The new low in relations between the White House and Israel are especially troubling for two reasons that didn’t apply during previous administrations: one is Obama’s personal peevishness toward Israel and his related desire to distance the United States from the Jewish state and draw it closer to the Arabs; and the second is the Iranian nuclear program.
Regarding the first, it appears to be official policy in the current administration to approach the peace process as an opportunity to reorient the United States’ position between Jews and Arabs in the region. Palestinian incitement, the PA’s public celebration of terrorism, the rioting in Jerusalem, the accusations that Israel murdered Yasser Arafat, the ongoing Palestinian refusal to participate in negotiations, and so on — none of these have warranted any American comment whatsoever. In fact, I cannot recall a single time when an Obama administration official has criticized the PA for anything.
Yet the administration publicly upbraids Israel on an almost weekly basis. The administration has adopted a deeply confused stance in which Netanyahu’s agreement to a 10-month settlement freeze — excepting Jerusalem — was praised heartily, yet any Israeli approval for construction in Jerusalem is heatedly criticized, and not by low-level functionaries. Typically it involves Robert Gibbs protesting to the national news corps. One doesn’t have to be an ardent Zionist to understand why the administration’s multi-layered hypocrisy — no criticism ever for the Palestinians, approval and praise for a settlement freeze that is then castigated on a regular basis — is aggravating to the Israelis.
And then there is the Iran issue. I think it’s clear by now that Obama does not wish to make a confrontation with Iran part of his presidency. As I’ve written before, this means that Israeli security fears become a major problem for the administration: surely Obama realizes that one of his most important jobs is therefore preventing the Israelis from attacking.
How does one do that? Typically, the way the United States has alleviated Israeli security concerns is by affirming the closeness of the strategic relationship. But doing this on the Iran issue doesn’t work, for two reasons: 1) it would undermine Obama’s mission to the Arab world, which requires pushing the Israelis away; 2) and in the context of a nuclear Iran, it doesn’t really matter how close the U.S. and Israel are. The Israeli fear of the Iranian bomb is that one nuke would destroy the Jewish state, and that even in the absence of such a strike, Israel would be confronted with an emboldened Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis, more wars, constant (and credible) threats of annihilation, and over time would experience the psychological, demographic, and economic attrition of the country.
When we follow this logic chain to its conclusion, we find that Obama’s only option for restraining an Israeli attack is the one that we’re seeing unfold before our eyes: a U.S. effort to methodically weaken the relationship; provoke crises; consume the Netanyahu government with managing this deterioration; and most important, create an ambiance of unpredictability by making the Israelis fear that an attack on Iran would not just be met with American disapproval but also a veto and perhaps active resistance.
The Obama administration’s reaction to the Biden visit has been too eagerly petulant to simply be a response to an insult — especially when it is clear that Netanyahu didn’t know the housing announcement was coming, and when the U.S. had already accepted the terms of the settlement freeze, which allows for precisely such construction in Jerusalem. That said, the announcement was a sucker-punch of epic proportions that was sure to cause an angry reaction from an administration that has made criticism of Israel one of its most consistent policies. It seems to me that this reaction is intended to help solve one of its biggest problems in the Middle East — the possibility that Israel may attack Iran.