Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Why Israel Has Doubts About Obama

Even Democrats have publicly questioned U.S. statements and policies toward America's most important Mideast ally.


'I try not to pat myself too much on the back," President Barack Obama immodestly told a group of Jewish donors last October, "but this administration has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration."

Mr. Obama struck a similar tone at the annual policy conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) in Washington Sunday, assuring the group that "I have Israel's back." And it's little wonder why. Monday he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid growing concern that a military strike will be necessary to end Iran's nuclear weapons program. He also knows that he lost a portion of the Jewish vote when he publicly pressured Israel to commence negotiations with the Palestinians based on the 1967 borders with land swaps. With the election nine months away, he's scrambling to win back Jewish voters and donors. It is true that there has been increased U.S. funding for Israeli defense programs, the bulk of which comes from Mr. Obama maintaining a 10-year commitment made by President George W. Bush to Israel's government in 2007.

But a key element of Israel's security is deterrence. That deterrence rests on many parts, including the perception among its adversaries that Israel will defend itself, and that if Israel must take action America will stand by Israel. Now consider how Israel's adversaries must view this deterrence capability in recent months:

October 2011: Speaking to reporters traveling with him to Israel, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta raised provocative questions about Israel. "Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you're isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena?"

This characterization of self-created isolation surprised Israeli officials. After all, for almost three years President Obama had pressured Israel to make unilateral concessions in the peace process. And his administration had publicly confronted Israel's leaders, making unprecedented demands for a complete settlement freeze�which Israel met in 2010.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Barack Obama.

The president's stern lectures to Israel's leaders were delivered repeatedly and very publicly at the United Nations, in Egypt and Turkey, all while he did not make a single visit to Israel to express solidarity. Thus, having helped foment an image of Israeli obstinacy, the Obama administration was now using this image of isolation against Israel's government. Mr. Panetta's criticism was promptly endorsed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a harsh critic of Israel, who said Mr. Panetta was "correct in his assumptions." Indeed, almost every time the Obama administration has scolded Israel, the charges have been repeated by Turkish officials.

November 2011: In advance of meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Mr. Panetta publicly previewed his message. He would warn Mr. Barak against a military strike on Iran's nuclear program: "There are going to be economic consequences . . . that could impact not just on our economy but the world economy." Even if the administration felt compelled to deliver this message privately, why undercut the perception of U.S.-Israel unity on the military option?

That same month, an open microphone caught part of a private conversation between Mr. Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Sarkozy said of Israel's premier, "I can't stand Netanyahu. He's a liar." Rather than defend Israel's back, Mr. Obama piled on: "You're tired of him; what about me? I have to deal with him every day."

December 2011: Again undercutting the credibility of the Israeli military option, Mr. Panetta used a high-profile speech to challenge the idea that an Israeli strike could eliminate or substantially delay Iran's nuclear program, and he warned that "the United States would obviously be blamed."

Mr. Panetta also addressed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by lecturing Israel to "just get to the damn table." This, despite the fact that Israel had been actively pursuing direct negotiations with the Palestinians, only to watch the Palestinian president abandon talks and unilaterally pursue statehood at the U.N. The Obama team thought the problem was with Israel?

January 2012: In an interview, Mr. Obama referred to Prime Minister Erdogan as one of the five world leaders with whom he has developed "bonds of trust." According to Mr. Obama, these bonds have "allowed us to execute effective diplomacy." The Turkish government had earlier sanctioned a six-ship flotilla to penetrate Israel's naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza. Mr. Erdogan had said that Israel's defensive response was "cause for war."

February 2012: At a conference in Tunis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about Mr. Obama pandering to "Zionist lobbies." She acknowledged that it was "a fair question" and went on to explain that during an election season "there are comments made that certainly don't reflect our foreign policy."

In an interview last week with the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, Mr. Obama dismissed domestic critics of his Israel policy as "a set of political actors who want to see if they can drive a wedge . . . between Barack Obama and the Jewish American vote." But what's glaring is how many of these criticisms have been leveled by Democrats.

Last December, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez lambasted administration officials at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. He had proposed sanctions on Iran's central bank and the administration was hurling a range of objections. "Published reports say we have about a year," said Mr. Menendez. "So I find it pretty outrageous that when the clock is ticking . . . you come here and say what you say."

Also last year, a number of leading Democrats, including Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Steny Hoyer, felt compelled to speak out in response to Mr. Obama's proposal for Israel to return to its indefensible pre-1967 borders. Rep. Eliot Engel told CNN that "for the president to emphasize that . . . was a very big mistake."

In April 2010, 38 Democratic senators signed a critical letter to Secretary Clinton following the administration's public (and private) dressing down of the Israeli government.

Sen. Charles Schumer used even stronger language in 2010 when he responded to "something I have never heard before," from the Obama State Department, "which is, the relationship of Israel and the United States depends on the pace of the negotiations. That is terrible. That is a dagger."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent, said of Mr. Obama last year, "I think he's handled the relationship with Israel in a way that has encouraged Israel's enemies, and really unsettled the Israelis."

Election-year politics may bring some short-term improvements in the U.S. relationship with Israel. But there's concern that a re-elected President Obama, with no more votes or donors to court, would be even more aggressive in his one-sided approach toward Israel.

If Mr. Obama wants a pat on the back, he should make it clear that he will do everything in his power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability, and that he will stand by Israel if it must act. He came one step closer to that stance on Sunday when he told Aipac, "Iran's leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States, just as they should not doubt Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs." Let's hope this is the beginning of a policy change and not just election year rhetoric.

Mr. Senor, co-author with Saul Singer of "Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle" (Twelve, 2011), served as a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003-04, and is currently an adviser to the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney.

A version of this article appeared Mar. 5, 2012, on page A15 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Why Israel Has Doubts About Obama.

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