The Obama administration’s decision to halt a transfer of Hellfire missiles requested by Israel — a decision first reported by The Wall Street Journal and later confirmed by administration officials in both governments — has expectedly raised the level of chatter concerning the U.S.-Israel “crisis.” Several worthy comments (and other less worthy ones) have been made about the incident. I’d like to add some of my own.
A show about nothing — or is it?
The most important and most troubling fact about this leak of sensitive information — a leak that was probably meant to publically put Israel on watch — is that it lacks explainable coherence. Usually, when the strong party of an alliance (in this case, the U.S.) puts the weaker party (in this case, Israel) on watch, there is an immediate reason. The U.S. wants something; Israel is unwilling to accept the American position; the administration puts pressure on Israel; Israel caves (or not).
Consider these two examples:
In August 1982, Ronald Reagan told Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin that the bombing of Beirut “had to stop or our entire future relationship was endangered” (that is how Reagan retold the story of the famous conversation in his diary). The New York Times reported at the time about the conversation, quoting the harsh White House statement: “The President telephoned Prime Minister Begin concerning the most recent bombing and shelling in Beirut. … The President made clear that it is imperative that the cease-fire in place be observed absolutely. … It must hold.”
Next story: Ten years later, the U.S. — this time it was the Bush administration — was pressuring Israel: Halt the settlement-building in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, or you will not get the $10 billion worth of U.S. guarantees that Israel needs for absorbing immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refused to cave, but at least it was clear what the U.S. wants and the price of refusing to play along.
The current punishment is a mystery. We don’t know what it is that the U.S. is trying to achieve by halting the shipment of arms. I see several possibilities (there are probably more):
A. To generally humiliate Netanyahu: Surely, there is no great love between this administration and the Netanyahu government, and holding the shipment can be just one of these tit-for-tat insults with no clear purpose in mind. If this is the case, that’s, well, childish.
B. To try to make Netanyahu more flexible at the Cairo negotiations: If this is the case, it means, as David Horovitz wrote, the U.S. is actively assisting Hamas (Horovitz made an even larger claim — that at this point, any public brawl between the U.S. and Israel serves Hamas).
C. To pressure Israel into doing something else that Israel refuses to do, something that hasn’t yet been made public: If this is the case, we will probably get more hints in the coming days as to the matter under dispute.
If I needed to put my money on one of the options, I’d pick option A — the public humiliation about nothing. This means that the relations between the governments have reached such a low point that they no longer even need a reason to come at each other. Of course, this makes the Obama administration look pretty bad, and its policy unexplainable. Vindictiveness and pettiness are not exactly a sign of a healthy, thoughtful and effective foreign policy. But it should also make the Netanyahu government more worried, because this means that American punishment will now be served without even giving Israel a choice — it will not even give Israel a chance to cave under pressure or withstand pressure.
Obama no longer cares about pretense.
Seth Mandel made the argument (in Commentary), that by halting the shipments the Obama administration lost its “last, desperate defense” on Israel. I’ve heard similar claims from other Americans who are, admittedly, not the greatest Obama admirers.
The argument goes as follows: In the last six years of rocky relations, there were many periods of great tension between the two governments over this or that issue. On such occasions, when the dispute was made public and the Obama administration had to confront questions about its commitment to Israel, it used to argue that on matters of security its support is rock solid. In fact, National Security Advisor Susan Rice made that case just two weeks ago: “Our commitment to protect Israel’s qualitative military edge remains absolute. Just ask Israel’s generals. Our security assistance to Israel is at a record high.” And Israel, for good reasons, played along on many of these occasions — as when Netanyahu, following Obama’s reelection, congratulated him and emphasized the “rock solid” “security relations.”
Truly, the differentiation between “security relations” and other relations is awkward to begin with. Security doesn’t only rely on arms shipments, but also on many other things, among which is the backing of a superpower. If the U.S. sends arms to Israel but wants it to compromise on its security vis-à-vis Hamas, the claim of “rock solid” security relations becomes harder to defend. Yet Mandel’s argument goes further and claims that even if security or defense is narrowly defined, “now we know that the president is not fully committed to Israel’s security.”
Is that true? I am not certain it is, but I think Mandel is on to something.
On the one hand, I don’t think it’s true because a halt of one, or even five, shipments of arms, when Israel can clearly do without them for now, is not yet a clear statement of carelessness regarding Israel’s security. A reasonable defense of Obama’s action would be: 1. If this becomes urgent for Israel’s security he’d release the shipment, and 2. While he did delay a shipment, he has still sent a lot of arms to Israel — possibly more than some predecessors.
So I don’t see a clear-cut case here for “Obama doesn’t care about Israel’s security.” But I do see something else that is quite disturbing: Obama no longer cares if people say that he doesn’t care about Israel’s security.
Let me explain: For six years it was important for the administration to separate “security relations” from “diplomatic relations,” because the separation enabled it to keep wrapping itself in a “supportive of Israel” garment even as it was having bitter fights with the Israeli government. When relations were very tense, the pretense of them being still very strong was important for the Obama administration to maintain. Of course, part of it is because it is true: the relations are still strong. The U.S. and Israel have ties strong enough to sustain a period of tension between the two governments.
Enter the latest report, which ruins it for Obama, or at least significantly damages it. Suddenly, the Obama administration decided to send a blow in the one area that was supposedly a no-entry-zone.
This can mean one of two things:
Either the Obama team realized that Israel pays no attention unless a message is sent in this most-sensitive arena. And it wants Israel to pay attention to something (see the above mentioned three possibilities).
Or the Obama team no longer cares what observers might think about its Israel policy and is no longer troubled about the possibility of losing its main “we-support-Israel” propaganda tool.
If it no longer cares to be seen as supportive of Israel, this is a significant change from what we’ve seen in the last six years. This is a change that is much more significant than one shipment of Hellfire missiles.