by Jim Lobe
While everyone ritually insists that the bonds between Israel and the United States are “unbreakable,” yesterday’s analysis by Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here,” argues that they’re currently under unprecedented strain and that the fault lies mainly with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu.
The analysis argues further that, post-November, the Obama administration may no longer be inclined to protect Israel (at least to the same pathetic extent) at the UN Security Council and may even be willing to go a step further by presenting “a public full lay-down of the administration’s vision for a two-state solution, including maps delineating Israel’s borders. These borders, to Netanyahu’s horror, would based on 1967 lines, with significant West Bank settlement blocs attached to Israel in exchange for swapped land elsewhere. Such a lay-down would make explicit to Israel what the U.S. expects of it.”
I’m not a big fan of Goldberg, but this analysis is definitely worth a read if for no other reason than his voice is a very important one in the US Jewish community, including among the right-wing leadership of its major national organizations. And he essentially gives over most of the article—in a way that suggests he shares their views—to anonymous administration officials who have clearly grown entirely contemptuous of the Israeli leader, calling him, among other names, “chickenshit.” Goldberg himself describes the Netanyahu government’s policy toward Palestinians as being “disconnected from reality” and stresses what he calls the “unease felt by mainstream American Jewish leaders about recent Israeli government behavior.” It seems that his chief envoy and confidante here, Ron Dermer, is not doing a good job.
Of particular interest to readers of this blog, however, are Goldberg’s observations about how the administration views Bibi’s bluster about Iran:
The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”
This assessment represents a momentous shift in the way the Obama administration sees Netanyahu. In 2010, and again in 2012, administration officials were convinced that Netanyahu and his then-defense minister, the cowboyish ex-commando Ehud Barak, were readying a strike on Iran. To be sure, the Obama administration used the threat of an Israeli strike in a calculated way to convince its allies (and some of its adversaries) to line up behind what turned out to be an effective sanctions regime. But the fear inside the White House of a preemptive attack (or preventative attack, to put it more accurately) was real and palpable—as was the fear of dissenters inside Netanyahu’s Cabinet, and at Israel Defense Forces headquarters. At U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, analysts kept careful track of weather patterns and of the waxing and waning moon over Iran, trying to predict the exact night of the coming Israeli attack.
Today, there are few such fears. “The feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing,” this second official said. “He’s not Begin at Osirak,” the official added, referring to the successful 1981 Israeli Air Force raid ordered by the ex-prime minister on Iraq’s nuclear reactor.
The belief that Netanyahu’s threat to strike is now an empty one has given U.S. officials room to breathe in their ongoing negotiations with Iran.
This is a significant passage. It suggests that the administration has decided to essentially ignore Netanyahu and his threats to take unilateral action, including when they are conveyed by members of Congress close to the Israel lobby. It also suggests strongly that the administration will not back up Israel if it should indeed undertake a strike of its own in hopes that Washington would be dragged into to finishing the job.
Goldberg’s analysis about the state of the relationship is, in some ways, mirrored by Bret Stephens’s weekly “Global View” column in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, “Bibi and Barack on the Rocks,” although he, entirely predictably given his pro-settler worldview, sees Bibi as the wronged party. And, unlike Goldberg, he doesn’t see the US as the more powerful. Noting how Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was snubbed by senior administration officials with whom he requested to meet, Stephens, a former editor of the Jerusalem Post, writes:
The administration also seems to have forgotten that two can play the game. Two days after the Yaalon snub, the Israeli government announced the construction of 1,000 new housing units in so-called East Jerusalem, including 600 new units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood that was the subject of a 2010 row with Joe Biden. Happy now, Mr. Vice President?
Stephens calls for a “trial separation” by the two countries in which Israel will give up its $3 billion dollar/year US aid package to free itself from US interference:
The administration likes to make much of the $3 billion a year it provides Israel (or, at least, U.S. defense contractors) in military aid, but that’s now less than 1% of Israeli GDP. Like some boorish husband of yore fond of boasting that he brings home the bacon, the administration thinks it’s the senior partner in the marriage.
Except this wife can now pay her own bills. And she never ate bacon to begin with.
It’s time for some time away. Israel needs to look after its own immediate interests without the incessant interventions of an overbearing partner. The administration needs to learn that it had better act like a friend if it wants to keep a friend. It isn’t as if it has many friends left.
This is precisely where Goldberg believes current Israeli policy is leading it.
Netanyahu, and the even more hawkish ministers around him, seem to have decided that their short-term political futures rest on a platform that can be boiled down to this formula: “The whole world is against us. Only we can protect Israel from what’s coming.”
…But for Israel’s future as an ally of the United States, this formula is a disaster.”