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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Cracks in the bedrock of U.S.-Israel relations? Add to ...

Israel lives in a tough and sometimes threatening neighbourhood. It has no friends among neighbours, and not many around the world.

Israel's unconditional supporter has been the United States. But even there, negative feelings toward Israel are growing. Relations between the Obama administration and the Israeli government are strained.

The relationship remains a bedrock of each country's foreign policy. It has weathered bad patches before, and no U.S. government can fail to feel the political heat from Jewish and Israeli advocacy groups in the United States.

The failure of Israelis and the Palestinian Authority even to talk to each other, let alone negotiate toward a peaceful settlement of their long dispute, is putting the strategic interests of the United States and those of Israel on different paths. The results these days are heightened strains, even considerable tension.

The annual BBC World Service poll came out yesterday, a survey of attitudes in 28 countries from every continent based on telephone or face-to-face interviews. It attempts to measure how people in these countries feel about other countries.

Across all 28 countries, to no one's surprise, the country with the least positive reputation was Iran. It was closely followed in unpopularity by Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. Just 19 per cent of respondents in the 28 countries held a positive view of Israel, compared to 50 per cent with a negative one. (Canadians' view of Israel: 23 per cent positive, 38 per cent negative.)

In the United States, attitudes toward Israel were 40 per cent positive, and 31 per cent negative. But Israel's popularity rating fell 7 percentage points in the last year, according to the BBC poll.

Israelis, who feel their state beleaguered and misunderstood, might defiantly reply that the world doesn't run on popularity contests. Israel's world revolves around a steely-eyed pursuit of national self-interest, which means survival, military strength, the best intelligence, a thriving economy and support from the Jewish diaspora.

Most Israelis would consider soft power, the stuff of "popularity," to be a fool's game for people in faraway places who don't understand the dangers and psychologies of the Middle East.

The current governing coalition has a bunch of very hard-line members (including the Foreign Minister), for whom negotiations with the Palestinians is a low priority, to say the least. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu occasionally says he's willing to talk, but little in his long career suggests he is committed to serious discussions, let alone formal negotiations.

After all, Israelis now feel a bit more secure from terrorist attacks behind the wall their government has built between them and the Palestinian West Bank. Israelis drive on Israeli-only roads that cut through the West Bank connecting their settlements to metropolitan areas.

With an economy that is running well, and economic links burgeoning with countries outside the Middle East, things appear to be going rather well for many Israelis. A negotiated, two-state solution with the Palestinians might be a desirable long-term objective - a majority of Israelis tell pollsters that they want this outcome - but little urgency is attached to this desire.

For the Obama administration, however, some tangible progress toward an agreement is important for U.S. strategic objectives.

Leading U.S. officials, such as General David Petraeus, have testified to Congress that the lack of any serious movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front darkens America's image in many parts of the Muslim world. Other senior administration officials, speaking on background to reporters, have hammered home the same point.

The United States carries the can, fairly or otherwise, for this stalemate in many corners of the Muslim world, because the United States is deemed to be a protector that could, if it so desired, push the Israelis toward a deal.

That the Israelis can't be pushed is obvious to objective observers, but not to those who think grave injustices have systematically been done to Palestinians, including building settlements in the West Bank and expanding them in contested parts of Jerusalem.

Apparently, the Obama administration, exasperated by the lack of negotiations and angry at the obduracy of the Netanyahu government, is considered publishing its own blueprint for a peaceful settlement.

Good luck. Blueprints have come and gone many times before.

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