U.S. and Israel: The Manufactured Crisis
February 26, 2015 9:10 AM
crisis between the United States and Israel has been manufactured by the Obama
administration. Building a crisis up or down is well within the
administration’s power, and it has chosen to build it up. Why? Three reasons:
to damage and defeat Netanyahu (whom Obama has always disliked simply because he
is on the right while Obama is on the left) in his election campaign, to prevent
Israel from affecting the Iran policy debate in the United States, and worst of
all to diminish Israel’s popularity in the United States and especially among
for a moment that the Netanyahu speech before Congress is a mistake, a breach of
protocol, a campaign maneuver, indeed all the bad things the White House is
calling it. Grant all of that for a moment for the sake of argument and the
behavior of the Obama administration is still inexplicable. Clearly more is
behind its conduct than mere pique over the speech.
comes the personal relationship and the desire to see Netanyahu lose the
election. Recall that Obama became president before Netanyahu became prime
minister, and it is obvious that the dislike was both personal and political before
Netanyahu had done anything. Obama does not like people on the right,
period—Americans, Israelis, Australians, you name it. Obama also decided
immediately on taking office to pick a fight with Israel and make construction
in settlements and in Jerusalem the central issue in U.S.-Israeli relations.
that he appointed George Mitchell as his special negotiator one day after
assuming the presidency, and Mitchell was the father of the demand that
construction—including even construction to accommodate what Mitchell called
“natural growth” of families in settlement populations—be stopped dead. A
confrontation was inevitable, and was desired by the White House.
has overplayed his hand, in the sense that in poll after poll Israelis say that
they do not support his Middle East policies. Historically, an Israeli prime
minister loses domestic support when he cannot manage relations with Washington.
This year may be the exception, the time when Israelis want a prime minister to
oppose U.S. policies they view as dangerous. They may also believe that the
Obama administration is simply so hostile that no prime minister could avoid
well remember how we in the Bush White House handled the poor personal relations
between the president and French president Jacques Chirac. In 2004-2005
especially, the two men did not get along (arguing mostly about Iraq and just
plain disliking each other as well) but we wanted to prevent their poor personal
chemistry from damaging bilateral relations. So National Security Advisor Condi
Rice in 2004, and then her successor Steve Hadley in 2005, set up a work-around.
The French National Security Advisor Maurice Gourdault-Montagne traveled to
Washington almost every month and came to the White House. There the French
ambassador to the U.S., Jean-David Levitte, joined him for meetings with key NSC,
DOD, and State Department officials. In 2005, Secretary of State Rice would come
over from State to join Hadley and several of us on the NSC staff, and in the
course of a half-day we would review every issue facing the United States and
France. It was a serious time commitment for the American and French officials,
but that is because we were determined to quarantine bad personal chemistry and
prevent it from infecting the entire relationship—a goal set by President Bush
obviously, President Obama has no such goal. Israeli officials have complained
to me for several years about the lack of contacts and communications with the
White House. Susan Rice has determined that her job is to make bilateral
relations worse, and has established no relationship with her Israeli
counterpart Yossi Cohen. So the problem is not just bad chemistry at the top; it
is an administration that has decided to create a tense and negative
relationship from the top down.
reason, as noted, is the hope that tension with America can lead to
Netanyahu’s defeat in the March 17 election. The second reason is Iran
policy. The administration is desperately seeking a deal with Iran on terms that
until recently were unacceptable to a broad swath of Democrats as well as
Republicans. One after another, American demands or “red lines” have been
abandoned. Clearly the administration worries that Israeli (not just Netanyahu,
but Israeli) criticisms of the possible Iran nuclear deal might begin to
reverberate. So it has adopted the tactic of personalizing the Israeli critique.
Arguments that are shared across the Israeli political spectrum—that the
likely Iran deal says nothing about Iranian ballistic missile development, says
nothing about Iranian warhead development, does not require that Iran meet IAEA
demands that it account for past warhead work, allows Iran thousands of
centrifuges, will allow Iran to escape all monitoring and limitations after
perhaps ten years—are attributed solely to Netanyahu and his election
campaign. So Democrats are told they must oppose such arguments, and stiff
Netanyahu, lest they contribute to his reelection. Clever, in a way, but of
course completely misleading. And irresponsible when it comes to the deadly
issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
third Obama administration reason for building up this crisis is also deadly
serious: it is to use the current tension to harm Israel’s support in the
United States permanently. All opinion polls in the last several years show a
partisan edge in support: overall support for Israel is steady and high, but its
composition is changing. More and more Republicans support Israel, and the gap
between Democratic and Republican support levels is growing. President Obama
acts as if he sees this as a terrific development, one that should be enlarged
as much as possible before he leaves office. That way he would leave behind not
just an Iran deal, but weakened support for Israel on Iran and everything else.
Support for Israel would become less of a bipartisan matter and more a divisive
issue between the two parties. It is not hard to envision Obama in retirement
joining Jimmy Carter as a frequent critic of Israel, pushing the Democratic
party to move away from its decades of very strong support for the Jewish state.
this manufactured crisis will diminish after Netanyahu’s speech, where he is
likely to say things that many Democrats still agree with. Perhaps it will
diminish if Iran rejects any deal, even on the terms the Obama administration is
offering. Perhaps Netanyahu will lose his election and a new Labor Party-led
government will appear in Jerusalem. But more likely, the remaining 23 months of
the Obama administration will be months of continuing tension between Israel and
the United States. That is because the administration desires that tension and
views it as productive. The problem is not Netanyahu’s speech, which right or
wrong to deliver should be a minor and passing factor in bilateral relations.
The real issues are deeper and far more serious. This president has fostered a
crisis in relations because it advances his own political and policy goals. That
is what his subordinates and many Democrats in Congress are trying very hard,
and with real success, to obfuscate.