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White House Undermines Top Israeli Official at Home

The Obama administration’s decision to snub Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon by denying him meetings with top American officials may have had one more purpose beside wanting to punish him for his harsh criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry: to weaken him politically at home. By meeting with not only their counterparts but also ...

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Getty Images
Getty Images

The Obama administration's decision to snub Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon by denying him meetings with top American officials may have had one more purpose beside wanting to punish him for his harsh criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry: to weaken him politically at home.

By meeting with not only their counterparts but also other top U.S. officials, visiting Israeli ministers signal to their political supporters back home that they enjoy close ties with U.S. administrations. On his latest visit to Washington, Yaalon was denied that opportunity last week, with the White House denying his requests to see Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Adding insult to injury, the snubs were leaked to the Israeli news website Ynet and then to the Associated Press.

The latest high-profile American slap in the face already has had repercussions in Israel, with Finance Minister Yair Lapid warning of trouble in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The Obama administration’s decision to snub Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon by denying him meetings with top American officials may have had one more purpose beside wanting to punish him for his harsh criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry: to weaken him politically at home.

By meeting with not only their counterparts but also other top U.S. officials, visiting Israeli ministers signal to their political supporters back home that they enjoy close ties with U.S. administrations. On his latest visit to Washington, Yaalon was denied that opportunity last week, with the White House denying his requests to see Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Adding insult to injury, the snubs were leaked to the Israeli news website Ynet and then to the Associated Press.

The latest high-profile American slap in the face already has had repercussions in Israel, with Finance Minister Yair Lapid warning of trouble in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

"There is a crisis with the U.S. and we should treat it as a crisis," Lapid said, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post. "Relations with the U.S. are necessary and important to the state of Israel and we must do everything in the world to get out of the crisis," he said Saturday at a cultural event in Tel Aviv.

Yaalon, a former chief of staff of Israel’s defense forces who became defense minister in 2013, has not ruled out running for prime minister. Asked about his ambitions, "I don’t know," Yaalon said in an interview published Sunday in the Washington Post. "If the people of Israel want me, I will have to consider it."

The defense minister’s hopes for higher office could suffer if the Israeli public sees him as incapable of repairing — or fears he will further exacerbate — the rocky ties between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. The two leaders have clashed on a variety of issues, most notably over Iran’s nuclear program and the White House’s push for intensive peace talks with the Palestinians.

The rebuff is only the latest between leaders of the two countries. In March 2010, Obama presented Netanyahu with a list of demands, including key ones to halt new Israeli settlements in east Jerusalem, and left the Israeli leader waiting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House while the president went to dinner with his family.

Yaalon, who managed to see Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, has long had his own problems with the administration.

In January, Yaalon said in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that Kerry was  "obsessive and messianic" in regard to his attempts to promote the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. Yaalon went on to say that "the only thing that can ‘save us’ is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace."

Given Yaalon’s strident remarks, it’s no surprise the White House isn’t rolling out the red carpet for him now, said a pro-Israel congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

"There is a limit to how much you can shit all over the White House and expect to get every meeting you want," the aide said. "I don’t know why the Israelis continue to feel the need to express their disagreements in offensive terms with this administration."

Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since World War II, receiving about $121 billion in current dollars, almost all of it in the form of military assistance. In 2014, in addition to the annual $3.1 billion in assistance, Congress provided $504 million for various missile-defense programs.

Although Yaalon has expressed regret for his Kerry comments, there appears to be a feeling in Washington that it was insufficient, a person familiar with the Israeli position said.

Asked about the Yaalon snub, White House spokesman Josh Earnest last week said, "I can’t speak to any meetings that didn’t occur." 

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki pointed out last week that Yaalon’s meeting with Hagel was "a natural, standard procedure," while declining to speak about any other meetings or meeting requests. 

National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said she had nothing to add.

John Hudson contributed to this report.

Gopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @g_ratnam

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