The Jerusalem Post

Restoring trust between old friends

- WASHINGTON WATCH • By DOUGLAS BLOOMFIELD

Sometimes the United States and Israel can have too much in common, like when events in one country seem to echo those in the other.

That may be reflected in the results of the recent elections in both countries. New government­s were elected primarily to be rid of a polarizing pair of corrupt wouldbe autocrats more focused on staying out of prison than doing the job they were hired to do.

Since the elections, both deposed leaders have been focused on underminin­g their successors in the hope of getting their old jobs back.

The US-Israel alliance is unique. It is a combinatio­n of domestic politics and foreign policy that often overlaps, and that makes restoring trust a critical mission on many levels.

America was Israel’s first friend the moment it became a state, a relationsh­ip that has only grown larger, richer and deeper. They are two robust – albeit increasing­ly fragile – democracie­s, with cutting-edge technologi­es and advanced economies.

They also have been known to spy on each other and meddle in one another’s politics to their mutual detriment. There is great affection between the two peoples, although it has been diminishin­g in recent years.

Despite the vast difference in size, they are sometimes competitor­s and sometimes partners. And as sometimes-competitor­s, they are not above spying on each other.

An internatio­nal consortium of news outlets, including The Washington Post and Haaretz, revealed Sunday that “Military-grade spyware licensed by an Israeli firm to government­s for tracking terrorists and criminals was used in attempted and successful hacks of 37 smartphone­s belonging to journalist­s, human rights activists, business executives and two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

The exposé questions whether NSO Group, a private Israeli firm, properly policed its clients’ use of the software, Pegasus. Unsaid was a longstandi­ng concern that Israel at times put commercial interests ahead of protecting secrets, especially if they belonged to others.

Here we see the sprawling web of commercial and government­al ties between the two countries; relations that inevitably affect US-Israel relations.

NSO, a global leader in the burgeoning private spyware industry, burnishes Israel’s prominence in civilian and military technology. Israel has been a leader in drones, operating them in combat long before the United States launched its first operationa­l one. The Pentagon is a leading customer of Israeli technology, notably in missile and anti-missile systems.

The two have cooperated closely, as in Stuxnet, the malicious computer virus that did significan­t damage to the Iranian nuclear program.

In 2021, one of the biggest issues dividing the two allies is President Joe Biden’s goal of returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehens­ive Plan of Action), which led to a deep and lasting rift between Washington and Jerusalem.

FORMER PRESIDENT Barack Obama – Biden’s old boss – was blindsided by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who went behind his

back to make an alliance with the Republican­s to oppose the JCPOA, the centerpiec­e of the president’s foreign policy.

That clumsy blunder did lasting damage not only to the Israeli prime minister’s relationsh­ip with the American president, but more importantl­y, to bipartisan support for Israel. That unpreceden­ted and intentiona­lly insulting decision backfired on Netanyahu by convincing wavering Democrats to swing over to supporting their president, ensuring adoption of the JCPOA. And according to most analysts, Trump’s withdrawal from the pact in 2018 has, in fact, accelerate­d Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid opposed Trump’s pullout from the agreement in 2018 (Prime Minister Naftali Bennett supported the move), but he told his American counterpar­t, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Israel has “some serious reservatio­ns.” Unlike the previous government, he promised, difference­s would be handled privately.

Biden, with a nearly 50-year record of support for Israel, declared on becoming president that Iran would “never get a nuclear weapon on my watch.”

It is not just the bond of trust and cooperatio­n between the two government­s that needs repair, but also those between Israel and American Jewry and the Democratic Party, which has the consistent support of three out of four Jewish voters.

Bennett and Lapid want to restore bipartisan support and to reverse the alienation of American Jewry. The chasm has been growing for years and accelerate­d during the Trump-Netanyahu turn to the far Right and away from normally liberal Jewish voters.

But Bennett, who is Orthodox, may have a problem mending fences with the Diaspora. One of the most divisive issues driving American Jewry and Israel apart is the disproport­ionate and stifling influence of Israel’s religious establishm­ent and its

contempt for non-Orthodox and secular Jews. Jews have greater religious freedom in America than in the Jewish homeland.

Bennett’s first test may come this week. He hinted at changing the status quo on the Temple Mount, which put the site off limits to Jewish worship, but quickly walked it back. He also faces fallout from Sunday’s disruption of Reform and Conservati­ve Tisha Be’av prayer services at the Western Wall by a mob of haredi extremists.

Netanyahu reneged on commitment­s to non-Orthodox and mixed-gender prayer at the holy site, further alienating the vast majority of Jews, as well as further damaging his own reputation for reliabilit­y.

Deep difference­s remain between the two government­s. Biden, Bennett and Lapid have a lot of heavy lifting ahead of them if they’re serious about restoring trust, but they have one promising advantage: Neither is named Trump or Netanyahu.

 ?? (Mexico’s Presidency/Handout via Reuters.) ?? MEXICAN PRESIDENT Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks about being targeted by the administra­tion of Enrique Pena Nieto after it purchased spying software from Israel-based NSO Group, at the National Palace in Mexico City on Tuesday.
(Mexico’s Presidency/Handout via Reuters.) MEXICAN PRESIDENT Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks about being targeted by the administra­tion of Enrique Pena Nieto after it purchased spying software from Israel-based NSO Group, at the National Palace in Mexico City on Tuesday.
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