The Israeli government is doing its best to patch things up with the Obama administration after Secretary of State John Kerry was blasted by a broad consensus of opinion in the Jewish state as well as many respected American journalists for his bungled efforts to broker a cease-fire in Gaza that would have helped Hamas. But after all the umbrage from Washington and the apologies from Jerusalem, the real question we should be asking is not about Kerry’s hurt feelings but whether Israel has the right to tell its sole superpower ally “no.”
Today’s cease-fire fiasco in which an initiative for a halt to the fighting from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas demonstrated anew how irrelevant the man lauded by the United States as a peace partner has become in the current conflict. But the main focus of discussion in the last few days has been Kerry’s foolish decision to adopt the positions of Hamas’s Turkish and Qatari allies in putting forward a cease-fire proposal that effectively cut both Abbas and Egypt out of the process. Israel’s government was shocked at Kerry’s betrayal that would have granted Hamas terrorists an undeserved political victory.
But rather than be held accountable for Kerry’s blunder as well as his miscalculations during the course of his sponsorship of peace talks whose collapse led directly to the current round of violence, what we are hearing are complaints about Israel’s chutzpah in calling out the secretary for his mistakes. Some today are pointing out what they consider to be Israel’s foolishness in creating friction with its sole friend. Indeed, at a time when the safety of the Jewish state is directly related to the continued use of the Iron Dome system that was financed in large measure by the United States, and for which Israel will need more funding to keep it shooting down Hamas rockets, there is a sense that uppity Israelis are biting the hand that is feeding them.
There is a superficial logic to such criticism of the Israelis and anytime a foreign government and its press attack any American official. Yet to frame this issue as one of ingratitude on the part of Israelis—both for U.S. assistance and for Kerry’s efforts to broker peace—is to misperceive the problem. Israelis should treat U.S. officials with courtesy and to listen to their advice. Yet expecting them to compromise their security for the sake of good feelings isn’t merely unrealistic. It’s an act of hostility that undermines an alliance that is as much in America’s interest as it is Israel’s.
Such tension between these two close friends is nothing new. U.S. leaders have been pressuring Israel to make territorial withdrawals or “risks” for peace since the inception of the state. That pressure intensified after the Six-Day War when the U.S. switched from an interested onlooker in the conflict (few remember that the Israelis fought all of their wars up until the Yom Kippur War without U.S. arms or significant assistance) to an ally of the Jewish state. Arguments such as those of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan with Menachem Begin, George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker with Yitzhak Shamir, and Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama with Benjamin Netanyahu all raised the same hackles about Israel’s refusal to consistently knuckle under to American demands.
But all these debates revolve around a basic principle that, like it or not, American leaders have had to learn to respect: Israel is a sovereign nation and cannot be asked to sacrifice the lives of its citizens in order to gratify the demands or the ego of American presidents and secretaries of state. In the current case, that means seeking to prematurely force Israel to cease operations against Hamas rocket fire and terror infiltration tunnels or to grant the terrorists concessions is simply unacceptable.
Moreover, as Kerry’s about-face after the weekend in which he agreed that demilitarization of Gaza should be the goal of any negotiations illustrated, even the Obama administration understands that the American people do not support a policy of pressure on Israel. Indeed, anyone thinking that Obama and Kerry might try to squeeze Netanyahu to make concessions by holding up more funding for Iron Dome got a dose of reality in the past few days when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were competing with each other over who would give the Israelis the most additional Iron Dome money.
It can be argued that friends shouldn’t be rude to friends, although the disgust and anger that Kerry generated across the entire Israeli political spectrum, including many fierce critics of Netanyahu, renders the administration’s hurt feelings somewhat ridiculous. But friends have a right to tell a friend—even a generous one that supplies essential aid—that their requests are neither reasonable nor helpful. Israel is not a banana republic and has said no to the United States before this and will again. More to the point, so long as the requests coming from the administration remain as unreasonable and out of touch with the reality of the conflict as those adopted by Obama and Kerry have been, Netanyahu should be able to resist them in the full knowledge that most Americans both understand and support his position.