Commentary Magazine


Reminder: Israel Can’t Rely on Obama’s Iran Assurances Because They Don’t Exist

Jonathan neatly summed up the reasons behind the oh come on, dude sensation one gets from reading this morning’s Jeffrey Goldberg interview with President Obama. The discussion seems to take place in a universe where this White House hasn’t made an annual spring-time tradition of launching diplomatic offensives against Israel, bragging and chortling in the media about slapping Netanyahu around in 2009, declaring in 2010 that abandoning previous understandings on Jerusalem was “paying off”, trying to sandbag and isolate Netanyahu in 2011, and so on. It concludes with the president, at Goldberg’s prompting, insisting he “has Israel’s back,” which is a phrase you’ve read before on this blog in the context of Obama abandoning previous American assurances toward Israel.

But of the many surreal aspects of the conversation, the most grating is the president’s borderline-petulant insistence that Israel should take his security assurances on Iran seriously:

And one of the things that I like to remind them of is that every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept. I mean, part of your — not to put words in your mouth — but part of the underlying question is: Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they’ve had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?

The somewhat nuanced, word-parsing answer to that question goes something like: it might be true the president has kept all the commitments that he specifically has made to the Israelis, of which there have been very few, but the problem is that he has abandoned wholesale the assurances made by previous administrations, undermining the faith that the Israelis (to say nothing of our other allies) have in American assurances as such.

But that’s just a reason why the Israelis don’t trust Obama’s assurances in general. There’s a much more specific reason why the Israelis can’t trust Obama’s assurances on Iran, which would stipulate that the United States will attack Iran if it hardens its nuclear program past the reach of Israel’s military. And that specific reason is that those assurances quite literally don’t exist. Via Newsweek from two weeks ago, Obama refuses to provide them:

Israeli officials say that the United States thinks it can afford to wait until Iran is on the very verge of weaponizing, because U.S. forces have the capacity to carry out multiple bombing sorties and cripple the Iranian program at that point. Israel, however, would not be able to carry out such a sustained attack and would need to hit much sooner to be effective—before Iran could shelter much of its program deep underground. One former Israeli official tells Newsweek… that Israel has asked Obama for assurances that if sanctions fail, he will use force against Iran. Obama’s refusal to provide that assurance has helped shape Israel’s posture: a refusal to promise restraint, or even to give the United States advance notice.

Thus we get the spectacle of the president of the United States complaining to one of America’s more serious journalists that a critical American ally won’t rely on assurances the president refuses to give.