Obama Has Been Great for Israel

Anyone who tells you otherwise is distorting reality.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

A recent Mitt Romney campaign commercial takes U.S. President Barack Obama to task for not visiting Israel during the first three-and-a-half years of his presidency. The television ad, complete with footage of the former Massachusetts governor thoughtfully contemplating the Western Wall in Jerusalem, declares that Romney "will be a different kind of president — a strong leader who stands by our allies." A similar spot by the Emergency Committee for Israel, an advocacy group that backs Romney, charges that Obama has "traveled all over the Middle East. But he hasn’t found time to visit our ally and friend, Israel.… As the dangers to Israel mount, where’s Obama?"

This line of attack represents a kind of election-year Jedi mind trick — an attempt to use the power of suggestion to create the illusion that Obama does not support Israel. But, as a recent Washington Post analysis shows, the stamps in a presidential passport are an extraordinarily poor yardstick for measuring policy.

For more than six decades, the Jewish state has enjoyed wide bipartisan backing in the United States. Yet seven of the last 11 presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman (who famously recognized Israel’s independence minutes after it was declared), never made the trip. Of the four who did visit Israel, two (Richard Nixon and George W. Bush) did so only in their last year in office. What’s more, as the Post‘s review of State Department records shows, every president who visited Israel did so only after first visiting Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

So if trekking to Tel Aviv is the exception rather than the rule, why would Romney and his allies resort to such a substance-free metric to criticize Obama’s Israel policy? Because, it’s all they have. As the Defense Department official with primary responsibility for enhancing Israel’s defense capabilities and deepening joint military cooperation with the United States from 2009 to 2011, I can attest to a different reality: No president in history has done more for Israel’s security than Obama.

The case for Obama’s Israel policy begins with record-high levels of Foreign Military Financing (FMF). The Obama administration has increased security assistance to Israel every single year since the president took office, providing nearly $10 billion in aid — covering roughly a fifth of Israel’s defense budget — over the past three years. To put this in perspective, this is about 20 percent higher than the remaining six dozen recipients of U.S. FMF combined. Historic aid levels have been complemented by other steps to ensure Israel’s unrivaled military advantage in the region, including high-level consultation with Israeli officials on U.S. arms sales to the region, operational cooperation to improve Israel’s conventional military and counterterrorism capabilities, and providing Israel with advanced technology, such as the fifth-generation stealth Joint Strike Fighter, to which no other state in the Middle East has access.

Under Obama’s direction, the United States has also deepened defense cooperation aimed at helping Israel address its most pressing security concerns, including rocket and missile threats emanating from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. When then-Senator Obama traveled to Israel in 2008, it wasn’t for a political fundraiser. Instead, he visited Israeli victims of Palestinian rocket fire in the southern town of Sderot, declaring "I came to Sderot with a commitment to Israel’s security." These were not just words. As president, Obama has championed efforts to provide Israel with $275 million over and above its annual FMF to help finance Iron Dome, an anti-rocket system that has already saved Israeli lives by intercepting approximately 90 percent of projectiles launched against protected areas in the country’s south in the past year.

This assistance is part of a comprehensive package that underwrites Israel’s multitiered rocket and missile defense. The package includes U.S. aid for the development of the David’s Sling long-range rocket defense system and the Arrow ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. It also involves maintaining an advanced U.S. X-band long-range radar system in Israel’s Negev desert, positioning U.S. Aegis BMD ships in the eastern Mediterranean, and conducting the largest joint military exercises in history to improve U.S.-Israel missile defense cooperation.

During my nearly three years at the Pentagon, I traveled to Israel 13 times and participated in more than 100 meetings with senior Israeli civilian and military officials. Although Israel was only one of 14 countries in my portfolio, no other country received that level of attention. My experience represented a small fraction of the high-level interactions between our respective defense and national security establishments. This sustained pattern of security cooperation — which Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has described as "wide, all-encompassing, and unprecedented" — was not simply an example of bureaucratic inertia. On the contrary, it was the result of a clear directive from the president to strengthen defense ties and ensure Israel’s security in a dangerous world. That is likely why Barak, when asked at a recent forum whether Obama is a friend to Israel, responded: "Yes, clearly so."

Beyond efforts to build Israel’s military capabilities, Obama has attempted to shape a regional and international environment that enhances Israel’s security over the long haul. This accounts for his commitment to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace. At times, the process has been frustrating, and for the moment it appears stalled. But Obama has stuck with it out of a passionate conviction that both Israeli security and the Palestinian quest for dignity depend on it.

When Romney visited Israel in July, many commentators hammered him for what he said, including his comments declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital — a statement at odds with the longstanding tradition of reserving judgment on the city’s official status until it is resolved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Even more contentiously, Romney’s suggestion at a Jerusalem fundraiser that Israeli culture explains economic disparities between Israel and the Palestinian territories drew fire from Palestinians for his apparent insensitivity, from social scientists for his misunderstanding of culture, and from others who pointed out that Romney’s explanation ignored the economically debilitating effects of Israeli occupation.

But what is more interesting than what Romney said on his trip is what he didn’t say. Although Romney claims to support a two-state solution, he said nothing about the issue while in Israel, and he has never outlined his vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. (On the contrary, when Obama outlined parameters for a final peace accord in 2011 that were consistent with the general formula discussed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators for years, including secure and recognized borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps and a nonmilitarized Palestinian state, Romney accused him of "throw[ing] Israel under the bus.") Romney’s silence persists even though the majority of Israelis support two states for two peoples, and there is wide and deep bipartisan agreement in the United States that peace is both in the U.S. national interest and in the interest of the two parties. Given demographic realities, many Israelis understand that it will be difficult to maintain Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state in the decades ahead if the Palestinians do not achieve statehood. And, given the volcanic eruption of populism across the region associated with the Arab Spring, a peace deal with the Palestinians is absolutely essential to avoid Israel’s growing isolation in the years ahead. So, how can a candidate running on the claim that he will support Israel’s security completely ignore the issue?

Even as Obama has pressed all sides to make peace, he has stood shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish state in the face of mounting international challenges. As uprisings swept over the Arab world, the administration made clear to Egypt’s new leaders that U.S. aid was conditioned on Egypt continuing to abide by its peace treaty with Israel. And when an angry mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last September, Obama personally and directly intervened with Egypt’s military to ensure the safety of Israeli diplomats.

I remember sitting in my Pentagon office that night when the phones started ringing off the hook from the White House. "You have to get Secretary [of Defense Leon] Panetta on the phone with [Egyptian Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi, now," a senior National Security Council staffer urged. "We may only have 20 to 30 minutes before it is too late." The call was part of a five-alarm fire drill orchestrated by the president to ensure that every possible avenue of communication and influence was directed at the Egyptian military. And it worked. Afterward, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "I requested his [Obama’s] assistance at a decisive — I would even say fateful — moment. He said he would do everything possible, and this is what he did. He activated all of the United States’ means and influence — which are certainly considerable. I believe we owe him a special debt of gratitude. This testifies to the powerful alliance between Israel and the United States."

These are not isolated examples. Time and again, Obama has mobilized the diplomatic might of the United States to protect Israel, even when doing so generated substantial criticism abroad. Obama has consistently defended Israel at the United Nations, rejecting the unbalanced Goldstone report, defending Israel over the Gaza flotilla incident with Turkey, and blocking Palestinian attempts to circumvent direct negotiations with Israel and impose an outcome through early recognition of statehood. In doing so, Obama has repeatedly shown his willingness to shield Israelis from international efforts aimed at isolating and delegitimizing the Jewish state.

Obama has also taken aggressive action to counter the threat Israeli leaders describe as their No. 1 national security concern: Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Obama has repeatedly stated that an Iranian nuclear weapon is "unacceptable," and he has committed to using all instruments of U.S. power — economic, diplomatic, intelligence, and military — to prevent, not contain, this outcome. In a deft example of international jujitsu, Obama leveraged his administration’s initial engagement efforts with Iran — which the regime in Tehran rejected — to build international consensus for historic multilateral sanctions, gaining the support of European powers, Russia, China, and other key countries for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929. The administration then methodically worked with Congress and like-minded states in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East to put in place even more crippling measures aimed at Iran’s financial, transportation, and energy sectors. (Romney charges that the administration acted behind the scenes to water down oil sanctions, but the administration’s deliberate approach was actually designed to avoid a spike in oil prices that might have otherwise harmed the U.S. economy and inadvertently provided windfall profits to Tehran.) These sanctions — which have cut Iranian oil exports in half, have cost the Iranians billions of dollars in revenue every month, have increased inflation, and have caused the value of Iran’s currency to plummet — have finally pushed the regime back to the negotiating table. No breakthrough has yet occurred, but as time passes, the pressure continues to build.

Obama clearly prefers a diplomatic outcome to the crisis, seeing it as the most sustainable solution. But he has also made clear that all options, including military force, remain on the table to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold should diplomacy fail. Both the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have stated that the United States possesses a viable military plan in the event of a conflict with Iran. And the president has authorized additional military deployments to the Persian Gulf to ensure the option is credible.

Romney frequently talks tough on Iran (though his hawkish advisors are even more trigger-happy). But the actual specifics of Romney’s approach — commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons backed by tough sanctions and a credible threat of force — are simply a description of Obama’s current policy masquerading as criticism. In an effort to distinguish his policy, Romney has implied that his red line for military action would be Iran’s development of a "nuclear weapons capability," whereas for Obama, the line appears to be an Iranian move toward actual weaponization. But if the mere capability to build nukes is Romney’s line in the sand, then get ready for a war on day one of a Romney administration: U.S. intelligence officials contend that Iran already has the technical know-how to produce nuclear weapons at some point should the regime choose to do so. Seeking further product differentiation, some in Romney’s campaign have turned to the question of a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program. During Romney’s overseas trip, Dan Senor, his top Middle East advisor, suggested that a President Romney would greenlight an Israeli attack. The candidate walked the claim back somewhat, but then Alex Wong, his top foreign-policy aide, re-re-clarified that Romney would not repeat Obama’s "mistake" of publicly discouraging an Israeli attack. Of course, the loudest voices publicly discouraging an attack are former Israeli intelligence and security officials. These officials argue that Israel only has the military capability to delay the Iranian nuclear project by a year or two and that an attack might even accelerate the regime’s motivations to fully weaponize the program. Privately, reports suggest that many former senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers share this view. Likewise, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the current IDF chief of staff, and Tamir Pardo, the head of the Mossad, apparently oppose a near-term, unilateral strike

Obama has made it clear that Israel has the right to defend itself. The president, however, also believes that force should remain a last resort and that time remains to pursue a diplomatic solution before pulling the trigger. Iran has made substantial nuclear gains, but sanctions and technical difficulties have slowed that progress and the Islamic Republic is not on the verge of getting a bomb. Credible estimates suggest that it would take Iran at least one year from the point of a political decision by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to produce a crude nuclear device — a decision U.S. intelligence officials say he has not yet made. Moreover, because Iran would have to use declared facilities to produce fissile material for a device, inspectors would likely catch any diversion of uranium and enrichment to weapons-grade level. Knowing this, the supreme leader is unlikely to make a sudden move anytime soon. In a recent interview, Defense Minister Barak agreed that Khamenei had not yet issued an order to go for a bomb (a view also shared by Gantz), adding that any Iranian nuclear breakout attempt would likely be detected by Israeli and Western intelligence services in time for military action.

Although Romney clearly wants to insert Israel into this year’s campaign, his overall critique of Obama’s Israel policy is basically groundless. But it is worse than that — it is also potentially dangerous. The attempt by Romney and his allies to turn the U.S.-Israel partnership — a relationship that is rooted in both strategic interests and shared values — into an election-year wedge issue is both cynical and reckless. As Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have repeatedly observed, Israel has long enjoyed deep and wide support from both sides of the aisle. Yet, by playing politics with Israel, Romney risks transforming the bipartisan backing for Israel that Obama has worked so hard to preserve into just another partisan food fight. Dragging Israel into America’s political muck is bad for America and bad for Israel.

Colin H. Kahl is the inaugural Steven C. Hazy senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies' Center for International Security and Cooperation and a strategic consultant at the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. From 2009 to 2011, he served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. In 2011, he was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service by Secretary Robert Gates. He lives in Redwood City, CA. with his wife and two children. Kahl is a co-editor of Shadow Government. Twitter: @ColinKahl