US spat with Israel puts Obama administration in line of fire

A spat between the US and Israel has spilled over into domestic US politics, with the Obama administration coming under fire from critics who accuse the president of endangering a crucial and longstanding alliance.


In an interview with Time magazine in January, US President Barack Obama called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “as intractable a problem as you get”.

The comment reflected a first year in office which saw US ambitions to advance the Mideast peace process mostly thwarted. That trend continued last week, as US officials were left seething following Israel’s announcement of 1,600 new settlement homes in east Jerusalem while Vice-President Joe Biden was in the region to promote peace talks.

The latest spat, which the Israeli ambassador to Washington reportedly called 'the worst in 35 years', was evidence of an increasingly tense relationship: the Obama administration is pushing Israel harder for concessions, and Israel is pushing back.

But the diplomatic friction has also spilled over into domestic US politics, with the Obama administration coming under fire from critics who accuse the president of endangering a crucial and longstanding alliance.

Obama takes the heat for new tone toward ally

The Obama administration’s uncommonly sharp rebuke of Israel’s settlement announcement suggested a year’s worth of frustrations bubbling to the surface. According to FRANCE 24 correspondent in Washington D.C. Guillaume Meyer, “Barack Obama is still very angry after what happened to his vice-president”. That anger has been voiced through top officials, including Biden himself, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Obama's close advisor David Axelrod.

But the White House’s tough new tack against Israel has come at a cost at home. Amid continued criticism from opposition Republicans about a range of domestic issues, new accusations are calling into question the US president’s approach to a cherished foreign ally.

“A lot of members of Congress are complaining that Barack Obama has been a little too tough on Israel,” FRANCE 24's Meyer explained. “They would like to see the relationship between Israel and the US go back to normal.”

Representative Eric Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House, said he was “deeply concerned with the irresponsible comments that the White House, vice-president and the secretary of state have made against Israel”.

Cantor implied that the administration’s comments, which amount to the harshest US criticism of Israel in decades, were a mere political calculation: "In an effort to ingratiate our country with the Arab world, this administration has shown a troubling eagerness to undercut our allies and friends”.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Republican Sam Brownback remarked that it was "hard to see how spending a weekend condemning Israel…amounts to a positive step towards peace."

Elected officials are not the only ones scolding the White House. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobby, has expressed "serious concern" about Obama’s reaction and demanded "immediate steps" to smooth things over.

Tending to a fraying friendship

The commotion in Washington over a fraying US-Israeli friendship can be explained by diplomatic and political history. The US government has long considered Israel a key strategic ally in the Middle East, and American politicians on both the right and left are generally staunch defenders of Israel. The US, in turn, is considered by far Israel’s most steadfast ally: Israel enjoyed mainly unconditional support during eight years with former President George W. Bush.

But though Obama’s Middle East policy follows the broad outlines of his predecessors and his backing in the American Jewish population is strong (he garnered nearly 80 percent of the “Jewish vote” in his election against Senator John McCain), he has been more willing to make blunt demands of Israel – most notably that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freeze settlement building. Israel’s resistance to those demands has resulted in a new era of unease between the two nations, and has left Obama vulnerable to arguments at home that his strategy has been both ineffective and misguided.

As FRANCE 24's Meyer says, “In Washington, people are worried because usually the relationship between the US and Israel is a very close relationship”. In what looked like an effort to tend to that relationship, and to calm a mounting storm on Capitol Hill, the US State Department said on Monday that the close ties between Israel and the US remained durably intact. "Israel is a strategic ally of the US and will continue to be so," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters. "Our commitment to Israel's security remains unshakeable.”

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