Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was in the United States, Tuesday, March 3, to speak to Congress. The Obama administration is upset that Speaker of the House, John Boehner invited Netanyahu without consulting with the White House and charged Boehner with political grandstanding. Netanyahu said he was coming to warn the United States of the threat of Iran. Israeli critics of Netanyahu charged that this was a ploy for public approval to improve his position in Israel’s general election next year. Boehner denied any political intent beyond getting to hear Netanyahu’s views. The Obama administration claimed that the speech threatens the fabric of U.S.-Israeli relations.
Let us begin with the obvious. First, this is a speech, and it is unlikely that Netanyahu could say anything new on the subject of Iran, given that he never stops talking about it. Second, everyone involved is grandstanding. They are politicians, and that’s what they do. Third, the idea that U.S.-Israeli relations can be shredded by a grandstanding speech is preposterous. If that’s all it takes, the relations are already shredded.
Speeches aside, there is no question that U.S.-Israeli relations have been changing substantially since the end of the Cold War, and that change, arrested for a while after 9/11, has created distance and tension between the countries. Netanyahu’s speech is merely a symptom of the underlying reality. There are theatrics, there are personal animosities, but presidents and prime ministers come and go. What is important are the interests that bind or separate nations, and the interests of Israel and the United States have to some extent diverged. It is the divergence of interests we must focus on, particularly because there is a great deal of mythology around the U.S.-Israeli relationship created by advocates of a close relationship, opponents of the relationship, and foreign enemies of one or both countries.
It is important to understand that the United States and Israel did not always have a close relationship. While the United States recognized Israel from the beginning, its relationship was cool until after the Six-Day War in 1967. When Israel, along with Britain and France invaded Egypt in 1956, the United States demanded Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai and Gaza, and Israel complied. The United States provided no aid for Israel except for food aid given through a U.N. programme that served many nations. The United States was not hostile to Israel, nor did it regard its relationship as crucial.
This began to change before the 1967 conflict, after pro-Soviet coups in Syria and Iraq by Baathist parties. Responding to this threat, the United States created a belt of surface-to-air missiles stretching from Saudi Arabia to Jordan and Israel in 1965. This was the first military aid given to Israel, and it was intended to be part of a system to block Soviet power. Until 1967, Israel’s weapons came primarily from France. Again, the United States had no objection to this relationship, nor was it a critical issue to Washington.
Therefore, the fact remains that Israel does not want to be considered by the United States as one power among many. It is focused on the issue of a nuclear Iran, but it knows that there is no certainty that Iran’s nuclear facilities can be destroyed or that sanctions will cause the Iranians to abandon the nuclear programme. What Israel fears is an entente between the United States and Iran and a system of relations in which U.S. support will not be automatic.
So a speech will be made. Obama and Netanyahu are supposed to dislike each other. Politicians are going to be elected and jockey for power. All of this is true, and none of it matters. What does matter is that the United States, regardless of who is president, has to develop a new strategy in the region. This is the only option other than trying to occupy Syria and Iraq. Israel, regardless of who is prime minister, does not want to be left as part of this system while the United States maintains ties with all the other players along with Israel. Israel doesn’t have the weight to block this strategy, and the United States has no alternative but to pursue it.
But before this seeming cold war gets out of hand, other world powers must step in to quell the situation. True, this quarrel isn’t about Netanyahu and Obama, and both know it. It is about the reconfiguration of a region the United States cannot subdue and cannot leave. It is the essence of great power strategy: creating a balance of power in which the balancers are trapped into playing a role they don’t want. It is not a perfect strategy, but it is the only one the United States has. Israel is not alone in not wanting this. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia don’t want it, either. But geopolitics is indifferent to wishes. It understands only imperatives and constraints. And that is a fact.

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