Daniel W. Drezner

Israel’s clear-eyed, short-term strategic calculus

Israel’s clear-eyed, short-term strategic calculus

Omer Taspinar provides a hard-headed analysis for why Israel refused to apologize to Turkey for the flotilla folderol despite the strategic costs: 

At the end of the day Israel decided not to apologize not because of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s stubbornness or Benjamin Netanyahu’s difficult domestic situation and sliding popularity. To be sure, factors related to domestic politics and the need to save face played a certain role. Yet, the real reason behind Israeli behavior is very simple. Tel Aviv decided that the apology would not solve problems with Turkey. According to the strategic assessment in Israel, it seemed that the relationship with Turkey was broken beyond repair. An apology would have allowed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an to declare victory without really changing the structural flaws that have emerged in the bilateral partnership since 2006. The fact that Turkey was not only demanding an apology and compensation but also an end to the embargo over Gaza is very telling for the Israelis. This showed that normalization with Turkey was almost impossible as long as the Turkish government indexed its relations with Tel Aviv not just to bilateral factors but also to the Palestinian question. In that sense, from the Israeli perspective, Turkey set the bar too high. As a result, the Netanyahu government came to the conclusion that, even in the aftermath of an apology that would have been quite costly in terms of Israeli domestic politics, there was no return to the golden age of Turkish-Israeli strategic relations in the 1990s.

This sounds about right — Netanyashu believes that Israel has no permanent friends, only permanent preferences.  

This should be kept in the back of the mind when reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s signal flare to the Israeli security establishment article on the extent to which Netanyahu has pissed off everyone in the Obama administration

In a meeting of the National Security Council Principals Committee held not long before his retirement this summer, Gates coldly laid out the many steps the administration has taken to guarantee Israel’s security — access to top- quality weapons, assistance developing missile-defense systems, high-level intelligence sharing — and then stated bluntly that the U.S. has received nothing in return, particularly with regard to the peace process.

Senior administration officials told me that Gates argued to the president directly that Netanyahu is not only ungrateful, but also endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel’s growing isolation and with the demographic challenges it faces if it keeps control of the West Bank. According to these sources, Gates’s analysis met with no resistance from other members of the committee….

Gates’s feelings about Netanyahu are particularly consequential, in part because he’s not considered hostile to Israel, and in part because he’s a well-regarded figure who articulated bluntly what so many people in the administration seem to believe. Gates declined to comment for this column through his former spokesman, Geoff Morrell. But Morrell told me that Gates “worked extremely hard throughout his four and half years as secretary of defense to address Israel’s security concerns.”

OK, here’s the thing, however — as Goldberg himself demonstrates, the Obama administration has continued to carry a lot of water for Israel at the United Nations and elsewhere, despite being so cheesed off.  If the Netanyahu administration can continue to act in a completely unconstrained manner towards the Obama administration, what incentive do they have to start constraining themselves?  Why should Israel alter it’s behavior? 

Goldberg offer the following:

Dislike of Netanyahu has deepened in a way that could ultimately be dangerous for Israel. Time after time, the White House has taken Israel’s side in international disputes — over the UN’s Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza; over Israel’s confrontation with the pro-Hamas Turkish “flotilla,” in which nine people were killed; and on many other issues.

Yet the Netanyahu government does little to dispel the notion among its right-wing supporters that the Obama administration is at best a wavering friend. This is self- evidently foolish, especially at a time when Israel faces an existential threat from its menacing neighbor Iran.

I have no inside information about the Netanyahu regime’s internal thinking, but I’d wager that it sounds something like this: 

1)  All else equal, we prefer an administration that’s ideologically sympatico with us — which, in the current moment, means neocon-friendly Republicans;  

2)  The likelihood that Obama will be re-elected in 2012 is diminishing by the day;

3)  Through our strategy of bitching to the media about Obama, we have succeeded in getting every viable GOP contender for president to complain that Obama is "throwing Israel under the bus."

4)  No U.S. administration, regardless of party, wants Iran to wipe Israel off the map.  

5)  Given (1), (2), (3) and (4), why on earth should we do anything differently? 

Now, Goldberg is implying that there will be domestic repercussions in Israel for this — see here for more.  Maybe he’s right.  But based on the Israeli public’s response to past dust-ups with the Obama administration, the Israeli leadership’s short-term decision-making calculus seems pretty accurate.  As for the long-term, well, you know that Keynes saying….

Am I missing anything?