Written by Jonathan S. Tobin
When President Obama took office in January 2009, no secret was made of the fact that his guiding philosophy in foreign affairs was to shift gears from the priorities of his predecessor. For the Arab and Muslim world, that meant a full throttle effort to win friends that the supposedly more insensitive Bush administration had alienated. But the corollary to this policy was a conscious decision to distance the United States from Israel.
The Obama foreign policy team proceeded to do exactly that. The result is that after nearly four years in office, tension between Israel and the U.S. has risen to levels not seen in more than a generation. While the alliance has not been destroyed, and has been strengthened in some respects, it has nevertheless been shaken.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem in September 2012.
To its credit, the Obama administration managed to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship when it came to defense cooperation and participation in international organizations.
Though the administration's defenders would attempt to claim all the credit for projects such as the Iron Dome missile defense system that had been planned by the Bush administration, Obama did continue that effort with increased funding. It also continued to pour money into technological assistance with Israel to produce defensive systems as well as provide Israel with access to U.S. defense equipment. These actions enhanced the security cooperation that had already become a permanent part of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
In addition, while the president was reluctant to oppose the Palestinians, the administration made it clear it would not allow the Palestinian Authority (PA) to successfully make an end-run around U.S.-sponsored negotiations via United Nations recognition of Palestine as an independent state. The administration also supported Israel in most international forums such as UNESCO, where it obeyed the law passed by Congress that forced a cutoff of U.S. funding to that agency for accepting the Palestinian Authority as a member.
But it must be admitted that these were negligible accomplishments. Indeed, halting security cooperation or failing to speak up at the UN against a unilateral Palestinian statehood bid would have provoked serious Congressional opposition and could have been highly damaging to an administration that had far bigger political problems at home. Moreover, though the alliance was never broken off even when relations grew tense, the political strife between the two nations did sometimes lead to the cancellation of joint military drills as well as the Pentagon deciding to hold exercises with other Middle East countries without Israel. These actions undermined confidence in the strength of the relationship in the eyes of Israel's adversaries.
President Obama labeled the Palestinian-Israeli peace process as a foreign policy priority from the outset of his tenure. He plunged his new administration head first into an effort to revive a moribund diplomatic track backed by two assumptions: that more U.S. pressure on Israel would not only force the Jewish state to make unpalatable concessions but would convince the Palestinians to compromise. He was dead wrong.
In-line with his assumptions, President Obama set negotiating conditions for the Israelis that were even more stringent than previous Palestinian demands: a full freeze on Jewish building in not only the West Bank but in Jerusalem. Increased pressure on Israel put the PA in the embarrassing position of having been less hardline in its demands than Washington. Its reaction to this was utterly predictable. The Palestinians raised the ante and refused to meet Israel at the negotiating table until it extended the settlement freeze to Jerusalem, a demand not even left-wing Israeli governments had ever accepted.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eventually agreed to a 10-month building freeze in the territories, but that gesture made no impression on the Palestinians. Rather than being encouraged to join in negotiations, the PA quickly adapted to a new dynamic that allowed it to stand back and watch the U.S. pressure the Israelis without being forced to negotiate or make any concessions of its own. Why should the Palestinians, when Obama seemed determined to go one-on-one with the Israelis in their stead?
As the 10-month freeze drew to a close, the Palestinians finally agreed to take a seat at the negotiating table, only to announce negotiations would be put on hold unless the Israelis enforced another freeze.
The result of this was a stalemate that not only left the region even further from peace but also frustrated an Obama administration that had been convinced that more daylight between the U.S. and Israel was what was needed. And rather than learn from its error, the administration spent the next three years doubling down on its mistakes.
In 2010, the administration again increased that daylight by picking another unnecessary fight over the status of Jerusalem. The excuse was the announcement by the municipality of the start of a building project in one of the Jewish neighborhoods founded in the aftermath of the Six Day War while Vice President Biden was in the country for a visit. Though the U.S. has never recognized Israel's sovereignty over any part of the city, it had never made an issue of these existing Jewish neighborhoods that even left-wingers and Arabs understood would always be part of the Jewish state. But the administration decided to interpret the housing project as an "insult" to Biden, and proceeded to berate the Israelis for their chutzpah in a series of highly publicized statements.
The rebukes suffered by Netanyahu were particularly painful to Israelis, since they treated areas such as the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem that had been subjected to a siege by Palestinian snipers during the intifada as an illegal settlement rather than a part of Jewish Jerusalem that would never be relinquished. The net effect was to validate Palestinian demands for the removal of more than a quarter million Jews from the capital rather than to coax them to back away from extreme demands that rendered peace impossible. In making such statements, and by the president and secretary of state uttering them rather than relegating them to low-level officials, Israel's claims on its capital were undermined more by this administration than any previous president.
Ironically, this emphasis on Jerusalem—an Israeli consensus issue—strengthened Netanyahu's domestic political position, a development that clearly rankled Washington.
A year later in the spring of 2011, the president again decided to ratchet up the tension with Israel by giving a major foreign policy speech on the eve of Netanyahu's visit to Washington. During the speech, the president made a marked departure from the previous administration's promises about a future Palestine's borders, stating that the 1967 lines must be the starting points for any peace negotiations. Though Obama would slightly back down from this position as a result of backlash from both U.S. political parties (who expressed their support for Netanyahu during his address to a joint meeting of Congress with more cheers than presidents normally get during State of the Union speeches), his ambush of the Israeli leader clearly demonstrated that relations between the two countries had reached a recent nadir.
It was at this point in 2011 that the administration began to change its tune on Israel. The obvious reason for what would be widely termed an administration Jewish charm offensive was political. Obama's open disdain for Netanyahu (illustrated by an "open mic" moment with French President Nicolas Sarkozy) as well as years of constant strife with Israel made it likely that the Democrats would suffer losses among Jewish voters in 2012. In the aftermath of the loss of a heretofore safe Congressional seat to the Republicans in a heavily Jewish district in New York City, the president stopped talking about the peace process. Indeed, when he spoke to the annual AIPAC conference the following spring, the Palestinians, who had been the focus of his Middle East policy in previous years, were barely mentioned.
However, by this time another issue had caused an even more serious disagreement between Obama and Israel: Iran.
Iran's push for nuclear weapons has long since replaced the Palestinians and other possible enemies as the number one security threat to Israel. Though this program is a deadly peril to Arab nations in the region that are not allied with Tehran as well as a strategic menace to the United States and the West, it is an existential threat to Israel. Given the religious extremism that characterizes the Iranian leadership and their open threats to eliminate the Jewish state, Israel has rightly understood that its safety depends on the Islamist state never acquiring nuclear capability.
Along with the peace process, dealing with Iran was one of President Obama's early foreign policy priorities. But he did not view it with the same urgency as the Israelis. Rather than understanding that the Iranians regarded a continuation of the West's diplomatic entreaties that had been tried by the Bush administration as merely a way to buy more time for their scientists, Obama thought the magic of his personal appeal could change their minds. The president's "engagement" with Iran in his first year in office was an integral part of his general outreach to the Muslim world of which his June 2009 Cairo speech was the centerpiece. But the Iranians rejected his "outstretched hand" even after the administration conspicuously failed to stand up against the regime's violent repression of protests that summer.
What followed were two more years filled with more attempts at diplomacy as well as a parallel effort to assemble an international coalition to support sanctions on Iran. But the latter effort was as feeble as the former was futile. Further attempts to use diplomatic means to end the stalemate were met by Iranian stalling tactics, and the sanctions were weak and largely unenforced.
By 2012, with even the International Atomic Energy Agency beginning to issue alarming reports about Iran's progress and its effort to deceive the world about its nuclear advances, Israel's government began talking more openly about the need to use force to prevent Tehran from attaining its nuclear goal. This was something that Washington regarded with alarm and it prompted a concerted effort to undermine Israel's rationale for action.
Part of this response was positive in that the president and his European partners belatedly imposed more serious sanctions on Iran that might impact its vital oil income. All the while, they initiated another diplomatic track, the so-called P5+1 talks, to bring Iran's nuclear program to heel. Even more constructively, President Obama publicly promised that he would not consider a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran and repeated that he would never allow it to go nuclear.
Neither the increased sanctions, which were again loosely enforced, nor the talks succeeded in resolving the problem. Yet faced with this failure and the growing evidence that Iran was much closer to success than many had thought, the Obama administration continued to insist that diplomacy could still work.
What followed were public warnings to Israel from senior defense officials to refrain from acting on its own. Those statements only gave the lie to the argument that Obama had bolstered the strategic alliance. After that came adamant refusals on the part of both the president and the secretary of state to even consider setting "red lines" on Iran's uranium enrichment and bomb development. Administration supporters blasted Netanyahu and refloated "Israel Lobby" canards about its supporters attempting to manipulate the United States into a war for Israel's sake. All this reinforced the impression the president was far more interested in stopping Israel from acting in its self-defense than in spiking Iran's nuclear dreams. Indeed, his policy resembled nothing so much as an effort to kick the can down the road until after the election, at which point he might be free to punt on the entire question.
This stand caused profound anxiety in Israel as the Netanyahu government contemplated the possibility that it would wind up isolated on Iran and left with the unpalatable choice of either acting alone and without American support or being forced to simply wait until Tehran got its bomb. The president's "red lines" stand was no mere semantic difference but went to the heart of Israel's fears about American indifference when it came to Iran, since the lack of such a standard would allow Iran to be merely a screwdriver turn away from a weapon.
This led to an open breach between the two countries on the issue. Netanyahu issued statements that were interpreted, probably wrongly, as an attempt to intervene in the U.S. election while Obama very publicly snubbed the prime minister by refusing to meet with him at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September. While it was in Israel's interest to back away from the brink with Obama in the days that followed, there was no disguising the complete absence of trust in the president's resolve on the issue and a bitter realization that the U.S. was determined to see that Israel could not be allowed to act on its own to head off an Iranian bomb. Thus, despite the disappearance of the Palestinian issue, the president's first term seems to be ending with the alliance with Israel in worse shape than it had been a year earlier.
The president's four years in office cannot be fairly represented as anything but an exercise in distancing America from its sole democratic ally in the Middle East. The investment in this strategy has provided no discernable gain for the United States.
Some have sought to characterize this distancing and disputes between the allies as primarily a function of Obama's personality clash with Netanyahu. Yet while the two clearly dislike each other—and Obama has gone as far as to characterize their personal relationship as "frosty"—the differences between the two countries on both the issues of Iran and the Palestinians are far greater than mere personal pique. Four years after Obama's election, Israel finds itself contemplating an international scene where its sole superpower ally can no longer be considered either steadfast or entirely reliable. And this is just one aspect of a White House foreign policy that has put distance between the U.S. and its allies, while courting its enemies.
Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com.