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Obama and Netanyahu: a few unfortunate incidents, or a clash of worldviews?

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama’s Cairo speech and its equivalent invocations of Palestinian and Jewish sufferings. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s call for an unequivocal freeze: "Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions." The Joe Biden fiasco. And now the Obama administration’s venture into a nuclear-free Middle East.

These are some of the snapshots of U.S.-Israel tensions.

Like any album it has a corollary in the "good" photos: the first, friendly Netanyahu-Obama summit as leaders; the joint military exercises; the increased defense assistance; Obama’s nod last week to the centrality of Israel in celebrating Jewish America; and this week, the U.S.-led efforts to keep Israel from taking the brunt of the blame for the clash aboard a Gaza aid boat that left nine dead.

Which photo album tells the truth?

That depends on the bigger picture: Are the foreign policies of the Netanyahu and Obama governments fundamentally at odds?

The question, once posed at the conservative margins of foreign policy analysis, is moving into the mainstream and has rattled the upper echelons of Israel’s defense establishment.

"Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden," Meir Dagan, the chief of Israel’s Mossad spy service, reportedly told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday.

The U.S. decision last week to back — albeit with a stack of qualifications — an agreement among nations signed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to sponsor a Middle East conference in 2012 aimed at ridding the region of nuclear weapons raised alarms among conservatives and mainstream pro-Israel groups about the Obama administration’s overarching foreign policy and how it accommodates Israel’s security aims.

Israel opposed the resolution because of its longstanding policy of delaying consideration of regional nuclear capabilities until a regional peace prevails. Raising the issue now — and with it, Israel’s reputed nuclear arsenal — distracts attention from Iran’s suspected effort to obtain a bomb.

"What the U.S.’s vote in favor of the NPT review conference’s final anti-Israel (and by default pro-Iranian) resolution makes clear is that under Obama, the U.S. is no longer Israel’s reliable ally," wrote Caroline Glick, a conservative Jerusalem Post columnist.

Such views are commonplace among conservatives who have launched broadsides against Obama’s foreign policy since before he was inaugurated, but are no longer limited to them.

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, framed his treatment of the same issue in a Jerusalem Post blog post titled "The U.S. vs. Israel."

"Another element in the historic relationship between the two countries has been eviscerated," Foxman wrote, referring to U.S. policy dating back to the 1960s that made any mention of Israel’s reported nuclear arsenal off-limits. "What is becoming a pattern is that when the administration looks at America’s broader interests, it too often chooses to see the Israeli position as undermining those interests."

In an interview, Foxman spoke of difference in worldviews, and he said there was concern over whether the Obama administration’s foreign policy and worldview would include a special relationship between Israel and the United States.

Peter Beinart, whose book "The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris" is being published this week, said the differences are not simply circumstantial but stem from fundamentally different outlooks.

"You obviously have in" Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Netanyahu and Obama two people who come at the world in fundamentally different ways," said Beinart, who recently sparked much controversy with an essay criticizing U.S. Jewish groups for lending what he described as unconditional support for Israeli policies.

"Obama is a Wilsonian in the sense that for countries to be prosperous and secure there needs to be cooperation, we’re all in it together — as an American liberal he comes to it from that sense. Netanyahu is a classic conservative. He sees foreign policy as a never-ending struggle between good and evil, a Manichaean struggle in which the good guys would always have more power than the bad guys and little common interest."

If one accepts this paradigm, it could be used to explain differences on the nuclear issue: Obama has pushed a policy of reaching out to the Iranian regime diplomatically even while continuing apace with plans for sanctions to force the Islamic Republic to stand down from its nuclear plans. Israel prefers aggressive isolation, and its officials in recent weeks have suggested that the policy of outreach has failed.

It also could apply to Palestinian peace talks. Netanyahu, for instance, has an all-or-nothing approach to the issue of Palestinian incitement, seeking its utter eradication. White House officials have made it clear that they would like Israel to note some of the strides made by the Palestinian Authority in addressing the issue.

George Mitchell, Obama’s chief envoy to talks in the region, has suggested that he might offer incentives to Hamas, the terrorist group, to join the talks if it renounces terrorism and accepts Israel’s right to exist.

The question for Netanyahu’s government is whether it has the capacity to defer to the strategic vision of the world’s remaining superpower, said Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. The Obama administration sees advancing the peace process as a critical element of securing U.S. interests in the region, and Netanyahu’s cooperation — particularly on settlement policy — has been halting, Nir said.

He added, "There’s a message being sent by the Obama administration, ‘Come on, you are our ally, you are our friend, we perceive you as an ally, we act toward you as an ally, and when we assert over and over again that Middle East peace is in our overall interest, you are not doing your utmost to cooperate with that policy.’”

It would not be the first time that Israel has deferred to discomfiting U.S. policies.

In the early 1950s, David Ben-Gurion adopted President Truman’s tough anti-communism stance, although it cost him the entree he longed for into the non-aligned movement. In the first Gulf War, Israel sacrificed a degree of deterrence, heeding the first President Bush’s demand that it not retaliate against Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks. Some Israeli officials now say they downplayed concerns about what the second President Bush’s Iraq War would cost U.S. deterrence in the region.

Foxman told JTA that Israel would accommodate Obama’s policies — as long as it had the reassurance of unwavering U.S. support.

"Israel will accommodate America’s interest, but will do so only where there’s a sense of trust and closeness," he said.

Foxman noted that it was under Bush in 2003 that the two-state solution was launched.

"Ariel Sharon felt the closeness, so much so that he left his party," the Likud.

There were signs of that reassurance in successful U.S. efforts to keep a U.N. Security Council resolution from blaming Israel for the violence aboard a Turkish-flagged ship attempting to break an Israeli blockade and deliver assistance to the Gaza Strip. Nine people among those aboard the ship died in the melee, and six Israeli soldiers were injured.

The resolution blamed "acts" for leading to the violence, leaving ambiguous whether such acts referred to Israel’s raid or to the violent resistance it encountered.

"The incident — to the extent that the details are known — has shown that U.S.-Israel relations have proven resilient in the face of the first major international incident since the two parties worked to mend relations following the Jerusalem building-permit crisis in March," said an analysis published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank. It was referring to the March announcement of building starts in Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Biden that triggered weeks of U.S.-Israel tensions.

There may yet be room for disagreements between the Obama and Netanyahu governments arising from the flotilla incident: The Obama administration has demanded of Israel a "full and credible" investigation. In a conference call Tuesday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s information minister, scoffed at the idea, saying that Israel had done nothing wrong.

Ultimately, Beinart suggested, Israel might have no choice except to defer to U.S. foreign policy aims. Its handling of the flotilla incident was typical, he said, of how Netanyahu had alienated the very powers that might offset the need for Israel’s dependence on the United States.

"Strategically it makes more sense for Israel to have a broader set of strong relationships, but this government is particularly bad at cultivating these relations," he said. "The relationship with Turkey has been frittered away.”

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