It’s been a difficult week for Israel. A trifecta of attacks on the foundation of the ties between the United States and the Jewish state in the past few days have exposed the ambivalent feelings of top Obama administration officials. If you add together recent statements by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, it’s hard to blame Caroline Glick for claiming that “under Obama, the U.S. is no longer Israel’s ally.”
But it’s worthwhile pointing out that despite these ominous signals and the failure of the administration’s promises to stop Iran’s nuclear program, Obama is still operating under constraints that will make it difficult for him to further weaken the bonds that unite Israel and the United States. The offensive words uttered by Panetta, Clinton and Gutman, as well as previous actions by Obama, point more to their frustration with a situation in which they know they cannot teach Israel’s government the rough lesson they believe it deserves than anything else.
As Obama learned to his dismay this past spring when his intended ambush of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a visit to Washington backfired on him, the alliance with Israel isn’t a function of the whims of an individual president. From the first day he took office, Obama has been open about his goal of creating more distance between the U.S. and Israel than existed under his predecessors. That’s been a dangerous mistake that has destroyed what was left of the peace process and encouraged Israel’s foes to think its alliance with the United States is crumbling. That’s made the Middle East an even more dangerous place than it already was. But at the same time, due to the demands of Congress and key constituencies within the Democratic Party, the president has always been forced to maintain the security alliance that exists between the two nations. And in spite of Obama’s desire to help the Palestinians and his evident distaste for Israel, the so-called “diplomatic tsunami” that a Palestinian independence push at the United Nations was supposed to cause has fizzled.
To note these facts is not to dismiss the damage the fights picked by Obama (as well as Panetta’s attempt to blame Israel for its isolation by Islamists and Clinton for her slurs on Israeli democracy) have caused. But it must be understood their bristling resentment of Israel and Netanyahu is heightened by the fact that they know if they go further, there will be a terrible political reckoning. That’s why even as he chips away at the alliance, Obama must pay it homage and even be forced to claim, as he did last week, he is a good friend to the Jewish state. Such claims may be disingenuous, but like all forms of hypocrisy, they are, as the saying goes, the tribute that vice pays to virtue.
The reason why the pro-Israel consensus in the United States is so strong is that its roots are deep in our political culture and broader than just the Jewish vote or AIPAC. That’s what drives critics of the relationship like the Israel Lobby authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer crazy. And it’s also why Obama administration officials who are for their own ideological reasons unhappy about having to help Israel despite their strong desire to smack it around, sometimes give vent to statements that would lead you to think the alliance is doomed.
It is true a second Obama administration would have considerably more freedom to apply pressure on Israel than it has had the last three years. That is something that should give Israeli leaders who are pondering their options on Iran as well as American supporters of the Jewish state something to think about. But as bad as things seem right now, it should be remembered that no matter what Obama, Panetta, Clinton and their underlings may think about Israel, they are keenly aware a full break with Israel is not something they can get away with.