By Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger
President Obama cannot pressure Israel effectively when it comes to suspension of joint military exercises, disruption of the supply of advanced military systems, supporting anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Security Council, etc.
Contrary to President Obama and all prior US presidents (since 1948), Congress has displayed systematic and sweeping bi-partisan support of the Jewish state, which constitutes one of the very few bi-partisan consensus topics on an otherwise highly polarized Capitol Hill. In fact, since the conclusion of the 1993 Oslo Accords – when Israel ceded the Gaza Strip and 40% of Judea and Samaria to the PLO - many US legislators have outflanked Israeli prime ministers from the hawkish side.
According to the US political system of limited government and checks and balances – and unlike all other democracies - the Executive (the President) is balanced by the Legislature (the Congress), which is co-equal and co-determining, independent of the President, possessing the power of the purse and the muscle (but not always the will) to amend and suspend presidential policies, as well as to initiate its own domestic, foreign and national security policy.
Congress has demonstrated its foreign policy and national security muscles – in defiance of presidential policies - by ending the US military involvement in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia (the Eagleton, Cooper and Church Amendments), Angola (the Clark Amendment) and Nicaragua (the Boland Amendment); forcing the USSR to open its gates to free emigration (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment); suspending the supply of AWACs to Iran on the eve of the Khomeini revolution; refusing to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; upgrading US-Israel strategic cooperation in a significant manner; providing Israel with advanced military systems; and forcing the Obama Administration, in February 2011, to prevent Israel's condemnation in the UN Security Council.
President Obama would like to resolve the Palestinian issue by squeezing Israel into the 9-15 mile pre-1967 sliver along the Mediterranean, including the repartitioning of Jerusalem. However, he does not consider the Palestinian issue a top priority as are the debt ceiling, Medicare, entitlements, immigration/amnesty, gun and energy reforms, the appointment of Supreme Court and Federal Judges, etc., which require the support of all Democratic legislators, most of whom have been systematic supporters of Israel. Obama will not sacrifice the cooperation of his fellow Democrats on the altar of the Palestinian issue.
Moreover, US-Israel relations do not evolve around the Palestinian issue. Therefore, US-Israel strategic cooperation is surging in spite of the disagreement between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue. Furthermore, the much deeper gap between Israeli and American leaders from 1948 through 1992 did not prevent the dramatic expansion of commercial and military cooperation. Thus, America's national security and economic interests – and its bilateral ties with Israel – transcend the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue, which has never been a top Arab priority, and whose limited impact on regional developments is illustrated by the Arab Tsunami, which is completely independent of the Palestinian issue.
The anti-US Arab Tsunami (gullibly branded as the Arab Spring) on the one hand, and the US shrinking power-projection on the other hand, have underlined Israel's unique role as the only stable, predictable, reliable, capable, democratic and unconditional ally of the US in the Middle East. Israel's growing contribution to vital US interests has transformed US-Israel ties into a mutually-beneficial, win-win, two-way street. For example, while the US generously assists Israel's procurement of Iron Dome batteries, Israel has shared with the US the Israeli-developed Iron Dome technology, which is a cutting edge, short-range missile defense technology, enhancing US national security. In addition, the US is manufacturing an increasing share of the Iron Dome and will be the sole exporter of that unique system. Israel has become the battle-tested laboratory of the US defense industries, sharing with US defense contractors thousands of operational, maintenance and repair lessons, which have upgraded the quality of US defense systems (combat planes, tanks, armed personnel carriers, robots, UAVs, etc.), expanding US employment, enhancing US research and development and increasing US exports to the tune of mega-billion of dollars.
Even if Obama had the capability to pressure Israel effectively, he would not do so before the November, 2014 mid-term "itch" election, which traditionally does not bode well for second-term presidents, who are historically weaker than during their first term. Being perceived as hostile to Israel – at a time when Israel enjoys the support of most Americans, while Obama's approval rating is trending downward - would undermine the campaigns of House and Senate Democrats and jeopardize the chance of sustaining the fragile Senate Democratic majority. The loss of the Senate majority would transform Obama into a lame-duck president until January, 2017.
All Israeli prime ministers, from David Ben Gurion (1948) through Yitzhak Shamir (1992), defied severe American pressure - which dwarfed the current tension between Obama and Netanyahu - while possessing slimmer military, economic, demographic and diplomatic assets. Their steadfastness and defiance triggered short-term tension/crisis, but produced long-term strategic respect toward Israel's posture of deterrence, tenacity and conviction-driven leadership. On a rainy day, the US is better off with a defiant, rather than a feeble, ally.