White House Diplomacy With Israel Isn’t Just Short-Sighted — It’s Self-Defeating
Three weeks have passed since Jeffrey Goldberg reported that unnamed "senior Administration officials" had called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "chicken$@#" and "a coward." Now that the shock has worn off, it is possible to assess the remark’s significance for U.S. foreign policy. Although this episode certainly does not represent a high point in ...
Three weeks have passed since Jeffrey Goldberg reported that unnamed "senior Administration officials" had called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "chicken$@#" and "a coward." Now that the shock has worn off, it is possible to assess the remark’s significance for U.S. foreign policy.
Although this episode certainly does not represent a high point in U.S.-Israeli relations, it is not quite the nadir Goldberg and others paint it as. A 2013 Gallup poll showed that 64 percent of Americans sympathize with Israel as opposed to 12 percent supporting Palestinians. Similarly, in a July 2014 Pew Research Center poll, Americans blamed Hamas for this summer’s violence by a greater than two-to-one margin. This public support for Israel is reflected in Congress, where both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed resolutions supporting Israel’s right to self-defense, condemning Hamas’s rocket attacks, and denouncing the United Nations "biased" report, and the House passed the bill providing $225 million in emergency aid to Israel for its Iron Dome defense system 395-8. As Martin Indyk noted in his recent Foreign Policy interview, the fundamentals of the U.S.-Israel relationship are strong, and "in the security relationship and the intelligence relationship, those ties have developed over the years to the point that they are now deep and wide."
Instead, these remarks are noteworthy because they epitomize the Obama administration’s propensity for undermining its strategic objectives in the pursuit of short-term tactical gains, a tendency that seems to recur time and time again in its diplomacy with Israel.
Broadly speaking, the Obama administration has articulated three primary strategic objectives in the Middle East: 1) Preventing the emergence of significant terrorist threats, 2) brokering a negotiated two-state settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and 3) preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability. Except for a few disagreements over the means to achieve them, these objectives enjoy broad, bipartisan support. (Our former-National Security Council colleague Michael Doran makes a strong case that President Obama actually seeks a broader reorientation of U.S. policy towards a regional détente with Iran. While not discounting this possibility, I think that given increased financial sanctions against Hezbollah and robust arms sales to the Gulf Cooperation Council nations it is equally plausible that what appears to be a one-sided détente is part of the means to achieve the president’s desired end of a legacy-cementing nuclear deal rather than an end in and of itself.)
The administration, however, has repeatedly made achieving these objectives more difficult due to its inability to see beyond a very short time horizon or to consider the second-order effects of its actions. Nowhere is this self-defeating tendency more pronounced than in the Administration’s conduct during this summer’s 51-day war between Israel and Hamas.
For example, despite the administration’s commitment to defeating terrorism, it handed Hamas its only operational victory when it allowed the Federal Aviation Administration to ground all U.S-to-Israel air travel for 24 hours because a Hamas rocket landed over a kilometer away from Ben Gurion Airport. Putting aside the astoundingly small chance of an unguided munition hitting a plane, this decision was taken despite the fact that Hamas had been targeting Israel’s main airport since the start of the conflict. By gifting this victory to Hamas, the administration incentivized terrorist groups to threaten global air traffic, an especially dangerous scenario given reports of the Islamic State possessing MANPADS.
Similarly, the administration gave Hamas a significant propaganda win by accusing Israel of indifference towards civilian casualties during Operation Protective Edge (OPE). Although General Martin Dempsey has noted the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a team to study OPE which found that the Israeli Defense Forces made an exemplary effort to avoid civilian casualties in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict, other administration spokespersons such as Jen Psaki have subsequently disputed the military experts findings and reiterated the claim that Israel was negligent. In doing so, the administration has effectively rewarded Hamas for using human shields. This merely encourages other terrorist groups to use similar tactics when fighting Western democracies, something we already see the Islamic State doing in response to U.S. airstrikes in Syria.
Perhaps the administration believed that ending the conflict as quickly as possible was necessary to fight terrorism in the Middle East. After all, Secretary of State John Kerry recently asserted that the lack of an Israeli-Palestinian accord contributed to the rise of extremism associated with the Islamic State. Yet the Secretary’s diplomacy during OPE significantly undermined the already tenuous chances of reaching such an accord. If there is ever going to be a stable Israeli-Palestinian settlement, Hamas must be demilitarized so that it cannot play spoiler to the peace process. Yet rather than empowering Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) — whose leader Mohammad Abbas President Obama believes is Israel’s best hope for peace — Kerry’s proposed ceasefire would have recognized Hamas as the legitimate authority in the Gaza Strip, and would have shown Palestinians the way to gain concessions from Israel is through missile and terror attacks rather than through negotiations. David Ignatius was likely correct when he wrote that, "Kerry’s mistake isn’t any bias against Israel, but a bias in favor of an executable, short-term deal." But by circumventing the PA and appearing to salvage its mortal enemy Hamas, Secretary Kerry lost Fatah’s trust, made Israel feel less secure, and hence badly undercut his larger goal of brokering a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
Finally, whether the Obama administration seeks to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout through a multilateral agreement or, if necessary, via airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it will need to the support of our regional allies. Yet its diplomacy during OPE further undermined these partnerships. Secretary Kerry’s ceasefire proposal would have resuscitated Hamas — he did so by going through Qatar and Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood’s only supporters in the region, and excluding other regional partners such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, who seek to neutralize the Brotherhood and its Palestinian wing, Hamas. These allies noticed that Kerry’s decision not to demand Hamas’s disarmament meant Obama administration policy on Gaza was more closely aligned to Iran’s than their own. Conversely, the White House took the unusual step of holding up arms shipments to Israel for further review during the height of the conflict. As Elliott Abrams has noted, "Interfering in the flow of arms to an ally who is under fire . . . [undermines] the confidence in the White house not only in Jerusalem, but in every allied capital."
Creating doubt about America’s commitment to its partners undermines the administration’s broader goals regarding Iran’s nuclear program in two ways. First, by making Israel feel less secure, it increases the likelihood Israel will unilaterally strike Iranian facilities. Whatever the pros or cons of such an operation, it would end any possibility of a nuclear deal acceptable to the administration and possibly spark a broader conflict the administration seeks to avoid. Alternatively, if a deal is reached that leaves Iran as a threshold nuclear state, America’s diplomatic snub of its allies creates more incentives for them to pursue a similar capacity, thereby triggering a nuclear race in a region not known for its stability. Worse, it would increase the possibility of the nightmare scenario in which one of the region’s many extremist groups obtain fissile material.
Thus, although the tactical objectives the administrative pursued during OPE — airline safety, fewer civilian casualties, a cease-fire — were desirable in a vacuum, the conflict did not occur in such isolation. As with their diplomacy this summer, the administration’s schoolyard taunts of Prime Minister Netanyahu (courageously done through anonymous quotes, of course) once again demonstrates its shortsightedness. Do these officials think such comments will make Netanyahu more willing to take risks with regards to the Palestinians? This is unlikely, as history shows Israeli leaders are more likely to make concessions in negotiations with the Palestinians when they feel strongly supported by the White House. With regards to Iran, given that the administration libeled those who sought additional sanctions if nuclear negotiations failed as warmongers, they presumably do not want to goad Netanyahu into launching a preemptive strike. By asserting — as they do to Goldberg — that Israel is not capable of successfully conducting such an operation, they have undercut their own negotiating leverage by removing a possible threat of force against Iran from the equation. After Netanyahu had accepted increased risk to Israel’s security by complying with Obama administration demands by foregoing pre-emptive strikes on Iran and releasing Palestinian terrorists just to get Abbas to negotiate, this repayment with insults will make our allies in the region reluctant to accept more risk on our behalf regarding Iran as a threshold nuclear power.
One hopes that the Obama administration will consider the effects of its actions beyond its remaining two years — or at least beyond the next news cycle — as it responds to the current violence in Jerusalem, the upcoming deadline for the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and the host of other foreign policy crises to emerge in the past year. Unfortunately, given its propensity to undercut its ability to achieve vital U.S. strategic objectives in order to gain the short-term satisfaction of poking an occasionally frustrating ally in the eye, there may be little reason for optimism.
Benjamin Runkle is the Director of Programs for the Jewish Institute on National Security Affairs. He previously served in the George W. Bush administration at the Department of Defense and on the National Security Council Staff.