Analysis: Israel's crisis with the US won't end when Obama leaves
By UDI SEGAL
Netanyahu fears a diplomatic move from Obama toward the end of his presidency, but it's not certain that America's next leader won't have similar ambitions.
Ahead of Passover, in which we mark the Exodus from Egypt and boast of our thriving political independence, it is interesting to take note of the degree to which Israelis are in denial of the fact that this independence is limited. Israel is an independent and sovereign nation, a true wonder in which Jews do everything for themselves - but our diplomatic and security dependence on the United States was and remains the keystone of our relations to the world.
The knowledgeable ignorance of most Israelis in regard to the important and dramatic ties with the US enables us to view in a lightly amused air the elections in America: to be angry at Obama, to mock American naivete and to ignore the ever-growing gap between us and them.
Before diving into this relationship, it must be noted that the numbers don't lie: they show stability and even a rise in the US public's support for Israel, especially versus the Palestinians, to a tune of approximately 70 percent approval. Our main problem is that among liberal Democrats - who represent the elites - there has been a decline in support.
So we can snort in contempt at the trend and tell ourselves that we're better off focusing on the Bible belt of the white majority who love Jesus and Jews, and not on the annoying professors at Berkeley and the sanctimonious politicians in Washington. But we must also think how we can stop this slide, and take into account its consequences. Because the elites, both there and here, manage relations and bureaucracy, and the feeling is that Israel has become a sort of annoyance.
Take for example the main diplomatic issue facing the prime minister - negotiations on an American military aid package for the next ten years. It's stuck. Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and his staff speak of needs, but Benjamin Netanyahu did not travel to the US because there is a problem. The problem is political. Netanyahu set an unreachable goal.
In closed conversations he spoke of a dramatic increase in aid. Today, the aid stands at about $3.6 billion a year. That means that if the US is prepared to give us 34 billion dollars in the next decade - that would maintain the current situation, more or less. Netanyahu spoke about being able to get $50 billion. Since then he has hinted or suggested that that he was misunderstood, but that was the impression he gave. It was a strategic error, because now any smaller amount will be considered a failure.
Netanyahu loves to win, so he is waiting for the negotiations to turn in his favor. He says he wants to reach the deal with Barack Obama, but it's not certain that this is true. The prime minister is especially concerned with a possible diplomatic move by Obama in the final months of his tenure, from November to January. By then it will already be clear who the next president will be and Obama will still be in the White House, with no political price to pay for his actions. Various scenarios have been rumored, including a UN resolution, defining the parameters of an agreement with the Palestinians, or perhaps a presidential speech.
The Trump Camp
What scares Netanyahu is the connection between the money and the political brazenness of Obama. The more generous the Obama administration is with military aid, the harder it can allow itself to kick the prime minister's political butt. Who can speak out against a president who gave $45 billion for Israel's security? Thus, Netanyahu's negotiations are accompanied by a justified diplomatic fear. There are even those who claim that Netanyahu does not want to close the deal with Obama because he doesn't want to give him the legitimacy of supporting Israel after the nuclear deal with Iran. They say he wants a situation in which Israel can delegitimize Obama's every diplomatic move, so it is perceived as personal, not professional, and unacceptable.
Netanyahu has not forgotten that the biggest slap in the face Republican darling Ronald Reagan gave Israel - America's recognition of the PLO - was carried out during the last two months of his tenure. Obama can be just as creative. He can declare that, regardless of diplomatic negotiations, the settlements must be dismantled. He can talk about a division of land or say that a Jewish state is mere whimsy.
Beyond this: Obama will continue to be a very influential figure in the coming years. He's young, energetic and constitutes the American liberal camp's shiny new symbol. He will influence the Democratic party's elections and the elections to Congress and Senate, and there will not be a candidate that doesn't want his blessing and help. If Hillary Clinton ends up in the White House, he can be very active, as a special envoy, or just as a consultant or confidant behind the scenes - if that's what he wants. Therefore, the personal animosity and the ideological differences will not expire at the end of the year.
Maybe that's the reason that most Israelis want to see something different in the White House, and like many Americans have been charmed by Donald Trump.
Trump's anti-Obama approach may explain the fact that the Republican candidate closest in his positions to Netanyahu and the Israeli Right, Ted Cruz, is not perceived here as the best candidate for Israel. Far from it: as part of a Ruderman Foundation survey dealing with Israeli attitudes regarding the US presidential elections, the respondents were asked who they thought was the most pro-Israel candidate. Trump received 33% and Clinton received 31%, while Cruz and Bernie Sanders received only six percent and five percent respectively.
Trump is the most anti-Obama candidate, but it's not certain that he is the most pro-Israel candidate. He claims to be a tough negotiator and that he'll get a Middle East peace deal within six months. Imagine Trump meeting Netanyahu a year from now, and telling him pleasantly - "Bibi, take $60 billion for the next decade, but get out of the Palestinian territories within two months. Good?" What would the prime minister do? Because Trump could also say, if he doesn't accept, there's no aid.
As a rule, American presidents don't tend to throw money around lightly during the first year of their tenure. An elected president must fulfill election promises. On top of this, there is a general feeling of anger, not only among Democrats, that Israel acts ungratefully toward the United States. That it doesn't know how to say thank you, that it isn't gracious. Ask Condoleeza Rice and George Bush, or American Jews. The Ruderman Foundation survey found that 84% of Israelis expect American Jews to lend their support to Israel, but only 53% believe that we should consider them in matters of legislation in Israel. Here the gap widens. This is the real danger.
Forty percent of Israelis agree with the claim that Netanyahu has damaged relations with America. This exposes Netanyahu in his safest place. If in the run-up to the next elections in Israel US leaders succeed in getting across the message that they have failed to deliver thus far - that Netanyahu is problematic for Israel's most important relationship - it could change the picture. This is why Netanyahu is being doubly careful not to interfere in the US election. He's in the crosshairs, and he has no intention of helping the hunters get to him any easier.
The author is the diplomatic correspondent for Channel 2.