Robert Gates’ tenure as Secretary of Defense will be remembered chiefly for his successful supervision of the surge in Iraq. Yet, as Max Boot pointed out in his valuable article in the September issue of COMMENTARY, some of his farewell comments about our allies and the future of defense policy contained more hyperbole than wisdom. Jeffrey Goldberg added to our understanding of Gates’ flaws in a column in Bloomberg yesterday in which he blasted Israel as an “ungrateful ally.”
Goldberg leads his piece by describing the anger Gates and other administration officials felt when Netanyahu lectured Obama in the Oval Office about the existential challenges facing his country. But what the author leaves out is this act of impudence took place just days after the president chose to ambush the Israeli by timing a speech aimed at tilting the diplomatic playing field against the Jewish state on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit to the United States. Far from being the patient, faithful ally who had gone the extra mile for Israel, the Obama administration had once again picked an unnecessary fight. Gates’ resentment of Israel says far more about the self-defeating attitude of this administration that has actually harmed the cause of peace rather than helping it.
As I wrote in my own article on U.S.-Israeli relations in the July/August issue, it would be a misreading of the facts to claim, as some of Obama’s critics do, that his attitude toward Israel has been unremittingly hostile. The strategic alliance between the two countries transcends party and even policy differences. On Gates’ watch at the Pentagon, the level of security cooperation between Israel and the United States was increased and he, and to a lesser extent his boss, deserves credit for this. But this is more of a testimony to the value of that alliance than a sign of Obama’s dedication to Israel. The permanence and strength of this relationship is the work of several administrations. For any president to have sought to curtail or end it — even a far-from-friendly chief executive such as Obama — would have required the expenditure of scarce political capital that would have been derailed by Congress anyway.
Gates’ rage at Netanyahu’s chutzpah in lecturing Obama or over the supposed “insult” to Vice President Biden because of a housing start in an existing Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem in 2010 was merely pique at Netanyahu’s unwillingness to sacrifice his country’s rights and security to suit the whims of an often hostile administration. Though Obama and Gates did not sink the alliance, they seem to believe they were within their rights in trying to undermine the Israeli government and were shocked when Netanyahu refused to roll over for them.
Goldberg fails to mention the strong pushback against Obama’s Middle East policy speech from both parties as well as the rapturous welcome Netanyahu received from a joint meeting of Congress after his impudent public lecture of Obama testified to the fact it was the Israeli, and not the president, who had gotten the better of the exchange. This was not so much a tribute to Netanyahu, who isn’t personally well liked by anyone in Washington, as it was a rebuke to Gates’ boss Obama.
This is supposedly more relevant today, because we are told Obama is about to go to the mat for Israel by vetoing a Palestinian independence resolution at the United Nations. But it needs to be pointed out that doing so is as much a defense of American foreign policy interests as it is of Israel’s. Vetoing the resolution isn’t a gift to Netanyahu. It’s a necessary riposte to a Palestinian effort to evade peace negotiations and to undermine American influence in the Middle East.
Goldberg closes his piece by insinuating Netanyahu’s poor relations with Obama are hurting him at home. But that is an absurd conclusion. Obama is the least liked American president in Israel in a generation, and every fight he has picked with Netanyahu has only strengthened the latter domestically.
Perhaps a more obsequious Israeli leader might have curried more favor with Gates as well as Obama. But Netanyahu’s prime responsibility is the defense of his own country’s interests–not pleasing an American administration that has demonstrated mixed feelings about the alliance with the Jewish state.