Affairs

Politics

Word games — New York

Preface

The US and Israel have long been diplomatic allies but stern recent rhetoric from the two nations’ leaders is putting strain on that relationship. Monocle’s Ed Stocker looks closer at the political fallout.

Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Israel, US, Nuclear

5 March 2015

The UK – or at least its political class – likes to hang on to the notion that the country enjoys an irrevocable “special relationship” of mutual understanding and respect with the US.

Anyone who watched on Monday as US national-security advisor Susan Rice addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – better known as Aipac – will realise that the US’s real love-in is with the Jewish state.

And yet many inside the US would strongly disagree with that statement. The New York Times has talked of historic strains in that bilateral understanding, a “chasm” between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US president Barack Obama.

There’s a lot at play: firstly an emboldened Obama with a newfound love for risk taking. His latest gamble – which has provoked the rancour of Israel – is probably the biggest of them all. Can his secretary of state, jetting from Switzerland to Saudi Arabia, broker a nuclear deal with Iran? Any agreement would involve a concept frowned upon in many conservative decision-making circles: compromise. And with a member of the “axis of evil” to boot.

Secondly, throw into the mix an Israeli prime minister opposed to a deal, eyeing re-election on 17 March.

As Rice tiptoed her way around her Aipac speech on Monday – gently trying to persuade a partisan audience over Iran – it was clear that her argument was falling on deaf ears. The US can’t just impose sanctions and walk away, she suggested, unwittingly unleashing one of the biggest rounds of applause of the night. The crowd wanted just that.

Netanyahu took centre-stage on Tuesday when he addressed the US Congress; I lost count of the number of standing ovations he received as he accused Obama of paving the way to an Iran with “the bomb”.

As rocky as the US-Israeli relationship is now looking, though, perhaps more interesting is how the fallout has trickled into domestic politics – pitching the Democrats (some of whom skipped Netanyahu’s address) against a Republican party that controls both houses and was instrumental in organising the speech in the first place – an obvious snub to the White House.

Obama’s aim is a 10-year freeze on nuclear activity, paving the way to no more sanctions. The president may be able to bypass a hostile Congress for now but eventually it will come down to a vote. And one he may well lose.

And so the scrapping continues. Israel and the US will patch things up (if indeed they need to). The Republicans and the Democrats, however, are two partners that seem increasingly incapable of working together; only recently homeland-security funding almost ran out due to their squabbling. This bitter, polarised political landscape – set to continue into 2016 – does Brand US few favours.

Ed Stocker is Monocle's New York bureau chief.

Monocle 24

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