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HomeMiddle EastU.S.-Israel Ties Strained Over Diplomacy on Gaza

U.S.-Israel Ties Strained Over Diplomacy on Gaza

Video | Cease-Fires of the Gaza-Israel Conflict With the Israeli Army now moving into defensive positions, a historical look at how the fighting could end.
August 4, 2014

WASHINGTON — When the State Department condemned Israel’s strike on a United Nations school in Gaza on Sunday, saying it was “appalled” by this “disgraceful” act, it gave full vent to what has been weeks of mounting American anger toward the Israeli government.

The blunt, unsparing language — among the toughest diplomats recall ever being aimed at Israel — lays bare a frustrating reality for the Obama administration: the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has largely dismissed diplomatic efforts by the United States to end the violence in Gaza, leaving American officials to seethe on the sidelines about what they regard as disrespectful treatment.

Even as Israel agreed to a new cease-fire with Hamas, raising hopes for an end to four weeks of bloodshed, its relationship with the United States has been bruised by repeated clashes, from the withering Israeli criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peacemaking efforts to Mr. Netanyahu’s dressing down of the American ambassador to Israel. 

“This is the most sustained period of antagonism in the relationship,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel who now teaches at Princeton. “I don’t know how the relationship recovers as long as you have this president and this prime minister.”

President Obama has had few levers to influence Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on the current conflict in Gaza.

And yet, with public opinion in both Israel and the United States solidly behind the Israeli military’s campaign against Hamas, no outcry from Israel’s Arab neighbors, and unstinting support for Israel on Capitol Hill, President Obama has had few obvious levers to force Mr. Netanyahu to stop pounding targets in Gaza until he was ready to do it.

On Monday, the Israeli prime minister signaled that moment had come. Amid signs it was prepared to wind down the conflict unilaterally, Israel announced it would accept a 72-hour cease-fire, effective Tuesday, and send a delegation to Cairo to negotiate for a lasting end to the violence.

Even as the White House harshly criticized the Israeli strike on the school, the Pentagon confirmed that last Friday it had resupplied the Israeli military with ammunition under a longstanding military aid agreement. Mr. Obama swiftly signed a bill Monday giving Israel $225 million in emergency aid for its Iron Dome antimissile system.

For all its outrage over civilian casualties, the United States steadfastly backs Israel’s right to defend itself and shares Israel’s view that Hamas is a terrorist organization. In a world of bitter enmities, the Israeli-American dispute is more akin to a family quarrel.

Although Mr. Netanyahu has insisted he will not end the operation in Gaza until Israel has shut down the tunnels, a senior American official predicted that the tough State Department statement would “box them in internationally.”

The White House seems determined to tamp down the latest eruption in tensions. “The nature of our relationship is strong and unchanged,” the press secretary, Josh Earnest, told reporters on Monday, pointing to comments by Mr. Netanyahu over the weekend, in which he said, “I think the United States has been terrific.”

The two statements are part of a recurring pattern for this administration: an angry outburst, followed by calmer words and the grudging recognition that little is going to change in the fundamental relationship between the United States and its closest ally in the Middle East.

Disputes between the United States and Israel are hardly new. President Ronald Reagan sold Awacs surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia over Israel’s fierce objections. George H.W. Bush held up loan guarantees because of Israeli settlement construction. Bill Clinton fumed after his first Oval Office encounter with a newly elected Israeli prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu.

But the chronic nature of this tension is unusual — and, according to current and former officials, rooted in ill will at the very top. “You have a backdrop of a very acrimonious relationship between the president and the prime minister of Israel,” said Robert M. Danin, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Graphic | A History of Obama-Netanyahu Tensions The State Department’s condemnation of an Israeli strike on a United Nations school in Gaza on Sunday was just the latest is a series of clashes between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While tensions between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu only occasionally spill into the open, Mr. Kerry became the subject of very public and vitriolic — albeit anonymous — criticism from Israeli officials for his efforts two weeks ago to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. His proposal, the officials said, was tilted in favor of Hamas and did not do enough to protect Israel’s security.

Mr. Kerry, American officials responded, based his efforts on an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that had already been accepted by the Israelis. He submitted his ideas to the Israelis, anticipating that they would have concerns. Whatever the precise circumstances, Mr. Kerry found himself excoriated across the political spectrum in Israel.

At the White House, officials were incensed by what they saw as shabby treatment of Mr. Kerry, a loyal friend of Israel. In addition to the cease-fire and the peace talks, they noted, Mr. Kerry went to bat for Israel with the Federal Aviation Administration after it imposed a ban on commercial flights to Tel Aviv following a rocket attack near Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, voiced her anger to her Israeli counterpart, while Mr. Obama held a tense telephone call with Mr. Netanyahu last week, during which he demanded that Israel agree to a cease-fire.

Interactive Map | Assessing the Damage and Destruction in Gaza The damage to Gaza’s infrastructure from the current conflict is already more severe than the destruction caused by either of the last two Gaza wars.

“I cannot for the life of me understand why the Israelis would do this to Kerry,” said a senior administration official, who was not authorized to comment publicly on the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity. “If it was designed to pressure us, I don’t know to what end.”

Adding to the tensions was a report in the German magazine Der Spiegel that Israel wiretapped Mr. Kerry’s telephone during his peace negotiations. A State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, declined to comment but said Mr. Kerry took pains to protect his communications.

Although Mr. Netanyahu has insisted he will not end the operation in Gaza until Israel has shut down the tunnels that Hamas uses to launch attacks on Israel, a senior American official predicted that the tough State Department statement would “box them in internationally.”

Mr. Netanyahu, however, has shown little evidence of wavering. American officials said that after the previous cease-fire fell apart on Friday, Mr. Netanyahu scolded the American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, saying the United States should not “ever second-guess him again” on how to deal with Hamas.

Responding to the White House’s outrage, Mr. Netanyahu dispatched his ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, to defend Mr. Kerry, saying the attacks on him were “unwarranted.” But Mr. Dermer insisted that the harsh words did not reveal a deeper dysfunction in Israel’s relationship with the United States.

“It’s a lack of appreciation of how Israeli discourse works,” he said. “It’s your average Jewish Friday night family meal, taken to the hundredth power.”

Still, after a hectic week of television interviews to defend Israel’s operation in Gaza, Mr. Dermer acknowledged that the United States and Israel would never perceive the threat from Hamas exactly the same way.

“When you’re thinking about your survival every day,” he said, “you tend to think about these issues differently.”

Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

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(via NY Times)