U.S.-Israel tensions rise amid uncertainties of war

The dramatic developments in the war between Hamas and Israel have been accompanied by sharp ups and downs in U.S.-Israel relations.

On July 28, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, made nice with the U.S. national security adviser, Susan Rice, before an audience of anxious U.S. Jewish leaders. But right before, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly vowed to continue the military campaign against Hamas, notwithstanding President Barack Obama’s unequivocal demand for a cease-fire.

And within a day of Israeli and American pledges not to afflict one another with damaging leaks, Israeli television was running the transcript of what it said was a fraught Obama-Netanyahu telephone conversation, though both parties said the transcript was fake.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice addresses Jewish leaders at the National Press Club on July 28. photo/jta-ron sachs

The tumult in U.S.-Israel ties reflects the confusing and open-ended nature of the current war between Israel and Hamas, insiders and experts suggest.

“The [Israeli] government is confused, the [Israeli] public is confused, and I’m not sure the [Obama] administration is giving absolutely clear signals,” said Peter Medding, a political science professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem whose specialty is Israel-U.S. relations. “That’s not a good situation.”

In the first weeks of the war, Netanyahu and Obama seemed to be on the same page, with both angling for cease-fires and putting the blame squarely on Hamas.

But as the war has dragged on, the leaders have been pulled in opposite directions. Obama has been concerned with the rapid growth of civilian casualties while Netanyahu has been concerned with the vast network of Hamas-built tunnels running under the Gaza-Israel border.

“We will not complete the mission, we will not complete the operation, without neutralizing the tunnels, the sole purpose of which is the destruction of our civilians and the killing of our children,” Netanyahu said at a news conference July 28, a day after Obama had called for an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire.”

Within an hour of Netanyahu’s news conference, the national Jewish leaders held the pro-Israel rally at the National Press Club. The star guests were Rice, who is one of Obama’s closest confidantes, and Dermer, the Israeli ambassador.

They seemed to be on the same page.

“Israel will continue to destroy the tunnels we have found, regardless of whether there is a cease-fire or not, and I know the Obama administration understands and supports that,” Dermer said.

“Israel has the same, unequivocal right to self-defense as every other nation,” Rice said. “No nation can accept terrorists tunneling into its territory or rockets crashing down on its people.”

It was a change from only a few days earlier, when Israel’s Security Cabinet rejected what was being widely referred to as a cease-fire proposal from Secretary of State John Kerry (the Americans denied that it was a formal proposal). The document’s details were leaked, and Kerry was maligned in Israeli press accounts.

U.S. officials responded publicly with anger at the treatment of Kerry. During his appearance July 28, Dermer agreed that Kerry had been unfairly maligned.

Officials in both governments have expressed dismay with how the other side seems to misunderstand its postures so deeply.

A U.S. official said that the Israeli Cabinet misunderstood the document Kerry had forwarded. It was an update of an existing Egyptian cease-fire proposal with notes from Turkey and Qatar, serving as Hamas’ interlocutors, and it was not a final version, the official said.

Israel’s Security Cabinet, understanding the document to be final, put it to a vote, and it was defeated 8-0. Then the document was leaked to Israeli news outlets. Israeli officials, quoted anonymously, said it amounted to a “terrorist attack” and said Kerry was acting on behalf of Hamas.

The Israelis were appalled by a proposal to funnel funds to employees affiliated with Hamas.

By the morning of July 29, the mutual recriminations seemed to have been laid to rest by the joint Rice-Dermer appearance the day before.

Then that evening, Israel’s Channel One quoted a “senior American source” who painted a very negative portrait of Obama. The source said that the phone conversation between Obama and Netanyahu on July 27 was “tense” and that Obama was “condescending” and “hostile” to Netanyahu.

Experts on U.S.-Israel relations said the fast-changing pace of the war inevitably was going to lead to misunderstandings and mischaracterizations, exacerbated by the parlous relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.

“Seeing the United States negotiating” with Hamas’ allies “while the war is going on and suffering casualties — once you see this, it brings out very harsh reactions,” said Dan Arbell, a former second in command at the Israeli Embassy in Washington who is now a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.