The U.S.-Israeli relationship is so popular in the U.S. and the level of collegiality and cooperation is so high, that the slightest disagreement or hostile word leads to a media consensus that a “crisis” between Jerusalem and Washington is upon us.
All of these analysts forget one major element in the U.S.-Israeli relationship: Congress. On both sides of the aisle, Congress is Israel’s prime supporter in D.C., no matter who resides in the White House. Since the end of the Cold War, Israel has become the Holy Grail in the House and Senate. It has often seemed that Israel was the only issue on which Republicans and Democrats would definitely agree.
It wasn’t always this way. In the early years of the Jewish State successive U.S. administrations expressed their dismay with this or that Israeli policy by embargoing or delaying arms, backing the diplomacy of Israel’s opponents, opposing Israel in wars from Suez to Lebanon, and opposing Israel’s position on one or another peace effort with its Arab neighbors.
It was not until the 1992 Bill Clinton election and the Republican takeover of the House two years later that the notion of conflict with Israel became taboo. Even Clinton, who claimed to be Israel’s most supportive president, had several disagreements, especially with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. George W. Bush had his conflicts with Israel, too, including over Sharon’s response to the second Intifada.
In Congress, by contrast, conflicts have been rare. There have been times that Congress acted in a tepid manner toward Israeli actions, such as in the crisis leading to the Six Day War, and in not countering George H.W. Bush’s withholding of loan guarantees to Israel. But since the Clinton era, there have been no similar hesitations that are noteworthy.
Therefore, we can expect that even if the Obama administration’s policies toward the Palestinians or Iran lead to a tense confrontation with Israel, Congress will simply not allow a genuine crisis to emerge.
In short, Congress is critical in affecting the health of the U.S.-Israel relationship. In this period of uncertainty, it can play its historical role by taking positions that will maintain Israel’s positive standing in Washington.
First, as long as negotiations with Tehran continue, Congress should follow the lead of the White House but have the toughest sanctions ever prepared ready for vote should the current talks fail. If talks break down due to Iranian intransigence, there will be intense American and international support for new sanctions, and a military option will be on the table. Iran should be made to understand this point clearly.
However, if the interim agreement is seen to have been upended by actions of the U.S. Congress, both the potential sanctions and military options will be threatened. It will be much more difficult, even almost impossible, to gain international support for sanctions and military action if the talks were seen to have broken down because of a controversial action by the U,S, Congress. In that sense, voting for sanctions now could create the worst of both worlds: Iran will walk away from the talks as the offended party, and sanctions will be diminished as the Iranians develop an excuse to complete their nuclear ambitions. Congress should not give Tehran an opportunity for such a victory.
Second, Kerry’s peace process initiative deserves support. If Congress contributed to the breakdown of these talks, it would be directly detrimental to America’s standing in the region and to Israeli security. A Congress that acts to the right of the Israeli government weakens the U.S.-Israeli relationship because it unnecessarily places additional burdens on relations between the two countries. The corollary of this principle is that American legislators should unequivocally back the Israeli position if Israeli negotiators make major concessions on settlements, Jerusalem, the Jordan valley or another issue.
Third, Congress should continue its historic support of other important elements in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, such as security, trade and diplomacy. We have every reason to believe the Obama administration will continue close ties on each of these issues. But the legislative branch could also consider proposing new ideas to the administration that would strengthen U.S.-Israel ties, such as a formal defense treaty or more concretized means of supporting mutually beneficial technology partnerships.
Disagreements between sovereign governments, even close friends like Canada, Britain and Israel, are normal and even proper. But a crisis? At most, it’s a lovers’ quarrel, and we all know what usually happens after those.
Steven L. Spiegel is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Middle East Development at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum.