in Foreign Military Financing for Israel and $15 million for refugee resettlement. Within the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s FY2013 budget request includes $99.8 million in joint U.S.-Israeli co-development for missile defense."
 
That figure doesn't even take into account hundreds of millions of dollars in loan guarantees or additional defense expenditures that often come up in response to crises.
 
Fewer than 16% of the respondents chose the option that faulted the US for its positions on the Palestinians, but agreed that it supports Israel on the Iranian nuclear issue.
 
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said repeatedly that “ties between Israel and the US in the security realm are as strong and close as they have ever been” and lauded the “consistent support by the Obama administration.” 
 
On the topic of preventing Iranian nuclearization, Obama has been clear: “When I say this is in the U.S. interest, I'm not saying this is something we'd like to solve. I'm saying this is something we have to solve,” he told The Atlantic. Not pro-Israel enough?  He continues: “In the end, Israel's leaders will make determinations based on what they believe is best for the security of Israel, and that is entirely appropriate.”
 
If lofty rhetoric is unconvincing, Obama sold Israel 55 GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrator bunker buster bombs in 2009 that could be used, if necessary, to attack underground targets in Iran. Israel was very pleased to get their hands on the weapons; it requested them several times since 2005, but President George W. Bush refused. And what of Obama's "soft" offer to negotiate with Iran? It actually helped get the world on board for the toughest sanctions ever imposed on the Islamic Republic, sanctions which have hit the Iranian economy where it hurts: It's oil exports are down 20-30 percent, and its currency, the rial, has lost about a third of its value in the past year.
 
US-Israel security cooperation is so strong, in fact, that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney felt compelled to play it down during his visit to Israel, saying, “standing by Israel does not mean with military and intelligence cooperation alone.” 
 
True, the Netanyahu government pushes the military option vocally while the US argues that sanctions and diplomacy need more time, but that does not mean the US is unsupportive of Israel? A split in rhetoric should be expected. Netanyahu knows that the stronger his words, the tighter sanctions will get and the more credible the military threat will be to Iran, so he has an incentive to sound trigger-happy. In Obama's words, "when we have differences, they are tactical and not strategic." And those tactical approaches are not cut and dry.
 
An astonishing array of former defense and intelligence officials, not to mention a slight majority of the Israeli public, believe that a strike against Iran now would be premature. Is the US "not there for Israel" because Obama agrees with former IDF chiefs of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Amnon Lipkin Shahak and former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy and former Military Intelligence Chief Aharon Farkash and former Supreme Court justice Eliyahu Winograd (who headed the committee investigating failures in the 2006 Lebanon War) and 52% of all Israelis? Hardly.
 
Though Romney plays up the divide for political points, accusing Obama of "throwing Israel under the bus," Israeli academic Meir Javedanfar notes that Israelis should be wary of Romney's confrontational stance toward Russia and China, which could make getting international support for tighter sanctions on Iran -- or calming heads after a military strike -- far more difficult.
 
If there is so much evidence supporting the fact that the US does, in fact, have Israel's back financially and has done quite a bit on the Iran front, then why is there a persistent impression that the US, and specifically Obama are not there for Israel?
 
One reason is the early and obvious lack of warmth in the Obama-Netanyahu relationship. While the pro-Israel community is quick to blame Obama's artless handling of the peace process, others noted that Netanyahu's public lecturing of the president was highly inappropriate. As James Fallows of The Atlantic put it, “Israel is fundamentally dependent on long-term U.S. support and good will. In these circumstances it is graceless, to put it mildly, for the Israeli prime minister to take such a preemptory and borderline contemptuous tone toward the American president…It is hard to imagine the leader of any other American ally assuming there would be no repercussions for behaving this way.”
 
All the president did to rankle the pro-Israel community was say out loud something that many Israelis, Americans and diplomats already agree with: The basis of peace negotiations should be the pre-1967 lines with agreed upon land swaps -- as has been the case in many prior negotiations -- and settlement activity should stop. That these conditions ruffled so many feathers elicits a fundamental question about those who say the US, in no way, shape, or form, is there for Israel: Does being anti-settlements automatically make one anti-Israel?
 
Obama has said that when it comes to Americans, regardless of political party, “the working assumption is: we've got Israel's back.”
 
I guess it depends who you ask.
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