The End of the Special Relationship?

The End of the Special Relationship?

America has no ally quite like Israel. No other country has benefited as extensively from U.S. support. Successive administrations have routinely vetoed Security Council resolutions seeking to punish or condemn Israel’s behavior. The U.S. has blocked attempts to add Israel’s nuclear arsenal to the IAEA agenda. And while Israel was not decisive in instigating the Iraq War, it was one of the most ardent voices pushing for an invasion.

There have, of course, been spats. Increasingly, they have become public. There have even been moments where the U.S. has forced Israel to acquiesce to agreements it might otherwise wish to avoid—like when it temporarily halted settlement construction in 2009. But these disputes never seriously shifted American policy. When push came to shove, the U.S. and Israel presented a united front.

That might have ended today. In its deal with Iran, the United States has dramatically defied Israel’s explicit desires despite an extraordinary campaign against the deal by lobbying groups considered to be among the most powerful in the country, capped by a congressional address given by a foreign head of state who lacked a presidential invite.

Indeed, it has usually been Israel that has violated the wishes of its partner—not the other way around. In 2010, for example, Benjamin Netanyahu resumed settlement-building in the West Bank over American protests, thereby torpedoing peace talks with the Palestinians. And in 1991, the State Department’s inspector general accused Israel of making “unauthorized transfers” of American weapons to other countries—including China. But the U.S. has nonetheless hewed closely to Israel’s interests, even in cases where those interests diverge.

Iran is such a case. The White House and its allies have argued that this deal will ultimately make Israel safer by preventing (or delaying) Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. That may be true, but there are other reasons for Israeli opposition. Ending sanctions will enrich Iran, and the regime could use its newfound resources to increase funding of proxy militias like Hezbollah, which attack Israel. And it is doubtlessly unnerving for the Israeli government to see its closest ally engage in any kind of rapprochement with its most prominent enemy.

But America is not Israel, and if it wants to disentangle itself from the Middle East’s intractable conflicts, resolving a longstanding dispute is surely a boon. This deal reflects that fact.

The agreement is not yet final, and Congress could vote by a two-thirds majority to stop its enactment (though that seems unlikely). Nor is it the be-all and end-all of American-Israeli relations. Obama will leave the White House in less than two years, and whoever comes next may have a less acrimonious relationship with their Israeli counterpart. On the whole, support for Israel within the U.S. still remains strong.

But this deal will be difficult to undo, even under a GOP administration (Clinton has already given it her blessing). Should it survive, and should public disagreements between the U.S. and Israel persist, then the relationship will no longer be what it once was.