Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-Israel

Obama 2nd Term Israel Visit Vow a Mistake

On the eve of Mitt Romney’s foreign tour that will take him to Britain, Poland and Israel, the Obama campaign made a classic mistake. Rightly sensing that Romney’s visit to the Jewish state would highlight not just the fact that the president had never gone there during his four years in office but the fights he had picked with Israel, the Democrats responded by pledging that some time during the next four years Obama would find a few days to go there himself. But rather than one-upping the GOP nominee, the promise merely worsened his difficulties with Jewish and pro-Israel voters. Having conspicuously avoided Israel throughout his first term even while feeling the need to go to Egypt and other places in the region, Obama’s vow is a lame rejoinder to Romney. He would have been far better off merely trying to ignore the Republican. Instead, by saying that if he’s re-elected he’ll deign to go there he’s admitted there’s a problem.

Obama’s supporters are right to respond that visits are symbolic and that the substance of the U.S.-Israel relationship transcends photo opportunities. But their problem is the Romney visit is a reminder this administration set out from its first moments in office to distance itself from Israel as part of its rejection of everything it associated with George W. Bush. Because Bush was close to Israel, they wanted more daylight between the two countries and quickly achieved their goal. Had President Obama not spent his first three years picking fights with Israel over the status of Jerusalem, settlements and the 1967 borders and relentlessly pressuring it to make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that had no interest in peace, it wouldn’t matter if Mitt Romney spent the whole summer touring the country.

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On the eve of Mitt Romney’s foreign tour that will take him to Britain, Poland and Israel, the Obama campaign made a classic mistake. Rightly sensing that Romney’s visit to the Jewish state would highlight not just the fact that the president had never gone there during his four years in office but the fights he had picked with Israel, the Democrats responded by pledging that some time during the next four years Obama would find a few days to go there himself. But rather than one-upping the GOP nominee, the promise merely worsened his difficulties with Jewish and pro-Israel voters. Having conspicuously avoided Israel throughout his first term even while feeling the need to go to Egypt and other places in the region, Obama’s vow is a lame rejoinder to Romney. He would have been far better off merely trying to ignore the Republican. Instead, by saying that if he’s re-elected he’ll deign to go there he’s admitted there’s a problem.

Obama’s supporters are right to respond that visits are symbolic and that the substance of the U.S.-Israel relationship transcends photo opportunities. But their problem is the Romney visit is a reminder this administration set out from its first moments in office to distance itself from Israel as part of its rejection of everything it associated with George W. Bush. Because Bush was close to Israel, they wanted more daylight between the two countries and quickly achieved their goal. Had President Obama not spent his first three years picking fights with Israel over the status of Jerusalem, settlements and the 1967 borders and relentlessly pressuring it to make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that had no interest in peace, it wouldn’t matter if Mitt Romney spent the whole summer touring the country.

It’s true, as the Democrats point out, that the president has not torpedoed the entire alliance. The security relationship between the two countries set in place by his predecessors has been maintained. But to claim he deserves the support of pro-Israel voters because he refrained from destroying the alliance infrastructure is hardly a compelling argument.

Only partisans and those committed to a policy of opposing Israel’s democratically-elected government can pretend that the years prior to the commencement of Obama’s election-year Jewish charm offensive were not primarily characterized by the administration’s determination to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians. Though his defenders claim there was nothing new about what he did, Obama’s stands on settlements and Jerusalem did more to undermine Israel’s position than any of his predecessors. But the Palestinians not only did not take advantage of Obama’s gifts but predictably, were encouraged by the rift between Israel and the U.S. to avoid negotiations altogether. The result was that Obama took an already bad situation and found a way to make it worse.

The interesting thing about Obama’s worries about pro-Israel voters is that it wouldn’t have taken much from him to convince them he was Israel’s friend. A visit would have helped, but a stopover in Israel would have contradicted the signals he was trying to send to the Arab and Muslim world that he was more open to them than Bush. An avoidance of needless squabbles about settlements, Jerusalem and borders would have cost him nothing, especially as turning these points into major fights didn’t convince the Palestinians to even return to negotiations or win him the friends he wanted in the Muslim world. If the transition to the charm offensive after three years of battles with Israel seemed effortless, it was because there was never any strategic rationale for Obama’s obsession with downgrading the alliance with Israel.

If the president does go to Israel during his second term, he will be welcomed there as any American president would be. But there is no reason to think a belated attempt to rectify the problems he created will be fixed by such a promise. If Romney benefits from his visit, it is because of Obama’s policies, not just because the president has stayed away.

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Israel Prepares for the Enemy It Faces

In contrast with the Obama administration, which perpetually talks down the potential for a military strike, Israeli officials are beginning to talk openly about such action. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Israeli security establishment is divided over whether it needs Washington’s blessing if Israel decides to attack Iran, Israeli officials say, as the U.S. campaign for sanctions drags on and Tehran steadily develops greater nuclear capability.

Some senior Israeli officials say in interviews that they see signs Washington may be willing to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, an eventuality that Israel says it won’t accept. Compounding Israeli concerns were U.S. statements this past weekend that underscored U.S. resistance to a military option. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday discussed a memo to National Security Adviser James Jones warning that the U.S. needed new strategies, including how to contain a nuclear Iran—suggesting that Iran could reach nuclear capability without any foreign military force trying to stop it.

Until now Bibi has played along both with the Obama engagement gambit and the sanctions effort, but we now hear that “Israeli officials have increasingly voiced frustration over the slow pace of diplomatic efforts to get sanctions in place.” We are, after all, running out of time. The concern for the Israelis tells us much about the state of U.S.-Israel relations and the real weak link in going after Iranian nuclear capabilities:

Many Israeli military experts say Israel can easily cope with any military retaliation by Iran in response to a strike. Iran’s medium-range rockets would cause damage and casualties in Israel, but they aren’t very accurate, and Israel’s sophisticated missile-defense system would likely knock many out midflight. Israel has similarly proved it can handle attacks against Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel also hosts a contingent of U.S. troops attached to a radar system to help give early warning against incoming rocket attacks.

More worrying to Israeli strategic planners examining possible attack scenarios is the possibility that Iran would respond to an Israeli attack by ramping up support to groups battling U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to recently retired officials familiar with the military’s thinking on Iran. If American soldiers start dying in greater numbers as a result of an Israeli unilateral attack, Americans could turn against Israel.

The debate and planning go on within Israel, which, unlike the U.S. president, does not have the luxury of procrastination or the ability to wish away the looming threat it faces.

Meanwhile, a newly released unclassified report on Iran’s military and terrorist activities is worth a read, especially the description of its foreign policy goals and tools — “diplomacy, economic leverage, soft power, and active sponsorship of terrorist and paramilitary groups are the tools Iran uses to drive its aggressive foreign policy.” Left unsaid is the lunacy of expecting that such a regime would voluntarily — unless its survival were threatened — give up the most powerful tools it could acquire: nuclear weapons. Also of note is the section on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qod Forces, which are “well established in the Middle East and North Africa, and recent years have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.” The report also details “Iranian Support to Terrorists and Regional Military Groups” — the very sorts of groups Obama said he is most concerned might acquire a nuclear weapon.

So the gap between the Israelis’ planning and ours is vast, as is the mismatch between the nature of the Iranian regime and our chosen strategy for thwarting its nuclear ambitions. Whatever the merits and risks of a military strike, at least Israel is focused on the real world that confronts it and an enemy determined to use every weapon to undermine and destroy the Jewish state. As for the United States, our meandering, slow walk through engagement and toward itty-bitty sanctions seems spectacularly unsuited to blocking the ambitions of the regime described in the report.

In contrast with the Obama administration, which perpetually talks down the potential for a military strike, Israeli officials are beginning to talk openly about such action. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Israeli security establishment is divided over whether it needs Washington’s blessing if Israel decides to attack Iran, Israeli officials say, as the U.S. campaign for sanctions drags on and Tehran steadily develops greater nuclear capability.

Some senior Israeli officials say in interviews that they see signs Washington may be willing to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, an eventuality that Israel says it won’t accept. Compounding Israeli concerns were U.S. statements this past weekend that underscored U.S. resistance to a military option. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday discussed a memo to National Security Adviser James Jones warning that the U.S. needed new strategies, including how to contain a nuclear Iran—suggesting that Iran could reach nuclear capability without any foreign military force trying to stop it.

Until now Bibi has played along both with the Obama engagement gambit and the sanctions effort, but we now hear that “Israeli officials have increasingly voiced frustration over the slow pace of diplomatic efforts to get sanctions in place.” We are, after all, running out of time. The concern for the Israelis tells us much about the state of U.S.-Israel relations and the real weak link in going after Iranian nuclear capabilities:

Many Israeli military experts say Israel can easily cope with any military retaliation by Iran in response to a strike. Iran’s medium-range rockets would cause damage and casualties in Israel, but they aren’t very accurate, and Israel’s sophisticated missile-defense system would likely knock many out midflight. Israel has similarly proved it can handle attacks against Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel also hosts a contingent of U.S. troops attached to a radar system to help give early warning against incoming rocket attacks.

More worrying to Israeli strategic planners examining possible attack scenarios is the possibility that Iran would respond to an Israeli attack by ramping up support to groups battling U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to recently retired officials familiar with the military’s thinking on Iran. If American soldiers start dying in greater numbers as a result of an Israeli unilateral attack, Americans could turn against Israel.

The debate and planning go on within Israel, which, unlike the U.S. president, does not have the luxury of procrastination or the ability to wish away the looming threat it faces.

Meanwhile, a newly released unclassified report on Iran’s military and terrorist activities is worth a read, especially the description of its foreign policy goals and tools — “diplomacy, economic leverage, soft power, and active sponsorship of terrorist and paramilitary groups are the tools Iran uses to drive its aggressive foreign policy.” Left unsaid is the lunacy of expecting that such a regime would voluntarily — unless its survival were threatened — give up the most powerful tools it could acquire: nuclear weapons. Also of note is the section on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qod Forces, which are “well established in the Middle East and North Africa, and recent years have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.” The report also details “Iranian Support to Terrorists and Regional Military Groups” — the very sorts of groups Obama said he is most concerned might acquire a nuclear weapon.

So the gap between the Israelis’ planning and ours is vast, as is the mismatch between the nature of the Iranian regime and our chosen strategy for thwarting its nuclear ambitions. Whatever the merits and risks of a military strike, at least Israel is focused on the real world that confronts it and an enemy determined to use every weapon to undermine and destroy the Jewish state. As for the United States, our meandering, slow walk through engagement and toward itty-bitty sanctions seems spectacularly unsuited to blocking the ambitions of the regime described in the report.

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