Gaza Violence Tests Once-Unshakable Allies U.S. And Israel

Aug 20, 2014
Originally published on August 21, 2014 1:07 pm

Relations between Israel and the United States are going through a turbulent time. The two sides — normally seen as unshakable allies — have increasingly taken to trading barbs and accusations about the other's policies and decisions, breaking diplomatic protocol.

The occasional frictions of the past few years have been exacerbated by the war in the Gaza Strip.

There's no question the two nations have had their ups and downs over the years, but nothing quite like the current public spat, says Eytan Gilboa, who specializes in U.S.-Israeli relations at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

"This is new, the continuing personal deterioration between the two leaders," he says. "The insults, the misunderstandings, the misperceptions have been accumulating to a point where an explosion of the kind that we have seen in recent days has become almost inevitable."

Many Israelis have never been fully comfortable with President Obama. The recent churn between the two countries could be dated to the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, when supporters of Obama suspected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of backing Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Or it could date from June of this year, when the U.S. was apparently willing to entertain the possibility of working with a Palestinian government that would include both Fatah and Hamas.

"I'm deeply troubled," Netanyahu said in response. "Hamas is a brutal terrorist organization."

Tensions noticeably ratcheted up when war broke out between Israel and Hamas in July. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched to the region.

A confidential draft of a peace proposal he gave Netanyahu's office was leaked, and the Israeli press lambasted Kerry for meddling.

But that didn't stop the U.S. from voicing concern over the mounting number of civilian deaths in Gaza. More than 2,000 Palestinians have been killed, and a large majority were civilians, according to Palestinian officials.

"Sometimes civilians do get caught up in the crossfire," says Mark Regev, the Israeli prime minister's spokesman. "That unfortunately is an unavoidable fact of warfare."

On Aug. 3, the State Department issued a blistering statement, saying the U.S. was appalled by what it called the disgraceful shelling of a United Nations school in Gaza, which killed 10 people seeking shelter there.

Later, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Israel could do more to protect civilians, and that the U.S. would take "additional care" in providing it weapons.

But the U.S. did give Israel more weapons and more money for its missile defense system. Regev says reports of a rift are overblown.

"The Israeli-American relationship is so close, is so intimate, that every time there is a disagreement it makes front-page news," he says. "You can't expect that even the closest of allies will agree on every issue."

But Gilboa says the problem is deeper than just a few issues. He says it stems from a genuine antipathy between Obama and Netanyahu, which has greatly contributed to the rift between the two countries. Gilboa says the two leaders just don't see eye to eye.

"They subscribe to very different ideologies: Obama is on the left; Netanyahu is on the right," Gilboa says. "And they have very different personalities. Obama is much softer; Netanyahu is much tougher."

That sentiment is shared by a significant number of Israelis.

Adi Tal, who was shopping recently at a Jerusalem market, says the U.S. is seen as naive about the danger of radical Islamists.

"We see Hamas the same as al-Qaida, but I don't think that the United States government looks at Hamas the same as it looks [at] al-Qaida or the Taliban," Tal says.

Yacov Levi takes a break from a lively backgammon game and sips some sweet tea. He thinks both Obama and Netanyahu, often known as Bibi, should be tougher.

"Obama, he don't understand the Middle East. He make many, many mistakes here," Levi says. His assessment of Netanyahu is even harsher: "I want Bibi to go. He's chicken."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The United States and Israel have a close alliance, but there have been some rough patches. The war in Gaza has created new friction and the political leaders of both countries have made their disagreements unusually public. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Jerusalem.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: For two countries normally seen as unshakable allies the public spat between Israel and the U.S. is something of a surprise. No question, the two nations have had their ups and downs over the years, but nothing quite like this, says Eytan Gilboa, who specializes in U.S.-Israeli relations at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University.

EYTAN GILBOA: This is new. The continuing, personal deterioration between the two leaders - the insults, the misunderstandings, the misperceptions - have been accumulating to a point where an explosion of the kind that we have seen in recent days has become almost inevitable.

NORTHAM: The recent churn between the two countries could stretch back to the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign when Obama supporters suspected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of backing republican challenger Mitt Romney. Or maybe it was the U.S. apparently willing to entertain the possibility of working with a Fatah and Hamas government. Here was Netanyahu's response.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I'm deeply troubled by the announcement that the United States will work with the Palestinian government backed by Hamas. Hamas is a brutal terrorist organization.

NORTHAM: But tensions noticeably ratcheted up when war broke out between Israel and Hamas in July. Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched to the region. A confidential draft of a peace proposal he gave Netanyahu's office was leaked. And Kerry was lambasted by the Israeli press for meddling. Since then the U.S. has been on the sidelines of any peace negotiations. But that didn't stop it from voicing concern over the mounting number of civilian deaths in Gaza. More than 1,900 civilians have been killed in the conflict. Mark Regev is the Prime Minister's spokesman.

MARK REGEV: Sometimes civilians do get caught up in the crossfire. That unfortunately is an unavoidable fact of warfare.

NORTHAM: On August third the State Department issued a blistering statement saying the U.S. was appalled by what it called the disgraceful shelling of a U.N. school in Gaza, which killed 10 people seeking shelter there. Later State Department Spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said Israel could do more to protect civilians. And that the U.S. would take, quote, "additional care in providing it weapons." But the U.S. did give Israel more weapons and more money for its missile defense system. Regev says, reports of a rift are overblown.

REGEV: The Israeli-American relationship is so close that every time that there's a disagreement it makes front-page news. You can't expect that even the closest of allies will agree on every issue.

NORTHAM: But professor Gilboa says, the problem is deeper than just a few issues. He says, it stems from a genuine antipathy between Obama and Netanyahu, which has greatly contributed to the rift between the two countries. Gilboa says, the two leaders just don't see eye to eye.

GILBOA: They subscribe to a very different ideologies. Obama is on the left. Netanyahu is on the right. And they have very different personalities. Obama is a much softer. Netanyahu is much tougher.

NORTHAM: That sentiment was not lost among many shoppers here at the Jerusalem market. Adi Tal says, the U.S. is seen as naive about the danger of radical islamists.

ADI TAL: We see the Hamas the same as Al Qaeda. But I don't think that the United States government looks at Hamas the same as it looks for Al Qaeda or Taliban.

NORTHAM: Yacov Levi takes a break from a lively backgammon game and drinks some sweet tea. He thinks both Obama and Netanyahu, often known as Bibi, should be tougher.

YACOV LEVI: Obama he don't understand the middle east. He make many, many mistakes here. I worry about Bibi. I want Bibi go. He's a chicken.

NORTHAM: And with that, Levi turns back to his game. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.