The new US-Israeli quarrel. How bad is it, really?

The withholding of a missile shipment is nothing to worry about, an ex-defense minister says. Others call it a ‘very serious rupture’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The apparently less-than-happy relationship between the Israeli government and the American administration is once again dominating local headlines, after The Wall Street Journal revealed Thursday that the White House had suspended a shipment of Hellfire missiles to its closest ally in the Middle East.

How bad is it this time? The personal relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama is known to be frosty, so does the “particularly combative phone call” the two leaders had Wednesday, according to the paper, really signify a new crisis?

Does the “additional care” Washington is taking now before delivering weapons to Israel, as State Department spokesperson Marie Harf described it Thursday, herald a new nadir in ties? This kind of “additional care” is paid to arms deliveries “in any crisis,” Harf claimed, adding that it’s “by no means unusual and, again, does not indicate any change in policy.”

And what to make of the anonymous name-calling in the Journal piece?: “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 newspaper 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.”

Among Israeli pundits, evaluations of the suspended shipment, combative phone call, anonymous sniping incident range all the way from “Move along, there’s nothing to see here” to “Be afraid, be very afraid.”

In the “Move along” camp, former Likud defense and foreign minister Moshe Arens said the episode can’t even be considered a crisis. “I’ve no doubt that it’s going to pass,” he told The Times of Israel. “There’s no need to worry.”

Udi Segal, the diplomatic correspondent of Israel’s Channel 2, suggested that the suspension of the missile deal is Washington’s way to pay Jerusalem back for the harsh criticism of Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry. Rather than indicating a fundamental shift in American defense policy vis-à-vis Israel, it could be understood as the latest round in a tit-for-tat that both sides think is beneficial to them.

“Netanyahu needs to show his right-wing coalition that he’s tough with the US. But that, at the same time, the Obama administration is pressuring him and he can’t go through with every military maneuver he dreams of,” Segal wrote, together with his colleague Yonit Levi, in a blog post for The Times of Israel.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, feels obliged to censure Israel, not only because it’s genuinely worried about the high death toll in Gaza, but also because the casualties are caused by “American planes flown by pilots trained with American money,” Segal and Levi wrote. “So at least they must appear upset. (From that perspective, even The Wall Street Journal report stating the Obama administration has tightened its control on arms transfers to Israel suggests a belated attempt to divert attention from the fact that it was American-made missiles falling on Gaza throughout the operation,”) they argued.

‘Many mistakes were made on both sides of the Atlantic’

Former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, who served as Israel’s ambassador in Washington from 2002 until 2006, said Netanyahu should bite the bullet, meet Obama “at the earliest possible time,” and try to repair whatever damage was done over the last few weeks.

“No, it’s not a major crisis yet, but it’s a signal that we might be on the verge of a larger crisis,” Ayalon said. “This is why it is important to straighten out the relationship. We don’t want it to get out of hand.”

Many mistakes were made on both sides of the Atlantic, Ayalon said, but the onus is on Israel to ensure this spat doesn’t turn into something bigger that could cause yet more harm to the crucial bilateral relations.

Former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, October 23, 2012. (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)
Danny Ayalon (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)

“I can tell you there were also many crises, but we contained them,” Ayalon reminisced about his time as Israeli envoy to Washington. In 2006, for example, then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was “furious” about Israel’s deadly airstrike on the village of Qana, during the Second Lebanon War, he recalled. In her anger, she refused to authorize a planned shipment of bunker busting bombs from the US to Israel. “I called her, we reasoned, and then she signed it,” Ayalon said. “Nothing leaked to the press. That intimacy and mutual trust is what’s missing now.”

Even Ronald Reagan, widely considered one of the friendliest US presidents from an Israeli perspective, withheld delivery of F-16 jets because he was unhappy about Israel’s bombing of Beirut during the First Lebanon War in 1982. “There was a temporary embargo on arms shipments to Israel,” Ayalon noted. “It’s not something that is unique or unprecedented. But it has to be taken care of immediately.”

‘There are certain things you don’t do. And Obama crossed the red line’

Other observers, though, are firmly in the “Be afraid” camp, and consider The Wall Street Journal’s report to reflect more than just a quarrel that can be settled with a visit to Washington and a few nice words.

“It’s a major crisis. Suspending the supply of weapons to Israel during a war is an unusual occurrence,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israeli relations at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “It’s a very serious rupture in the mutual relations between the two countries.”

While it has happened before that the US denied Israel, for a few days, the arms it requested, the current conflict is of an entirely different quality, Gilboa posited. It reveals the levels of mistrust and perhaps personal animosity that exist between Netanyahu and Obama. And in this respect, the current US administration acts differently than all its predecessors, Gilboa said. “The personal factor has taken over. That should not be the case. Interests should dictate relations, and not personal whims.”

Netanyahu’s appointment of Ron Dermer as ambassador to Washington may have exacerbated the bad blood that already existed between him and Obama, Gilboa suggested. Dermer, who is known to sympathize with the Republican Party and is believed to have encouraged Netanyahu to support Mitt Romney before the 2012 elections, “could be part of the problem,” according to Gilboa. “I think it was a mistake to select him.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem. July 29, 2012. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Jerusalem. July 29, 2012. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Defenders of Obama’s Middle East policies routinely argue that, despite his disagreements with Netanyahu on issues such as Iran and the settlements, he never let such differences impinge on the bilateral defense relationship. Obama has frequently been described as the most supportive US president Israel has ever known, in terms of military assistance. “This can no longer be argued,” Gilboa said.

(Harf, the State Department spokesperson, said Thursday that despite the reluctance to send Israel the desired Hellfire missiles, Washington “has an unshakable commitment to Israel’s security.” Just last week, she pointed out, Obama signed a bill providing Israel an additional $225 million for the Iron Dome missile-defense system.)

The administration undeniably has several grievances with Jerusalem: the way it conducted the US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinian Authority; its harsh public criticism of Washington’s Iran course; anonymous leaked attacks on John Kerry and other senior American officials; Israel’s indignation over efforts to have Turkey and Qatar mediate a ceasefire with Hamas — rather than Egypt — during the Gaza military campaign; and so on and so forth.

According to Gilboa, however, none of that should justify the extraordinary step of withholding the Hellfire missiles in the midst of an Israeli war on Gaza’s terrorist government.

“Anger is not a strategy. You’d expect a superpower to overcome anger and frustration. But it seems that this is not the case,” Gilboa opined. “Nobody in Israel would have expected that to happen,” he said, referring to the suspended arms shipment. “There are certain things you don’t do. And Obama crossed the red line.”

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