The great U.S.-Israel rift that isn’t
In recent weeks, the media have had a field day reporting on a so-called rift in the U.S.-Israel relationship over the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The story makes for great headlines, but it’s poor analysis. Despite the heated rhetoric, the pillars that have anchored America’s most important alliance in the Middle East for more than six decades are just as firmly rooted today as they have ever been.
Just hours after Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced the interim deal to halt Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on American television and called the agreement “a historic mistake.” Israeli media reported that there were major concerns in Jerusalem about back-channel U.S.-Iran talks, although it since has become clear that the Israeli government knew of these meetings in advance.
As a result, some commentators suggest that America’s partnership with Israel — and with other U.S. allies in the Middle East — might fracture, eroding regional security and setting back U.S. interests in the area for years. The naysayers are using this one issue to suggest a fundamental divergence between the United States and Israel.
These fears come from a focus on form over substance. In statement after statement, President Obama and Netanyahu continue to articulate an identical goal: Iran must not have nuclear weapons.
Observers may bemoan the lack of personal chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu, but international relationships needn’t be love affairs between leaders. They rest on common interests, common values and reciprocity. This foundation is what has sustained an exceptional U.S.-Israel partnership through 65 years, 12 U.S. administrations and plenty of rocky news cycles.
The heated words of the last few weeks should be seen for what they are: a gap in how Jerusalem and Washington view the costs and benefits of the interim nuclear deal. But have they opened a rift, with significant implications for the future of the relationship? No. Far from it.
For example, Israel recently hosted U.S. forces for “Blue Flag,” a major joint military exercise involving dozens of fighter jets. This is a perfect example of how Israel and the United States can put aside their differences on one issue and continue to work closely together to advance their shared interests: fighting terrorism, ending the war in Syria, promoting global development and stabilizing the Middle East.
Senior national security officials of both countries say that the U.S. and Israel have never enjoyed closer military and intelligence cooperation, with both countries, and countless others, safer as a result. With U.S. support, Israel has developed a cutting-edge missile defense system that one day may be used to guard America, just as Israeli technology protects the vehicles that U.S. soldiers drive in Afghanistan.
Along the same lines, the two countries’ intelligence collaboration has been crucial in combating global terrorist networks and keeping close tabs on Iran’s nuclear program.
In fact, close U.S.-Israeli cooperation is what opened the window for recent negotiations with Iran. After defying the will of the international community for years, Iran finally changed its tune when Washington and Jerusalem stood shoulder to shoulder — not just on tough international sanctions but on their clear readiness to use force if necessary — to prevent Tehran from getting the bomb. In the face of growing international isolation and a plummeting economy, the Iranian people demanded that their leadership bring them relief, and Tehran was finally forced to the negotiating table.
The U.S.-Israel relationship is also cemented by the common values of democracy and human rights, and a shared vision for the global order. Both countries thrive in a world filled with open markets and open societies, and seek to advance those principles on the international stage, which is reflected in their nearly identical voting records at the United Nations.
In the coming months, close coordination and consultation between the U.S. and Israel will be crucial for reaching a positive outcome in the nuclear talks for a comprehensive deal with Iran. And so camera-ready rhetoric must give way to quiet conversation. The actions of Netanyahu and Obama tell far more about the continuing alignment of our two countries than any sensational headline.
And what those actions reflect is the strength of the relationship between our nations and the broader benefits that have resulted from it.
Haim Saban is a private equity investor, the chairman of the Spanish-language media company Univision and founder of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
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