Israel’s leaders need to alter their tactics

By Michael Goldfarb, December 23, 2013
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Shimon Peres watches Barack Obama sign a guest book at the Israeli president’s residence earlier this year (Photo: Flash 90)

Shimon Peres watches Barack Obama sign a guest book at the Israeli president’s residence earlier this year (Photo: Flash 90)

Next year is shaping up to be a period of subtle change in the Israel-US relationship.

The parameters of that change became clear last month when the US and the rest of the permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany, the P5 + 1, announced talks with Iran about its nuclear programme. In return, the Iranian government said it would freeze its nuclear research for six months.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predictably denounced the agreement as the “deal of the century, for Iran” and “a historic mistake”.

There were some equally predictable roars of support for the Israeli PM from anti-Obama Republicans in the Senate — meaning all of them — and Democrats who have close ties to Israel. But a bipartisan bill on new Iranian sanctions collapsed two weeks ago. It never even came to a vote.

Despite second attempt push fresh sanctions through the Senate last week, the view on Capitol Hill clearly is: give Secretary of State John Kerry a chance to test Iran’s bona fides first.

This interest in jaw-jaw reflects the new political reality in the US: after Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are sick of Middle East wars.

Iran is simply not a fight they want at the moment. By a two to one margin in a recent Reuters/Ipsos Poll, Americans endorsed the interim agreement with Iran. And should it fail, only one in five favour the military option.

The ebbing of American support for military action against Iran is beginning to influence Israeli opinion as well, if a recent poll in the Times of Israel is accurate. In October, two-thirds of Israelis supported a go-it-alone strike to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. That number is now nosing down towards 50 per cent.

These shifts in public opinion may be one reason why the Israeli government has gone quiet on the Iran negotiations. Long-time observers in Washington of the real “special relationship” expect this to continue until the six-month moratorium is over.

This is not a bad thing. Mr Netanyahu’s bellicosity was in sync with American public opinion a decade ago in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The Israeli prime minister and his advisers need to think through what the new mood in America means — and find new ways of reaching US public opinion. The annual address to Aipac, the media-managed visits to the Capitol to hobnob with Senators, the scowling photo-ops with President Obama, no longer work as a way to get their message across. It may just be the time to let Saudi Arabia continue to lead the case against Iran.

In any case, the real change in the US-Israel relationship this year will not be driven by policymakers but by the American Jewish community.

For American Jews, what it means to be “pro-Israel” is changing. For the last decade or so, being “pro-Israel” has meant supporting the Likud-dominated governments without question. That is no longer the case. In October, Pew released the most comprehensive opinion survey of the community compiled in the last decade. A plurality expressed scepticism about key Netanyahu policies. Forty-four per cent doubted the current government’s sincerity in attempting to make peace with the Palestinians. Forty-eight per cent said continued settlement building was hurting Israeli security.

Anyway, here are some things that will not change in 2014. The Israel-Palestinian process will go nowhere. Israeli hi-tech firms will continue to work with the US Department of Defence at the highest level. The two countries will continue to share intelligence over Syria. And, with the Syrian civil war threatening to spill over into Lebanon, America’s “real” special relationship will continue to be very special indeed.

Last updated: 11:18am, December 23 2013