The meeting on May 18 of two newly elected leaders, Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu, raises a basic question about U.S.-Israel relations: Will this long-standing alliance survive its 62nd year?
Here are three reasons to expect a break from business-as-usual:
(1) Many areas of difference exist – the Iranian nuclear build-up, relations with Syria, Israeli adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Jews living on the West Bank – but the "two-state solution" will likely set the meetings' tone, mood, and outcome. The two-state idea aims to end the Arab-Israeli conflict by establishing a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state. The plan rests on two assumptions: (a) that the Palestinians can construct a centralized, viable state and (b) that attaining this state means the abandonment of their dreams to eliminate Israel.
The two-state model found acceptance among the Israeli public between the Oslo accords of 1993 and the new round of Palestinian violence in 2000. On the surface, to be sure, "two state" seems yet strong among Israelis: Ehud Olmert enthused over the Annapolis round, Avigdor Lieberman accepts the "Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution," and a recent Tel Aviv University poll finds "two states" still remains popular.
But many Israelis, including Netanyahu, disbelieve that Palestinians will either construct a state or abandon irredentism. Netanyahu prefers to shelve "two states" and focus instead on institution-building, economic development, and quality-of-life improvements for Palestinians. To this, the Arab states, Palestinians, European governments, and the Obama administration near-unanimously respond with vociferous hostility.
Question: Will differences over the two-state solution prompt a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations?
(2) Larger strategic concerns consistently drive U.S. attitudes to Israel: Republicans kept their distance when they perceived Israel as a liability in confronting the Soviet Union (1948-70) and only warmed to it when Israel proved its strategic utility (after 1970); Democrats cooled in the post-Cold War period (after 1991), when many came to see it as an "apartheid" state that destabilizes the Middle East and impedes U.S. policies there.
By now, the political parties diverge greatly; polls find Republican support for Israel exceeds Democratic support by an average margin of 26 percentage points. Likewise, Republicans endorse the United States helping Israel attack Iran far more than Democrats. With Democrats now dominating Washington, this disparity implies a cooling from the George W. Bush years. Gary Ackerman (Democrat of New York), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee, exemplifies this change. Known in years past to stand up for Israel, he now accuses it of perpetuating "settler pogroms" and thus taking part in a "destructive dynamic."
Question: Will the Democrats' critical views translate into a policy shift at the forthcoming summit meeting?
(3) Obama himself comes out of the Democratic party's intensely anti-Zionist left wing. Just a few years back, he associated with voluble Israel-haters like Ali Abunimah, Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said, and Jeremiah Wright, not to speak of Saddam Hussein lackeys, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Nation of Islam. As Obama rose in national politics, he distanced himself from this crew. On winning the presidency, he appointed mostly mainstream Democrats to deal with the Middle East. One can only speculate whether his change was tactical, designed to deny the Republicans a campaign issue, or strategic, representing a genuinely new approach.
Question: How deep runs Obama's antipathy toward the Jewish state?
Some predictions: (1) Iran being Netanyahu's top priority, he will avoid a crisis by mouthing the words "two-state solution" and agreeing to diplomacy with the Palestinian Authority. (2) Democrats too will be on their best behavior, checking their alienation through Netanyahu's visit, momentarily averting a meltdown. (3) Obama, who has plenty of problems on his hands, does not need a fight with Israel and its supporters. His move to the center, however tactical, will last through the Netanyahu visit.
Short term prospects, then, hold out more continuity than change in U.S.-Israel relations. Those concerned with Israel's security will prematurely breathe a sigh of relief – premature because the status quo is fragile and U.S. relations with Israel could rapidly unravel.
Even a lack of progress toward a Palestinian state can prompt a crisis, while an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear infrastructure contrary to Obama's wishes might cause him to terminate the bond begun by Harry Truman, enhanced by John Kennedy, and solidified by Bill Clinton.