Israeli official confirms US nixed arms shipment; pols argue over who’s to blame

WSJ report of frayed relations between Washington and Jerusalem, including combative Obama-Netanyahu phone call, sparks firestorm among Israeli politicians

US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 3, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

A senior Israeli official confirmed to Israeli media that the US had suspended a shipment of Hellfire missiles to Israel amid worsening ties over fighting in Gaza.

The decision to hold off on the transfer was most likely on grounds of increased diplomatic tension, the official said, corroborating a Wall Street Journal report earlier in the day that claimed the White House and State Department had been angered by a transfer of arms to Israel and had ordered greater oversight into future sales.

The report claimed that US-Israeli tensions are at a record high, with US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to hold a “particularly combative phone call on Wednesday” and officials on both sides resorting to name-calling.

The accounts sparked an internal debate between Israeli politicians.

An unnamed Israeli official lambasted the prime minister’s conduct and had fierce criticism for Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer as well, the Ynet news website reported.

“We all remember how they went behind the back of President Barack Obama to support the [other] candidates in the middle of the [US] elections,” he said. “Netanyahu is responsible for the situation.”

Netanyahu made his preference for Obama’s rival, Republican Mitt Romney, plain during the 2012 US presidential campaign.

Reports of fraying relations with Washington were worrying, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a security cabinet member, said. “This is a worrying trend and we cannot allow it to continue. Our relations with the United States are a strategic asset that must be maintained.”

He added that he spoke with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Senate majority leader Harry Reid last week to thank them “for the emergency funds which they transferred to Israel” for the Iron Dome missile defense system. “Sometimes we just need to say thank you and ensure that our important relations with the United States remain strong,” Lapid asserted.

Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) said that “politically, the Israeli government has completely taken leave of its senses.”

“Every day sees another front opened against our friends in the world,” he said. “We don’t have to agree with the US on every issue,” Herzog added. “There are essential matters that Israel has the full right to decide, and there are matters of style and protocol. This government is consistently failing in both of them.”

Likud MKs were harshly critical of the US decision to suspend the missile shipment and rushed to Netanyahu’s defense following the report. MK Miri Regev said the move was proof “that we can only rely on ourselves” and MK Tzipi Hotovely praised the prime minister for taking a stand against the US pressure on Israeli security interests during the operation. She added, however, that despite the rift, Israel and the US have shared goals.

“We must take into account that in two and a half years’ time, President Obama won’t be sitting in the White House, and we will remain here with the threats and the challenges,” said MK Danny Danon, who was fired by the prime minister during the operation from his position as deputy defense minister.

Danon’s comments echoed that of unnamed Israeli officials who told The Wall Street Journal that Netanyahu felt he could wait out Obama’s last two years in office while relying on firm support from Congress.

Other politicians attempted to patch up the divide.

Former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren told Israeli news site Ynet that Israeli-US relations are “a political Iron Dome.”

Former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael B. Oren speaks in Tel Aviv on December 16, 2013. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

“It’s true that occasionally there are disagreements, but it’s important to keep the disputes behind the scenes and not air the dirty laundry. The relations between the president and prime minister are critical, and it’s best to avoid harming the ties,” he said.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, while not addressing the report explicitly, thanked US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for the US’s financial support for the Iron Dome system on Thursday morning over the phone. The two agreed to continue to cooperate on “the broad range of security issues facing the United States and Israel,” a statement from the Defense Ministry said.

The Wall Street Journal report said the US had blocked the missile shipment approved by the Pentagon, and would begin to monitor Israeli arms requests and have them subject to White House and State Department approval.

The decision to evaluate every request by the Israeli military separately 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 emphasized that the back channel transfers were legitimate and did not require a sign-off from President Barack Obama or the State Department.

Hellfire missiles (photo credit: CC BY Wikipedia)

“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 US administration official noted to The Wall Street Journal 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.

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