Today’s Washington Post editorial opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary should provide encouragement for those seeking to derail the appointment. The Post rightly pointed out that Hagel’s positions on defense spending and stopping Iran’s nuclear program “fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term — and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him.” The Post is right about that, but that is exactly why the talk about Hagel is raising alarms among those who fear that a second Obama administration will not follow through on the promises made by the president during his first term, with specific attention to his pledge to stop Iran from developing a nuclear capability.
However, those expecting that pro-Israel Jewish Democrats will be leading the charge to stop the appointment of a man who is a prominent critic of the Jewish state as well as of its American supporters are probably going to be disappointed. As this article published today in the Hill demonstrates, the unwillingness of influential Democrats like Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin to oppose Hagel shows that any campaign against the nomination may be an uphill slog. Combined with the natural reluctance of many senators to oppose a former colleague and friend, the inability of Hagel’s foes to get prominent Jewish Democrats to take a stand may ensure his victory.
In the Times of Israel article Jonathan wrote about earlier today, the ADL’s Abe Foxman suggested he wouldn’t object to Obama’s potential secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel. But strangely enough, Foxman seemed to give a very different comment to Jen Rubin:
“Chuck Hagel would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community’s friends of Israel. His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling. The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and former president Jimmy Carter.”
More than 27 years after his arrest, the Jonathan Pollard saga continues to fascinate and infuriate Americans. As I wrote in a COMMENTARY article on the subject in March 2011, advocates of the convicted spy tend to exaggerate the assistance he gave Israel during the course of the espionage he carried out while serving as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy. Similarly, those who continue to demand that he remain in prison until his death have also tended to inflate the damage he did to his country. While it is unlikely that anything could do much to move the argument one way or the other, the release of a 1987 damage report on the case conducted by the CIA should serve to silence those who have claimed Pollard’s spying was focused on American capabilities. The report, which can be read here (albeit with parts blacked out due to secrecy laws), makes it clear that his interest was solely in helping the Israelis find out more about Soviet and Arab military and intelligence capabilities.
That does not mitigate the scope of Pollard’s crime, as his handing over of a massive amount of material including signal intelligence to a foreign country did great damage to the United States. But the account of what he did and did not do does serve to bolster the arguments made by those seeking his release that his motive was a desire to help Israel rather than pure venality or treason.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political options at home are limited. His breach-of-trust conviction and his pending corruption trial are preventing him from running in next month’s Knesset election. But even if he could run, the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israelis reject his position on the peace process would give him no chance to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So he has done what he and other Israeli political has-beens always do: go to the United States and receive applause from their country’s critics.
To that end, he was in Washington yesterday criticizing his country’s government and saying that Netanyahu’s decision to approve building projects in Jerusalem and its suburb was a “slap in the face” to President Obama. He believes the project to build in the so-called E1 area that connects Maale Adumim with the city was an insult to the president, especially after the United States stood by Israel during the conflict with Gaza and at the United Nations. Olmert is right to say that Obama’s recent support for the alliance has been exemplary and there’s little doubt the administration would have preferred if Israel would have taken its punishment at the UN meekly rather than by showing that it would stick up for its rights. But Olmert’s assertion that the building in the E1 area undermines a two-state solution is belied by his own behavior while in office.
Last week, Senator Rand Paul went to some lengths to try and convince readers of COMMENTARY that the qualms that I expressed about his record on Israel were unfounded. Suffice it to say that I think despite his expressions of friendship to the Jewish state, most Republicans, as well as most Americans, are going to have a hard time reconciling his opposition to military aid to Israel as well as support for defense cuts and a reduced role for America around the world with the idea that he supports the alliance. But if the senator is serious about convincing his party that he can be relied upon to have Israel’s back, he has a much bigger problem than anything I have to say about the issue: his father, Rep. Ron Paul.
Though Senator Paul has tried to carve out a different, more establishment-friendly niche for himself in Washington than his gadfly father, his support for the latter’s presidential runs and clear admiration for the man’s principles and positions are a matter of record. And in case anyone forgot about the erstwhile presidential challenger’s stands on Israel, he gave us a reminder today with a blog post on his official congressional website. Titled, “How to End the Tragedy in Gaza,” Rep. Paul does not blame Hamas for starting the latest fighting. Instead, he blames Israel and, more to the point, American backing for Israel, for enabling the conflict. Though his son has not said anything like that in recent years, this is the sort of false and destructive rhetoric that is catnip to many of the extremist libertarians who form the family fan base and who will, no doubt, be the foot soldiers in Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential run. While it may be unfair to expect any man to distance himself from his father, unless the senator makes a clear effort to disavow his father’s positions on the Middle East, his attempts to portray himself as a friend to Israel will flop.
Like the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens and our own Max Boot, I, too, have been thinking a lot lately about the seven-year-old debate about whether Israel was wise to withdraw from Gaza. Both Bret and Max are of course right when they say that, looking back on it now, it is clear that the decision was a colossal blunder. Despite the assurances of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and many of the country’s military leaders, Israel’s security was compromised by the decision. It led directly to the creation of a Hamas terror state whose existence may not ever be undone. Just as troubling, Israel did not receive one bit of credit from the international community, let alone its foes, for removing every soldier and settler from the area. Bret summed it up nicely when he wrote:
Put simply, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.
But unlike Bret and Max, I don’t feel obligated to offer any mea culpas about my position on the withdrawal. While I supported the move, it was not because I didn’t have doubts about whether the army was right about it being easier to fight Hamas outside Gaza rather than inside it. Nor was I under any illusions about Israel reaping any public relations benefits from the scheme. To the contrary, I was quite sure that, as was the case with previous territorial surrenders, it would merely increase the appetite of Israel’s enemies for more. So why didn’t those reservations compel me to take a stand against Sharon? It was because the decision to withdraw was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel. Indeed, I believe the defense of that principle — that Israel’s people must be accorded the right to make their own decisions about their fate — is a far more important duty for us today than the need to second-guess the decision of a leader and a government that has long since faded from the country’s political scene.
Last week I discussed the potential impact of Senator Rand Paul’s growing influence on the Republican Party. That prompted an exchange with the senator that we subsequently published. The senator has now written again to correct the record on one point. We’re happy to let him do so.
Last week, I responded to Mr. Tobin’s article, and I am grateful to COMMENTARY for allowing this exchange on their pages. I think it is important people realize disagreements on some particular policy points, like foreign aid, is not a disagreement on our relationship with our ally Israel. In fact, it hurts the pro-Israel cause to state otherwise.
During his response to my letter, Mr. Tobin brings up one glaring and obvious error that I simply must correct. I did not “skip” the address to Congress by Prime Minister Netanyahu. I was trapped on the Senate floor by Harry Reid. You see, all week I had been leading a filibuster in defense of the Fourth Amendment and against certain onerous provisions of the Patriot Act. At that moment, I was attempting to force a vote on my amendment to protect gun owners, as provisions of the Patriot Act have harsh Second Amendment problems that Republican supporters try to hide.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is heading to the Middle East. The outgoing chief diplomat arrives just as a cease-fire may be about to take hold, even though rockets continued to hit Israeli cities today. But whether she seeks to take credit for the halt to the fighting or not, her arrival is bound to set off a wave of speculation about what price the Obama administration is about to try to exact from Israel for its diplomatic support in the past week.
The administration has been steadfast in its rhetorical backing of Israel’s right to self-defense against the storm of Hamas rockets that have been aimed at the country’s cities, towns and villages. But right now what may count most will be what President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been saying to the leaders of Egypt and Turkey as they sought to get Hamas’s allies to persuade the Islamist rulers of Gaza to stop firing rockets at Israel. If the U.S. has privately signaled support for concessions to Hamas or even hinted at eventual recognition of the Gaza regime, that could be the opening for another bout of administration pressure on Israel in Obama’s second term. If so, then the president’s kind words about Israel in the past few days will have come at a high price indeed.
Last week, I wrote about the potential impact that the growing influence of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will have on the ability of Republicans to portray themselves as a solidly pro-Israel party. Senator Paul has written to respond to that piece. My response follows.
Jonathan S. Tobin’s Nov. 9 column, “Will Rand Paul Hijack the Pro-Israel GOP?” makes some wildly speculative assumptions about me, my positions concerning our ally, Israel, and the Republican Party’s future. Since Mr. Tobin took it upon himself to image some of my positions, I thought it best to set the record straight by stating what they actually are.
I think it’s fair to say that most friends of Israel were deeply unhappy with President Obama’s relations with the Jewish state during his first term and deeply fearful of what the second term would bring, now that he was freed of any need to court pro-Israel votes in the future. His reaction to the new Gaza war has, therefore, been as welcome as it is unexpected. He has been whole-hearted in his support of Israel’s right to defend itself against missile attacks. During a press conference today in Thailand he said: “Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory.”
That’s an excellent start and will help to reassure Israelis (as Obama no doubt hopes) that he is a reliable ally—which in turn would give him more credibility to forestall an Israeli air strike on the Iranian nuclear program. The question is whether his support will hold if Israel feels compelled to order a ground offensive to clear out the Hamas infrastructure responsible for terrorizing much of southern Israel—something that is notoriously difficult to accomplish from the air.
A report published today in Britain’s Sunday Times says that the ability of Iran to move much of its nuclear program into hardened mountainside bunkers has already rendered it invulnerable to conventional air attack. This account relies on western intelligence and defense sources that may be intent on deterring an Israeli attempt to forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But given the obvious difficulties involved in any such attack, especially with the more slender military resources available to Israel than the United States, it could be correct. According to the story, that leaves Israel with only two options: use its own nukes to destroy the site or deploy ground troops to Iran. Needless to say, neither is a realistic option for Israel.
While skepticism about any such story is in order, it does raise a couple of important questions. One is whether the reason for these Western intelligence leaks is behind an effort not so much to stop an Israeli strike as to prevent action by the West should President Obama need to use force to make good on his promise not to allow an Iranian nuke on his watch. It also places speculation about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alleged order in 2010 to raise its alert level in preparation for a possible attack on Iran is a slightly different context. While that action has been depicted as reckless by some and even interpreted as a cynical attempt to provoke an Iranian attack on Israel or the West, if it is now too late to stop Iran perhaps Netanyahu’s concern was well placed. Just as important, it could be that the complacence exhibited by those in the security establishment in Israel that opposed any thought of action was far from wise. The same could be said about the conviction that still prevails in Washington that takes it as a given that there is still plenty of time to wait until decisions have to be made about the threat.
For the past generation, Republicans have been able to argue with justice that their party is more consistently pro-Israel than that of the Democrats. That wasn’t just the result of President Obama’s antagonism toward Jerusalem and George W. Bush’s friendship. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that a significant portion of the influential left wing of the Democrats was hostile to the Jewish state, while those few Republicans who were not friends of Zion had been marginalized. While Pat Buchanan had been more or less kicked out of the GOP in the 1990s, left-wingers like the ones who booed the adoption of a platform plank on Jerusalem at the Democratic National Convention this year were numerous and not without a voice in the party’s councils. But that may be about to change.
Republicans are congratulating themselves on breaking the 30 percent mark in their share of the Jewish vote this year, even though they could point to Barack Obama’s problematic relationship with Israel. As I pointed out on Wednesday, anyone who assumes the GOP will continue to gain ground among Jewish voters needs to remember that they won’t have that advantage four years from now. But the really bad news is that the coming battle for the soul of the Republican Party will make it clear that a significant portion of the GOP probably shouldn’t be characterized as part of the pro-Israel consensus. With the retirement of Rep. Ron Paul from electoral politics, the baton of the libertarian extremist/isolationist camp will pass to his son Rand, the senator from Kentucky. The younger Paul is more politically astute and probably a lot more marketable to a mainstream audience than his father was. But he is no less opposed to a mindset that sees a strong America and a strong alliance with Israel as integral to U.S. foreign policy than the older libertarian. That makes it entirely possible that under Rand’s leadership, radical libertarians will move from the fever swamps of the GOP to the mainstream. That’s bad news for the Republican Party, and could make their efforts to attract more pro-Israel and Jewish voters even more futile than they have been in the past.
There’s little doubt that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wasn’t celebrating President Obama’s re-election, but he has more important things on his mind today than commiserating with his old Boston colleague Mitt Romney. Netanyahu’s priority is his own re-election campaign. But with Obama now in place for the next four years, speculation centers on whether that makes it less likely that the prime minister can skate to an easy victory in the Israeli balloting scheduled for the day after Obama takes the oath of office again in January.
Most Israelis understand that among any prime minister’s most important tasks is maintaining close relations with their country’s only ally, the United States. Many of Netanyahu’s foes, including American Jewish left-wingers, have spent the last four years hoping that the clashes between Obama and the prime minister would sooner or later undermine his grip on power and either topple his government or sink him at the next election. Yet despite years of often non-stop fights picked with him by the Americans, Netanyahu has prospered. The question now is whether Obama’s victory changes the equation enough to actually place Netanyahu in political jeopardy. But while the certain prospect of four more years of clashes between the two leaders ought to trouble both Israelis and Americans, Netanyahu probably hasn’t too much to worry about.
In parts one and two of this series, I discussed President Obama’s often problematic relationship with Israel. While noting his decision not to interfere with the existing security relationship between the two countries, there is no doubt that the alliance has suffered from his lack of empathy for Israel, his active hostility toward Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and doubts about his willingness to do more than talk about the threat from a nuclear Iran. But the other side of the question facing pro-Israel voters is whether Mitt Romney provides a clear alternative to Obama on Israel-related issues.
Romney would come into office with a lot of good will from Israelis, whom polls show prefer him to Obama. He also has a better relationship with Netanyahu (though it is hard to imagine anyone having a worse one). But arguments for Romney on Israel-related issues have a lot more to do with the fact that he is not Barack Obama than with his own virtues. Though there are some fundamental differences between the two that speak well for Romney, Jewish Republicans are in some respects taking a leap of faith about the GOP candidate in much the same way as some Democrats did with Obama.
As I discussed in part one of this post, the discussion of the impact of the U.S. presidential election on Israel tends to be exaggerated. Just as it is absurd to speak of a man who clearly has little genuine sympathy for the Jewish state as its best friend ever to sit in the White House (as Democrats falsely assert), it is equally foolish to claim that Israel’s survival hangs on the outcome, since the alliance between the two countries is so entrenched in our political culture that severing it is probably beyond the capacity of even a re-elected president. However, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that four more years of Barack Obama will mean more tension between the U.S. and Israel that will undermine the relationship and encourage the Jewish state’s foes, to no purpose. Yet the inevitable spats over the peace process with the Palestinians pale in significance when compared to what may be Israel’s greatest current security challenge: a nuclear Iran.
Any account of the last four years of U.S. policy toward Iran must begin with the fact that President Obama has left himself very little room to maneuver out of a commitment to stop Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The president has been consistent in stating that he will not allow this to happen on his watch since he was first running for president in 2008. Since then, he has repeated this mantra and significantly elaborated on it while running for re-election. He has acknowledged that a nuclear Iran is a danger to U.S. security, rather than just an existential threat to Israel. This past March, the president specifically repudiated the possibility of “containing” a nuclear Iran but said that it must be stopped from attaining such a weapon. During the third presidential debate, he said the only deal he will accept with Iran is one that precludes their having a “nuclear program,” something that would preclude the sort of compromise favored by America’s European allies that would allow Tehran to keep its reactors and fuel–leaving open the possibility of a North Korea-style evasion of international diplomatic efforts.
Yet the question remains what will a re-elected President Obama do if the belated sanctions he imposed on Iran (and whose loose enforcement is itself an issue) do not convince them to give in to his demands? Will he keep the “window for diplomacy” open to allow the Iranians to go on delaying until they reach their nuclear goal? That’s something no one can know for sure, but which must haunt friends of Israel.
If you listen to President Obama’s Jewish surrogates, you hear them tell you that Barack Obama is the best friend Israel ever had in the White House. According to the president’s Jewish detractors, he is one of its worst foes and his re-election could lead to its destruction. Where does the truth lie?
Let’s start with one clear fact. Israel’s survival does not depend on who is elected president of the United States. As important as the U.S.-Israel alliance may be — and it is absolutely vital to the state of Israel’s well-being and security — the Jewish state will not collapse if Barack Obama is re-elected. Nor will it enter a new golden age if Mitt Romney wins. Responsibility for Israel’s defense falls primarily on the shoulders of someone who is not on the ballot on Tuesday: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If the president of the United States seeks in the next four years to pressure Israel to do something that will undermine its security, Netanyahu — or one of his opponents, should he fail to be re-elected in parliamentary elections that will take place the day after the American president is inaugurated — can say no, just as his predecessors have done. Israel’s leaders have rarely been shy about taking unilateral or pre-emptive action to forestall a threat, and that won’t change. It should also be pointed out that the infrastructure of the U.S.-Israel relationship is so deeply entrenched into America’s political culture that even should the president seek to significantly alter or undermine that alliance, the political price for such a decision would be so costly as to deter all but the most fanatical ideologue.
That said, there would be significant differences between a second Obama administration and a first one for Romney in terms of the impact on Israel.
Glenn Kessler, who writes the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column, is sometimes quite candid about political prevarication and sometimes he pretty much punts on issues. But today he can barely contain his wrath. The subject of his Four Pinocchio grade (which he says would be higher except for the fact that four is the maximum he can gives) was the Emergency Committee for Israel’s faux “debate” between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama.
The imaginary debate between the two men was part of a robo-call ad intended to take the president’s pro-Israel bona fides down a peg, and it cuts and splices actual quotes from the pair about subjects that were not contemporaneously expressed or even necessarily on exactly the same point. So Kessler’s contempt for the ad’s “accuracy” is in a sense justified. But ECI head — and occasional COMMENTARY contributor — Noah Pollack responded to Kessler’s inquiry with what the Post writer reports was a tongue-in-cheek answer, to the effect that he was attempting to track down more “secret” recordings of an imaginary event. That should have made it clear that the ad was, while not satire, clearly not intended to be interpreted as an actual face-to-face event. Though the quotes were taken out of context, it is fair to say that Kessler’s attempt to put them back into context is as misleading as ECI’s juxtapositions.
While the ad is egregious in the liberties it takes, the point it is attempting to illustrate about the contention between the two over the past four years is actually true. The stark disagreements between Obama and Netanyahu on Iran are not inventions of ECI.
The New York Times has been enjoying the confusion it sowed in Washington, Jerusalem and Tehran when it published a story last weekend about an agreement between the United States and Iran to have bilateral nuclear talks after the presidential election. The White House and the Iranians denied it while the Israelis didn’t seem sure what to believe. But whatever the truth of the account, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying hard to avoid sending mixed signals about the possibility of a new round of Iran talks. In a story published in today’s Times, the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren reports the Israeli government sent out an email on Monday to every one of the country’s embassies and consulates saying that they had no knowledge of the proposed talks and admonishing their diplomats to keep their mouths shut about the issue.
As Rudoren pointed out in her piece, despite the White House denials, the president contradicted himself in the foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney on Monday night since he said at one point that the Times story was “not true” and then said his policy was to encourage “bilateral discussions with the Iranians.” That seemed to signal that the Times was operating with correct information. That poses a dilemma for Israel. Netanyahu knows that it makes no sense for him to have yet another public brawl with President Obama on the eve of his re-election fight. Yet he also understands the danger of the U.S. being drawn into yet another pointless round of talks that will only serve to buy the Iranians more time to achieve their nuclear ambition. Thus, while there’s no doubt that Israel has good reason to be concerned about whether more U.S. diplomacy will let Iran off the hook, Netanyahu has decided to play this hand very close to his chest.
Yesterday, I explained at length why Efraim Halevy’s oddly partisan op-ed in the New York Times alleging that only Republicans have strong-armed Israel was as absurd as it was irrelevant to the question of whether President Obama should be re-elected. Nevertheless, some liberals have continued to circulate Halevy’s piece as if it was conclusive proof that Democrats are always good and Republicans are bad. As I pointed out, presidents from both parties have been pressuring the Jewish state since it was born. Even if we were to accept the former Mossad chief’s lame attempt to summarize the history of U.S.-Israel relations so as to focus only on episodes of tension when the GOP had the White House, it does nothing to answer the justified criticisms of President Obama’s undeniable record of pressure.
But there is one aspect of Halevy’s piece that is relevant this morning: his discussion of the way the George W. Bush administration hammered Israel into accepting the “road map” for Middle East peace in 2003 prior to the Iraq War. The prime mover behind that policy went unnamed in Halevy’s piece, but he is very much in the news today: former Secretary of State Colin Powell. To no one’s surprise, Powell endorsed President Obama for re-election. The former general had a number of reasons for backing the president, but by all accounts the most important one was distrust of the “neoconservatives” who advise Mitt Romney on foreign policy. Those who think criticism of the Bush administration’s attitude to Israel should inform the 2012 election need to understand that Powell — the most prominent critic of Israel on Bush’s team — is weighing in on the election largely because he doesn’t like the pro-Israel tone of the Romney campaign and endorses Obama’s policy of pressure. That puts Halevy’s “bad Republican” argument in a perspective that renders it useless to those supporting the president’s re-election.