Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-Israel relations

Israelis Are Right Not to Trust Obama

Last March, President Obama visited Israel for the first time since taking office. There he gave several speeches that must be considered among the most pro-Zionist ever uttered by an American leader. He annoyed supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by asking Israelis to pressure their government to take risks for peace — the same risks, as it happened — that his predecessors had already tried with disastrous results. But the genuinely supportive tone of his remarks persuaded some observers  that despite a first term marred by almost continual fights with Jerusalem, the president might finally win over an Israeli public that had never warmed to him. But less than a year later after that long-delayed visit, it might as well have never have taken place, as far as the Israelis are concerned. A new Times of Israel poll published this week shows that an overwhelming majority do not trust Obama to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and a clear majority view him unfavorably.

This frustrates the president’s defenders who cite the strong security cooperation that has continued on his watch, the generous aid to Israel that continues to flow, to the Jewish state, as well as the fact that he retained the support of more than two-thirds of American Jewish voters in his reelection campaign. Obama’s apologists also say he should be trusted to do the right thing on Iran and be given a chance to let diplomacy work to end the nuclear threat. They insist the administration’s push to force the Jewish state to make more concessions to the Palestinians is in Israel’s interests.

Israelis, however, aren’t impressed by any of these arguments. They distrust him more now than they did before his visit. That should prompt Americans who claim to be friends of Israel to ask themselves what the Israelis know that they don’t.

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Last March, President Obama visited Israel for the first time since taking office. There he gave several speeches that must be considered among the most pro-Zionist ever uttered by an American leader. He annoyed supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by asking Israelis to pressure their government to take risks for peace — the same risks, as it happened — that his predecessors had already tried with disastrous results. But the genuinely supportive tone of his remarks persuaded some observers  that despite a first term marred by almost continual fights with Jerusalem, the president might finally win over an Israeli public that had never warmed to him. But less than a year later after that long-delayed visit, it might as well have never have taken place, as far as the Israelis are concerned. A new Times of Israel poll published this week shows that an overwhelming majority do not trust Obama to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and a clear majority view him unfavorably.

This frustrates the president’s defenders who cite the strong security cooperation that has continued on his watch, the generous aid to Israel that continues to flow, to the Jewish state, as well as the fact that he retained the support of more than two-thirds of American Jewish voters in his reelection campaign. Obama’s apologists also say he should be trusted to do the right thing on Iran and be given a chance to let diplomacy work to end the nuclear threat. They insist the administration’s push to force the Jewish state to make more concessions to the Palestinians is in Israel’s interests.

Israelis, however, aren’t impressed by any of these arguments. They distrust him more now than they did before his visit. That should prompt Americans who claim to be friends of Israel to ask themselves what the Israelis know that they don’t.

The reason for Obama’s low approval and trust ratings among Israelis is no mystery. He came into office in January 2009 determined to establish daylight between Israel and the United States and wasted no time in achieving that goal. The fights he picked with Netanyahu were largely intended to undermine the prime minister’s standing at home but only served to strengthen him among his countrymen. Netanyahu’s defiance of Obama’s demands was based on positions widely agreed upon by the majority of Israelis such as a refusal to divide Jerusalem. Most Israelis aren’t any more enamored of West Bank settlements than the president, most view American insistence on pushing Israel back to its 1967 borders as madness because, unlike Obama, they vividly recall the events of 2005. In that year the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza produced a hale of rockets fired on their towns and cities along the border which they now see as a clear warning of what would recur if the tragic experiment were repeated.

The president’s disastrous retreat on Syria—after promising that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” that would trigger an American response —in which he has effectively  conceded that there is nothing the U.S. is prepared to do to restrain an Assad regime backed by both Russia and Iran has also undermined Israeli trust in his judgment, not to mention his promises.

That skepticism is even greater on Iran. Much was made in the American media in 2012 and 2013 about the lack of support for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran among members of the country’s security establishment and the Israeli public. But that stance was based on a belief that the only way to deal with Iran was in concert with a resolute United States. There is little disagreement in Israel about the absolute necessity for the West to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program as well as to force it to give up its ballistic missile program and to end its support of terrorism. Thus, the U.S. decision to embrace an interim nuclear deal that does nothing to dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure (a position reaffirmed today by Iran’s foreign minister) and loosens sanctions in a way that has led many in Europe to believe that the restrictions will soon be eliminated altogether, has rightly alarmed Israelis.

Though Obama has consistently pledged to stop Iran from getting a bomb, Israelis view the American embrace of diplomacy with the Islamist regime very differently from the president’s supporters in the United States. While many Americans accept the administration’s arguments that the only alternative to its engagement with Iran is war, Israelis understand that the talk emanating from Washington about détente with Tehran represents nothing short of a profound betrayal of Obama’s pledges.

The United States seems to be retreating from the Middle East, a position that frightens many Arabs as well as the Israelis. They see the drift toward the appeasement of Iran as a sign that this administration is prepared to accept a compromise with Tehran that will leave the nuclear threat in place. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to blame the Israelis for believing that Obama can’t be trusted. American friends of Israel—including those who voted for Obama—have good reason to take a long, hard look at the Israeli poll results and reconsider their longstanding unblinking trust in this president.  

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Yaalon’s Unwelcome Peace Process Truths

Give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some credit. In his first term as Israel’s leader in the 1990s, he might well have issued a statement like the one attributed to Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon yesterday in which the former general trashed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and damned the security plan that he presented to Israel this month as “not worth the paper it’s written on.” Since returning to the prime minister’s office in 2009 Netanyahu has done his best to keep the relationship with Washington from overheating. If there have been a series of scrapes with the Obama administration, that is largely the fault of the president’s desire to pick policy fights with him and the prime minister has done his best not to overreact. No matter how wrong Israel’s leaders may think their American counterparts are, little good comes from public spats. As Netanyahu knows, the only ones who benefit from exposing the daylight between the two countries’ positions are the Palestinians and other foes.

But apparently Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon hasn’t gotten the memo about not telling off the Americans. In an apparently unguarded moment, the former general spouted off about Kerry, the peace process, and the Palestinians yesterday, and the subsequent report in Yediot Ahronot published in English on their Ynetnews.com site brought down a firestorm on the Israeli government. Though Yaalon walked back his comments in a statement to the media, he did not deny the accuracy of the original Yediot story. This indiscretion won’t help Netanyahu in his dealings with either Obama or Kerry. It is especially foolish coming from a cabinet minister whose department has worked closely with the administration on security measures throughout the last five years to Israel’s benefit in spite of the political differences between the governments. But leaving aside the diplomatic harm he has done his country, honest observers must admit that what Yaalon said was true. The question facing both Israel and the United States is not so much what to do about Yaalon or other members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet who can’t keep their mouths shut, but at what point it will behoove the two governments to acknowledge the futility of Kerry’s endeavor.

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Give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some credit. In his first term as Israel’s leader in the 1990s, he might well have issued a statement like the one attributed to Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon yesterday in which the former general trashed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and damned the security plan that he presented to Israel this month as “not worth the paper it’s written on.” Since returning to the prime minister’s office in 2009 Netanyahu has done his best to keep the relationship with Washington from overheating. If there have been a series of scrapes with the Obama administration, that is largely the fault of the president’s desire to pick policy fights with him and the prime minister has done his best not to overreact. No matter how wrong Israel’s leaders may think their American counterparts are, little good comes from public spats. As Netanyahu knows, the only ones who benefit from exposing the daylight between the two countries’ positions are the Palestinians and other foes.

But apparently Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon hasn’t gotten the memo about not telling off the Americans. In an apparently unguarded moment, the former general spouted off about Kerry, the peace process, and the Palestinians yesterday, and the subsequent report in Yediot Ahronot published in English on their Ynetnews.com site brought down a firestorm on the Israeli government. Though Yaalon walked back his comments in a statement to the media, he did not deny the accuracy of the original Yediot story. This indiscretion won’t help Netanyahu in his dealings with either Obama or Kerry. It is especially foolish coming from a cabinet minister whose department has worked closely with the administration on security measures throughout the last five years to Israel’s benefit in spite of the political differences between the governments. But leaving aside the diplomatic harm he has done his country, honest observers must admit that what Yaalon said was true. The question facing both Israel and the United States is not so much what to do about Yaalon or other members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet who can’t keep their mouths shut, but at what point it will behoove the two governments to acknowledge the futility of Kerry’s endeavor.

Having already conceded that Yaalon was stupid to say such things within earshot of a reporter, the defense minister gets no sympathy here for the abuse he is taking today in Israel’s press as well as from parliamentary allies and foes. The Israeli government has to be frustrated with Kerry’s persistence in pushing for concessions from them, especially when they see no sign of moderation on the part of their Palestinian peace partners who will not accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn nor renounce the right of return for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. But as damaging as pressure on Israel to accept the 1967 borders and the division of Jerusalem may be, so long as Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is prevented by the reality of his people’s political culture and the threat from Hamas and other opposition groups from ever signing a deal that would end the conflict, Netanyahu knows that the best policy is to avoid an overt conflict with the U.S.

That said, Yaalon’s reminder of the absurdity of Kerry’s quest does help clarify the situation for those naïve enough to believe the talks have some chance of success.

Yaalon’s assertion that the negotiations are not between Israel and the Palestinians but between the Jewish state and the U.S. is self-evident. The PA has repeatedly demonstrated that it won’t budge from uncompromising positions against realistic territorial swaps or security guarantees, much less the existential questions of refugees and two states for two peoples. All that has happened in the past year is that Israel has been prevailed upon to bribe the PA by releasing terrorist murderers for the privilege of sitting at a table again with Abbas.

Nor can there be any real argument with Yaalon’s assessment of Kerry’s behavior when he described the secretary’s crusade as “inexplicably obsessive and messianic.” Few in either Israel or the United States, even those who are most in favor of his efforts, thought he had much of a chance to start with and there’s been no evidence that the odds have improved. His crack that “all that can save us is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace” makes no sense since the only way the secretary will get such an honor is if Abbas signs on the dotted line. But it probably also reflects what Abbas is thinking since his goal is to prevent an agreement without actually having to turn one down publicly.

Yaalon is also right to dismiss the security guarantees Kerry has offered Israel in exchange for a withdrawal from the West Bank. The example of the Gaza withdrawal—which Yaalon opposed when he was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, a stand that led to his term being cut short by former prime minister Ariel Sharon—as well as the situation along the border with Lebanon illustrates what happens when Israel tries to entrust its security either to Palestinian good will or third parties.

But perhaps the most incisive of Yaalon’s controversial comments was his assertion that Abbas’s future was dependent on Israel’s remaining in the West Bank, not on its departure from the territories:

Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) is alive and well thanks to us. The moment we leave Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) he is finished.

Without an Israeli security umbrella, Hamas or more radical Fatah factions would have deposed Abbas a long time ago. His administration over most of the West Bank is simply impossible without Israeli help. Pretending that this isn’t the case is one of the key fictions that form the foundation of Kerry’s conceit about giving Abbas sovereignty over the area and why such a deal or a unilateral Israeli retreat, as some are now suggesting, would repeat the Gaza fiasco.

Most Israelis would applaud any effort to separate the two peoples and desperately want an agreement that would end the conflict for all time rather than merely to pause it in order for the Palestinians to resume it later when they are in a more advantageous position. Though the minister shouldn’t have criticized Kerry publicly, until the secretary and those who are supporting his pressure on Israel and not on the Palestinians can answer Yaalon’s politically incorrect comments, the peace process is doomed. 

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What Should the U.S. Ask from Iran?

The Obama administration’s decision to sign a deal with Iran has brought the differences between the U.S. and Israel on the issue of the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions out into the open. Much of the debate about the question has focused on the fears of the Israeli government and many Americans that an agreement that loosened sanctions while allowing Tehran to continue enriching uranium and while retaining its nuclear infrastructure will not halt Iran’s march to a weapon. Both countries have sought to minimize the argument by focusing on disagreements about negotiations or the proper timing and application of sanctions while still insisting that they share a common goal. But this may obscure a more fundamental disagreement about whether an Iran run by extremist clerics and still dedicated to spreading terror and achieving regional hegemony can be integrated into the international community.

That is the backdrop for the anger being expressed by the administration and its cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment at Israel’s criticisms of the Iran deal. As this analysis by Reuters explains, supporters of the administration’s policy believe the conditions being proposed by Israel about a final deal with Iran are intended to sabotage the diplomatic process. In this version of events, Reuters’ sources say Netanyahu’s attempt to get the West to force Iran not only to reduce its enrichment but also dismantle its nuclear plants, end its ballistic missile project, cease supporting terrorism and incitement against Israel, and commit to respecting human rights are “crazy maximalist demands.” In doing so, Netanyahu is seen as not only trying to derail the talks with Iran but also inciting Congress to forestall any effort to expand upon them to create a new détente between the ayatollah’s regime and the U.S. But rather than focusing solely on the administration’s frustration at Jerusalem’s efforts to slow down the administration’s rush to end the conflict, perhaps it might be a good time to ask what exactly the United States wants from Iran.

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The Obama administration’s decision to sign a deal with Iran has brought the differences between the U.S. and Israel on the issue of the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions out into the open. Much of the debate about the question has focused on the fears of the Israeli government and many Americans that an agreement that loosened sanctions while allowing Tehran to continue enriching uranium and while retaining its nuclear infrastructure will not halt Iran’s march to a weapon. Both countries have sought to minimize the argument by focusing on disagreements about negotiations or the proper timing and application of sanctions while still insisting that they share a common goal. But this may obscure a more fundamental disagreement about whether an Iran run by extremist clerics and still dedicated to spreading terror and achieving regional hegemony can be integrated into the international community.

That is the backdrop for the anger being expressed by the administration and its cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment at Israel’s criticisms of the Iran deal. As this analysis by Reuters explains, supporters of the administration’s policy believe the conditions being proposed by Israel about a final deal with Iran are intended to sabotage the diplomatic process. In this version of events, Reuters’ sources say Netanyahu’s attempt to get the West to force Iran not only to reduce its enrichment but also dismantle its nuclear plants, end its ballistic missile project, cease supporting terrorism and incitement against Israel, and commit to respecting human rights are “crazy maximalist demands.” In doing so, Netanyahu is seen as not only trying to derail the talks with Iran but also inciting Congress to forestall any effort to expand upon them to create a new détente between the ayatollah’s regime and the U.S. But rather than focusing solely on the administration’s frustration at Jerusalem’s efforts to slow down the administration’s rush to end the conflict, perhaps it might be a good time to ask what exactly the United States wants from Iran.

Dating back to his first presidential campaign, President Obama has been clear about his desire to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. There has never been any deviation from that goal in the rhetoric of the administration. But he has also been consistent in his desire not so much to strip the ayatollahs of their nuclear toys but to create a dialogue and an end to decades of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. Obama’s desire for engagement with Iran was no secret during the 2008 campaign and was given a prominent mention in his first inaugural address. During his five years in office, Obama’s efforts to achieve engagement have been as fruitless as those of his predecessors. But the Geneva accord has given new life to the effort.

The desire for more than a nuclear deal with Iran is the only logical explanation for the hysteria emanating from the White House at the prospect of Congress passing another round of sanctions. Since the proposal being pushed by a bipartisan coalition in the Senate would do nothing more than strengthen Obama’s leverage in the talks with Iran, his threat of a veto and talk about opposing anything that would “break faith” with a regime that has never acted or negotiated in good faith seems bizarre. But if the president’s real object is not the narrow goal of ending the Iranian nuclear threat, it makes sense.

The same question applies to the anger expressed in Washington and in European capitals at Israel’s attempt to remind the West that uranium enrichment isn’t the only aspect of Iranian policy of concern.

First of all, it should be remembered that Netanyahu’s effort to get the West to force Iran to dismantle its nuclear project isn’t a new demand invented by Israel to stop the talks. It reflects President Obama’s explicit promises about the nuclear threat including this passage from his October 22, 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney:

So the work that we’ve done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.

As the president rightly indicated at that time, anything short of that would pave the way for a bomb, especially given Iran’s history of promise-breaking and America’s experience of such deals with other scofflaws like North Korea.

Just as important, a tunnel vision-like focus on the nuclear issue that ignores Iran’s ballistic weapons program would be more than shortsighted. Iran may claim the goal of its missiles is a peaceful space program, but the Islamist regime is no more interested in space than it is in peaceful uses of nuclear energy. If anything, it would be “crazy” for the U.S. to ignore the missiles that could deliver potential Iranian weapons not only to Israel but also to Western targets.

Critics of Israel claim these are unrealistic demands, but that view reflects a defeatism about diplomacy that is unwarranted. With the military and economic leverage the U.S. possesses, there is no reason to think Iran can’t be compelled to give up its nukes or missiles.

That also applies to acknowledging  the fact that Iran is a state sponsor of terror as well as understanding that another Iranian goal is to extend its sphere of influence beyond its borders throughout the Middle East via allies like Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, and perhaps even Hamas. Nor should Iran’s demonization of Israel that Jerusalem has rightly termed “genocidal” be off the table. If Iran is really changing its stripes, a dubious assertion based on the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the country’s faux presidential election last summer, then surely it is not too much to ask that it change its tune about terror and end its incitement against Israel along with its nuclear project.

Rather than carping about Israel, these are exactly the questions that both the media and Congress should be asking about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran in the wake of the Geneva deal. Were Iran as moderate as the U.S. hopes, its nuclear program would not be so troubling. The choice with Iran is not one between war and peace. Instead, it is whether the U.S. is prepared to make its peace with an aggressive nuclear Iran or a peaceful nation that is not a threat to its Arab neighbors as well as to Israel. If the administration isn’t prepared to ask Iran to change, then the result of any nuclear deal isn’t likely to make the region or the United States safer. Even assuming the doubtful proposition that the current diplomatic effort will actually stop Iran’s weapons program, a nuclear deal that leaves the ayatollah’s missiles, terror, and hate in place is an open invitation to future conflict, not peace or détente.

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Obama Should Hope Israel Keeps Complaining

In the wake of the Obama administration’s embrace of a nuclear deal with Iran, Washington’s message to Israel has been crystal clear: shut up. The Washington Post reported that President Obama told Prime Minister Netanyahu that he’d like him to tone down the strident criticism of an agreement that he has rightly characterized as a “historic mistake” that legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program and may well bring it closer to a bomb rather than preventing it from accomplishing that goal. But the messages from other sources have been a good deal less polite. Anonymous “senior administration officials” told Israeli reporters that the White House considers the Israeli government’s outrage at having its concerns ignored to be “weak” and dismissed the possibility that Congress would attempt to restrain the president’s rush toward a détente with Iran out of concern for the Jewish state’s safety. The administration’s cheering section in the press has been no less blunt about its disdain for Israel’s fear that a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy is being attempted.

Part of this stems from Obama’s hubris. He has always believed in the magic of his personality and appeal and from the start of his first term signaled that he wanted to improve relations with Iran while also demonstrating his belief that the U.S. and Israel had become too close under his predecessor. The impatience he is showing about Israel’s complaints is rooted in anger over the fact that Netanyahu apparently does not trust him, something he appears to consider an act of lèse-majesté. Whether or not the reports out of Kuwait today about the president hoping to visit Iran in 2014 are true, the White House considers Israeli doubts about the president’s vision of a new Middle East to be something of a personal slight.

But if Obama is genuinely interested in making his deal with Iran work rather than it being just one more example of how the ayatollahs have hoodwinked the West, he shouldn’t be discouraging Netanyahu from speaking up. If there is any real hope that this deal that tacitly recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium and leaves in place the infrastructure for making a bomb will actually succeed, it will stem from an Iranian belief that Israel’s rhetoric about using force are credible rather than empty threats. Having demonstrated that he has little interest in putting Tehran’s feet to the fire, there is nothing preventing Iran from reneging on even this weak deal other than the notion that if Obama is not proved right, Israel will strike.

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In the wake of the Obama administration’s embrace of a nuclear deal with Iran, Washington’s message to Israel has been crystal clear: shut up. The Washington Post reported that President Obama told Prime Minister Netanyahu that he’d like him to tone down the strident criticism of an agreement that he has rightly characterized as a “historic mistake” that legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program and may well bring it closer to a bomb rather than preventing it from accomplishing that goal. But the messages from other sources have been a good deal less polite. Anonymous “senior administration officials” told Israeli reporters that the White House considers the Israeli government’s outrage at having its concerns ignored to be “weak” and dismissed the possibility that Congress would attempt to restrain the president’s rush toward a détente with Iran out of concern for the Jewish state’s safety. The administration’s cheering section in the press has been no less blunt about its disdain for Israel’s fear that a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy is being attempted.

Part of this stems from Obama’s hubris. He has always believed in the magic of his personality and appeal and from the start of his first term signaled that he wanted to improve relations with Iran while also demonstrating his belief that the U.S. and Israel had become too close under his predecessor. The impatience he is showing about Israel’s complaints is rooted in anger over the fact that Netanyahu apparently does not trust him, something he appears to consider an act of lèse-majesté. Whether or not the reports out of Kuwait today about the president hoping to visit Iran in 2014 are true, the White House considers Israeli doubts about the president’s vision of a new Middle East to be something of a personal slight.

But if Obama is genuinely interested in making his deal with Iran work rather than it being just one more example of how the ayatollahs have hoodwinked the West, he shouldn’t be discouraging Netanyahu from speaking up. If there is any real hope that this deal that tacitly recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium and leaves in place the infrastructure for making a bomb will actually succeed, it will stem from an Iranian belief that Israel’s rhetoric about using force are credible rather than empty threats. Having demonstrated that he has little interest in putting Tehran’s feet to the fire, there is nothing preventing Iran from reneging on even this weak deal other than the notion that if Obama is not proved right, Israel will strike.

The problem with the current deal is not just that it does nothing to roll back all the progress Iran has made toward a bomb in Obama’s five years in office and that it lengthens the all-important breakout time for them to convert their stockpile of fuel to weapons-grade material by only a few weeks at best. The real flaw here is that by beginning the process of unraveling the sanctions that the administration belatedly and reluctantly imposed on Iran the president may have sent a signal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that he needn’t worry any more about the United States. The eagerness with which Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have bought into the dubious notion that Iran is entering into a period of genuine reform even while the regime continues to fund terrorism, make mischief in Syria, and spew anti-Semitism may have convinced the Islamist regime that they are home free. Their record of contempt for the West and deceptive diplomacy lengthens the already long odds that Obama’s deal is merely another delaying action on the regime’s part.

But so long as Israel and Saudi Arabia are demonstrating that they are not cowed by Obama’s dictates, Khamenei and his underlings must consider the possibility that their prevarications will backfire. Barack Obama and John Kerry may seem easy marks for the ayatollahs, but while the Israelis and their unlikely Arab allies are still able to strike, Khamenei has to consider that not everyone is deceived by his latest gambit.

Of course, Israel is doing more than merely playing the bad cop to Obama’s foolish cop. Netanyahu is right to assert that Israel can and must defend its own security and that it won’t be placed in peril merely to assuage Obama’s delusions of diplomatic grandeur. But so long as he is not silent, the Iranians must know there might be a terrible price to pay for their lies. Rather than trying to shut the Israeli up, the president and his various minions should be praying that Netanyahu’s warnings are being heard loud and clear in Tehran.

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Special Relationships

Last week, John Kerry appeared with British foreign secretary William Hague in London, and they congratulated one another on concluding their nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry expressed American gratitude for Britain’s support. “We are determined to press forward,” he said, “and give further life to this very special relationship and to our common objectives.”

It was President John F. Kennedy who first extended the concept of a “special relationship” beyond Britain to include Israel. In December 1962, Kennedy met with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the American memorandum of conversation reported his assurance in these words: “The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”

The State Department disliked this. A few months earlier, the Near East and South Asia Bureau had put together a memo on U.S.-Israel relations. “Israel’s proposals for a special relationship with the U.S. would be self-defeating if executed,” it argued. “We consider it important not to give in to Israeli and domestic pressures for a special relationship in national security matters.” But Kennedy spoke the words, and even if their definition remained foggy, they provided some reassurance to Israel every time an American president or secretary of state uttered them.

Which is why it’s worth noting that John Kerry doesn’t utter them. To the best I can determine, in his present job, he hasn’t ever described the U.S.-Israel relationship as “special.” Susan Rice, while at the UN, did so on several occasions, and Senator Kerry did it when he ran for president back in 2004 and again to AIPAC in 2009. But as best as I can tell (and I would welcome contrary evidence), he hasn’t done it as secretary of state, and that stands in striking contrast to his repeated invocation of the “special relationship” with Britain. Read More

Last week, John Kerry appeared with British foreign secretary William Hague in London, and they congratulated one another on concluding their nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry expressed American gratitude for Britain’s support. “We are determined to press forward,” he said, “and give further life to this very special relationship and to our common objectives.”

It was President John F. Kennedy who first extended the concept of a “special relationship” beyond Britain to include Israel. In December 1962, Kennedy met with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the American memorandum of conversation reported his assurance in these words: “The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”

The State Department disliked this. A few months earlier, the Near East and South Asia Bureau had put together a memo on U.S.-Israel relations. “Israel’s proposals for a special relationship with the U.S. would be self-defeating if executed,” it argued. “We consider it important not to give in to Israeli and domestic pressures for a special relationship in national security matters.” But Kennedy spoke the words, and even if their definition remained foggy, they provided some reassurance to Israel every time an American president or secretary of state uttered them.

Which is why it’s worth noting that John Kerry doesn’t utter them. To the best I can determine, in his present job, he hasn’t ever described the U.S.-Israel relationship as “special.” Susan Rice, while at the UN, did so on several occasions, and Senator Kerry did it when he ran for president back in 2004 and again to AIPAC in 2009. But as best as I can tell (and I would welcome contrary evidence), he hasn’t done it as secretary of state, and that stands in striking contrast to his repeated invocation of the “special relationship” with Britain.

For example, last February he visited London and said this (Hague beaming at his side):

When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain—our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship—there is a reason why we call this a special relationship, or as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron wrote, really, a partnership of the heart. It is that.

In June, Kerry (again with Hague at his side) stressed the “special relationship,” which he declared to be “grounded in so much—our history, our values, our traditions. It is, without question, an essential, if not the essential relationship.”

And in September, when Britain’s parliament voted down a motion to join the U.S. in the use of force in Syria, Kerry rushed to declare the “special relationship” intact:

The relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom has often been described as special, essential. And it has been described thusly, quite simply, because it is. It was before a vote the other day in parliament, and it will be for long afterwards after that vote. Our bond, as William [Hague] has just said, is bigger than one vote; it’s bigger than one moment in history. It’s about values. It’s about rules of the road, rules by which human beings try to organize their societies and offer people maximum freedom and opportunity, respecting rights, and finding a balance in a very complicated world. And we have no better partner in that effort than Great Britain, and we are grateful for that.

Quite early, the Obama administration earned a reputation in British public opinion for showing insufficient respect for the “special relationship,” and Kerry may see his mission as repairing that impression. But then the Obama administration stands no higher in Israeli public opinion, and Kerry sees no need to do any work of repair (and a few things he has said have heaped insult on injury).

President Obama does refer to the “special relationship” with Israel, but coming from him, the phrase means a bit less than it once did. That’s because he’s upgraded Britain to something even higher. On the eve of Obama’s visit to Britain in May 2011, he and British prime minister David Cameron published a joint op-ed in the London Times that included this sentence: “Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship—for us and for the world.” (The headline: “Not Just Special, But An Essential Relationship.”) Suddenly, the word “essential” started cropping up in references to the relationship with Britain (see also two of the Kerry quotes above). “Essential” is now the new platinum card in relations with the United States, and Britain alone holds one. (That’s why having Britain on board the Iran deal was so important to the Obama administration, and it’s why Hague was assigned the role of setting Israel straight: “We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement and we will make that very clear to all concerned.” How pleased he must have been to categorize Israel among the world’s “anybodies.”)

Still, while Obama may have promoted Britain, he didn’t demote Israel. And as John Kennedy made clear more than fifty years ago, the two belong in a league of their own. Just what makes a “special relationship”? It’s more than democracy—the world is full of democracies. It’s not “shared values,” since American values are widely shared around the world. What compels the United States openly to acknowledge two “special relationships” is that two foreign states embody old cultures to which the American public feels profoundly and uniquely indebted.

Given that debt, the U.S. government assumes the obligation to show a bit of respect and work a little harder to make its case, when its biggest-knows-best policies impinge on the interests of those two states. When they dissent, as Britain did over Syria and Israel now does over Iran, it’s their privilege to do so and still win American praise as “special” friends who are entitled to speak their minds freely. For an example of how it’s done, see the Kerry quote above, following the British balk on Syria. So far, there’s no equivalent for Israel over Iran.

The U.S. government’s recognition of a “special relationship” doesn’t create a fact, it acknowledges a debt felt deeply by the American people. John Kerry apparently doesn’t fully grasp that reality in regard to Israel. But then, little in his Mideast diplomacy suggests that reality constrains him anyway.

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Will Israel Strike Iran? Iraq is No Precedent

A week after the administration first starting spinning the notion, the idea that the P5+1 talks with Iran made genuine progress toward a nuclear agreement has become conventional wisdom among the chattering classes. Based on little more than atmospherics generated by the Iranian charm offensive, Tehran offered the West nothing new and there is little reason to believe they think they need to give up enriching uranium or shut down their nuclear plants that are bringing them closer to a weapon. If the Obama administration is determined to press ahead toward what will be, at best, an unsatisfactory deal that will, despite the president’s protestations that any accord would be verifiable, lead inevitably to Iranian deceptions and an eventual bomb, then that will leave Israel’s leaders with a terrible dilemma. Their choice would then be between accepting a policy that places their country under an existential threat or breaking with its sole superpower ally and attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities on their own.

To those who claim that Israel can’t or won’t defy the United States, the Council of Foreign Relations’ Uri Sadot answers, think again. In an article published today in Foreign Policy provocatively titled “Rogue State,” Sadot argues that not only is such an outcome thinkable, the precedents already exist for an Israeli decision to fly solo in the face of not only international consensus but American desires.

Given the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been rattling his rhetorical sabers in the direction of Iran for years, it’s hard to argue with Sadot’s conclusion. As late as just a week ago during an address to the Knesset, Netanyahu once again warned the world that Israel isn’t afraid to act alone if its security is endangered. Should Jerusalem ever be convinced that the U.S. was about to sell it down the river, Netanyahu might well decide to strike Iran. But Sadot is wrong when he claims, as he did in his article, that Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak or the 2007 strike on the nuclear facility that Syria was building tells us much about Israel would or could do against Iran. There are simply no comparisons in terms of size or scale to the challenge awaiting the Israel Defense Forces in Iran or the diplomatic obstacles to such a decision by Netanyahu.

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A week after the administration first starting spinning the notion, the idea that the P5+1 talks with Iran made genuine progress toward a nuclear agreement has become conventional wisdom among the chattering classes. Based on little more than atmospherics generated by the Iranian charm offensive, Tehran offered the West nothing new and there is little reason to believe they think they need to give up enriching uranium or shut down their nuclear plants that are bringing them closer to a weapon. If the Obama administration is determined to press ahead toward what will be, at best, an unsatisfactory deal that will, despite the president’s protestations that any accord would be verifiable, lead inevitably to Iranian deceptions and an eventual bomb, then that will leave Israel’s leaders with a terrible dilemma. Their choice would then be between accepting a policy that places their country under an existential threat or breaking with its sole superpower ally and attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities on their own.

To those who claim that Israel can’t or won’t defy the United States, the Council of Foreign Relations’ Uri Sadot answers, think again. In an article published today in Foreign Policy provocatively titled “Rogue State,” Sadot argues that not only is such an outcome thinkable, the precedents already exist for an Israeli decision to fly solo in the face of not only international consensus but American desires.

Given the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been rattling his rhetorical sabers in the direction of Iran for years, it’s hard to argue with Sadot’s conclusion. As late as just a week ago during an address to the Knesset, Netanyahu once again warned the world that Israel isn’t afraid to act alone if its security is endangered. Should Jerusalem ever be convinced that the U.S. was about to sell it down the river, Netanyahu might well decide to strike Iran. But Sadot is wrong when he claims, as he did in his article, that Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak or the 2007 strike on the nuclear facility that Syria was building tells us much about Israel would or could do against Iran. There are simply no comparisons in terms of size or scale to the challenge awaiting the Israel Defense Forces in Iran or the diplomatic obstacles to such a decision by Netanyahu.

In terms of the Israeli mindset about enemy governments possessing such weapons of mass destruction, Sadot is right to assert that there is little difference between the thinking of Menachem Begin in 1981 and that of Netanyahu today. All the psychobabble thrown around about Begin’s experience of the Holocaust and the influence of Netanyahu’s ideologue father Benzion is mere gloss to the fact that these two men, just like Ehud Olmert in 2007, understand that their primary responsibility is to guard the existence of the State of Israel. Given the stated positions of the Iranian leadership as to their desire to eliminate Israel as well as their sponsorship of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, no leader of any sovereign state could afford to take such threats lightly. At the very least, Iranian nuclear capability would destabilize the Middle East (a fact that makes Israel’s Arab neighbors, with the exception of Iranian ally Syria, just as anxious to prevent the ayatollahs from realizing their nuclear ambition).

But the idea that Iraq is a precedent for Iran as far as Israel is concerned is absurd. Iraq had one lone nuclear reactor. It was relatively defenseless and the Iraqis weren’t expecting an attack. The same applies to what happened in Syria in 2007. By contrast, the Iranians have multiple facilities spread throughout their country. Some are in hardened, mountainside bunkers that may be invulnerable to conventional bombs. All are heavily guarded and the Iranians have been on alert for an Israeli strike for years.

It is a matter of some debate as to whether Israel’s vaunted armed forces are even capable of doing significant damage to Iran’s nuclear plants or destroying its stockpile of enriched uranium. Some analysts have always believed that only the United States, with its air bases in the region and aircraft carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf, could do the job adequately. But even if we assume for the sake of argument that Israel can do it alone and that it could accomplish this task with air strikes alone rather than combining them with commando attacks, what would be required is a sustained campaign of strikes at multiple targets. At best this would strain Israel’s resources. That is especially true when you consider that Israel would also have to be prepared to engage Hezbollah’s terrorist enclave in southern Lebanon since most assume that Iran’s Shiite auxiliaries (who are also fighting for the ayatollahs in Syria) would attack Israel in support of Iran.

What is being discussed here is nothing short of an all-out war, not a surgical strike that could be executed without fear of the cost in terms of casualties or lost planes. While Netanyahu may not shrink from such a decision, his decision will be based on Israel’s current dilemma, not what happened in the past.

As to whether such a decision would endanger Israel’s alliance with the United States, Sadot might well be right that the Jewish state could ride out any turbulence that would result from an Iranian campaign. President Reagan’s affection for Israel overcame the animus toward the Jewish state’s actions expressed by Vice President George H.W. Bush and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. While the Obama administration may not be quite as sympathetic, if anything support for Israel throughout the country and in Congress is far greater today than 32 years ago.

But in 1981, the U.S. was not still conducting a war in the region as the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan. Nor, despite the tilt toward Iraq in its war with Iran, was the U.S. engaged in a diplomatic process with the Saddam Hussein regime as it is now with Tehran. The notion that Israel would attack the Iranians while the Americans are still talking to them strains credulity. Not even Begin would have done such a thing. Nor would Netanyahu deliberately offend President Obama in such a fashion. If Israel ever did attack Iran, it could only happen after the U.S. broke off negotiations with Iran or after Israel could allege that the Islamist regime had violated an agreement it had signed with the West.

“Rogue state” is a title that is more appropriate to a terrorist-sponsor tyranny like Iran than democratic Israel. But there’s little doubt that Israel would act to protect itself even if that required it to act alone. The Iraq and Syrian strikes are far from the only times in its history that the besieged Jewish state has had to ignore international opinion that is heavily influenced by anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel’s existence. But if it does act against Iran, the decision will be based on the far more complex dilemmas of the present day than anything that has happened in the past.

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Thanks to Obama, Iran Doesn’t Fear Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly today and drew attention to the obvious fraud that is the Iranian charm offensive. After a week in which the international community and much of the foreign-policy establishment cheered on by the mainstream media celebrated new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a moderate who offers a chance to end his country’s nuclear standoff with the West, Netanyahu tried to play the spoiler at the party. Yet while his arguments detailing the record of both Rouhani and the despotic regime he serves were unanswerable, his speech didn’t get much more applause than his much lampooned cartoon bomb “red line” speech got last year from the same podium. Nor is there much reason for the Iranians to believe his threats about Israel being prepared to launch a strike on its own to stop the nuclear threat. Last week’s decision by President Obama to reach out to Rouhani and to initiate yet another diplomatic process virtually ensures that Iran can laugh at Netanyahu’s vow to act alone if necessary.

Though Netanyahu and President Obama seemed to be on the same page on Iran when they met at the White House yesterday, there’s little doubt that Israel’s isolation on the issue is greater than it ever has been. The bottom line here is that as long as Obama is prepared to engage with the Iranians, no matter how transparent the falsity of Rouhani’s position or how unlikely new talks will be to produce any sort of nuclear deal, Israel is effectively disarmed. As I wrote yesterday, a new round of talks between the West and Iran is no more likely to succeed than all of the ones that preceded it. As Netanyahu said in his speech, Rouhani has bragged about his own role in Iran’s clever negotiating strategy that suckers the West into thinking they have a deal while Tehran wins more time to get closer to its nuclear goal. More such dead-end talks will enable Iran to continue to run out the clock until they can achieve their nuclear ambition.

But like his efforts to debunk the Rouhani-as-moderate theme, it’s not clear there is any reason for the ayatollahs to worry much about Netanyahu’s vows about never allowing a regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction to go nuclear.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly today and drew attention to the obvious fraud that is the Iranian charm offensive. After a week in which the international community and much of the foreign-policy establishment cheered on by the mainstream media celebrated new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a moderate who offers a chance to end his country’s nuclear standoff with the West, Netanyahu tried to play the spoiler at the party. Yet while his arguments detailing the record of both Rouhani and the despotic regime he serves were unanswerable, his speech didn’t get much more applause than his much lampooned cartoon bomb “red line” speech got last year from the same podium. Nor is there much reason for the Iranians to believe his threats about Israel being prepared to launch a strike on its own to stop the nuclear threat. Last week’s decision by President Obama to reach out to Rouhani and to initiate yet another diplomatic process virtually ensures that Iran can laugh at Netanyahu’s vow to act alone if necessary.

Though Netanyahu and President Obama seemed to be on the same page on Iran when they met at the White House yesterday, there’s little doubt that Israel’s isolation on the issue is greater than it ever has been. The bottom line here is that as long as Obama is prepared to engage with the Iranians, no matter how transparent the falsity of Rouhani’s position or how unlikely new talks will be to produce any sort of nuclear deal, Israel is effectively disarmed. As I wrote yesterday, a new round of talks between the West and Iran is no more likely to succeed than all of the ones that preceded it. As Netanyahu said in his speech, Rouhani has bragged about his own role in Iran’s clever negotiating strategy that suckers the West into thinking they have a deal while Tehran wins more time to get closer to its nuclear goal. More such dead-end talks will enable Iran to continue to run out the clock until they can achieve their nuclear ambition.

But like his efforts to debunk the Rouhani-as-moderate theme, it’s not clear there is any reason for the ayatollahs to worry much about Netanyahu’s vows about never allowing a regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction to go nuclear.

Netanyahu’s analysis of what Rouhani tried to do in New York was accurate. Though some credulous Western journalists have taken to speaking about him as if he is a latter-day Bobby Kennedy, his involvement in all of the Islamist regime’s outrages—including terrorism—during the last three decades is a matter of record. That some media outlets were even prepared to buy into the false story line that he had denounced the Holocaust was proof of how eager many Americans are to believe any lie so long as it absolves them of the obligation to do something about Iran.

That Rouhani lied on the UN podium last week about Iran’s nuclear program is not really in dispute. While experts differ as to how far away they are from nuclear capability, there is little dispute that the growing stockpiles of enriched uranium as well as their plutonium option is bringing Iran closer to the moment when they will have a bomb that will destabilize the region and threaten Israel’s existence.

But while America is talking with Iran, Israel cannot attack no matter what Netanyahu says, and he knows it. The prime minister has wisely sought to minimize conflict with President Obama but by now he has to understand that the president has no intention of confronting Iran and will always seek to avoid having to make good on his own promises to stop Tehran.

So what alternatives does Israel have at this point to waiting for Obama to come to his senses? Sadly, there are none that make any sense that I can think of.

The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens ponders this question in his column today and I agree with his analysis of the Obama administration’s intentions. As he writes, Israelis who think Obama will ever strike Iran are “fooling themselves.” But I disagree when he says that what Israel must do in response to the president’s inaction involves “downgrading relations with Washington.”

It was one thing for Netanyahu’s predecessor to ignore American advice to accept a Syrian nuclear program back in 2007 and take it out in an air attack, an example Stephens rightly cites as a correct decision on the part of Ehud Olmert. But Iran’s nuclear program presents a far more difficult target. It cannot be neatly made to disappear with a single simple surgical strike. Eliminating this threat would require an air campaign that would present enormous logistical and military problems that would strain the resources of the United States, let alone those of Israel. But even if Israel was capable of eliminating the Iranian threat on its own, doing so while the United States is engaged in negotiations with Tehran simply isn’t going to happen.

Israel can and should say no to the United States when its security is at stake. Nor should it, as Stephens says, worry much about gaining international approval. That is never going to happen because of factors that are rooted more in anti-Semitism than any disapproval of Israeli policies.

Yet as frustrating as America’s dalliance with Iran may be, cutting itself loose from its alliance with the United States isn’t an option for Israel any more than ridiculous proposals being floated elsewhere for Jerusalem to upgrade its ties with China in the hope of creating some positive leverage over Washington. American support for the Jewish state is embedded in this country’s political DNA and is more proof of American exceptionalism. It cannot be duplicated anywhere else on the globe.

Stephens is right when he says the current situation leaves Israel reliant on Iranian hard-liners to sabotage any nuclear deal. That may not be much of a strategy, but it may prove true since it is unlikely that even so-called moderates like Rouhani have any intention of giving up Iran’s nuclear program.

But until the moment when the U.S. administration wakes up to the Rouhani ruse, Israel has little choice but to stand by and wait and worry. So long as they’ve got Obama swallowing Rouhani’s bait, the Iranians have little to fear from Israel. That’s bad news for Netanyahu and Israel. But it is just as sobering for Americans who realize that despite Obama’s tough rhetoric about Iran, what the administration is doing is bringing us closer to the day when Tehran will go nuclear.

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Iran Danger Is Delay, Not Deal

President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today and reportedly sought to reassure him that the Iranian charm offensive wasn’t working. Despite the way the administration welcomed the alleged moderation of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and its determined efforts to initiate some form of dialogue with Tehran—Rouhani refused to meet or shake hands with the president in New York last week but deigned to accept a phone call from Obama before he left New York—the president is trying to convince Netanyahu that he isn’t budging from his pledge that Iran won’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and he won’t be fooled by Iran’s negotiating strategies. Despite expressing a desire for accelerated talks with the Iranians, the White House and the State Department are also trying to calm down Israelis and others who rightly see the way much of the mainstream media swoon for Rouhani as indicative of a desire to appease Tehran.

But the problem here isn’t just the obsequious manner with which the administration has pursued Iran but the cost of the diplomatic process they are trying to reboot. Iran’s intransigence on the nuclear issue—openly expressed by Rouhani—may well make a deal impossible. Iran has had many such offers in the past decade, including some that were highly favorable to the Islamist regime that would have enabled them to go on enriching uranium and to keep up the pretense that this activity was aimed at peaceful uses of atomic energy and always turned them down in the end. It is also possible that a principled and tough-minded American negotiating strategy would eventually expose the Rouhani initiative as a fraud.

But by going down the garden path with Iran again, President Obama is both buying time and lending much-needed credibility to an Islamic regime that deserves none. In doing so, he will make it even more likely that the Iranians will be able to reach their nuclear goal and is undermining support for any future action that would hold them accountable for their actions. Even if the talks fail, by falling prey to the Rouhani gambit, the president has already handed Iran a crucial victory.

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President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today and reportedly sought to reassure him that the Iranian charm offensive wasn’t working. Despite the way the administration welcomed the alleged moderation of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and its determined efforts to initiate some form of dialogue with Tehran—Rouhani refused to meet or shake hands with the president in New York last week but deigned to accept a phone call from Obama before he left New York—the president is trying to convince Netanyahu that he isn’t budging from his pledge that Iran won’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and he won’t be fooled by Iran’s negotiating strategies. Despite expressing a desire for accelerated talks with the Iranians, the White House and the State Department are also trying to calm down Israelis and others who rightly see the way much of the mainstream media swoon for Rouhani as indicative of a desire to appease Tehran.

But the problem here isn’t just the obsequious manner with which the administration has pursued Iran but the cost of the diplomatic process they are trying to reboot. Iran’s intransigence on the nuclear issue—openly expressed by Rouhani—may well make a deal impossible. Iran has had many such offers in the past decade, including some that were highly favorable to the Islamist regime that would have enabled them to go on enriching uranium and to keep up the pretense that this activity was aimed at peaceful uses of atomic energy and always turned them down in the end. It is also possible that a principled and tough-minded American negotiating strategy would eventually expose the Rouhani initiative as a fraud.

But by going down the garden path with Iran again, President Obama is both buying time and lending much-needed credibility to an Islamic regime that deserves none. In doing so, he will make it even more likely that the Iranians will be able to reach their nuclear goal and is undermining support for any future action that would hold them accountable for their actions. Even if the talks fail, by falling prey to the Rouhani gambit, the president has already handed Iran a crucial victory.

It is entirely plausible to argue, as Aaron David Miller does in Foreign Policy today, that it would be very difficult if not impossible for President Obama to get away with an accord with Iran that would enable the Iranians to continue on their nuclear path. After the Syria fiasco where his indecisiveness led him to hand a victory to Russia and its ally Bashar Assad, the president can’t afford to “play the fool” on Iran. He has staked his credibility on the issue. Given his domestic political problems and the growing signs that he is becoming a lame duck, Obama would also be foolish to pick another fight with Israel and its supporters. Moreover, even with the press and much of the foreign-policy establishment cheering the idea of backing away from confrontation with Iran, as Miller notes, “the mullahs aren’t going to charm anyone for very long, let alone transform public attitudes in Israel or America without significant and tangible deliverables.”

So what’s wrong with making nice with Rouhani and giving diplomacy another try? Plenty.

It should first be understood what Iran is seeking to accomplish. Their primary goal is to separate the U.S. from Europe on the nuclear issue. The Europeans have always been more eager to compromise with Iran than the U.S., and if they can weaken international support for the economic sanctions that were belatedly implemented by President Obama, they will do so. They also want to drive a wedge between Obama and the Israelis.

Equally important is that after repeatedly demonstrating their unwillingness to negotiate in good faith, the Iranians’ charm offensive looks like it will gain them more precious time to get closer to their nuclear goal. The Iranians are past masters at drawing out diplomatic proceedings and one should expect that the talks that Obama and Kerry say must be “swift” would undoubtedly drag on for many months and perhaps longer than that, with no guarantee of a successful outcome. The president is already prepared to wait until mid-October for an Iranian response to his outreach. That will be followed by more delays that will lead us into 2014 and beyond.

Then there is also the damage the willingness to buy into Rouhani’s faux moderation does to the Western consensus about eventually holding Iran accountable. His defenders argue that by giving diplomacy more chances, he will strengthen his ability to increase sanctions or even use force once the initiative is seen to have failed. But in the world of Barack Obama, diplomacy never really fails even if that is the only rational conclusion to be drawn from events. Each diplomatic failure will lead to another try that will also fail with the only result being that more time will be wasted, just as the president wasted his first five years in office on tactics that played into Tehran’s hands. Moreover, having allowed Rouhani to get away with playing the moderate even when it is obvious that this is a ruse, the president feeds the perception that Iran is the victim of Western pressure rather than a sponsor of terrorism that is seeking to expand the reach of its tyrannical regime.

So even if an administration desperate for a compromise solution is unlikely to get one from Rouhani, the charm offensive is still working very nicely to achieve Iranian goals. The danger here is not so much a deal but the delays that will bring us that much closer to an Iranian bomb. 

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Israel Likes Its U.S. Presidents Strong

The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:

What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.

Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?

Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.

Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.

2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.

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The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:

What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.

Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?

Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.

Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.

2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.

“Not worth five cents”

What did Israel want from Lyndon Johnson in May 1967? On May 22, in the midst of rising tensions across the region, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships headed for the port of Eilat, effectively blockading it. More than a decade before that, in 1956, Israel had broken a similar Egyptian blockade by invading and occupying the Sinai. Israel withdrew in 1957, partly in return for an American assurance that the United States would be “prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage [through the Straits] and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.” In 1967, when Nasser reimposed Egypt’s blockade, Israel asked the United States to make good on that 1957 commitment, by leading an international flotilla through the Straits to Eilat. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Washington and met with Johnson in the Yellow Oval Room on May 26 to make Israel’s case.

Johnson astonished Eban by pleading that he didn’t have sufficient authority to act. The U.S. memorandum of conversation summarized it this way:

President Johnson said he is of no value to Israel if he does not have the support of his Congress, the Cabinet and the people. Going ahead without this support would not be helpful to Israel…

We did not know what our Congress would do. We are fully aware of what three past Presidents have said but this is not worth five cents if the people and the Congress did not support the President…

If he were to take a precipitous decision tonight he could not be effective in helping Israel… The President knew his Congress after 30 years of experience. He said that he would try to get Congressional support; that is what he has been doing over the past days, having called a number of Congressmen. It is going reasonably well…

The President said again the Constitutional processes are basic to actions on matters involving war and peace. We are trying to bring Congress along. He said: “What I can do, I do.”

Abba Eban later gave a more devastating version of the “five-cent” quote: “What a president says and thinks is not worth five cents unless he has the people and Congress behind him. Without the Congress I’m just a six-feet-four Texan. With the Congress I’m president of the United States in the fullest sense.” According to the Israeli record of the meeting, Johnson also acknowledged that he hadn’t made his own progress on the Hill: “I can tell you at this moment I do not have one vote and one dollar for taking action before thrashing this matter out in the UN in a reasonable time.” And Johnson ultimately put the onus on Israel to get Congress on board: “Unless you people move your anatomies up on the Hill and start getting some votes, I will not be able to carry out” American commitments.

Johnson must have understood the impression he was leaving upon Eban. In the Israeli record, there are two remarkable quotes: “I’m not a feeble mouse or a coward and we’re going to try.” And: “How to take Congress with me, I’ve got my own views. I’m not an enemy or a coward. I’m going to plan and pursue vigorously every lead I can.” That Johnson twice had to insist that he wasn’t a coward suggested that he realized just how feckless he must have seemed.

In his two memoirs, Eban recalled his astonishment at this apparent abdication:

I remember being almost stunned by the frequency with which [Johnson] used the rhetoric of impotence. This ostensibly strong leader had become a paralyzed president. The Vietnam trauma had stripped him of his executive powers….

I’ve often ask myself if there was ever a president who spoke in such defeatist terms about his own competence to act…. When it came to a possibility of military action—with a risk as trivial, in relation to U.S. power, as the dispatch of an intimidatory naval force to an international waterway—he had to throw up his hands in defeat…. On a purely logistical level, this would have been one of the least hazardous operations in American history—the inhibitions derived entirely from the domestic political context. The senators consulted by Johnson were hesitant and timorous. They thought that the possibility of Soviet intervention, however unlikely, could not be totally ignored.

The revulsion of Americans from the use of their own armed forces had virtually destroyed his presidential function. I was astonished that he was not too proud to avoid these self-deprecatory statements in the presence of so many of his senior associates. I thought that I could see [Defense] Secretary McNamara and [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General Wheeler wilt with embarrassment every time that he said how little power of action he had.

The tactical objective, the cancellation of the Eilat blockade, was limited in scope and entirely feasible. It was everything that the Vietnam war was not. Lyndon Johnson’s perceptions were sharp enough to grasp all these implications. What he lacked was “only” the authority to put them to work. Less than three years after the greatest electoral triumph in American presidential history he was like Samson shorn of his previous strength…. With every passing day the obstacles became greater and the will for action diminished. He inhabited the White House, but the presidency was effectively out of his hands.

After the meeting, Johnson wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, reemphasizing the primacy of the Congress: “As you will understand and as I explained to Mr. Eban, it would be unwise as well as most unproductive for me to act without the full consultation and backing of Congress. We are now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress and counseling with its membership.” This was actually an improvement on the draft that had been prepared for him, and which included this sentence: “As you will understand, I cannot act at all without full backing of Congress.” (Emphasis added.) That accurately reflected the essence of the message conveyed to Eban, but Johnson was not prepared to admit his total emasculation in writing. There is a debate among historians as to whether Johnson did or didn’t signal a green light to Israel to act on its own. It finally did on June 5.

“Too big for business as usual”

In light of this history, it’s not hard to see why Israel would view any handoff by a president to the Congress in the midst of a direct challenge to a presidential commitment as a sign of weakness and an indication that Israel had better start planning to act on its own. It’s not that Israel lacks friends on the Hill. But in crises where time is short and intelligence is ambivalent—and such are the crises Israel takes to the White House—Israel needs presidents who are decisive.

In seeking congressional authorization for military action in Syria, President Obama did not negate his own authority: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” But “in the absence of any direct or imminent threat to our security,” and “because the issues are too big for business as usual,” he went to the Congress, so that “the country” and “our democracy” would be stronger, and U.S. action would be “more effective.”

Views differ as to whether the precedent just set will bind Obama (or his successors) in the future. But Israel understandably has no desire to become the test case, if it should conclude that immediate action is needed to stop Iran from crossing Israel’s own “red lines.” Iran’s progress might not pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, and a U.S. use of force would definitely be “too big for business as usual.” So if those are now the criteria for taking decisions out of the Oval Office, Israel has reason to be concerned.

And they may well be the criteria. In 2007, then-Senator Obama was asked in an interview specifically about whether the president could bomb suspected nuclear sites in Iran without a congressional authorization. His answer:

Military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. [Senate Joint Resolution] 23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.”

That resolution went nowhere, but it establishes a strong presumption that Obama would insist on securing Congressional authorization for the future use of force against Iran. Depending on the timing, that could put Israel in an impossible situation similar to that it faced in May 1967. Perhaps that’s why one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, has proposed that Obama ask Congress now to authorize the use of force against Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed just that, without waiting for Obama: “I’m not asking the president to come to us; we’re putting it on the table, because if we don’t do this soon, this mess in Syria is going to lead to a conflict between Israel and Iran.”

Whether such an authorization-in-advance is feasible is an open question. In the meantime, there’s always the very real prospect that history could do something rare: repeat itself. In 1967, Israel faced a choice between an urgent need to act and waiting for a reluctant Congress to stiffen the spine of a weakened president. Israel acted, and the consequences reverberate to this day. Faced with a similar choice in the future, it is quite likely Israel would do the same.

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Has Obama Left Israel on Its Own?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks yesterday about his country needing to rely on its resources to protect itself against potential threats broke no new ground. At another time, his comments might be considered mere boilerplate material since it has been an article of faith for all Israeli leaders dating back to David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, that if Zionism means anything, it is that the Jewish state must depend on no one but itself on security matters. But coming as it did the day after President Obama’s shocking retreat on Syria, the statement was highlighted in a New York Times article and got major play in the Israeli media. The juxtaposition of the U.S. accepting a dubious Russian proposal that would ensure there would be no Western attack on the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons with the Netanyahu statement left many wondering whether Jerusalem thinks it is now on its own when it comes to other threats, such as those from a nuclear Iran. While it would be an exaggeration to claim Washington has completely abandoned Israel, no amount of White House spin about Obama’s zigzag course on Syria changes the fact that his fumbling has left the Middle East a far more dangerous place than it already was.

The reality after the Syria back-down is one in which the prestige and influence of the United States has declined. The president’s inability to make up his mind has not only gotten Bashar Assad off the hook and convinced Vladimir Putin that there is hope for his long-cherished dream of rebuilding the old Soviet empire. It has also made it difficult to envision the U.S. taking on the even more daunting task of a military confrontation with Iran. Since there is no reason to believe further diplomatic outreach to Tehran will be any more fruitful than past efforts, that leaves Israelis with the unpleasant thought that if Iran is to be prevented from going nuclear by force, then they will have to do it themselves. Under those circumstances, what choice is Netanyahu left with other than to try to send a signal of his own to the ayatollahs?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks yesterday about his country needing to rely on its resources to protect itself against potential threats broke no new ground. At another time, his comments might be considered mere boilerplate material since it has been an article of faith for all Israeli leaders dating back to David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, that if Zionism means anything, it is that the Jewish state must depend on no one but itself on security matters. But coming as it did the day after President Obama’s shocking retreat on Syria, the statement was highlighted in a New York Times article and got major play in the Israeli media. The juxtaposition of the U.S. accepting a dubious Russian proposal that would ensure there would be no Western attack on the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons with the Netanyahu statement left many wondering whether Jerusalem thinks it is now on its own when it comes to other threats, such as those from a nuclear Iran. While it would be an exaggeration to claim Washington has completely abandoned Israel, no amount of White House spin about Obama’s zigzag course on Syria changes the fact that his fumbling has left the Middle East a far more dangerous place than it already was.

The reality after the Syria back-down is one in which the prestige and influence of the United States has declined. The president’s inability to make up his mind has not only gotten Bashar Assad off the hook and convinced Vladimir Putin that there is hope for his long-cherished dream of rebuilding the old Soviet empire. It has also made it difficult to envision the U.S. taking on the even more daunting task of a military confrontation with Iran. Since there is no reason to believe further diplomatic outreach to Tehran will be any more fruitful than past efforts, that leaves Israelis with the unpleasant thought that if Iran is to be prevented from going nuclear by force, then they will have to do it themselves. Under those circumstances, what choice is Netanyahu left with other than to try to send a signal of his own to the ayatollahs?

As the New York Times reported:

“The world needs to make sure that anyone who uses weapons of mass destruction will pay a heavy price for it,” Mr. Netanyahu said Wednesday at the graduation ceremony for a naval program. “The message in Syria will also be heard very well in Iran.”

He cited President Obama’s speech Tuesday, in which he said that Israel could defend itself but also had Washington’s “unshakable support,” and quoted a famous saying of the ancient Jewish scholar Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

“The operational translation of this rule is that Israel should always be able to defend itself and will protect itself by its own strengths against every threat,” Mr. Netanyahu told the crowd. “The state of Israel is today prepared to act with great strength.”

In fact Israel has already applied this principle in Syria repeatedly, striking at weapons convoys they feared might be payoffs from Assad to the Hezbollah terrorists in return for the latter’s efforts to boost his side in his country’s civil war. Israel also knocked out Syria’s nuclear reactor back in 2007 over the objections of the Bush administration, a decision that, in retrospect, seems even wiser now than it did then.

However, the current tangle in Syria illustrates both the mutual interests of the U.S. and Israel as well as their differences. While President Obama has been calling for the fall of the Assad regime for years, Israel has no favorite in the confusing fighting in Syria. But the Jewish state and its American friends are invested in the idea of a strong America as a force for stability in the Middle East. That’s why AIPAC and other elements of the pro-Israel community were drawn into the debate on Syria. They were not so much concerned with helping the rebels or punishing Assad (though many sympathize with that effort) as they were with ensuring that a Congress that is increasingly under the influence of isolationist elements didn’t trash American credibility.

Obama’s surrender to the Russians left Israel to ponder a new balance of power in the region in which the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance is stronger than ever and aided by a more assertive Russia, a point that, as I wrote yesterday, was emphasized by the announcement that Putin has approved the sale of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran.

Despite Israel’s boasts, its armed forces are nowhere near as capable of dealing a crippling blow to Iran as the United States. Moreover, so long as President Obama is pursuing yet another diplomatic initiative with Iran based on the false perception that its new President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate, there is no chance that Israel would attack on its own. That may put any potential strike on hold until long after the Iranians have made it even more difficult to attack their nuclear facilities.

The upshot of all this is not so much that Israel is on its own—something Netanyahu may have already known last year when he was urging Obama to adopt “red lines” on Iran—but that it is essentially helpless to act on that fact. A weaker United States led by a president who is incapable of acting decisively isn’t just a problem for Israel. But right now it looks as if it means there may be no viable option for heading off the threat of a nuclear Iran before it is too late to do anything about it.

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More Dangerous Administration Leaks

There is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about the content of the story published today by the New York Times about Israeli attacks on missile sites in Syria. The fact that Israel has launched air strikes on targets in Syria containing weapons that could be used to strike the Jewish state, such as the Russian-made cruise missiles said to be in a warehouse that was hit in Latakia earlier this month, is not a big secret. That some of those weapons might have survived Israeli attacks and that its air force is certain to keep at it until it is sure they are destroyed rather than passed into the hands of Hezbollah seems logical. But the fact that this report was based on detailed classified information that was leaked by people the Times identifies as “American intelligence analysts” and U.S. government “officials” is both shocking and surprising.

The leak from what must be senior officials raises serious questions that beg for answers especially at a time when the administration has been on a jihad against leakers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this story is either the work of anti-Israel figures working in the Pentagon or has been orchestrated by the administration in order to deter Israel from continuing its efforts to prevent weapon transfers to terrorists and, as Haaretz speculated today, to, in effect, warn the Syrians and let them prepare in advance for subsequent strikes. Either way, this has made an already dangerous situation even more troubling.

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There is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about the content of the story published today by the New York Times about Israeli attacks on missile sites in Syria. The fact that Israel has launched air strikes on targets in Syria containing weapons that could be used to strike the Jewish state, such as the Russian-made cruise missiles said to be in a warehouse that was hit in Latakia earlier this month, is not a big secret. That some of those weapons might have survived Israeli attacks and that its air force is certain to keep at it until it is sure they are destroyed rather than passed into the hands of Hezbollah seems logical. But the fact that this report was based on detailed classified information that was leaked by people the Times identifies as “American intelligence analysts” and U.S. government “officials” is both shocking and surprising.

The leak from what must be senior officials raises serious questions that beg for answers especially at a time when the administration has been on a jihad against leakers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this story is either the work of anti-Israel figures working in the Pentagon or has been orchestrated by the administration in order to deter Israel from continuing its efforts to prevent weapon transfers to terrorists and, as Haaretz speculated today, to, in effect, warn the Syrians and let them prepare in advance for subsequent strikes. Either way, this has made an already dangerous situation even more troubling.

This is not the first time official American sources were used by the Times to report on Israeli efforts to deal with the chaos in Syria. Nevertheless, the administration seemed to condone Israel’s actions. Indeed, it has appeared at times as if Washington was quite happy to let the Israel Defense Forces do its dirty work for it as the U.S. preferred to keep “leading from behind” while others dealt with the mess that American indifference helped create.

Israel has no clear vested interest in either side winning the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime kept the cease-fire with Israel but if it survives, as it looks as if it will, it will be even more indebted to its Iranian allies. From the frame of reference of the Jewish state, there’s not much to choose from between a dangerous dictator aligned with Iran and Hezbollah and an alliance of rebels that includes al-Qaeda elements. But it does have a clear interest in preventing Russian weapons from being transferred to the Hezbollah mercenaries who are winning the war for Assad.

If, as might reasonably be inferred from this latest Times story, the Obama administration has shifted from a position of tacit support for Israeli efforts to keep Russian weapons away from Hezbollah to one of active opposition to Israeli strikes, then it is worth asking why they’ve changed their minds.

One possible motive for this decision is a desire to avoid any sort of confrontation involving the Russians. Given the insulting and provocative way Russia has been treating the United States lately—of which the Edward Snowden affair is just the latest—an American effort to spare Vladimir Putin’s feelings at a time when his policy seems aimed at prolonging the war in Syria is, to say the least, curious.

It would be just as curious if a U.S. shift against Israel on this issue were the result of Secretary of State John Kerry’s concerns about upsetting the peace negotiations with the Palestinians that he has convened. One would think assuring the Israelis that America has their back on security issues would be the way to help persuade the Netanyahu government to be more accommodating in the talks. But perhaps the administration thinks any act of self-defense on Israel’s part while the Palestinian Authority is trying to think of an excuse to weasel out of the negotiations would be unhelpful.

Nor does it make much sense to think that Israel’s surgical strikes will have any real impact on the outcome of the fighting in Syria, assuming that the U.S. has actually arrived at a coherent position on what it wants to happen there.

But no matter the reason for the leaking, it needs to be understood that this sort of behavior on the part of the United States is nothing short of outrageous. If the administration is serious about supporting Israeli security, this is not the time to playing games on the question of Russian missiles falling into the hands of terrorists. Israel has every right to keep that from happening and will be justified in continuing air strikes or any other measure that might accomplish this goal. Appeasing Russia in this matter won’t give Obama the “reset” of relations with Moscow he’s always wanted. American efforts to deter or prevent it from acting aren’t merely unhelpful; they are part of a dangerous game that could, if Israel is unable to stop the transfers, result in a situation that could cost both Israeli and American lives.

Lastly, we have a right to ask why an administration that is prepared to spy on the press in order to close up classified leaks it doesn’t like still appears to be a sieve when it comes to leaks that might serve the president’s policy preferences. Hypocrisy isn’t strong enough a word to describe such a dangerous and irresponsible course of action.

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Stopping Iran is America’s Responsibility

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in Israel this week, and the man who was opposed by many friends of the Jewish state when he was nominated seems determined to make a good impression. Hagel came bearing “gifts” in that he brought the official permissions for $10 billion in arms sales to Israel including vital anti-radar missiles, aircraft for mid-air refueling as well as other planes that can rapidly transport troops and firepower. Just as important, he said all the right things in public including the reaffirmation of Israel’s right to decide how to defend itself, and he seemed on his best behavior as he met with his counterpart Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s minister of defense.

No one should doubt these arms sales greatly strengthen Israel’s defenses as well as its ability to project air power if it should prove necessary. President Obama has made good on his promise to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge and it is incumbent on those of us who have criticized him for his predilection for picking pointless fights with the Jewish state over the peace process throughout his first term to acknowledge that. Nor can one point to the other pieces of the arms package that included sales of missiles to Saudi Arabia and F-16 jets to the United Arab Emirates as proof of bad will since it is obvious those weapons are intended to strengthen the ability of those monarchies to defend themselves against Iran, not to attack Israel.

But, as an article in today’s New York Times made clear, there are still grounds for concern about the U.S.-Israel relationship. Although the administration is helping maintain Israel’s defense deterrent, they did not grant everything on Jerusalem’s wish list. The most prominent item missing from the weapons that are to be delivered is a Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a giant bunker-busting bomb that is exactly what is needed to take out Iran’s underground nuclear facility at Fordow. That and the “fundamental difference of views” between the two countries about the level of risk that Iran’s program poses are complicating the Hagel visit.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in Israel this week, and the man who was opposed by many friends of the Jewish state when he was nominated seems determined to make a good impression. Hagel came bearing “gifts” in that he brought the official permissions for $10 billion in arms sales to Israel including vital anti-radar missiles, aircraft for mid-air refueling as well as other planes that can rapidly transport troops and firepower. Just as important, he said all the right things in public including the reaffirmation of Israel’s right to decide how to defend itself, and he seemed on his best behavior as he met with his counterpart Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s minister of defense.

No one should doubt these arms sales greatly strengthen Israel’s defenses as well as its ability to project air power if it should prove necessary. President Obama has made good on his promise to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge and it is incumbent on those of us who have criticized him for his predilection for picking pointless fights with the Jewish state over the peace process throughout his first term to acknowledge that. Nor can one point to the other pieces of the arms package that included sales of missiles to Saudi Arabia and F-16 jets to the United Arab Emirates as proof of bad will since it is obvious those weapons are intended to strengthen the ability of those monarchies to defend themselves against Iran, not to attack Israel.

But, as an article in today’s New York Times made clear, there are still grounds for concern about the U.S.-Israel relationship. Although the administration is helping maintain Israel’s defense deterrent, they did not grant everything on Jerusalem’s wish list. The most prominent item missing from the weapons that are to be delivered is a Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a giant bunker-busting bomb that is exactly what is needed to take out Iran’s underground nuclear facility at Fordow. That and the “fundamental difference of views” between the two countries about the level of risk that Iran’s program poses are complicating the Hagel visit.

The nature of the weapons the U.S. is selling the Israelis might lead one to think that what Hagel is bringing to the Jewish state is some kind of conditional green light to take out Iran’s nuclear plants. But the absence of the big bunker buster makes it unlikely that what is happening is the U.S. granting permission to the Israelis to act on their own.

On the contrary, the arms sales seem to be an attempt to placate the Israelis while making any attack on Iran highly unlikely. While Israel could certainly gravely damage Iran’s nuclear program without the ability to penetrate the 200 feet of mountain rock at Fordow, the Islamist regime’s all-important stockpile of enriched uranium will be safe. If the centrifuges spinning away at Fordow are spared, an Iran strike can’t be said to have achieved success.

What the Americans seem to be telling Israel is that the reported diversion of some of Iran’s uranium to a research reactor rather than to the store of fuel that would create a bomb gives the West more time to achieve a diplomatic solution. But with former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin saying Iran will probably cross a “red line” in terms of its nuclear stockpile this summer, time is running short for a non-military solution. And with the Iranians continuing to use the P5+1 nuclear talks with the West to keep stalling, there seems little doubt that a decision will have to be made sometime in the next year about ending this threat.

While part of the U.S. message to Israel is just about giving the diplomats more time, the other aspect of the administration’s stance might be more troubling. If they are saying that action must wait until the Iranians weaponize, rather than when their nuclear stockpile reaches the level when a bomb becomes possible, they are asking the Israelis to live with a nuclear-capable Iran. That’s not quite the same as the containment policy Hagel endorsed before joining the administration and which Obama has disavowed, but it is close enough to scare both the Israelis and the rest of a region that rightly fears a radical Islamist bomb.

But by refusing to transfer the big bunker buster the U.S. is saying that it is reserving for itself the option to use force against Iran. That makes sense, since America’s capability to project the airpower against Iran needed for such a strike far exceeds that of Israel. After all, the bunker buster needed to take out Fordow is too big to be used by any of the planes in Israel’s possession.

Iran is a threat to more than Israel, and it is entirely right that the responsibility for stopping them belongs to the U.S. and not the Jewish state. But its still not clear if the U.S. is prepared to use force.

The Iranians again made a mockery of the diplomatic process last month in Kazakhstan. While the talks continue Tehran’s hoard of enriched uranium continues to grow and will almost certainly cross the red line Netanyahu drew at the United Nations last year before the end of 2013. But so long as the U.S. is still acting as if it is more concerned about stopping Israel from attacking Iran than in the nuclear threat itself, the ayatollahs are bound to take that as a sign they have nothing to worry about.

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Obama Channels Clinton, Not Carter

In the wake of President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem yesterday, Israeli leftists are hoping for a new lease on life for a peace process that was left for dead by the country’s voters in January. But given the unenthusiastic reaction from Palestinians to the speech, any idea that negotiations will be revived anytime soon seems far-fetched. That’s especially true since most of those cheered by the president’s call for a new commitment to peace ignored the fact that the one tangible shift in American policy was that Obama backpedaled on his desire to force Israel to freeze settlement building. Much to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s displeasure, he also echoed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for negotiations without preconditions.

But one thing has undoubtedly changed in the aftermath of the presidential visit to Israel: Barack Obama’s image as an antagonist of the Jewish state. In terms of his attitude toward Israel, in the past three days Obama has altered his status in that regard from being the second coming of Jimmy Carter to that of another Bill Clinton. That won’t exempt him from criticism, nor does it mean that he will have even a remote chance of succeeding in moving the region toward peace. But it does mean that many of his Jewish and Democratic defenders have been to some extent vindicated and his critics chastened, if not silenced.

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In the wake of President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem yesterday, Israeli leftists are hoping for a new lease on life for a peace process that was left for dead by the country’s voters in January. But given the unenthusiastic reaction from Palestinians to the speech, any idea that negotiations will be revived anytime soon seems far-fetched. That’s especially true since most of those cheered by the president’s call for a new commitment to peace ignored the fact that the one tangible shift in American policy was that Obama backpedaled on his desire to force Israel to freeze settlement building. Much to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s displeasure, he also echoed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for negotiations without preconditions.

But one thing has undoubtedly changed in the aftermath of the presidential visit to Israel: Barack Obama’s image as an antagonist of the Jewish state. In terms of his attitude toward Israel, in the past three days Obama has altered his status in that regard from being the second coming of Jimmy Carter to that of another Bill Clinton. That won’t exempt him from criticism, nor does it mean that he will have even a remote chance of succeeding in moving the region toward peace. But it does mean that many of his Jewish and Democratic defenders have been to some extent vindicated and his critics chastened, if not silenced.

The president may have spent his first three years in office picking fights with Netanyahu and seeking, as administration staffers openly said in 2009, to create some distance between Israel and the United States. But after the stirring Zionist rhetoric uttered by the president during his stay in the Jewish state, it’s simply no longer possible for his opponents to brand him as a foe of Israel or as someone who is unsympathetic to its plight. Though his appeals for peace were addressed to the wrong side of the conflict, it just isn’t possible to ask any American president to have said more.

As much as many conservatives have, with good reason, hammered Obama both for the tone and the substance of his policies toward Israel, there can be no denying that he went some way toward rectifying his past mistakes. His speeches didn’t merely give the Israelis some love. He specifically endorsed the Zionist narrative and rationale about Israel’s founding and its purpose. Unlike his 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, when he seemed to say that its creation was merely a sop to the Jews suffering in the Holocaust, this week the president cited the thousands of years of Jewish history that gave them a right to sovereignty in their historic homeland. He reaffirmed the U.S. alliance with Israel as being both “eternal” and “unbreakable.” The president also specifically endorsed Israel’s right of self-defense against terrorism and pointedly said those who seek its destruction are wasting their time.

At this point, the comparisons between Obama and Jimmy Carter or even the first President Bush, who were both rightly criticized for their hostile attitudes toward Israel, ought to cease. Instead, the more apt comparison would be Bill Clinton, who went out of his way to express warm friendship for Israel even as he pushed hard to continue a failed peace process.

That doesn’t mean the president’s stands on issues relating to Israel are exempt from criticism. Though he once again promised in the most absolute terms that he would never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon and that all options, including force, remain on the table, there is room for plenty of skepticism about whether he will make good on that pledge even if he wants to. Obama’s naïve views about the chances for peace and his mischaracterization of Abbas as a reliable partner for Israel also deserve close scrutiny.

It is here that the Clinton analogy is most telling. Though Clinton is rightly remembered in Israel for his “Shalom, haver” farewell to Yitzhak Rabin and as being a stout friend of the Jewish state, his blind faith in the Oslo Accords—whose signing he hosted on the White House Lawn—wound up doing Israel more harm than good.

As State Department veteran Dennis Ross subsequently admitted in his memoirs, the U.S. became so committed to the idea of peace that it blinded itself to the reality of the Palestinian Authority that Oslo created. The Clinton administration refused to acknowledge the PA’s incitement of hatred toward Israel and Jews as well as its cozy relationship with Fatah’s own terrorist auxiliaries. That foolish tunnel vision led to the chaos and bloodshed of the second intifada that cost the lives of more than a thousand Israelis and far more Palestinians.

Yet for all that, Clinton, who to this day faults Arafat’s refusal to accept Israel’s offer of statehood at Camp David in the summer of 2000 for his failure to win a Nobel Peace Prize, must still be regarded as a friend of Israel–albeit one that sometimes urged it to adopt mistaken policies.

Obama, who seems prepared to make the same mistake about Abbas that Clinton did with Arafat, must now be regarded in much the same way. Though it would have been more useful for him to preach peace to Palestinian students than to a handpicked group of left-wing Israelis, the lengths to which he went to demonstrate his support for Israel must be acknowledged and applauded.

This entitles Jewish Democrats who spent the last year extolling the president as a true friend of Israel to a skeptical Jewish electorate to feel as if Obama has made them look prophetic. And Republicans, who were right to hold Obama accountable for his past record of hostility, will by the same token have to take their criticism of him down a notch, at least on this issue.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will use his new standing as a friend of Israel for good or for ill. He will be judged on his actions toward Iran as well as on whether his peace advocacy takes into account the utter lack of interest toward that goal on the part of the Palestinian people. But there is no escaping the fact that from now on—or at least until events dictate another shift in opinion—his relations with Israel will be remembered more for his embrace of Zionism than his squabbles with Netanyahu.

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Both Right and Left May Be Wrong About Obama’s Speech

Jewish left-wingers are cheering President Obama’s Jerusalem speech in which he once again made the case for a two-state solution. Some are hoping that this will mean a renewed campaign of U.S. pressure on the Netanyahu government. With a new secretary of state in John Kerry who may well be foolish enough to believe he can succeed where so many other American peace processers have failed, perhaps they are right. But it is also possible that although Obama was eager to reiterate his ideas about the necessity of peace, the only real insights about the impact of the presidential visit may be coming from Palestinians and some of their cheerleaders.

While they will also welcome the president’s reassertion of the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own and his criticisms of Jewish settlements, it is far more probable that the part of his address today that will resonate with them is the section in which he laid out at length not only a defense of Zionism but a case for Israel’s right to self-defense and America’s ironclad guarantee of its security. Though there may be some in the Muslim and Arab worlds who will take to heart the president’s sermon on coexistence and shared goals, the chant of demonstrators that greeted him in Ramallah today, in which the crowd chanted for rocket propelled grenades, not more cooperation with the U.S., was perhaps a more accurate reading of public opinion.

Were Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, whom the president inaccurately praised as a “partner for peace,” really interested in pursuing a two-state solution, he would take up the president’s challenge and agree, as Obama insisted during their joint press conference, to a new round of peace talks without insisting on preconditions. But the odds that the embattled Abbas, who is far more worried about Hamas than he is about Israel or the U.S., will do that are slim, making any new U.S. initiative a fool’s errand.

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Jewish left-wingers are cheering President Obama’s Jerusalem speech in which he once again made the case for a two-state solution. Some are hoping that this will mean a renewed campaign of U.S. pressure on the Netanyahu government. With a new secretary of state in John Kerry who may well be foolish enough to believe he can succeed where so many other American peace processers have failed, perhaps they are right. But it is also possible that although Obama was eager to reiterate his ideas about the necessity of peace, the only real insights about the impact of the presidential visit may be coming from Palestinians and some of their cheerleaders.

While they will also welcome the president’s reassertion of the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own and his criticisms of Jewish settlements, it is far more probable that the part of his address today that will resonate with them is the section in which he laid out at length not only a defense of Zionism but a case for Israel’s right to self-defense and America’s ironclad guarantee of its security. Though there may be some in the Muslim and Arab worlds who will take to heart the president’s sermon on coexistence and shared goals, the chant of demonstrators that greeted him in Ramallah today, in which the crowd chanted for rocket propelled grenades, not more cooperation with the U.S., was perhaps a more accurate reading of public opinion.

Were Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, whom the president inaccurately praised as a “partner for peace,” really interested in pursuing a two-state solution, he would take up the president’s challenge and agree, as Obama insisted during their joint press conference, to a new round of peace talks without insisting on preconditions. But the odds that the embattled Abbas, who is far more worried about Hamas than he is about Israel or the U.S., will do that are slim, making any new U.S. initiative a fool’s errand.

Those who would dismiss the president’s speeches as meaningless rhetoric shouldn’t underestimate the power of words, especially from an American president, to set the tone in the region. But those who think Obama’s appeal to Israelis to force their leaders to once again take risks for peace (something that runs contrary to the verdict of the recent Israeli election) may not only be misreading the mood of the Israeli public; they are also ignoring the Palestinians.

It should first be understood that merely stating America’s desire for a renewal of the peace process without demanding anything from the parties other than that they return to the peace table does not in any way constitute pressure on Israel. To the contrary, while Israel’s new government is under no illusion about the president wanting them to change course on settlements, they heard no concrete proposals from him that they must either refuse or accede to. In Ramallah, Obama echoed Netanyahu when he pointed out that the Palestinian demand that Israel concede every main point on borders and settlements prior to the negotiations was a formula for inaction, not peace. Israel’s position remains that it is ready to talk about everything without preconditions and that is exactly what Obama endorsed. Though it is possible Obama may follow this up with pressure on Netanyahu in the coming months and years, his speech actually made it very plain that pressure for peace would have to come from the Israel public and not from an American president who has learned his lesson about the futility of trying to impose his will on the Jewish state or on a Palestinian Authority that has consistently disappointed him.

While some on the Jewish right may only be listening to the latter part of the president’s speech in which he criticized settlements, what they need to understand is that Israel’s enemies probably stopped listening after the part where he endorsed Zionism and said those who wish to erase Israel are wasting their time. It will be those words and not his call for mutual understanding that will have the most impact.

The president may have felt that he had to precede any talk about peace with a stirring paean to Zionism and the right of Israel to defend itself against its enemies in order to make them feel safe enough to compromise. But to a Palestinian political culture that still seeks Israel’s delegitimization, that is an invitation to confrontation, not accommodation. So long as Palestinian nationalism is bound up with rejection of Zionism, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for even a stronger Palestinian leader than Abbas to make peace. And that is why he will, no doubt to President Obama’s frustration, continue to avoid talks like the plague.

Obama’s Jerusalem speech about the virtues of a two-state solution is no more likely to produce one than the one George W. Bush gave in 2002 when he became the first U.S. president to officially endorse the creation of a Palestinian state. Then, too, Bush couched his support for the concept in a context of Israeli security and Palestinian rights (though Bush also endorsed Palestinian democracy, a point that Obama wisely avoided since Abbas is now serving in the ninth year of a four-year term). But while Bush’s heartfelt support helped encourage then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw from Gaza (a colossal blunder that has worsened the country’s security and that neither Netanyahu nor any other Israeli leader will repeat in the West Bank), it did nothing to move the Palestinians. For all of his rhetorical brilliance, Obama’s chances of succeeding where Bush failed are minimal.

In the absence of any peace proposal that will hinge on American pressure on Israel to make concessions, nothing will come of Obama’s peace advocacy. Obama’s critics on the right, both here and in Israel, may say that his Zionist rhetoric is insincere and that the only aspects of his speeches that can be believed are those that call for Israeli concessions. But while he may not, as Aaron David Miller said, be “in love with the idea of Israel,” he gave a plausible impression of someone who is an ardent supporter of that idea this week. After this trip, it is simply not possible to claim he is Israel’s enemy, even if some of his advice to it is unwise.

The irony here is that the Jewish right that will attack Obama for his speech is probably as wrong about its impact as the left that cheers it. As long as the Palestinians remain unwilling to make peace, it doesn’t matter what the Israelis do or what Obama says about the subject.

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Obama’s Mix of Reality and Fantasy

President Obama continued his charm offensive with the people of Israel with his speech to an audience of students in Jerusalem that reaffirmed his support for Zionism and Israel’s “unbreakable” alliance with the United States. But however far he may have gone toward reassuring Israelis of his concern for their security during this trip, many of the headlines today will be devoted to the part of his address that attempted to prod the Jewish state to recommit to the peace process.

The speech demonstrated that, despite the new warmth between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, there is still considerable distance between their positions. But even the section devoted to advocacy for a renewed peace process showed that there is even greater distance between the United States and the Palestinians.

In a transparent effort to go over the heads of Israel’s government by appealing to the public, the president made the argument that peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel were both just and necessary to secure the country’s future. He urged the hand picked left-leaning audience of students to pressure their leaders to pursue peace. He spent the first half of his speech extolling the legitimacy of Zionism as well as highlighting the threats to its existence from terror groups and hostile neighbors as well as Iran. But his clear purpose was to establish his bona fides as a friend of the Jewish state primarily in order to give him the standing to advocate for a reinvigorated peace process in which the country would once again take “risks for peace.” This was both clever and effective and there’s no doubt that, as many pundits seemed to say in its aftermath, is was a better exposition of the liberal Zionist position on the peace process that had been given in the country in many years.

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President Obama continued his charm offensive with the people of Israel with his speech to an audience of students in Jerusalem that reaffirmed his support for Zionism and Israel’s “unbreakable” alliance with the United States. But however far he may have gone toward reassuring Israelis of his concern for their security during this trip, many of the headlines today will be devoted to the part of his address that attempted to prod the Jewish state to recommit to the peace process.

The speech demonstrated that, despite the new warmth between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, there is still considerable distance between their positions. But even the section devoted to advocacy for a renewed peace process showed that there is even greater distance between the United States and the Palestinians.

In a transparent effort to go over the heads of Israel’s government by appealing to the public, the president made the argument that peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel were both just and necessary to secure the country’s future. He urged the hand picked left-leaning audience of students to pressure their leaders to pursue peace. He spent the first half of his speech extolling the legitimacy of Zionism as well as highlighting the threats to its existence from terror groups and hostile neighbors as well as Iran. But his clear purpose was to establish his bona fides as a friend of the Jewish state primarily in order to give him the standing to advocate for a reinvigorated peace process in which the country would once again take “risks for peace.” This was both clever and effective and there’s no doubt that, as many pundits seemed to say in its aftermath, is was a better exposition of the liberal Zionist position on the peace process that had been given in the country in many years.

But however much this may have encouraged Israel’s moribund political left, the president’s warning that “neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer” to the question of how Israel was to navigate the future ran aground on his assurance that the goals of the Arabs who attended his 2009 Cairo speech were similar to those of the Israelis who heard him today in Jerusalem. Obama’s high-flown rhetoric about the virtues of coexistence and the need to establish two states for two peoples was widely applauded by the Israelis. But he is tragically mistaken if he really thinks the Muslim Brotherhood supporters who heard him in Cairo or most Palestinians have assimilated this ethos of live and let live.

The president may well be right that the ideal solution to the conflict is one in which the Palestinians have a state alongside Israel that will give them a focus for their national identity without threatening their Jewish neighbors. Were that a possibility, he would be correct in assuming that the vast majority of Israelis would embrace such an option even if, as was the case with the three offers past Israeli leaders made to the Palestinians, it involved far-reaching and possibly dangerous concessions. But his assumption that the Palestinian Authority—which rejected those three offers—let alone the Hamas rulers of Gaza or the Palestinian population for whose support both compete share this desire for two states is unfounded.

The president eloquently and rightly made clear that the United States would never abandon the Jewish state or allow its enemies to prevail:

So that is what I think about when Israel is faced with these challenges – that sense of an Israel that is surrounded by many in this region who reject it, and many in the world who refuse to accept it. That is why the security of the Jewish people in Israel is so important – because it can never be taken for granted. But make no mistake: those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd [You are not alone].

This was comforting rhetoric to Israelis and their friends. But the problem facing those who want to solve the conflict is not whether the United States can reassure Israelis that they have nothing to fear but whether it can persuade the Palestinians to redefine their national identity in such a way as to be able to accept a solution to the conflict that does not involve Israel’s disappearance.

In telling Israelis that they were now the most powerful country in the region, he seemed to be saying they should stop thinking of themselves as victims and embrace a future in which their economic prowess can enrich the region. But by speaking of a future in which Israel could be “the hub for a thriving regional trade,” it sounded as if the president was channeling Israeli President Shimon Peres’s fantasy of a “New Middle East” that fueled the post-Oslo euphoria of the 1990s that was debunked by the reality of the Yasir Arafat-ruled terror state the peace accords established.

Unlike in many of his previous comments about the conflict, the president acknowledged that Israel had already taken risks for peace and had been answered with anti-Semitism, terrorism and war. If, as he also noted, Israelis have grown skeptical about the prospects for peace, it is not because they lack the will for it or the idealism to which his remarks appealed, but because they know their foes have not given up their goal of Israel’s destruction.

In Jerusalem, Obama was preaching to the choir about peace. But if he thinks Israelis will rise up and force the Netanyahu government —which was chosen in an election in which the vast majority of the electorate prioritized domestic issues over the futile quest for a solution to the conflict—he’s dreaming. The Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers that heard Obama in 2009 at a stronghold of anti-Semitism and rejection of Zionism may all want a good future for their families just like the Israelis. But they want the future to be one in which there is no Jewish state. The same is true of Hamas and, despite the statements in English to the Western press by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, it is true of Fatah and its sympathizers as well.

Though this speech will, to some extent, satisfy those who continue to long for the American president to “save Israel from itself,” it’s not likely it will have much of an impact on the Palestinians or Muslims and Arabs who agree that Israel and the United States are united by common values and despise both for that very reason.

We can all hope that, as the president said, peace will begin “in the hearts of the people.” But if that was his goal, he had the wrong audience. What Palestinians heard was not so much his advocacy for their rights and statehood as the president’s affirmation of America’s commitment to Israel’s future as a Jewish state whose security will not be undermined. If that will cause some of them to give up their quest for its destruction, that is all to the good. But as much as this speech demonstrated that there are still plenty of differences between the positions of Obama and Netanyahu, it also made clear that there is even more distance between those of the president and a Palestinian public that has yet to accept Israel’s legitimacy.

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Has Obama Reversed Cairo?

Four years ago during his first visit to the Middle East as president, Barack Obama not only snubbed Israel but gave a speech in Cairo to the Muslim world in which he made it clear that he viewed the plight of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to that of the Holocaust. In doing so, he didn’t merely elevate the Palestinian claim to statehood as his diplomatic priority but downgraded the Jewish claim to their homeland as purely a function of international pity in the aftermath of the slaughter of European Jewry. This slight was not lost on the people of Israel who regarded these statements as much as the fights the president picked with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu over the following years as evidence of his utter lack of sympathy for the Jewish state.

But after years of tilting the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians the president arrived in Israel today singing a very different tune. He may have come into the presidency determined to open up daylight between the positions of the United States and Israel and succeeded in doing so. But his opening remarks upon arriving in Israel today effectively closed the gap between the two countries to the minimum. Even more important, his recognition of Israel’s rights effectively dashed the hopes of many in the Arab and Muslim world that this president, especially after his re-election, would further downgrade the alliance between the two nations.

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Four years ago during his first visit to the Middle East as president, Barack Obama not only snubbed Israel but gave a speech in Cairo to the Muslim world in which he made it clear that he viewed the plight of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to that of the Holocaust. In doing so, he didn’t merely elevate the Palestinian claim to statehood as his diplomatic priority but downgraded the Jewish claim to their homeland as purely a function of international pity in the aftermath of the slaughter of European Jewry. This slight was not lost on the people of Israel who regarded these statements as much as the fights the president picked with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu over the following years as evidence of his utter lack of sympathy for the Jewish state.

But after years of tilting the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians the president arrived in Israel today singing a very different tune. He may have come into the presidency determined to open up daylight between the positions of the United States and Israel and succeeded in doing so. But his opening remarks upon arriving in Israel today effectively closed the gap between the two countries to the minimum. Even more important, his recognition of Israel’s rights effectively dashed the hopes of many in the Arab and Muslim world that this president, especially after his re-election, would further downgrade the alliance between the two nations.

Barack Obama isn’t the first American president to stand with the people of Israel, but his speech today was important precisely because of the expectations that he has raised among those who hope to isolate the Jewish state and undermine its ability to defend itself. There may be many in Israel and in the United States who still regard Obama with skepticism–and with good reason. He may still be, as veteran peace processer Aaron David Miller memorably said, the first U.S. president in a generation that wasn’t “in love with the idea of Israel” and a persistent critic of both Netanyahu and the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. But his remarks upon arriving in Israel today show he may have learned from his mistakes.

The importance of Obama’s airport speech lies mainly in the fact that these are the words of the same person who went to Cairo University and spoke in a manner that gave much of the world the idea that the U.S.-Israel alliance was on hold. It might not have been significant had George W. Bush or Bill Clinton spoke of 3,000 years of Jewish history and of its citizens being the “the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah,” and to refer to the U.S.-Israel alliance as being “eternal,” but from Barack Obama this is remarkable.

This can be dismissed as mere rhetoric that can always be ignored or reversed at the whim of a president who has shown that he is confident that his cheerleaders in the mainstream press won’t hold him accountable. But they also have a power in and of themselves. When the world heard Obama downgrading the alliance with Israel, they drew conclusions that were dangerous to the stability of the region as well as to the security of the Jewish state. But when the president makes plain that even he regards the relationship with Israel as unbreakable and that the rights of the Jews to their “historic homeland” must be respected, that has great meaning too.

One would think that it wouldn’t be a big deal for a U.S. president to express his support for Zionism in the fulsome manner that Obama used today. But in doing so he sent a chill down the spines of Israel’s foes. The campaign to delegitimize Zionism and to regard any act of self-defense on Israel’s part as a war crime may have gained ground in recent years in Europe and on American campuses. But the willingness of the president to speak in this manner is a blow to the hopes of those who think Israel’s days are numbered.

Obama may say plenty tomorrow in his address to Israeli students that may upset some friends of the Jewish state. Given his history, the president’s critics have reason to wonder whether he is hoping to use any leverage gained by this trip to orchestrate pressure on Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians. But given his present unpopularity in Israel, the best he can hope for out of this is to lower his negatives there. The idea that he can mobilize Israelis against Netanyahu isn’t realistic.

As much as Obama deserved criticism for his past record of picking fights with Israel and undermining its position in the world, today’s speech undid at least some of that damage. Even his fiercest critics must give him credit for that.

The following is the text of his opening remarks upon arriving in the Jewish state. Let’s hope Israel’s enemies and critics who regarded the Cairo speech as the beginning of the end of the U.S.-Israel alliance take it to heart.

I’m so honored to be here as you prepare to celebrate the 65th anniversary of a free and independent State of Israel.  Yet I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people.

More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here.  And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.

Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be “masters of their own fate” in “their own sovereign state.”  And just as we have for these past 65 years, the United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend.

As I begin my second term as President, Israel is the first stop on my first foreign trip.  This is no accident.  Across this region the winds of change bring both promise and peril.  So I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors.

I want to begin right now, by answering a question that is sometimes asked about our relationship — why?  Why does the United States stand so strongly, so firmly with the State of Israel?  And the answer is simple.  We stand together because we share a common story — patriots determined “to be a free people in our land,” pioneers who forged a nation, heroes who sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and immigrants from every corner of the world who renew constantly our diverse societies.

We stand together because we are democracies.  For as noisy and messy as it may be, we know that democracy is the greatest form of government ever devised by man.

We stand together because it makes us more prosperous.  Our trade and investment create jobs for both our peoples.  Our partnerships in science and medicine and health bring us closer to new cures, harness new energy and have helped transform us into high-tech hubs of our global economy.

We stand together because we share a commitment to helping our fellow human beings around the world.  When the earth shakes and the floods come, our doctors and rescuers reach out to help. When people are suffering, from Africa to Asia, we partner to fight disease and overcome hunger.

And we stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land.  For even as we are clear-eyed about the difficulty, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors.

So as I begin this visit, let me say as clearly as I can –the United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel.  It makes us both stronger.  It makes us both more prosperous.  And it makes the world a better place.  (Applause.)

That’s why the United States was the very first nation to recognize the State of Israel 65 years ago.  That’s why the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes fly together today.  And that is why I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzach.

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Obama Visit Signals Nadir of Israeli Left

Many on Israel’s right are viewing the arrival of President Obama in their country with suspicion. They look at his record of antagonism toward the Netanyahu government and his past attempts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians and think no good can possibly come from an event that will give someone they view as inherently hostile to the Jewish state a bully pulpit from which to put forward his ideas. They may be right about Obama’s long-term intentions toward Israel. But for a better idea of who are the real losers as the president puts the country in the spotlight, it might be better to look at what pundits on the left are saying about it. As unhappy as some right-wingers might be about the arrival of what has undoubtedly been the least sympathetic toward Israel of any president in the last generation, it is the left that is really unhappy.

Look at just about any one of the many opinion columnists writing in the left-wing Haaretz or read the lament of veteran journalist and author Gershom Gorenberg in The American Prospect and you quickly realize that the left understands that the presidential agenda signals the nadir of their influence in Israeli politics and policymaking. A couple of years ago they would have cheered an Obama visit, certain that the president would use the occasion to bash the Netanyahu government and strong-arm it into far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. Now they read of his decision to put the peace process on the back burner and concentrate instead on making sure the two countries are on the same page on Iran, and tell him to go home. The uncontroversial nature of the Obama visit and the lack of expectations that it will do a thing to advance the moribund peace process means the decades-old hope of the Israeli left (cheered on by Jewish liberals in the United States like the J Street lobby) that America will “save Israel from itself” is officially dead.

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Many on Israel’s right are viewing the arrival of President Obama in their country with suspicion. They look at his record of antagonism toward the Netanyahu government and his past attempts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians and think no good can possibly come from an event that will give someone they view as inherently hostile to the Jewish state a bully pulpit from which to put forward his ideas. They may be right about Obama’s long-term intentions toward Israel. But for a better idea of who are the real losers as the president puts the country in the spotlight, it might be better to look at what pundits on the left are saying about it. As unhappy as some right-wingers might be about the arrival of what has undoubtedly been the least sympathetic toward Israel of any president in the last generation, it is the left that is really unhappy.

Look at just about any one of the many opinion columnists writing in the left-wing Haaretz or read the lament of veteran journalist and author Gershom Gorenberg in The American Prospect and you quickly realize that the left understands that the presidential agenda signals the nadir of their influence in Israeli politics and policymaking. A couple of years ago they would have cheered an Obama visit, certain that the president would use the occasion to bash the Netanyahu government and strong-arm it into far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. Now they read of his decision to put the peace process on the back burner and concentrate instead on making sure the two countries are on the same page on Iran, and tell him to go home. The uncontroversial nature of the Obama visit and the lack of expectations that it will do a thing to advance the moribund peace process means the decades-old hope of the Israeli left (cheered on by Jewish liberals in the United States like the J Street lobby) that America will “save Israel from itself” is officially dead.

Obama will undoubtedly pay lip service to the two-state solution, say he’s against settlements and call for a return to the peace table. Some of that will grate on Israeli ears, since the vast majority of the country understands the Palestinians (either the “moderate” Palestinian Authority or the “extremists” of Hamas) have shown they have no interest in peace and won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

But they will also enjoy the symbolism of the reaffirmation of the alliance that the visit will accomplish. And they will also pick up on the fact that whatever the president might say about peace, he isn’t there to pressure Netanyahu on the subject. Right-wingers will lament the government’s decision to go along with Obama on the question of giving more time to diplomacy to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. That may, as Jeffrey Goldberg rightly points out in Bloomberg News, place Israel’s fate in his hands rather than those of its government. But even there Obama will be going out of his way to reassure Israelis that he means what he says about stopping Iran even if it’s not clear the Iranians believe him. 

Yet the main takeaway from this visit may well be the absence of rancor on the peace process that has so divided the two governments for the past four years. For most Israelis, this is a blessing. But for an Israeli left that has long cherished the dream of having an American president force the nation to accept policies that its voters have rejected, it’s a nightmare. The recent election was almost entirely fought on domestic issues, with even the Labor Party de-emphasizing the peace process. Today, the advocates of the “peace now” agenda that roughly correlates with the J Street crowd in America are marginalized in the Knesset. Obama might be sorry about that, but this week he will show that he won’t lift a finger to do anything about it.

This means that although the president will underwhelm many Israelis, his visit will be a symbolic acceptance of the concept that the U.S. can’t dictate policy to its Israeli ally. That’s a boost for Israeli democracy, but very bad news for Israelis and their American cheerleaders who want Obama to override the verdict of the electorate.

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The American Public, Not the Realists, Understands the Middle East

The idea that America’s Middle East policy is purely the result of the machinations of a shadowy “Israel Lobby” was once again proven to be a canard with the release of a new poll that shows that an overwhelming majority of the American people sympathizes with the Jewish state. The Washington Post/ABC news poll published today on the eve of President Obama’s visit to the country shows that Americans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinian Authority by a margin of 55 to 9 percent, with 35 saying they liked both or had no opinion. It also showed that a plurality of those polled thought the U.S. needed to pressure the Palestinians to make peace more than the Israelis. Most interestingly, an even more resounding majority thought the U.S. ought not to be the prime mover of the peace process, with fully 69 percent saying the decision should be left to the parties while only 26 percent thought it should play a leading role.

The results, especially with regard to support for Israel, are consistent with previous polls. But the number of those who want America to be running the peace negotiations has plummeted in the last decade as the futility of trying to coax the Palestinians to abandon terrorism and embrace a two-state solution has been amply demonstrated. This gives the lie to both the “Israel Lobby” theories as well as the notion that Americans want their president to be twisting the arm of the Israeli government to make concessions to revive a process that the Palestinians have shown no interest in.

The basic numbers illustrate why those who claim the across-the-board bipartisan support for the alliance with the Jewish state in Congress is bought and paid for by Jewish campaign finance donations (as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it) is a lie. Israel has the backing of every political and demographic group measured by the poll showing that backing Israel is simply a matter of political survival irrespective of how many Jews vote or donate money in a given district or state.

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The idea that America’s Middle East policy is purely the result of the machinations of a shadowy “Israel Lobby” was once again proven to be a canard with the release of a new poll that shows that an overwhelming majority of the American people sympathizes with the Jewish state. The Washington Post/ABC news poll published today on the eve of President Obama’s visit to the country shows that Americans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinian Authority by a margin of 55 to 9 percent, with 35 saying they liked both or had no opinion. It also showed that a plurality of those polled thought the U.S. needed to pressure the Palestinians to make peace more than the Israelis. Most interestingly, an even more resounding majority thought the U.S. ought not to be the prime mover of the peace process, with fully 69 percent saying the decision should be left to the parties while only 26 percent thought it should play a leading role.

The results, especially with regard to support for Israel, are consistent with previous polls. But the number of those who want America to be running the peace negotiations has plummeted in the last decade as the futility of trying to coax the Palestinians to abandon terrorism and embrace a two-state solution has been amply demonstrated. This gives the lie to both the “Israel Lobby” theories as well as the notion that Americans want their president to be twisting the arm of the Israeli government to make concessions to revive a process that the Palestinians have shown no interest in.

The basic numbers illustrate why those who claim the across-the-board bipartisan support for the alliance with the Jewish state in Congress is bought and paid for by Jewish campaign finance donations (as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it) is a lie. Israel has the backing of every political and demographic group measured by the poll showing that backing Israel is simply a matter of political survival irrespective of how many Jews vote or donate money in a given district or state.

That said, the numbers do show a difference between the affection for Israel shown by Republicans and conservatives on the one hand and Democrats and liberals on the other. Republicans back Israel by a margin of 73-4 and conservatives do so by 72-5. However, Democrats back it by only a 49-11 and liberals by an even smaller margin of 39-16. Independents and moderates support Israel by margins of 51-10 and 55-10. Clearly, support on the left for the Jewish state is shaky. This is a trend that ought to worry those who believe that blind partisan loyalties for Democrats can trump principles and strengthening the arguments of those who believe Republicans are more reliable on the Middle East.

But the numbers about Americans not wanting the U.S. to take a leading role in peace talks ought not to be interpreted as indifference or neutrality about the conflict, as even the Post‘s headline on the story about the poll (“Public Wants U.S. Out of Middle East”) seems to say.

To the contrary, the poll reflects an accurate assessment of the two sides’ goals. The healthy majority that sympathizes with Israel understands that it has repeatedly shown its desire for peace by offering the Palestinians statehood in exchange for an end to the conflict and that neither the Palestinian Authority nor its Hamas rivals have ever accepted these deals or given up their dream of destroying Israel.

In this respect, ordinary Americans prove themselves to be far more sensible than many in the foreign policy establishment who call themselves “realists” while clinging to a view of the conflict rooted in the fantasy that Israeli concessions or territorial surrenders will bring peace.

For the moment at least, the Obama administration seems to have assimilated this wisdom. With the president heading to Jerusalem without seeking to impose a peace plan on the new Netanyahu government, but instead concentrating on coordinating policy on the Iranian nuclear threat, for once U.S. policy is in tune with both American public opinion and reality. We can only hope that it will stay that way.

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Like Bibi, Obama May Just Want to Manage Middle East Conflict

There are conflicting reports about a meeting held yesterday between President Obama and some 25 figures from the American Jewish community, including many of his supporters, in advance of his trip to Israel later this month. The Times of Israel says that one of the participants claimed the president said he would present a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East sometime in the next year. But JTA’s report based on a larger sample of participants dishing about the event contradicts that statement. That was backed up by a denial issued by a senior administration official who told the Times of Israel that there was no “framework” for peace mentioned at the meeting.

The consensus about the meeting is that, as one person who quoted the president to JTA said, there would be no “grandiose” plans for peace presented to the Israelis when he arrives for his long-awaited visit. Though the president will be holding out hope that the current “bleak” prospects for peace will improve, the notion that Obama would risk any of his scarce political capital by trying to impose terms of a peace plan on Israel that the Palestinians are not interested in is absurd. Though Obama will put himself on record as opposing Israeli settlements as well as Palestinian attempts to avoid negotiations via the United Nations, he appears to be only interested in keeping the situation calm. After four years of antagonism with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the president seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion as his Israeli counterpart. At least for now, he’s done trying to solve the conflict and only wants to manage it as well as possible.

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There are conflicting reports about a meeting held yesterday between President Obama and some 25 figures from the American Jewish community, including many of his supporters, in advance of his trip to Israel later this month. The Times of Israel says that one of the participants claimed the president said he would present a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East sometime in the next year. But JTA’s report based on a larger sample of participants dishing about the event contradicts that statement. That was backed up by a denial issued by a senior administration official who told the Times of Israel that there was no “framework” for peace mentioned at the meeting.

The consensus about the meeting is that, as one person who quoted the president to JTA said, there would be no “grandiose” plans for peace presented to the Israelis when he arrives for his long-awaited visit. Though the president will be holding out hope that the current “bleak” prospects for peace will improve, the notion that Obama would risk any of his scarce political capital by trying to impose terms of a peace plan on Israel that the Palestinians are not interested in is absurd. Though Obama will put himself on record as opposing Israeli settlements as well as Palestinian attempts to avoid negotiations via the United Nations, he appears to be only interested in keeping the situation calm. After four years of antagonism with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the president seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion as his Israeli counterpart. At least for now, he’s done trying to solve the conflict and only wants to manage it as well as possible.

That probably comes as a surprise as well as a shock to many of Obama’s most ardent Jewish supporters who would like him to ratchet up the pressure on Netanyahu, as well as to his greatest critics who harbor the suspicion that his goal is bring the Jewish state to its knees. It may be that were circumstances different, the president might well come closer to making those hopes and fears come true. But right now, Obama has higher priorities than pursuing his feud with Netanyahu.

That won’t preclude the president from trying to arrange a grand gesture, such as a summit at which Jordan’s King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will join Obama and Netanyahu for a photo op. But even those observers, like myself, who don’t trust Obama, need to give him credit for having paid some attention to what the Palestinians have failed to do over the last four years. The Palestinians have made it clear that they have no intention of signing a peace agreement that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. That means a solution to the conflict is impossible in the foreseeable future and that the only logical approach to it is one that seeks to manage it while preventing conflagrations.

As the reports from the meeting and other signs coming from Washington show, the president seems to understand that the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear threat has eclipsed the Palestinian issue as a priority. While Obama is trying to dampen any expectations that his visit to Jerusalem might restart the peace process, the one thing he may hope to accomplish there is to ensure that the Israelis refrain from any unilateral strike on Iran.

In order to do that, he has to show that the United States is committed to Israel’s security and can be trusted to do the right thing on any security-related issue. That’s a tall order given the president’s low popularity in Israel, but the trip could go a long way toward repairing the faith the average Israeli has in Washington’s good will. It may do just that provided, that is, the president doesn’t do or say anything that can be interpreted as revealing his disdain for the Jewish state.

As much as both the left and the right are seeking to figure out the specific motives for the trip, making a symbolic statement of Obama’s support for Israel that will give America the leeway to act on Iran at its own pace may be the only plausible answer.

There are good reasons to worry that the president’s reluctance to, as JTA says, do any “chest beating” about Iran may be a symptom of his lack of urgency about the issue or his reluctance to actually take action before it is too late. There’s little reason to believe diplomacy or sanctions can work after years of failure. But if Obama can finally convince Israelis that he should be trusted, its likely they will give him all the time he asks for. As much as there is still a wide gap between the positions Obama and Netanyahu may have on Iran, it may be that, at least for the moment, they are on the same page when it comes to the Palestinians.

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Hagel’s Critics Are Still the Winners

With the defection of one more Republican from the ranks of those opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, it appears the saga of the battle to stop the Nebraskan from taking office is coming to a close. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby announced today that he would vote for Hagel when the nomination comes to the floor. Shelby’s support is yet another blow against the hopes that the 10-day delay caused by last week’s failed cloture vote would result in a game changing event that would sink the chances of Hagel’s confirmation. Of course, the fate of this struggle was probably already sealed last Sunday when Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said they wouldn’t try to extend the filibuster when Congress reconvened next week. And if that left any doubt about the final outcome, it was removed when New York Democrat Chuck Schumer reconfirmed his support for Hagel with a speech that was as dishonest as it was morally dubious.

This will, no doubt, lead some on the left to crow about the failure of the pro-Israel community to stop the advancement of one of its worst critics. Others will say the effort was itself a mistake, since even after a concerted campaign to undermine support for the nomination and a disastrous confirmation hearing performance by Hagel his critics were unable to pry a single pro-Israel Democrat from the ranks of his backers. The result, we will be told, demonstrated the impotence of the vaunted “Israel Lobby” and will only encourage President Obama in the belief that he need not fear the consequences of another campaign of pressure on Israel or a decision to reverse course on containment of a nuclear Iran (the policy that Hagel has always supported and flubbed his recantation of at his hearing).

But those who will say the fight wasn’t worth it are wrong. Far from suffering a defeat, the last six weeks of close political combat on the issue have only strengthened the position of the pro-Israel community.

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With the defection of one more Republican from the ranks of those opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, it appears the saga of the battle to stop the Nebraskan from taking office is coming to a close. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby announced today that he would vote for Hagel when the nomination comes to the floor. Shelby’s support is yet another blow against the hopes that the 10-day delay caused by last week’s failed cloture vote would result in a game changing event that would sink the chances of Hagel’s confirmation. Of course, the fate of this struggle was probably already sealed last Sunday when Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said they wouldn’t try to extend the filibuster when Congress reconvened next week. And if that left any doubt about the final outcome, it was removed when New York Democrat Chuck Schumer reconfirmed his support for Hagel with a speech that was as dishonest as it was morally dubious.

This will, no doubt, lead some on the left to crow about the failure of the pro-Israel community to stop the advancement of one of its worst critics. Others will say the effort was itself a mistake, since even after a concerted campaign to undermine support for the nomination and a disastrous confirmation hearing performance by Hagel his critics were unable to pry a single pro-Israel Democrat from the ranks of his backers. The result, we will be told, demonstrated the impotence of the vaunted “Israel Lobby” and will only encourage President Obama in the belief that he need not fear the consequences of another campaign of pressure on Israel or a decision to reverse course on containment of a nuclear Iran (the policy that Hagel has always supported and flubbed his recantation of at his hearing).

But those who will say the fight wasn’t worth it are wrong. Far from suffering a defeat, the last six weeks of close political combat on the issue have only strengthened the position of the pro-Israel community.

Hagel’s inevitable confirmation will be a source of great frustration to many Americans who were dismayed at the prospect of letting a man who had clearly demonstrated his incompetence at his confirmation hearing run the Pentagon. And having defeated the first attempt by the Democrats to end debate on the nomination last week, the unraveling of the GOP filibuster is particularly disappointing since it also came at a time when fresh revelations of outrageous and even anti-Semitic statements made by Hagel were reported and polls showed most Americans opposed him. The fact that Hagel’s unsavory record and insincere walk-backs of his positions were so thoroughly exposed makes his confirmation a bitter pill for his critics to swallow.

But the process that unfolded since the president’s announcement was no defeat for friends of Israel. For all of Hagel’s trouble in mouthing the stands that he was forced to adopt since his nomination, the mere fact that he had to disavow his contemptuous dismissal of the pro-Israel community and pledge his everlasting support for the alliance with the Jewish state and readiness to use both sanctions and force against Iran is no small thing. In essence, Hagel had to renounce every single position that endeared him to his biggest fans among the so-called “realists” and other assorted Israel-bashers.

The pressure put upon Hagel during the lead-up to his confirmation hearing as well as the difficulty he found himself in when questioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee wasn’t merely the usual grind nominees are subjected to. The process reaffirmed a basic truth about the strength of the pro-Israel consensus that was placed in doubt by the president’s choice: support for the alliance with the Jewish state isn’t merely mainstream politics, it is the baseline against which all nominees for high office are measured. Republicans and Democrats, foes of Hagel as well as his backers, fell over themselves to demonstrate that opposition to a close relationship with Israel is not acceptable.

There may be good reason to doubt the sincerity of Hagel’s confirmation conversion, but the mere fact that he had to do it will make it all the more difficult for him or the president to backtrack on these positions. Far from a defeat, the manner in which Hagel found himself betraying his Israel-bashing supporters should not give them any comfort.

Chuck Hagel will be a weak secretary of defense whose influence has been dramatically lessened by the way he has been snuck into office. His usefulness as a spear carrier in any hoped-for administration pressure play against Israel has been diminished. Defeating Hagel’s nomination would have been far better for the United States as well as the U.S.-Israel alliance. Forcing him to renounce his past positions in order to get confirmed is almost as good.

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