The United States has long been Israel’s most important ally. It is a partner whose support is central to the capacity of tiny Israel — insignificant demographically, and only nine miles wide at its narrowest point — to survive in the vicious Middle East.
Israel, for its part, is the sole dependable democratic ally that the United States has in this part of the world, its 8.3 million people on the front line of the battle against tyrannical regimes and expansionist Islamic extremism.
That’s why any daylight in the relationship between the two countries is deeply disquieting for most Israelis and many Americans, and a source of encouragement to Israel’s enemies.
The Obama administration has been deeply supportive of Israel in innumerable ways. It has provided firm diplomatic backing — even in areas where it disagrees with Israel, such as over the settlement enterprise. Time and again, the US has voted with Israel and/or to protect Israel at the United Nations and in the UN’s various forums, some of them strategically and obsessively hostile to Israel.
Under Obama, the US has ensured that Israel preserves its crucial qualitative military edge over enemies and potential enemies, maintaining military aid even in years of severe financial crisis. The two countries have worked intimately to develop cutting edge defensive weapons systems, and even at the height of domestic US political tension and paralysis, the administration proved willing and able to ensure further emergency funding for the Iron Dome rocket defense shield.
The Obama years have been marked by scientific and intelligence cooperation. They have seen unprecedented journeying back and forth by senior politicians, military chiefs, security experts from both sides, creating relationships of trust and effective action.
But daylight between the allies — including publicly aired differences over central issues and policies — has been a near-constant feature too. Some of it stems from the lousy personal relationship between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. More of it stems from their substantive differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, especially, the appropriate strategy for keeping Iran from the bomb. At times, ties have descended into dismal nadirs that shame both sides, with unnamed US officials branding Netanyahu “chickenshit,” for instance, or Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon reportedly portraying Secretary of State John Kerry as an “obsessive, messianic” meddler whose security proposals are not worth the paper they’re printed on.
Plenty of blame attaches to Netanyahu, who plainly would much rather have had a Republican (or just about anybody but Obama, for that matter) in the White House; who clearly thinks the president doesn’t begin to “get” Iran and the ruthless Middle East; who refused to freeze settlements in the cause of Kerry’s 2013 peace effort; and who resorted to some fairly despicable tactics — for which he later apologized — to ensure his reelection last month.
Israel has no doubt of the Islamic Republic’s determination to cheat, charm and bully its way to a nuclear weapons arsenal
But that still leaves a great deal of blame at the door of Obama and his administration.
As Israel marks its 67th anniversary of independence, it finds itself threatened by a rearming Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In southern Lebanon, it faces Hezbollah — an Iranian-backed terror army with 100,000 missiles. It watches the Syrian civil war spiral endlessly onward, with President Bashar Assad unpunished for unleashing chemical weapons against his own people, and with Iran and Hezbollah now poised just across the border on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. It sees Islamic State, a terrorist group nobody had heard of a couple of years ago, committing sickening acts of barbarism in Syria and Iraq, and causing alarm in neighboring Jordan. It casts its eyes south, to Egypt, where Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is battling to marginalize Islamist terror groups. It monitors Iran’s relentless military progress, and has no doubt of the Islamic Republic’s determination to cheat, charm and bully its way to a nuclear weapons arsenal.
A different American administration could not have easily quashed all or even any of these threats. But a different American administration would likely have been more effective in addressing them, and in working shoulder-to-shoulder with its only reliable partner in the region.
Israel has made it through to its 67th birthday, but it’s been a relentless struggle — and that struggle shows few signs of getting easier. The best possible working relationship with the US administration is central to Israel’s capacity to keep marking anniversaries as a thriving Jewish state. Daylight in those ties, to put it brutally, can cost lives; it’s anything but coincidence that Israel remembers the thousands upon thousands who have fallen in its defense on the day before it celebrates each anniversary of independence.
Netanyahu keeps telling Obama there’s a better deal to be done on Iran. I tend to agree. There’s certainly a better way to conduct US-Israel relations, especially if you believe that Obama considers himself a friend of Israel.
Here then, in the heartfelt but likely forlorn hope of a change for the better in this unnecessarily fraught relationship over the coming year, are an anniversary-appropriate 67 ways in which the president and his mighty administration, unfortunately, have put daylight between the US and Israel. Sixty-seven ways they’ve distanced themselves, or haven’t been as much help as they could and should have been. Some for which Israel also bears some responsibility. Some relatively minor. Some profoundly troubling. Sixty-seven disquieting degrees of separation.
1. Obama visited Turkey and Iraq in April 2009, early in his presidency, but not Israel.
2. Visited Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but not Israel, in June 2009; same trip did include a visit to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.
3. Failed to highlight the Jewish people’s historic connection to the Land of Israel in landmark outreach speech to Islam at Cairo University, on June 4, 2009.
4. Did come to Israel in March 2013… Has since been twice more to Saudi Arabia.
5. Chose to speak to Israeli students at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on that trip, rather than to the Knesset — in contrast to his 2009 visit to Turkey, when he addressed parliament and hailed Turkey’s “vibrant secular democracy.”
6. Seems willfully blind to the perceived religious imperative behind Islamic extremism, notably including Iran-championed Islamic extremism, and insistently deaf to the entreaties of those — notably including Israeli leaders — who try to open his eyes.
7. Horrified Israel by giving initial backing in 2010 for Egypt’s relentless efforts to win global support for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, by which Cairo has long sought to impose international scrutiny upon, and ultimately the elimination of, Israel’s reported nuclear capabilities.
8. Candidate Obama told AIPAC in June 2008 that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” Then he backtracked, citing “poor phrasing.”
9. Tasked then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton with telephoning Netanyahu to berate him for a planning committee’s approval of new housing in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, which lies over the pre-1967 Green Line, during Vice President Joe Biden’s 2010 visit to Israel. Netanyahu had apologized for the timing of the decision, Biden had accepted the apology, but Clinton was then dispatched to reopen the dispute. The content of their phone conversation, including the secretary’s devastating accusation that the dispute raised questions about Israel’s commitment to its relationship with the United States, was promptly leaked to the US media.
10. Castigated Netanyahu in a March 2014 interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg timed for publication precisely as the prime minister was flying in to meet with him. Warned, in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that there’ll come a point “where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices: Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank?… Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?” Reasonable questions, indeed, but aired publicly, in a slap-in-the-face interview when the prime minister is on his way to the White House?
11. As so often in the Obama presidency, such criticism of Israel was not matched by a similar public critique of Palestinian policies — no parallel interview taking Mahmoud Abbas to task — when the Palestinian Authority president visited the White House two weeks later.
12. The Obama Administration declared in June 2014 that it would “work with” the new Fatah- and Hamas-backed Palestinian unity government, even though Hamas made plain that it had not reformed and remained committed to the destruction of Israel. The “unity” government has, unsurprisingly, barely functioned. Weeks after its formation, Israel’s Shin Bet exposed a Hamas plot to unseat Abbas and take over the West Bank.
13. The Obama administration has failed to highlight and critique relentless incitement against Israel by Abbas’s mainstream Fatah faction, notably including cartoons published by Fatah on its Facebook page last winter encouraging Palestinians to carry out murderous car attacks against Israelis for the sake of the Temple Mount, at a time when several Israelis were killed in a spate of such attacks.
14. The administration has also chosen not to make a major issue of Abbas’s dismissal of Jewish ties to the Temple Mount, including his warning last November that the Palestinians will not allow Israeli extremists to “contaminate” the Mount, and that allowing Jewish prayer at the site would risk a global religious war.
15. In seeking to revive peace talks in 2013, the administration pressed Israel into releasing dozens of the most ruthless Palestinian terrorists, including the orchestrators of murderous bombings. Such actions might be justified at the culmination of a peace effort, when a full and final resolution of conflict is agreed, but not as an interim measure in what proved, unsurprisingly, to be another unsuccessful effort to push for a deal.
16. Also sought to have Israel release some of its own citizens — Israeli Arabs involved in terrorism, whose freedom was sought by Abbas — as part of the same ill-fated diplomatic effort. The issue of those Israeli Arab security prisoners was one of the factors behind the collapse of the Kerry-mediated process in spring 2004.
17. Apparently seeking to pressure Israel for more flexibility in peace talks, in a joint interview with Israeli and Palestinian TV stations in November 2013, Kerry warned of a third intifada if his diplomacy failed: “I mean does Israel want a third Intifada?” he asked. “Israel says, ‘Oh we feel safe today, we have the wall. We’re not in a day-to-day conflict’,” said Kerry. “I’ve got news for you. Today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s…” Israel’s neighbors, he warned, will “begin to push in a different way.” Kerry did not balance his criticisms of Israel with similarly potent criticisms of Palestinian incitement against Israel, stubbornness in negotiations.
The Obama administration has made no significant effort to tackle terrorism at its roots — at the level where recruits are indoctrinated
18. Three months later, Kerry referred to boycott threats against Israel. “The risks are very high for Israel,” the secretary told a conference in Munich in February 2014. “People are talking about boycott. That will intensify in the case of failure.” The State Department later stressed Kerry himself has always opposed boycotts and was simply describing actions undertaken by others.
19. Then, in April, Kerry told a closed meeting of world leaders that Israel risked becoming “an apartheid state” if it did not make peace soon. He said the next day that he wished he could “rewind the tape.”
20. “Administration officials” — reportedly special envoy Martin Indyk — placed primary blame on Israel, in extensive conversations with Yedioth Ahronoth, for the failure of the 2013-2014 Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
21. The administration warned in October 2014 that Israel’s latest settlement plans would “draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies [and] poison the atmosphere.” At issue were building projects in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood of Jerusalem, among others. The Obama administration has consistently and very publicly opposed all building over the pre-1967 lines, largely eschewing distinctions between construction inside Jerusalem, inside major settlement blocs that Israel seeks to retain under a permanent accord, and inside isolated settlements.
‘It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation, it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation’ — John Kerry, on Israeli strikes in Gaza, unaware that his microphone was live
22. The Obama administration has made no significant effort to tackle terrorism at its roots — at the level where recruits are indoctrinated. Preventing new generations and iterations of Islamist terrorism requires the reform of what young, impressionable Muslims are taught in school, what they hear in the mosques, what they watch and read in the media. The United States should be galvanizing the international community and using every ounce of its own diplomatic and economic leverage to marginalize extremist educators, spiritual leaders and media channels, and to encourage those who teach, preach and broadcast moderation.
23. The administration was ambivalent, at best, to the fall of a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt, Mohammad Morsi — whose movement is deeply hostile to Israel and gave birth to Hamas — and his replacement by Ahmad Fattah el-Sissi.
24. Lack of firm US support for el-Sissi — who has commendably spoken out several times about the imperative for a reform in Islamic thought, warning that Islam is becoming a source of “destruction” and is “making enemies of the whole word” — risks pushing the Egyptian regime into the embrace of Russia.
25. Having vowed that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria would cross a red line and carry “enormous consequences,” and with Kerry in August 2013 delivering an impassioned address in which he confirmed such use and termed it a “moral obscenity” for which there must be accountability, Obama cancelled plans for a punitive strike at the last minute. Instead, he accepted a Russian diplomatic initiative for the dismantling of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal — an admirable, non-violent solution if it proves effective, and a troubling one in terms of the message it sent to Iran regarding the credibility of American red line and military options.
26. The administration has repeatedly leaked details of alleged Israeli strikes on Syrian weapons depots, shipments and military targets, prompting everything from bafflement to fury in Jerusalem. Twice in the summer of 2013, CNN, the New York Times and other outlets quoted administration officials saying Israel was behind such strikes, when Israel was staying silent in hopes of avoiding Syrian retaliation. Those leaks had Israeli officials reportedly scratching their heads.
27. By November — when an Obama administration official reportedly told CNN that Israeli warplanes had attacked a Syrian base at Latakia, and that the target was “missiles and related equipment” set for delivery to Hezbollah in Lebanon — Israel was said to be conveying bitter protests to the White House and complaining that the US leaks endangered national security.
28. The State Department initially refused to co-sponsor a 2014 UNESCO exhibit detailing the Jewish people’s 3,000-year relationship to the land of Israel, citing the “sensitive juncture in the ongoing Middle East peace process… after thoughtful consideration with review at the highest levels.” Created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, co-organized with UNESCO, and co-sponsored by Israel, Canada, and Montenegro, the exhibit was postponed at the last minute due to Arab pressure, renamed (with “Israel” excised from its title), and adjusted before finally opening six months later, now with US co-sponsorship.
29. Obama failed to provide robust support for dissidents whose protests against the Iranian regime were brutally suppressed during Iran’s 2009 presidential elections. Initially silent, on June 15, 2009, he said it was “up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran’s leaders will be,” adding that “we respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran.” A week later, he condemned “the threats, beatings and imprisonments of the last few days.”
30. More recently, Obama chose not to condition his diplomatic outreach to Iran on the regime halting its relentless incitement against Israel, including Ayatollah Khamenei’s tweeted 9-point plan for destroying Israel.
31. Obama chose not to condition his diplomatic outreach to Iran on the regime halting its Holocaust cartoon competitions.
32. Or its displays of “Death to Israel” banners at military parades.
33. Or its continued orchestration of acts of international terrorism.
34. Or its calls to arm Palestinians in the West Bank to fight Israel, its support for terrorist groups in Gaza, its funding and arming of Hezbollah in south Lebanon, and its growing direct involvement in anti-Israeli violence in Lebanon and Syria.
35. Obama went ahead with the Lausanne talks even as Ayatollah Khamenei was calling “Death to America” and rebuffing his calls for a better future.
36. Obama went ahead with the Lausanne talks even as an Iranian militia leader, Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi, was declaring that the destruction of Israel is “nonnegotiable.”
37. In the words of Israel’s strategic affairs minister, Yuval Steinitz, the US-led world powers shifted unaccountably from seeking to “dismantle and neutralize” Iran’s nuclear capabilities, to freezing and inspecting them. Worse still, the “non-deal” in Lausanne, Steinitz added acidly in a Times of Israel interview earlier this month, neither fully freezes nor fully inspects the Iranian program.
38. A major landmark in that shift was Obama’s declaration, at the December 2013 Saban Forum in Washington, that the Iranian regime could be allowed to have a peaceful nuclear program with “modest enrichment capability” under a permanent deal.
39. Mocked Netanyahu for seeking a meeting with him in March, two weeks before the Israeli elections, when the prime minister spoke to Congress about the emerging terms of the deal with Iran. Hosting the German chancellor, Obama joked that Angela Merkel “would not have asked” for such a meeting so close to her elections.
40. Brusquely dismissed Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3 as “nothing new.” (Israelis were deeply divided over the merits of the prime minister’s trip to Congress, where he essentially lobbied against the US president, and risked rendering Israel a more partisan issue in American politics. By contrast, they seem to widely share Netanyahu’s concerns over the emerging deal, and his fear that the Obama approach as it stands will not thwart Iran’s nuclear drive. A Times of Israel poll two months ago found three in four Israelis don’t trust Obama to keep Iran from the bomb; at the very least, most Israelis would presumably like the president to give Netanyahu a further serious hearing.)
41. Ignoring Netanyahu’s repeated suggestions for a better deal, Obama consistently claimed that Netanyahu has not offered any alternative to the emerging Iran accord.
42. Hailed an agreement reached with Iran in Lausanne that is not signed, features no agreed text, and key elements of which are disputed by Iran.
43. Failed to ensure that the P5+1 powers are in full accord on what was agreed at Lausanne.
44. Despite the US’s immediate post-Lausanne insistence that sanctions on Iran would only be lifted in phases, in accordance with Iranian compliance, two weeks later Obama opened the possibility of negotiating on Iran’s demand for immediate lifting of sanctions.
45. Under the terms of the Lausanne framework, as set out by the US, the deal keeps over 5,000 centrifuges spinning at the Natanz facility.
46. It “converts” but does not dismantle the Fordo facility.
47. It “converts” but does not dismantle the heavy water reactor at Arak.
48. It allows ongoing research on more advanced centrifuges.
49. It does not address Iran’s missile development programs.
50. It does not require a full accounting by Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency on the possible military dimensions of its nuclear activities to date.
51. By Obama’s own account, it does not provide for anywhere, anytime inspections at suspect Iranian military facilities, but rather for a complex “international mechanism” in which Iran could seek to bar such access.
52. It seems likely to spark a regional nuclear arms race.
53. Obama summarily rejected Israel’s plea that Iran be required to recognize it as part of the permanent nuclear deal.
54. Had his spokespeople backtrack implausibly on his candid acknowledgement earlier this month that Iran would be able to break out to the bomb almost immediately when key limitations in the emerging nuclear deal lapse.
55. Pushing the deal with Iran, and apparently seeking to undermine its most prominent critic Netanyahu, the White House in early April mimicked the cartoon bomb drawing which the prime minister presented to the UN General Assembly in 2012 with a revamped version of its own, complete with red line. Where Netanyahu’s bomb drawing featured fuse wire leading to an explosion, the White House version featured a severed detonator wire and the captioned assertion that the framework deal will “shut down” Iran’s uranium-enrichment path to the bomb.
56. Despite Israeli fears that Russian S-300s, if supplied to Iran, would complicate any resort to force against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and that the missile defense systems could impact Israel’s air supremacy over Lebanon and Syria if they found their way to Hezbollah and the Assad regime, Obama sounded forgiving when discussing Vladimir Putin’s declared decision to deliver the weaponry to Tehran. Obama noted on April 17 that Putin had previously suspended the sale “at our request. I am frankly surprised that it held this long, given that they were not prohibited by sanctions from selling these defensive weapons.” In the studio of Israel’s Channel 10, one commentator reported, “Jaws dropped.”
57. Defending the Lausanne framework agreement, Obama inaccurately claimed that Netanyahu does not seek a “peaceful resolution to the Iranian issue.”
58. During the 2014 war with Hamas, the US delayed the shipment to Israel of Hellfire precision air-to-surface missiles.
59. And tank shells.
60. It also instituted “additional steps” in the process of sending weapons to Israel.
61. After Netanyahu stressed Israel’s efforts to achieve pinpoint accuracy in hitting Gaza terror targets during war of summer 2014, Kerry, unaware that his microphone was live, derided the Israeli claim: “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation, it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” he repeated sarcastically to an adviser. (In November 2011, in another inadvertently overheard exchange, at a G-20 summit in Cannes, France’s then-president Nicolas Sarkozy told Obama he couldn’t bear Netanyahu, who he called a “liar.” Responded Obama: “You are fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”)
62. Last July, although an Egyptian ceasefire proposal acceptable to Israel was on the table, Kerry embarked on a mission to engineer a ceasefire to the Israel-Gaza war in circumstances that continue to be much disputed between Israel and the United States. This included outreach to Hamas-backing Qatar and Turkey, and the transmission of a text to the Israeli cabinet that, while the secretary denied that it was anything of the kind, was understood in Jerusalem to be a ceasefire proposal, was seen as a capitulation to Hamas, and was furiously rejected as such by unanimous cabinet vote.
63. Following Netanyahu’s March 17, 2015 election victory, Obama waited two days to call to congratulate him. Phone call was reportedly difficult in content, with the president said to make clear he didn’t believe Netanyahu was genuinely supportive of a two-state solution, and to indicate that the US would no longer automatically support Israel at the United Nations. Obama then declared that the US was evaluating its options on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
64. Chose to accept that Netanyahu meant what he said, the day before the elections, in ruling out Palestinian statehood, but not that Netanyahu meant what he said, two days after the elections, in support of “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”
65. Warned publicly about the threat of Israel’s democracy eroding, after Netanyahu complained that Arabs were streaming in droves to the polling stations on election day. Did not similarly highlight Netanyahu’s apology for his remarks.
66. As of this month, the Obama administration no longer rules out advancing UN resolutions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
67. Obama refusing to meet with Netanyahu prior to the June 30 deadline for a deal with Iran, because he fears a face-to-face meeting would likely end with Netanyahu “publicly venting his complaints about the president’s policies,” according to a New York Times report published on Israel’s 67th Independence Day.