By Yossi Mekelberg
17 December 2014
Almost unnoticed, the Unites States Congress finally approved the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership, concluding two years of political wrangling with the Obama administration and within both houses of Congress. The passing of the act can be regarded as an impressive achievement for Israel and its friends on Capitol Hill. It can only be regarded as an upgrade in cooperation on a range of security and civil issues. The legislation is not finalized until the American president signs it, which will create a real dilemma for him. At a time when tensions between the leadership of both countries are on a knife-edge, this piece of legislation leaves President Obama in a very tricky situation. Signing the bill will send a clear message to those who accuse him of a lack of commitment to Israel’s long term security. However, it leaves with him reduced leverage vis-à-vis Israel if he decides for another push to bring peace between Israeli and the Palestinians, most probably the last for him as a president. One doubt, in the light of the overwhelming defeat of the Democrats in the recent mid-term elections, and the fact that the bill enjoyed bi-partisan support, that President Obama will even contemplate not supporting the new bill.
The main sticking point in approving the legislation for the last two years was Israel’s desire, supported by the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC, to join the Visa Waiver program. The program includes only 38 countries whose citizens can secure a 90 day visa to the U.S. in a painless electronic process rather than through a U.S. consulate. As comprehensive as the new United States-Israel Strategic Partnership is, it excludes Israel from this Visa Waiver program because of Israel declining entry to many U.S. citizens of Arab descent, especially Palestinians and those who sympathize with the Palestinian cause. This is done under the guise of Israeli security concerns. Even if they received permission to enter through the Palestinian territory, they need to travel overland from Jordan or Egypt and cannot enter by Israel’s Ben Gurion international airport. For now those who opposed Israelis being able to enjoy fast track entry to the United States, succeeded in keeping it out of the new bill. Yet, this could not eclipse two very important features of contemporary American politics. The first is the divisiveness and lack of collaboration between President Obama and American legislators. This is even before the new Congress is sworn in the New Year, a Congress which will be much more hostile to anything the president stands for. Not only will Republicans make his concluding two years devoid of any marked accomplishments, but also his elected Democratic Party members, who will avoid him in fear of their own political future. A simple google search of the combination of ‘Obama’ and ‘lame-duck’ yields millions of hits. Hence, he can hardly rely on Congress to support any of his policies, especially in regards to Israel.
Powerful Demonstration of Support
Moreover, the vote on the new Israeli-American strategic act was a powerful demonstration of support for Israel. The extent of this support might surprise even the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who certainly enjoys his visits to Capitol Hill more than the ones to the White House. The new legislation is extremely comprehensive and covers issues from security to energy cooperation. It reflects “the sense of Congress that Israel is a major strategic partner of the United States.” In actual terms this of partnership includes an increase in the value of emergency U.S. weaponry kept in Israel from $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion. These weapons can be used in the event of an emergency on the condition that it refunds the U.S. for any weapons used. Furthermore, the act encourages closer links between the two countries in energy, water, cyber security homeland security, trade preferences and alternative fuel technology. The aim is to ensure that Israel maintains an overall qualitative military edge over its neighbors.
There is no disagreement between the Congress and President Obama about the importance of maintaining Israel’s strategic advantage, especially in a region which is becoming increasingly unstable and unpredictable. There is commonality of interests and values between the two countries on a wide range of issues that should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, passing this legislation at a time that many in the American administration hold the current Israeli government responsible for the stalemate in the peace process and less than helpful in its attitude to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, might raise some questions. Rewarding the decision makers in Jerusalem for their obstreperous policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, and their campaign against the approach of the P5+1 in negotiating with Iran, is hardly an expedient policy. It is also a disheartening message for those Palestinians who would like to accept the United States as an honest broker in the negotiations with the Israelis. It makes it obvious that Israel is supported to the hilt regardless of whether its policies serve U.S. national interests or not. While the legislators in Washington have both domestic and strategic considerations in supporting Israel, when they do so in such a one-sided manner they may be extinguishing the last flicker of hope for a viable peace process.
Votes in Congress are planned well in advance and there is no reason to suspect that this one was any different. However, the fact that it came prior to the dissolution of the Israel Knesset and the declaration of elections in the New Year, adds a different dimension. It can only serve Netanyahu and some of his allies’ election campaigns to argue that the most important bilateral relationship Israeli has, the one with the United States, is stronger than ever. Inadvertently, the U.S. legislators stepped straight into the Israeli domestic political minefield. The reassuring message of from Washington is one of total commitment of Israel’s security and well-being. For a more sophisticated government than the current Israeli one, these American guarantees could have created the needed trust to take necessary risks for peace. Frustratingly enough, the current Israeli leadership will most probably see this as endorsement of its policies that are anything but conducive to peace or to Israeli and U.S. interests in the region.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues.