WASHINGTON » For six years, the pattern has been the same. A dispute between U.S. and Israeli leaders spills out into the open. Analysts declare the relationship in crisis. Then the two sides try to tamp down emotions and argue that the rupture is not as dire as it looks.
In the latest falling-out between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the first part of the pattern has certainly held, but not the second. This time, senior officials in both Washington and Jerusalem are making little effort to paper over the seriousness of the rift and even less, it seems, to try to repair it.
The diplomatic break touched off by Netanyahu’s decision to negotiate an address to Congress without first telling Obama is about much more than a speech. It reflects fundamentally different world views between the leaders of two longtime allies; an American president eager for a historic rapprochement with Iran and an Israeli premier nursing an existential fear of a nuclear-armed enemy.
It reflects six years of suspicion and mistrust and grievance, wounds from past brawls easily reopened by what might otherwise be small irritations. It reflects resentment on the part of Obama, who watched Netanyahu root for his Republican opponent in the 2012 election and now sees him circumventing the Oval Office to work with a Republican Congress instead. And it reflects a conviction on the part of Netanyahu that Obama may sell out Israel with a bad deal and may be trying to influence the coming Israeli elections.
Rather than defuse the latest explosion, each side has chosen to escalate. The Obama administration made it clear this week that it no longer has any use for Netanyahu’s ambassador in Washington. Israeli officials defied U.S. opposition on Friday to announce 450 new settlement units in the West Bank and privately whispered to their media that Obama had given Iran 80 percent of what it wants.
"Of course this is a crisis," said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on Israeli-American relations at Bar Ilan University. "This is even a more serious one, first of all because of what it is, and secondly because it comes on top of many previous crises. This is a different kind of story. This is a different kind of crisis."
If Netanyahu, known as Bibi, survives the March 17 election, the result may be a virtual freeze in the relationship at the very top until after the 2016 U.S. presidential vote. The situation will be all the more complicated if Israel ends up at war again with Hezbollah or if Iran balks at a deal to curb its nuclear program.
"We don’t have a precedent for a two-year crisis in the relationship," said Martin Indyk, a former special envoy for Israel-Palestinian negotiations under Obama. "So the question is, is there a way back from the brink? Because if Bibi is re-elected, we have to find a way and he has to find a way. But it’ll take the two leaders to decide that they have an interest in burying the hatchet."
Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said it was hard to imagine that they could. "I wouldn’t anticipate a major shift in the relationship until the presidential election in 2016," he said. "There just seems to be too much baggage here."
Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official, said it looked like Netanyahu has concluded that he would rather take his chances with the Republican Congress even at the expense of his already tense relationship with Obama.
"I really do think it represents a strategic calculation that from Israel’s point of view, this president and this White House have essentially been written off," Haass said. "Particularly since the midterm elections, they have made the calculation that to the extent possible, they will use Congress as the channel to conduct their relationship."
Efraim Halevy, a former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, said that calculation was made clear in December when Israel offered no support for Obama’s decision to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba, a move he attributed to a desire not to alienate Republicans. "Israel is now placing its bets on one side of the aisle," Halevy said. "I think it’s a mistake."
Bernadette Meehan, a White House spokeswoman, said Friday that the relationship was bigger than any single politician or diplomat. "It is an alliance that shouldn’t be turned into a relationship between two political parties," she said. "Our relationship is about the strong bonds between the United States and Israel and our people, and our commitment to common interests and values."
The relationship has seen rough times under many presidents. A quarter-century ago, James A. Baker III, then secretary of state, was so angry that Israel’s deputy foreign minister had said U.S. policy was built "on a foundation of distortion and lies" that for a while he banned him from even entering the State Department. Who was that deputy foreign minister? Benjamin Netanyahu.
By the time Netanyahu became prime minister, Bill Clinton was president and the two did not always get along, either. During the 1996 campaign that first brought Netanyahu to power, Clinton made clear that he thought Shimon Peres, then Israel’s prime minister, would be the best hope for peace efforts, drawing criticism from those who saw it as interference in Israel’s elections.
It has not gone unnoticed in Jerusalem that a veteran of Obama’s campaigns, Jeremy Bird, is working with two policy groups in Israel that, while not supporting a specific candidate, are not friendly to Netanyahu. Two Republicans, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry this week asking about any funding given to one of the organizations.
Netanyahu has strong interest in legislation that has bipartisan support in Congress to threaten further sanctions against Iran if it does not agree to a nuclear deal by spring. And on Friday, his government announced the new housing settlements, which broke a months-long freeze and drew a swift condemnation from the State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, who said it would "inflame tensions, further isolate Israel internationally and will not help Israel’s security."
Kerry, who has invested a lot in building a relationship with Netanyahu, is said to be especially livid because of what he sees as a violation of a doctrine of no surprises. As a result, he may be emboldened to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan without waiting for Netanyahu’s assent.
The growing friction has left many involved in the issue upset and hoping that rational behavior prevails.
"It would be nice if a level of maturity kicked in and we did not allow the personality-driven issues and political issues to overwhelm what are incredibly important common global issues," said Josh Block, president of the Israel Project, a pro-Israeli education group in Washington. "It’s important we focus on what really matters."