President Barack Obama’s speech at American University in Washington DC on August 6 marks a historic turning point in the US relationship with Israel.
The setting was deliberately chosen to associate the president’s achievement in winning a nuclear deal with Iran with a similar call by former US President John F Kennedy for diplomacy in the nuclear age more than half-a-century ago
Obama’s spirited defence of the agreement is important to be sure, but this is not what makes the president’s remarks a watershed event in the history of US-Israel relations – one that cannot but trouble supporters of the US-Israel alliance.
Long gone are the days when the US presidents could claim without contradiction that there is “no daylight” between the two allies.
The dispute over Iran has opened a chasm – separating the strategic assessments adopted in the US from those in Israel – that shows no sign of narrowing.
In his remarks at the AU, Obama declared that Israel is alone and isolated in its official opposition to the American-Iranian rapprochement.
“This is the strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated,” he said.
“And because this is such a strong deal, every nation in the world that has commented publicly, with the exception of the Israeli government, has expressed support.”
‘Qualitative Military Edge’
Undeterred, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is directing an overcharged campaign aimed at inciting Congress to oppose the president and to scuttle the agreement with Tehran.
And he is doing it at a time when the deal was unanimously endorsed in the United Nations Security Council.
However extraordinary this strategy is, Israel’s campaign against the president reflects a deeper malaise at the heart of Israel-US relations.
The consequences of this increasingly bitter estrangement have yet to unfold, but they promise to be far broader than the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme
A central component of the alliance was what is today described as the US commitment to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME).
The first step in this direction was taken in 1968 when a deal for US supply of F-4 phantoms was initialled. Those planes were, at the time, the most advanced aircrafts in the Western arsenal.
There was also a nuclear dimension to this relationship.
In return for Washington’s commitment to maintain Israel’s conventional superiority over any combination of regional threats, Israel promised to keep its nuclear bombs – now said to number more than 200, ready and “in the basement”, improved and modernised but undeclared – where they have remained for many decades since.
Ironically, it was Israel’s uncompromising attitude towards Iran that indirectly spawned the successful American effort to force Iran to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons.refuses to take an Iranian-American “yes” for an answer.
There can be no doubt that Israel under Netanyahu and perhaps under his most popular domestic rivals as well, is not interested in any diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear file.
They prefer instead an aggressive campaign to permanently limit, sanction and ostracise the Islamic republic.
Containing and rolling back Iranian regional power is even more important than the narrow challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear effort.
And just as the international attention paid to stopping Iran’s nuclear programme highlighted Israel’s power to establish the regional security agenda during the last decade, so too will Netanyahu’s current, unsuccessful campaign to undermine it.
The house wins
Obama has left no doubt about who will win this contest.
“[A]s president of the United States, it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgement simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally. I do not believe that would be the right thing to do for the United States. I do not believe it would be the right thing to do for Israel.”
Obama has made it clear that the US commitment to Israel’s conventional superiority – the much-vaunted QME – will survive the current contretemps.
However, a strategic disconnect that now characterises the US-Israel dispute over Iran cannot but affect the broader relationship between them.
Throwing new American weapons systems at Israel in even greater quantities than usual is the easy and conventional response to the current crisis.
But it is a poor and ultimately insufficient substitute for strategic cooperation of the kind that has been lost.
It is also true that just as Obama’s support for a deal with Iran has affected Tehran’s nuclear doctrine, it also affects Israel’s nuclear considerations.