President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have never been buddies, but lately, their relationship has been downright frosty.
Netanyahu's controversial appearance before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday is one reason. And at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) beginning today, Netanyahu described recent tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship in terms of a family spat.
“Disagreements in the family are always uncomfortable, but we must always remember that we are family,” he said.
The familial metaphor for the U.S. relationship with Israel is more than apt, conjuring not only closeness, but complexity.
Often, discussion of the relationship between the two countries is limited to security and defense. The U.S. has historically been Israel’s protector in international forums, particularly the United Nations. On Monday Secretary of State John Kerry upbraided the U.N. Human Rights Council at a meeting in Geneva, accusing the group of consistent “bias” against Israel.
“It must be said -- the HRC’s obsession with Israel actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization,” Kerry said.
The U.S. also provides billions of dollars in military assistance to Israel, most recently funding the “Iron Dome” network of anti-missile batteries that largely shielded the Israeli people from rocket fire coming from the Gaza Strip last year.
Less well understood, though, is the depth of Israel’s economic and cultural ties to the U.S.
Despite its relative proximity of the markets of Europe and Asia, the single largest market for Israel’s exports is the United States. Depending on the data source, in any given year the U.S. buys between 23 percent and 28 percent of all Israel’s exports, more than any three other countries combined.
The U.S. is second only to China in selling into Israel, with U.S. products accounting for 8.23 percent of Israeli imports in 2012. China accounted for slightly more, at 9.11 percent. Of course, the export-import trade with Israel comprises a much smaller portion of the United States’ much larger economy – something on the order of one half of one percent.
The United States has also historically been the number one destination for Israeli emigrants. Currently several hundred thousand Israeli citizens reside in the U.S., a not inconsiderable portion of Israel’s total population. Many Americans hold dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, and last summer the Israeli Defense Forces estimated that about 1,000 U.S. citizens were actively serving in the Israeli armed forces.
Importantly, Israel is the only true democracy -- and the United States’ oldest ally -- in the most troubled region of the world. Netanyahu’s currently troubled relationship with the Obama administration ought to be viewed in this larger context when he speaks to Congress tomorrow.
Netanyahu’s appearance on Tuesday, which was arranged by Republican House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) without consulting the White House, is widely viewed as a calculated affront to the Obama administration. Netanyahu, concerned about the specifics of a deal being negotiated to limit Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon, was apparently willing to endure the damage his acceptance of the invitation did to his relationship with the White House in exchange for the ability to make his case directly to Congress.
He tried to make amends in his remarks Monday morning, saying, “My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both.”
Netanyahu predicted, “Our friendship will weather the current disagreement as well, to grow even stronger in the future, because we share the same dreams...because the values that unite us are much stronger than the differences that divide us.”
Clearly, he’s banking on being right, and if history is any guide he probably is.
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