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US Israel relations: bump in the road or terminal decline?

On the face of it relations between Israel and US have not been this bad since the Suez crisis of 1956 when President Eisenhower opposed the Israeli invasion of Egypt.

Before Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered his address to Congress in Washington at the invitation of the Republicans, National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, said his intervention in American partisan politics would be destructive of relations and other senior US government figures have openly criticised him.

Mr Netanyahu is using his speech to criticise the US approach to the nuclear talks with Iran which are coming to a crunch with a deadline of the end of March for an agreement and signs of progress is being made.

For the Israeli leader a deal with Iran which allows Tehran to retain any nuclear technology seems to be a red line. He believes Iran wants to destroy Israel and is developing nuclear weapons, although intelligence leaks this week indicate his own spy agency doesn’t see it this way.

The US on the other hand seems willing to accept a peaceful Iranian nuclear programme in return for safeguards it will not be used to make weapons. Something Iran is entitled to do under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Back in 1956, Israeli reasoning was not that different. The government of the time regarded President Nasser as bent on the destruction of Israel and decided to attack Egypt before Cairo was able to build up its armed forces.

The French and their British allies wanted to reverse General Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal and secure control of the strategic link to their colonial and commercial interests further east. So they had common cause with Israel and sent troops to take control of the Canal by force – ostensibly to secure international access.

In Washington, President Eisenhower saw things differently. The US wanted stability in the Middle East as it was becoming increasingly dependent on oil imports from the region. The Cold War was also intensifying and the Americans wanted to prevent Egypt, the key Arab power, from going over to the Soviet camp.

So, not only did the US condemn the invasion, it took active diplomatic and economic measures which forced Tel Aviv – as well as the British and French – to withdraw their troops from Egyptian territory.

As history shows, relations between the US and Israel recovered and Israel has gone on to become the largest recipient of American aid of any country since 1945. The US has also spent a lot of diplomatic capital over the years wielding its veto – or the threat of it – at the UN to protect Israel from international censure over its military action against Palestinian groups and continued occupation of land captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

Of course there have been ups and downs since Suez – notably under the first President Bush who had a frosty relationship with another Likud Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, when Mr Bush wanted to get the peace process moving.

So will relations recover this time?

Mr Netanyahu’s visit is controversial because he is involving himself in partisan American politics by giving succour to Republicans opposed to Mr Obama’s approach to Iran. But it is also contentious because Mr Netanyahu is in the middle of an election campaign and the Obama Administration says the US has a long-standing policy of not hosting foreign leaders so close to polling day.

Relations between Washington and Tel Aviv have been on a downward trajectory ever since President Obama launched his ill-fated attempt to revive the peace process in his first term by calling for a freeze in Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Territories.

Back in 2010, Mr Netanyahu went as far as attempting to humiliate a visiting Vice-President, Joe Biden, by announcing the expansion of settlement housing in occupied East Jerusalem while Mr Biden was still in town.

Mr Netanyahu has also repeatedly tried to outflank the White House by appealing for support from the US Congress, despite the danger of a backlash from Americans who could see it as interference in their internal affairs. Before now, he has worked with both Democrat and Republican supporters of Israel, but this time he accepted the invitation from the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, and a substantial number of Democrats have said they will boycott next Tuesday’s speech.

However, Mr Obama will not be president in two years’ time and Mr Netanyahu may also have passed from the stage by then, so the likelihood is relations will improve again whatever happens in the Iran nuclear talks.

Although polling evidence in recent years suggests younger voters in US, including Jewish Americans, are less supportive of Israel than their parents’ generation, Washington’s support for Israel is based on solid foundations.

The much cited influence of pro-Israeli lobby groups, like AIPAC, is one reason American politicians will continue to push any US government to support Tel Aviv. And although the US shale revolution has made Americans much less dependent on Middle East oil imports, Washington still sees Israel as an important ally in an unstable region.

But most importantly, there is a strong ideological and emotional basis for the relationship.

When Americans look at Israel many see a reflection of their own national myth – a democratic state built by a hardworking people who migrated in the hope of creating a new country and society for themselves.

Given this deep well spring, it is difficult to envisage any US President turning his back on Israel.

It is also instructive that in spite of the antipathy between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu, Washington has kept its financial and military support to Tel Aviv going, even in the face of international criticism of Israel’s military actions, such as last summer’s Gaza conflict which cost the lives of around 2,200 Palestinians and 71 Israelis.

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