After months of worsening tensions, the US-Israeli diplomatic relationship has reached new lows, with the White House and State Department last month tightening the reins on arms transfers to Israel, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, and blocking the delivery of a batch of Hellfire precision missiles.
It also reported on a “particularly combative phone call on Wednesday” between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and said administration officials consider Netanyahu and his team reckless and untrustworthy, while the Israel leadership considers the administration weak and naive.
The decision to evaluate every request by the Israeli military separately, including halting the transfer of Hellfire missiles, came after the White House and State Department discovered last month that the Pentagon was supplying Jerusalem with arms without their knowledge, the newspaper report said.
While one US diplomat described the American reaction to the arms transfer as a feeling of being “blindsided,” another US defense official stressed the back channel transfers were legitimate and did not require a sign-off from President Barack Obama or the State Department.
“There was no intent to blindside anyone. The process for this transfer was followed precisely along the lines that it should have,” a US defense official told the paper.
After learning of these transfers, the Obama administration, perturbed that much of the ammunition was used by the IDF in its offensive in the Gaza Strip, revised the review process in a move that is likely to limit or at least delay Israel’s requests for weapons.
A transfer of a large batch of Hellfire missiles was subsequently put on hold by the Pentagon.
Increasing control of the weapons transferred to Israel is “the United States saying ‘The buck stops here. Wait a second…It’s not OK anymore,’” a senior US official said.
Earlier this week, Britain’s business secretary said London would halt some arms exports to Israel if fighting resumed in Gaza.
On July 23, the Pentagon approved a transfer of arms, including 120-mm mortar shells and 40-mm illuminating rounds after receiving a request three days earlier from Israel. As was customary until that point, the White House and State Department were not informed.
US-supplied shells were later used in a July 30 IDF strike on a UN school in Jabaliya that killed 16 people — an attack that drew unusually fierce criticism from the White House and State Department. Israel said it was responding to fire originating in the area.
“The shelling of a UN facility that is housing innocent civilians who are fleeing violence is totally unacceptable and totally indefensible,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at the time. The US also called for a full investigation of the incident, but stopped short of ascribing the blame on Israel.
Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, record tensions between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were reported.
US officials told The Wall Street Journal that a phone call between Obama and Netanyahu on Wednesday on the state of ceasefire negotiations in Cairo was “particularly combative,” as ties between the countries have soured over Gaza.
A US administration official noted the sorry state of diplomatic ties between the nations: “The United States is their strongest friend. The notion that they are playing the United States, or that they’re manipulating us publicly, completely miscalculates their place in the world.”
Numerous US officials say the Gaza violence “has persuaded them that Mr. Netanyahu and his national security team are both reckless and untrustworthy,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
For their part, Israeli officials consider the US view of the Middle East “weak and naive,” the report indicated, pointing to Secretary of State John Kerry’s collaboration with Qatar and Turkey on a draft ceasefire in a move that infuriated Israeli officials. Kerry was reportedly upset that the draft, which was intended for Netanyahu’s eyes and critique only, was put to a cabinet vote, and its subsequent leak to the media put a strain on his ties with the Israeli administration.
“Today, many administration officials say the Gaza conflict — the third between Israel and Hamas in under six years — has persuaded them that Mr. Netanyahu and his national security team are both reckless and untrustworthy,” the Journal report said. “Israeli officials, in turn, describe the Obama administration as weak and naive, and are doing as much as they can to bypass the White House in favor of allies in Congress and elsewhere in the administration.”
An Israeli official said the tension had become “very personal,” and described it as “mistrust and a collision of different perspectives on the Middle East.”
However, other officials said that Netanyahu is confident his supporters in Congress will back Israel, and remains unconcerned that the sparring with Obama will have significant adverse effects.
Itamar Sharon contributed to this report.