Hebrew Media Review

The Mideast’s growing frustration with Obama

Papers Friday focus on the value of being a US ally, given the reported NSA eavesdropping on 35 world leaders, and the recent Iranian rapprochement

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

President Barack Obama briefs reporters at the White House in October. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama briefs reporters at the White House in October. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

After outlasting the Republicans in the government shutdown battle, it’s been a rough patch for US President Barack Obama, and Israel’s newspapers are not about to let him forget it. The Obamacare troubles are of less interest to the Hebrew media Friday — it’s the reaction in Europe and the Middle East to America’s foreign policy that is garnering front page coverage.

Israeli newspapers are taking two challenges currently facing the Obama administration — the NSA eavesdropping in Europe, and the reaction in the Middle East to the president’s outreach to Iran — and presenting them as a pattern of America’s allies growing frustrated and starting to push back in unprecedented ways.

The Guardian newspaper in the UK dropped a bombshell this morning on its front page, alleging that the NSA is listening to 35 world leaders’ private conversations, causing a storm of anger among America’s European allies. Earlier, German daily Der Spiegel found that the NSA was listening to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone conversations, prompting an uncomfortable phone call between Obama and Merkel. The Israeli newspapers covered those revelations, and pivoted from there to add the Israeli angle.

Maariv leads with an exclusive interview with former Mossad head Danny Yatom, using a quotation, “The Americans are also listening to us,” as the headline. The article, featured prominently on page 2, reveals Yatom’s perception of the US attitude toward spying on its friends.

“The US doesn’t heed anyone…” says Yatom. “It is entirely possible that this also happening by us, because every time the Americans think they need to listen to something, they do it.”

Yotam explains that there are two issues around which the Americans are likely spying on Israel — negotiations with Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear program. “It is important for them to know what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really thinks… They have interests here because they want to be able to contend with Israeli claims that arise when talking about these issues,” the ex-Mossad chief explains.

“The Americans rightly see themselves as a superpower, but wrongly feel that they can do whatever they want, including the eavesdropping.”

It is no coincidence that on the facing page, Maariv places the story on Sunni and Israeli disillusionment with America’s Iran outreach. “The alliance between the US and the Sunni world is collapsing. Saudi Arabia and Israel are standing shoulder to shoulder facing Washington on the Iranian issue,” reads the front page underline leading to the story.

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon are convinced that if sanctions on Iran are intensified now, Tehran will crack, Maariv writes. They are counting on Congress to ramp up sanctions even as Obama lobbies them to hold off while he pursues talks with the Islamic Republic. The article says that senior Israeli officials have been complaining that the US government simply doesn’t understand that they are being lied to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“We are telling them Der Balak [an Arabic slang term that means ‘you dare not’ in Israel],” says Yaalon. “Don’t be seduced, Western leaders, by the Iranian charm offensive…We are warning about this because we see signs in the West of ‘They’re suddenly speaking nicely, there’s a change in Iran, let’s move toward them.’”

It also quotes the Saudi intelligence chief who said that his country is facing “a meaningful change in its policies,” that could reshape its cooperation with the US over the Iran issue. Israelis refused to confirm that the two countries are working together to stop Iran’s nuclear push.

Haaretz also puts the NSA Guardian story on the front page. In addition, the Israeli newspaper runs an opinion piece by the Guardian’s Julian Borger, provocatively entitled, “What value is there in being an American ally?’

“The question that stands out is what does it mean to be an American ally in the 21st century?” Borger writes. “Germany and France are partners in NATO and their soldiers fought and died next to American soldiers in Afghanistan. Mexico is running a bloody war against drug cartels with the US, and for it. The President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, whose telephone was also tracked by the NSA, may have criticized America in the past, but she certainly isn’t an enemy.”

Though Yedioth Ahronoth also ties the NSA eavesdropping debacle to the lack of trust in America’s Iran policy, the newspaper does not give the story as prominent a billing as did its competitors. Yedioth chooses to give more prominent coverage to a mob hit in Ashkelon and Bibi’s reported plan to build more settlements to pacify his right wing as he releases more Palestinian prisoners.

“But it’s not only in Europe where the US is losing friends,” writes Yedioth. “Also in the Arab world it is taking fire from two of its oldest allies: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The crisis between Washington and Cairo — especially since the military took power from President Morsi in July — seriously harmed the trust the Egyptian leadership had in the American president.

“But most of the criticism toward Obama comes from the direction of Saudi Arabia, which is furious at the US for its negotiations with Iran. It is no coincidence that this week the Saudi intelligence head said that the Obama administration ‘is conducting a shabby policy’ in the Middle East and that ‘Saudi Arabia should consider an alternative policy’ toward the United States.”

Israel Hayom does not have the NSA story on its front page at all, leading instead with the mafia assassination in Ashkelon on Thursday and a poll the newspaper conducted in which it found that over 80% of Israelis do not want indicted mayors to be allowed to run.

An opinion piece from Boaz Bismuth on the spying scandal sees the European reaction as something of a show.

“What can Paris, Berlin, and Rome actually do?” he asks. “Not much. Declare war on the United States? Expel ambassadors?” He then quotes the former head of France’s internal security service who called the European reaction hypocritical.

“America eavesdrops just like France eavesdrops.”

In addition to foreign policy, the newspapers all feature stories on Ghassan Alian, 41, a Druze IDF colonel who will be the first from his community to command the storied Golani infantry brigade. The Shfaram resident is not the first Druze commander of an active-duty infantry brigade, however. Brigadier-General Imad Fares commanded the Givati Brigade more than a decade ago.

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