The Western leaders understand that peace won't happen unless the
Israeli and Palestinian leaders can be brought together at the
negotiating table, something that becomes harder as their relationships
with Netanyahu get worse, which they are. But while the subtext of this
scandal might seem alarming -- could Obama and Netanyahu drift so far
apart that their two nations quietly end their historic alliance, thus
shifting the course of Middle East history? -- incidents of bad
diplomacy like this one are unlikely to dramatically transform the
foreign policies of these two nations.
relationship between Israeli leaders and American leaders is rapidly
worsening. A few months after Netanyahu made a speech in the U.S.
Congress berating Obama -- the leader of Israel's most important sponsor -- Obama's just-retired defense secretary decried the Israeli leadership as ungrateful allies. Netanyahu appears to be trying to push the American political system
in a direction that would be favorable to his policies of unrestrained
settlement growth and delayed peace talks; Obama appears to be trying to
push the Israeli political system in a direction that would be favorable to his
policies of Israel-Palestine peace. Each leader is a pawn in the
other's game, so it's not shocking that the two men would be unhappy
with one another.
Diplomacy isn't about building positive
interpersonal relationships between government representatives, although
that's often a tool of the diplomat or the statesmen. Diplomacy is
about securing your nation's goals and interests by talking to people.
If Obama and Netanyahu perceive their national interests as conflicting,
their diplomatic relationship is going to be marked by conflict. That
Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao appear to have a better
relationship than does Obama with Netanyahu isn't a reflection of
Obama's great love of Chinese state capitalism or any hostility toward
Ultimately, long-term U.S. and Israeli interests (and
voters) line up; one bad leader-to-leader relationship or a few hot mic
gaffes are not going to change the demographic and political causes of
the U.S.-Israel alliance. Democratically elected leaders like Obama and
Netanyahu are conduits for the nations they serve, and those national
interests almost always trump personal feelings. The George W. Bush
administration had a notoriously bad relationship with French President
Jacques Chirac, for example. That may have led the U.S. Congress to pass
some truly absurd anti-French legislation (remember "freedom fries"?),
the alliance between these two wealthy, liberal, democratic, Western
nations was never really in jeopardy.
That's not to say that the
U.S. and Israel could never drift apart, as some analysts worry (a
process some Republicans seem eager to accuse Obama of accelerating).
The two states have increasingly divergent perceptions of their
interests in the greater Middle East, and of how to pursue those
interests. The calculus that leads the U.S. to support Israel and that
leads Israel to rely on the U.S. could change. But, if it does, that
change will almost certainly be driven by shifting U.S. and Israeli
national interests, not in the personal feelings and verbal slights of
their elected representatives to the world.