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What Message Is Obama Sending to Israel?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell by reporting that the U.S. had withheld a shipment of Hellfire missiles from Israel during wartime and that the Obama administration “tightened its control on arms transfers to Israel.” In response, I wrote that the administration could no longer resort to its favorite defense on Israel: that no matter how poorly President Obama and his appointees treated Israel in the diplomatic arena, at least he had Israel’s back on security.

Yesterday Shmuel Rosner wrote a very smart response. He disagrees with me on how much of a lesson we can draw from this one incident, but has his own incisive take on it. I think it’s worth clarifying part of my original point and also drawing attention to Rosner’s own analysis of the dustup, which has important implications.

I wrote that “now we know that the president is not fully committed to Israel’s security.” Rosner quotes that line and then writes: “a halt of one, or even five, shipments of arms, when Israel can clearly do without them for now, is not yet a clear statement of carelessness regarding Israel’s security.”

That’s true, but I didn’t write that the president cares nothing for Israel’s security; I wrote that he’s “not fully committed to Israel’s security.” I think that’s an important distinction. And the reason I wrote that is not just about stopping one (“or even five”) arms shipments, but the key point that the resupply process has generally been on autopilot and takes place below Obama’s pay grade.

It’s not as though Obama were transferring all that weaponry to Israel and then decided to hold one shipment to apply pressure to Prime Minister Netanyahu. It’s that, if the Journal story has it right, Obama was unaware of the arms transfers in that program, and when he became aware he put a stop to one shipment and the fast-track process and took a key component of U.S.-Israel mutual defense off of autopilot. While Israel was at war, no less.

In other words, Obama deserves less credit than he’s received for supporting Israel’s security over the last six years, not that Obama has suddenly changed course (though that’s true in a way too).

But Rosner’s conclusion is worth contemplating as well. He writes:

But I do see something else that is quite disturbing: Obama no longer cares if people say that he doesn’t care about Israel’s security.

Let me explain: for six years it was important for the administration to separate “security relations” from “diplomatic relations”, because the separation enabled it to keep wrapping itself in a ‘supportive of Israel’ garment even as it was having bitter fights with the Israeli government. When relations were very tense, the pretense of them being still very strong was important for the Obama administration to maintain. Of course, part of it is because it is true: the relations are still strong. The US and Israel have ties strong enough to sustain a period of tension between the two governments. But there were also other reasons for the Obama team to insist on the viability of the “security” relations. Possibly, some of this was for political reasons – Obama did not wish to pick a fight with political supporters over Israel. And some of it probably had psychological motivations – it enabled people within the administration that are basically supportive of Israel to compartmentalize their own feelings about the policies of the administration in which they serve.

Enter the latest report, which ruins it for Obama, or at least significantly damages it. Suddenly, the Obama administration decided to send a blow in the one area that was supposedly a no-entry-zone.

If Obama no longer cares to be seen as supportive of Israel, Rosner writes, then that would be “a change that is much more significant than one shipment of Hellfire missiles.”

There have been a lot of jokes about the president already enjoying his retirement, but the kernel of truth at the center of them has been his disregard for pretending he cares about any number of issues. He’s disengaged and, frankly, appears overwhelmed by the task at hand.

But he’s still president, and he’s still the most visible representative of his party. The Democrats already have an “Israel problem,” in that the base of the party continues their own reassessment of the special relationship. Obama only reinforces that at a time when Israeli civilians are being forced into bomb shelters.

And it matters for another reason, and this is a point on which Rosner and I agree. American diplomatic support for Israel cannot so easily be separated from support for Israel’s security. Diplomatic pressure from the U.S. can attempt to force Israel’s government to take positions that weaken its security, regardless of its supply of arms and ammunition.

Israel’s enemies react according to its perceived strength, and that in turn relies on the fairly significant factor of whether the Jewish state has the world’s only superpower standing behind it. Obama is quite aware of the impression he’s giving, and it will almost certainly have real-world consequences.



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6 Responses to “What Message Is Obama Sending to Israel?”

  1. BEN ORLANSKI says:

    Rosner is wrong that stopping one or five shipments does not matter on the theory that Israel has plenty already. If you were a soldier in any army and you normally would resupply your bullets by a standard procedure, but then your commanding officer said that he was taking you off the standard procedure and was now personally auditing your use of bullets, don’t you think it would influence the way you pulled the trigger, even if you already had plenty of bullets? Of course it would, and that is exactly the intent.

  2. KEEFE GOLDFISHER says:

    While the argument about the significance of Obama Administration support for Israel’s security rages on, you do not have to be a paranoid to question whether the Spanish halt of arms sales to the Jewish nation earlier this month, and the British law recently enacted for the same purpose in the event of renewed conflict in Gaza, along with the slow-walked Hellfires is part of an orchestrated effort. Along with the FAA ban on flights to Ben Gurion, one has the feeling of a cold hand moving behind the scenes, compelling an ally.

    But surely the gossip we now hear about easing the passage of goods to and from Gaza and the anticipated re-entrance of John Kerry on the scene, says more about the suasion being exerted on Israel by the United States. Why would Israel concede to seaports and eased restrictions on transit through the crossings, and discuss airports, unless she was compelled to… by this Administration. Netanyahu may have to wait out this President, but he would be wise to have his own real redlines, the bare minimum of Israeli interests, to keep.

    It certainly would not have been conceivable, in 2012, that either candidate would be rehabilitating Iranian nuclear ambitions, assuaging Turkish Islamism and making our weapons sales safe for Qataris, nor withholding support to an ally at war; it did not seem in the realm of possibility. Where we see the signs of pressure applied is not the source obvious? The message is…, you will accede to our interests, as we define them now. The fact that the average American did not sign on for this foreign policy tack, seems lost in the telling.

  3. EMILE TUBIANA says:

    I think Obama’s actions against Israel are very petty for a President of the United States, while the United States government condemns Hamas as terrorists. In my opinion he is taking these actions because he is jealous of Netanyahu, who had been well received by the Congress and the Senate of the United States during his visit to Washington, while Obama is not as valued as Netanyahu is.

    Other than that, Netanyahu comes from a different background than Obama. Netanyahu was educated in the US and served in the Israeli army as an officer of an elite unit of the IDF, while Obama did nothing of the same. Netanyahu’s brother was a hero and lost his life in an action to save tourists kidnapped by Palestinians on a French plane on a flight coming from Israel that was diverted to Entebbe. I applaud Netanyahu for standing up to Obama. In my opinion, it’s Obama who started these actions of so-called negotiations that brought the situation to the point where it is today.

  4. ERIC LEVINE says:

    As a loyal American, I am ashamed and emberassed for the pathetic lack of world leadership from my President. The betrayel of American values around the world. Fiasco after fiasco, domestic and foreign. Every friend of the US has been insulted, while every enemy of the US has been appeased. Had President Obama been even 1/4 of candidate Obama, the world would not be nearly as chaotic and messed up as it now is. Sadly, we must wait 2 more years before America can repair the damage of the Obama years.

  5. EMILE TUBIANA says:

    I agree with Eric Levine. What we all forget to pay attention to are the US weapon shipments to Turkey and Qatar. Has anybody asked in which conflict they would be used? Against Saudi Arabia, or against Israel via Hamas? Hamas is just buying time until the shipments arrive, and we are putting pressure on Israel not to hit hard. How long do you think it would take Israel to defeat the Hamas? It was able to defeat Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon at the same time in the past. But all those cease-fires are delay tactics and Netanyahu is under a lot of pressure not to complete the task. If I were to advise Netanyahu, I would say not to listen to anyone but to go ahead with what needs to be done to secure Israel. The writer of this comment was an officer in the army.

  6. MANUEL LAZEROV says:

    The message is that Israel has the right to defend itself, so long as it is not too effective.




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