ASG Vice President Prem Kumar quoted in Bloomberg Business on U.S.-Israel relations

Obama-Netanyahu Ties Hit Low as U.S.-Israel Alliance Endures

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(Bloomberg) -- When he stands before Congress next week, Benjamin Netanyahu will be betting that warning against a “dangerous” nuclear deal with Iran will be worth the toll it takes on his difficult relationship with President Barack Obama.

In doing so, the Israeli prime minister risks tossing U.S.- Israel ties into the maelstrom of Washington partisanship after decades in which the Jewish state has enjoyed broad support for what is often called an “enduring partnership.”

The tensions over how to deal with Iran, which both sides have done little to mask, have brought comparisons to a low point in relations in 1992, when then-President George H.W. Bush tussled with Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over Israeli settlement construction.

Through it all, the U.S. remains Israel’s biggest trading partner and closest defense ally, providing $3.1 billion in annual military assistance. Officials from both nations agree that the level of U.S.-Israel security cooperation, including intelligence-sharing, is unprecedented. In business, two-way trade in goods between the nations has grown to $38.1 billion in 2014 from $28.3 billion in 2009, Obama’s first year in office, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Institutionally, the relationship is stronger than it’s ever been,” said Prem Kumar, who was the White House National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa before joining the consulting firm Albright Stonebridge Group earlier this year.

“Politically, there have been some difficulties, but they’re not insurmountable,” he said.

Talks Continue

Last week, Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen discussed Iran and other issues with his White House counterpart, Susan Rice. Those talks went ahead even as administration officials said the U.S. is withholding details about the Iran negotiations because Israeli officials have leaked misleading information to undermine a deal.

Politically, it’s a different matter. The White House has made no secret of its displeasure with Netanyahu’s scheduled March 3 address to Congress at the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, and a number of Democrats plan to boycott it in a rare show of partisan discord on a matter important to Israel and its American supporters.

“The U.S.-Israel relationship has always been characterized, despite any ups and downs over policy disagreements, as certainly bipartisan,” David Makovsky, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview. “The question -- which it may be too soon to answer -- is whether the friction over this will bring that into question in a way that is hasn’t been brought into question” in the past.

Collision Course

Disagreement over how to thwart what both Obama and Netanyahu regard as Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions has put the two leaders on a collision course. This is coming to a head with the possibility of a negotiated deal between Iran and six world powers, including the U.S., that fails to meet what Netanyahu says are Israel’s security requirements.

Plotting his course to Capitol Hill, Netanyahu had to get over the notion that he shouldn’t team up with Republicans against Obama’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, according to his advisers.

He’s said the emerging terms would enable Iran to retain a “break-out” capability to produce nuclear weapons before the U.S. or Israel could prevent it. Netanyahu, addressing a group of U.S. Jewish leaders in Jerusalem last week, said he has a “sacred duty” to make Israel’s case to Congress.

‘Bad Agreement’

“The prime minister decided, as I understand it, that to prevent this bad agreement from being signed and implemented is more important than the personal relations with the president, and that’s why he’s going to Congress to give the speech,” said Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser.

Amidror, now a senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, said signing an agreement with Iran would amount to dismissing Israel’s most vital security requirements and leave “a scratch on the relations” between the two allies.

“When there was a need, the Americans were not there,” he said.

One source of tension for Obama is that his support for measures to strengthen Israel’s security haven’t bought him much in return from Netanyahu on the two big strategic issues they jointly face: Iran and the future of the Palestinians.

Rejected Deal

An earlier sign of that was Netanyahu’s rejection of a 2010 U.S. offer of a weapons deal including Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters if Netanyahu would extend for 90 days a partial settlement freeze to encourage peace talks with the Palestinians.

When Netanyahu comes to Washington, Obama has ruled out granting him a White House visit, which has capped virtually all of his trips to the U.S. as prime minister. Obama said it wouldn’t be appropriate given Israeli elections on March 17.

Isaac Herzog, the parliamentary opposition chief whose Zionist Union ticket narrowly leads Netanyahu’s Likud party in polls, said on Tuesday he rejected an offer to join the prime minister in Washington and present a united front on Iran.

“I know how to make myself heard in a clear, influential way from here and not there,” he said at a Jerusalem news conference.

Along with the Netanyahu speech and the Israeli elections, a third event next month is an end-of-month deadline for reaching a framework political deal in the Iran negotiations.

“Those are three big events that I think could very much affect the trajectory of the U.S.-Israel relationship going forward,” said Makovsky.

Ebbing Support

A Gallup Poll released Monday found a high level of American public support for Israel, with seven of ten people having a broadly favorable view. Gallup said the dispute between the two leaders did seem to have had an impact: The percentage of U.S. Democrats viewing Israel favorably fell to 60 percent from 74 percent a year ago. The telephone poll conducted Feb. 8-11 has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Abraham Foxman, a Jewish leader who is national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he’s “a lot concerned” that controversy over the Netanyahu speech distracts from the important debate over Iran and undercuts the long-standing bipartisan character of American support for Israel.

Foxman has called for Netanyahu to cancel the congressional speech, particularly considering that he can speak in less controversial venues, including a scheduled address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a major pro-Israel lobbying group. It’s important to reinforce bipartisanship, particularly to address an issue as important as Iran, Foxman said in an interview.

Changing the Subject

“This became politicized, and the issue in the media was not the Iran issue, but all of a sudden how many Democrats will come, which Democrats will boycott, will they be applauding,” he said. “That was the unintended consequence, totally distracting, and that will undermine the purpose” of Netanyahu’s address.

Given the importance of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapons power, “it’s critical that we have a bipartisan embrace,” he said. “Now this situation looks far from the bipartisan embrace.”

‘Partisan Points’

Making the U.S.-Israel relationship a partisan issue “could have lasting consequences,” two senior Senate Democrats wrote Netanyahu in a letter Monday. The partisan way the speech was arranged -- without consultation with the White House or congressional Democratic leaders -- sacrificed “deep and well-established cooperation on Israel for short-term partisan points,” Senators Richard Durbin of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein of California said.

Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, and Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, invited Netanyahu to a private meeting with Senate Democrats “to maintain dialogue with both political parties in Congress.”

Describing Netanyahu’s trip to Washington as a “political stunt,” Danny Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2002 to 2006, said the speech will do nothing to change the minds of U.S. lawmakers on Iran.

“While he’s the one who shows Israelis he’s standing up to the president of the United States, I think in the long run it’s a mistake,” Ayalon said. “Our fight is not with Obama, it’s with Iran.”

Zalman Shoval, another former Israeli ambassador to Washington who served under both Netanyahu and Shamir, said the two leaders will find a way to iron out their problems.

“There’s always a way in good diplomacy, even on very controversial things, even if you can’t stand each other,” he said.


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