Previous U.S.-Israel crises offer 5 lessons for the coming storm

As the June 30 deadline for a final Iran nuclear agreement approaches, the special relationship between Israel and the United States faces one of its toughest tests yet.

Yet this is not the first time Washington has struggled to balance its commitment to Israel against its evolving strategic interests in a rapidly changing Middle East.

Previous schisms offer vital lessons on how both the U.S.-Israeli partnership and President Barack Obama can weather the gathering storm.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks likely to work through Congress and the media to challenge the terms of any agreement to emerge from last week’s framework deal.

The negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) are intended to persuade Tehran to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons in return for a gradual lifting of economic sanctions. Netanyahu is convinced the negotiations are wrongheaded and dangerous. He appears to believe that anything short of regime change in Tehran — either as a byproduct of crippling economic sanctions or through force — will allow Iran to continue to pose an existential threat to Israel. But Obama looks unlikely to yield. The Iran negotiations are quickly emerging as a cornerstone of his foreign policy legacy.

Obama does not have another campaign to run. But the fallout from what will be a fraught period in American-Israeli relations could become an issue in the 2016 presidential run by his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

Lesson 1: Prioritize principle over politics. In 1956, Israel colluded with Britain and France in “Operation Musketeer” after Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. The three countries planned to invade Egypt, retake control of the vital waterway and provoke the fall of Nasser’s regime. Eisenhower, who was not informed in advance, would have none of it. The invasion came in the final days of a campaign in which the former general had campaigned on a peace ticket. Concerned a wider war could draw in the Soviet Union, Eisenhower threatened to end U.S. assistance to, and support U.N. sanctions against, Israel. Israel, along with Britain and France, eventually relented. Eisenhower prevailed because he made it a question of principle. He did not appear to support a forceful intervention by allies that looked strikingly similar to the near-simultaneous Soviet crushing of a major Hungarian uprising. Politically, he did not take the bait when Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson criticized his handling of the crisis. American voters appreciated Eisenhower’s resolution: he won 41 states in a landslide election.

This incident suggests that Obama would be best served if he makes the case that the Iran deal is a matter of principle: the resolution of international disputes through negotiation, not force. Once that line has been espoused, he should stick with it.

Lesson 2: Keep Congress involved. This one is obvious, but cannot be emphasized enough. In 1975, the Ford administration attempted to extract concessions from Israel amid negotiations with Egypt by freezing arms shipments and indicating it would undertake a top-to-bottom “reassessment” of the U.S. relationship with Israel. It did not last long. Soon thereafter, 76 senators — fully three-quarters of the Senate — signed a letter to the president opposing any attempt to cut military aid to Israel. Ford quickly backed off.

The major lesson here — in case Obama needed to be reminded — is that Congress can undermine an administration’s negotiating position. The White House is unlikely to win many converts to its position in the Republican-dominated Congress. But it should do everything in its power to mitigate vocal opposition by setting aside considerable time for one-to-one meetings with lawmakers.

Lesson 3: Keep the disputes private. It may be too late for this, in part because Netanyahu has never met an American television news crew he does not like. Nevertheless, Jimmy Carter’s experience underscores the problems that result when allies’ dirty laundry is aired in public. Carter undertook an “open” style of diplomacy that ruffled many feathers, including those of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In 1977, Carter advisor Hamilton Jordan warned the president that a core problem riling up U.S. supporters of Israel was that, “You have discussed publicly things that have only been said before privately to the Israelis with reassurances.” Carter only achieved the Camp David Accords breakthrough when he locked away Egyptian and Israeli leaders for 13 days without access to the media or the outside world.

The lesson for Obama is that he should keep his disputes with Israel and its congressional supporters as quiet as possible. He cannot prevent the Israelis from airing their concerns, but his foreign policy team must espouse a disciplined, unified message. The White House should avoid rebutting specific Israeli assertions that could drag it into a politically damaging back-and-forth with Netanyahu’s government. Netanyahu is unlikely to be convinced, but it stands the best chance of ensuring that relations remain salvageable after the Iran negotiations conclude.

Lesson 4: Make clear the importance of Israel in an evolving American security framework. Ever since Israel’s birth in 1948, perhaps the singular challenge in U.S. Middle East policy is how to balance America’s commitment to Israel with bolstering relations with Sunni Arab states. This has not always been easily achieved. The Reagan administration took steps to bolster ties with key Arab actors — namely, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and Saudi Arabia. In the face of intense opposition, the administration in 1981 forced through the Senate the sale of advanced early-warning surveillance aircraft known as AWACS to Saudi Arabia. This effort incensed Israel and its American supporters. In 1982, the White House unveiled the Reagan Plan, an agenda for persuading Jordan, the PLO, and Saudi Arabia to join Egypt in the U.S.-led peace process with Israel. In drawing up the plan, the administration consulted with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the PLO’s Yasser Arafat, but not Israel. This development deeply unsettled the Begin government, which rejected the Reagan Plan “out of hand.” Reagan ended up being one of the most pro-Israel presidents in U.S. history, but that was partly a byproduct of these pitched early battles.

The lesson is that while the United States need not consult with Israel about policy, it would be wise to make clear in advance that it is not pushing Israel aside as it seeks rapprochement with Iran and a bolstered security relationship with Sunni Arab Gulf allies. Instead, the administration must make clear that its commitment to Israel extends beyond the rhetorical.

Lesson 5: Use carrots and sticks. The 1991 Madrid Conference offers a template for how to mix penalties and incentives to persuade Israel to change its position to more closely align with American objectives. The Bush administration delayed granting an Israeli request for $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees unless Yitzhak Shamir’s government agreed to freeze settlement expansion during peace negotiations. “If you want U.S. guarantees, you will have to accept our position on settlements,” Secretary of State James Baker told Shamir. Bush, still riding high in the polls after the first Gulf War, did not back down. Shamir relented long enough to join the Madrid talks, the first-ever face-to-face meeting between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which indirectly led to the Oslo Accords and the evanescent peace advances of the 1990s.

This suggests Obama could prevail in a test of wills so long as he has the domestic support and uses appropriate leverage to stand up for American interests in the region. The administration should calibrate its moves carefully and avoid appearing to blackmail Israel. But nor should it be shy about applying gentle economic pressure or using the United Nations as a forum for political arm-twisting.

Ultimately, no historical precedent offers a tidy solution for the strained American-Israeli relationship. But the above lessons offer insight into what has, and has not, worked previously. Policymakers would be advised to bear these lessons in mind because the future of the American-Israeli partnership and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process will hinge on the next two months.

Originally published at on April 20, 2015.

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