It was President Obama’s first White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who said the administration never wanted to waste a crisis. The maxim appears to still be cherished by the president’s current advisors. The latest administration shot fired at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, this time by National Security Advisor Susan Rice in which she charged the Israeli with acting in a way that was “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship, is best understood by Emanuel’s subsequent explanation of his much-quoted statement: “And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Netanyahu’s blunder in accepting House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak to Congress was an opening that the administration has used to change the discussion about Iran’s nuclear threat to its advantage. But it has also given Obama’s team the chance to do something they’ve been longing to do for six years: openly attack Israel’s government. Yet while they are enjoying doing that, no one should be under any illusions about the fault for the problems between Israel and the United States being solely the fault of Netanyahu.
As I wrote earlier today, Netanyahu’s decision to turn down an invitation to speak to Senate Democrats is the latest in a series of unforced errors that have aided the administration’s efforts to distract the country from their string of unprecedented concessions to Iran on the nuclear issue. By choosing to accept an invitation from the speaker to speak to Congress in favor of a measure the president opposed—increased sanctions on Iran—Netanyahu allowed the White House to make his alleged breach of protocol the issue rather than the president’s indefensible appeasement of Iran in pursuit of a new détente with the Islamist regime.
That was a tactical error. But if we’re going to discuss who has done the most damage to the U.S.-Israel alliance, the notion that Netanyahu’s willingness to speak up about the administration’s drift to appeasement is the main factor tearing it apart means we’ve left the world of analysis and entered that of fiction. If you want to pin the blame for the decline in closeness, the fault belongs to President Obama.
Let’s remember that this is the same man who came into office determined above all to change one thing about U.S. Middle East policy: create more distance between the U.S. and Israel. At that time, the Obama team took it as a given that the reason peace had eluded the region was that George W. Bush had grown too close to Israel. President Obama did everything he could in subsequent years to change that perception, and he succeeded.
But years of pointless spats with Israel over Jerusalem (though Obama’s predecessors had never recognized Israeli sovereignty over its capital, this administration broke new ground by turning building projects in 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods into sources of tension), West Bank settlements (in spite of the fact that Netanyahu agreed at one point to a building freeze), and the terms of a final peace settlement brought the region not one inch closer to peace. That’s because no matter how much Obama tilted the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, they were still uninterested in a peace deal. But not even Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas torpedoing peace talks by making a deal with Hamas and heading to the United Nations in violation of his Oslo Accords commitments could convince this administration that the fault for their failure was the fault of anyone but Netanyahu.
Though the Obama administration did increase security cooperation and funding for defense projects like the Iron Dome missile-defense system, it also sought to undermine Israeli self-defense against Hamas attacks at every step, even cutting off the resupply of ammunition during last summer’s Gaza war.
But it is on Iran, an entente with which seems to have become the chief obsession of the president’s second term, that Obama did most to damage the relationship. Though he had pledged that any deal would not allow Iran to keep its nuclear program, a string of concessions has now led to the point where it is clear an agreement would allow it to become a threshold nuclear power. The latest U.S. retreat is now an offer to allow Iran to do anything it likes with its nuclear toys after a ten-year freeze. Moreover, the president’s decision to acquiesce to Iran’s military moves in Iraq and the continuation in power of Tehran ally Bashar Assad in Syria have signaled a major U.S. policy shift. While moderate Arab nations and Israel are worried about Iran’s successful drive for regional hegemony, the administration appears to be encouraging it.
Just as important, it is the administration that has done most to make Israel a partisan issue by trying to break up the bipartisan coalition in favor of Iran sanctions on party lines. Throughout the last few months it has been Obama who has been playing the partisan card to stop Iran sanctions even though prominent Democrats like New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez were leading the charge against his dangerous policies.
It is these actions and not Netanyahu’s inept decisions that are truly damaging the relationship. Blame the prime minister all you want for allowing his speech to become the cause célèbre symbolizing the breakdown in relations under Obama, but it has always been the president who has been the prime mover in damaging the alliance.