After six weeks of madness, Benjamin Netanyahu stood before Congress and delivered a speech about the nuclear threat posed by Iran. It was a terrific speech. It was not a remarkable speech, because nothing the Israeli prime minister said came as news to anyone who has been paying attention to the issue for the past decade.
What made his speech and its occasion of particular note were the atmospherics. It has been years since an address by a politician in the United States had been so hotly anticipated, and it wasn’t even to be delivered by an American. The anticipation was due entirely to Barack Obama’s incendiary response to the speaking invitation extended to Netanyahu in January by the Republican House leader, John Boehner.
The president’s displeasure and rage continued to grow, to the point that a few days before the speech, no less a personage than National Security Adviser Susan Rice said it would be “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the United States and Israel. On the day of the speech, the Democratic Middle East operative Martin Indyk declared on CNN that it was “the saddest and most tragic day” for the relationship in all his 35 years as a water-carrier.
In this case, we fear, the wish is father to the threat. Susan Rice and Martin Indyk see the relationship between Israel and the United States on a downward spiral because they and their boss want it so. Obama does not like the special status Israel seems to enjoy in the United States—not only because its particularistic and nationalist claim offends him ideologically, but because Israel’s popularity with the American people limits his freedom of action.
The relationship between the United States and Israel is in jeopardy because, from the moment his administration began, Barack Obama has consciously, deliberately, and with malice aforethought sought to jeopardize it. He did so in part because he is committed to the idea that Israel must retreat to its 1967 borders, dismantle its settlements, and will a Palestinian state into existence. He views Israel’s inability or unwillingness to do these things as a moral stain.
But the depth of Obama’s anger toward Israel and Netanyahu suggests that there is far more to it than that. Israel stands in the way of what the president hopes might be his crowning foreign-policy achievement: a new order in the Middle East represented by a new entente with Iran. Netanyahu’s testimony on behalf of his country and his people is this: A nuclear Iran will possess the means to visit a second Holocaust on the Jews in a single day. His testimony on behalf of everyone else is this: A nuclear Iran will set off an arms race in the Middle East that will threaten world order, the world’s financial stability, and the lives of untold millions. Simply put, Obama finds the witness Israel is bearing to the threat posed by Iran unbearable.
Elliott Abrams has called the speech kerfuffle a “manufactured crisis.” He is right, and the assembly line has been rolling without letup for six years.
Barack Obama came into office determined to put daylight between the United States and Israel. A few months after his inauguration, he met with Jewish leaders to discuss growing concerns about the bilateral relationship. One leader, Malcolm Hoenlein, told the president: “If you want Israel to take risks, then its leaders must know that the United States is right next to them.” Obama responded thus: “Look at the past eight years. During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”
Obama sought to make “daylight” almost immediately by picking fights with the new government of Benjamin Netanyahu, who came into office only weeks after Obama’s inauguration. The administration made no secret of its hopes that Netanyahu’s government would fall and be replaced by the supposedly more pliant opposition leader Tzipi Livni.
While the White House and the State Department have consistently portrayed Netanyahu as a man bent on obstructing Obama’s policies, the record shows otherwise. From the start, Netanyahu has sought to accommodate the Obama administration’s wishes as much as possible without jeopardizing Israel’s security.
In May 2009, Obama met with Netanyahu and told him bluntly that “settlements [on the West Bank] have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.” Israel complied; Netanyahu announced a 10-month settlement freeze, which was supposed to trigger a new round of U.S.-led peace talks. But for nine months Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused all invitations to negotiate. In the 10th month, Abbas sat through exactly two talks before abandoning negotiations once again. Yet Obama offered this assessment in a January 2010 interview with Time: “Although the Israelis, I think, after a lot of time showed a willingness to make some modifications in their policies, they still found it very hard to move with any bold gestures.”
Like all its predecessors, the Obama administration is a stern critic of Israel’s West Bank settlements and sees them as an obstacle to peace. But the administration’s particular obsession was not Jews sitting on remote hilltops or in areas many if not most Israelis saw as expendable—but rather the Jewish presence throughout unified Jerusalem. Though no American government had ever recognized Israeli sovereignty over the capital, the Obama administration was the first to consider normal growth in Jerusalem’s 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods (in parts of the city that had been illegally occupied by Jordan, from 1949 to 1967) as a deliberate and outrageous provocation.
This came to a head in the spring of 2010 when a routine announcement of a housing project in one of those Jerusalem neighborhoods (which had specifically been exempted from the freeze) coincided with a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden. Netanyahu found himself on the receiving end of a 43-minute telephone tirade from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She accused Netanyahu of sending a “deeply negative signal” that had “harmed the bilateral relationship.” Such condemnations were repeatedly echoed in the press from multiple administration figures.
The administration clearly hoped its expressions of rage could be leveraged to force Israel to agree to end such construction—and encourage the Palestinians to realize that the United States would back them in negotiations. But rather than isolate Netanyahu, the U.S. attack on Jewish Jerusalem strengthened him, because defending the unity of the city remains one of the few issues on which there is consensus in Israeli politics.
Even as relations continued to deteriorate—Israel’s then-ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, told a group of Israeli diplomats in 2010 that U.S.–Israel relations were at their lowest point since 1975—Netanyahu moderated construction in settlements. By the first half of 2014, Israel was building at its slowest rate since the 2010 freeze. (Indeed, according to Israeli historian and archivist Yaacov Lozowick, no new settlements have been built since 2003.)
In May 2011, President Obama gave a major address responding to the Arab Spring protests, in which he chose to devote the last third to a plan for a new round of Israeli–Palestinian talks—a non sequitur if ever there has been one. The plan was to set the 1967 lines as the starting point for future negotiations. The speech was timed to be delivered the day before Netanyahu was to arrive in the United States for talks. Obama was attempting to force a fait accompli.
Netanyahu earned applause at home and in the U.S. for pushing back against Obama’s idea, which he rightly saw as an attempt to undermine Israel’s negotiating position. Days later, Netanyahu spoke to a joint session of Congress where both Republicans and Democrats cheered him as if he were the second coming of Winston Churchill, a spectacle that was rightly seen as a rebuke to Obama’s slap at the Israelis. (That episode is crucial to understanding the White House’s bitterness about Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress.) And like the previous arguments with Israel, this one would yield no benefits to the United States, since not even this tilting of the diplomatic playing field toward the Palestinians would be enough to nudge them to make peace.
The general antipathy toward the Israeli prime minister led Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl to ask, in November 2011, “Why do Sarkozy and Obama hate Netanyahu?” Diehl was writing on the revelation that Obama and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy had made comments, picked up on a live microphone, about their dislike of the Israeli leader. Diehl pointed out that Obama’s problem with Netanyahu was obviously personal: “Netanyahu has been an occasionally difficult but ultimately cooperative partner. He can be accused of moving too slowly and offering too little, but not of failing to heed American initiatives.”
After this incident, the administration put its campaign against Israel on hold for the duration of the 2012 presidential election campaign. It ceased sparring with Netanyahu and even moved toward Israel on the subject of Iran.
Obama had always stated his opposition to an Iranian bomb, but he had also consistently demonstrated his desire for a rapprochement with Tehran. He was both slow and reluctant to embrace sanctions against the regime. Throughout this period, the administration seemed more anxious about preventing an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities than it was about the nuclear threat itself. But in 2012, the president told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that he would never be willing to merely “contain” a nuclear Iran. And during his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney, he pledged that any possible deal with Iran would require it to give up its nuclear program.
Once reelected, Obama reverted. He unleashed John Kerry, his new secretary of state, to pursue yet another futile quest for peace with the Palestinians. Despite
successful American pressure on Israel to agree to a framework that accepted most of the Palestinians’ demands throughout 2013, Abbas wouldn’t take yes for an answer. He eventually blew up the talks. The Obama administration responded by placing the blame for Kerry’s failure on Israel, arguing speciously that the problem was construction in Jerusalem and in the settlement blocs that would be retained by Israel in any peace deal.
This administration’s willingness to blame the Jewish state under virtually any circumstances was on display again, in the summer of 2014, after rocket barrages on Israeli cities prompted Israel to launch a counterattack on Hamas bases in Gaza. Though the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would later cite Israeli efforts to avoid civilian casualties in the fighting as a model for American troops, the White House and the State Department criticized Israel for the deaths of Palestinians—who were being used as human shields by Hamas. But far worse, and far more suggestive of Obama’s true feelings, was the White House’s decision to try and use arms supplies as a pressure point against Israel.
Throughout the Obama presidency, the president’s defenders (and Netanyahu, in his 2015 address to Congress) have spoken of the strengthening of the so-called strategic relationship with Israel as proof of Obama’s sincere support for the alliance. It is true that Obama continued funding for the Iron Dome missile-defense system initiated under the Bush administration and did not obstruct the fostering of close ties between the two countries’ defense and intelligence establishments. But the Gaza war revealed the president’s discomfort with that closeness. When he realized that the Pentagon, without his express permission, was resupplying Israel with ammunition needed for fighting Hamas, he called a halt to it—supposedly to send a signal he did not think Israel was being surgical enough with its surgical strikes. He denied Israel bullets in the middle of a shooting war.
Meanwhile, the administration’s secret negotiating track with Iran was making progress. And this brings us to the nub of the issue.
The true beating heart of the crisis between Israel and Obama is Iran. The Islamic Republic does not merely harbor genocidal fantasies about annihilating Israel; it boasts of them. The country was founded in 1979 on the theocratic vision of Ruhollah Khomeini, who made the destruction of Israel a defining national objective. More than three decades later, Iran’s leaders remain obsessed with the idea. It is, to their thinking, an unshakable Islamic obligation. As recently as last November, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei publicly outlined a nine-point plan for eradicating the Jewish state.
More important than Tehran’s declarations are its actions. In 2002, an Iranian dissident revealed two secret Iranian nuclear sites, confirming—for those with eyes to see—the mullahs’ pursuit of a nuclear weapon. In 2010, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared that Iran had worked on, or is working on, the construction of a nuclear warhead and has experimented with detonation methods. IAEA inspectors have also found evidence that the Iranians have clandestinely enriched uranium to levels that exceed those needed for civilian energy and approach those required for a nuclear bomb.
Iran’s religious hatred of the Jewish state combined with its apparent pursuit of a nuclear weapon make it Israel’s chief security concern. The overused term “existential threat” is the only one that applies. As ISIS’s recent establishment of an Islamic caliphate shows, the nightmares of committed Muslim radicals can come true.
Obama came to office declaring he would not permit Iran to build a nuclear weapon and that “all options are on the table” for stopping it. Repeating this assurance, he succeeded in getting Israel to refrain from striking Iran on its own. Obama’s record, however, has discredited the suggestion that he would take military action if necessary. He has demonstrated an unyielding faith in diplomacy and seems to regard the use of force as almost necessarily reckless. What’s more, he hoped—and hopes—to use diplomacy to make the Shia theocracy “a responsible member of the international community,” in Susan Rice’s words. This fanciful goal seems to have become Obama’s priority. As his foreign-policy spokesman, Ben Rhodes, said: “This is probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy. This is health care for us, just to put it in context.”
During his first term, Obama reached out to Tehran repeatedly. He went through several third parties to offer Iran access to civilian-grade nuclear energy. The mullahs rejected every overture. Despite Iran’s obstinacy, Obama began his second term covertly imploring the Iranians to sit down for direct talks with the United States. In 2013, Iran elected President Hassan Rouhani, a regime hardliner who had enjoyed a public-relations makeover as a “moderate.” The administration soon announced direct talks between Washington and Tehran, talks that had been planned behind Israel’s back. Netanyahu has been left to look on while the Obama administration chases a dangerous nuclear deal with Iran.1
As Washington crafted its deal, Obama administration officials took the opportunity to taunt Netanyahu for having complied with the president’s request not to strike Iran. “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” an administration official told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. “The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars. It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”
Israel’s prospects for a strike on Iran’s nuclear program have grown dim indeed. First, it’s a technically formidable undertaking. During these past few years, Iran’s nuclear sites have become more diffuse and entrenched. It may well be that the United States alone has the sufficient resources and weaponry to disable Iran’s air defenses and do meaningful damage to its various fortified facilities.
If Israel launches a strike that falls short of disabling the Iranian nuclear program, Israelis would face the same Iranian threat along with grave new problems. In addition to launching direct retaliatory strikes on Israel, Iran might respond by blocking the straits of Hormuz and driving up oil prices. Without the help of the United States, Israel would bear the global outrage (and perhaps punishment) for the resulting destabilization. And although Arab leaders would privately celebrate any blow dealt their Iranian enemy, they too would publicly admonish the Jewish state. This would inevitably further inflame the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel violence that now consumes the Muslim world.
And if the United States has explicitly recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium, Israel would ostensibly be attacking a “legitimate” nuclear-power state against America’s wishes. With the American–Israeli alliance already at such a precarious point, this final act of Israeli disobedience could tear open an almost unthinkable breach in the bilateral relationship.
The fraying of the relationship has only served Obama’s larger purpose vis-à-vis Iran. As his effort to get Democratic members of the House and Senate to boycott Netanyahu’s speech demonstrates, Obama has spent six years implicitly setting up a loyalty test: Democrats will be showing their disloyalty to him if they show support for Israel as it does whatever it can to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.
The breach with the Obama administration illustrates a basic problem within the pro-Israel coalition inside the United States. During the 2012 campaign, Jewish Democrats were able to say that he had strengthened security cooperation between the two countries. Their argument was shaken during the Gaza war in 2014, when Obama cancelled the ammunition resupply.
Even so, the administration succeeded in the first months of 2015 in distracting many Jewish supporters of Israel from the looming bad deal with Iran by focusing their attention on the supposed breach of protocol represented by Netanyahu’s acceptance of Boehner’s invitation. Since most liberal Jews view Boehner and the GOP Congressional majorities with almost as much disdain as they do Israel’s enemies, and since many are not especially supportive of Netanyahu, they were disinclined to back him against the president.
Netanyahu was accused by the administration of injecting partisanship into the U.S.–Israel relationship, but the true culprit here was Obama. He was playing off the fact that his party’s members are far less supportive of Israel than Republicans are.
According to Gallup, support for Israel among Democrats is currently at almost exactly the same level it was in 1988. Now, as was true a quarter century ago, 47 percent of Democrats sympathize with Israel. That was before Israel signed the Oslo Accords, was subjected to an ongoing terror campaign, withdrew from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank unilaterally, publicly declared support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and made three separate final-status offers that would have given the Palestinians a state with its capital in Jerusalem. And before Iran began developing the bomb.
Republicans noticed. In 1988, their sympathy for Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians was at about the same level as the Democrats’; today it’s at 83 percent. Independents noticed as well. In 1988, 42 percent of independents sympathized with Israel; today that number has jumped 17 points to 59.
Israel’s good-faith negotiations and sacrifices for peace in the face of unrelenting terror and incitement won over Republicans and independents. Democrats remain unmoved. That consistency, and the partisan gap it is creating in support for Israel, is far from reassuring.
During the war with Hamas last summer, the Israel Defense Forces uncovered some 30-plus tunnels running from Gaza into population centers in Israel to be used for mass terror attacks against Israeli civilians. The war itself was touched off by steady rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel. Israel’s goal was to stop the rocket fire and neutralize the tunnels, not to overthrow Hamas or retake the Gaza Strip. When those objectives were reached, Israel withdrew.
Yet a CNN poll found that only 45 percent of Democrats considered Israel’s counteroffensive justified, compared with 56 percent of independents and 73 percent of Republicans. According to Gallup, only 31 percent of Democrats considered Israel’s
actions justified. Astoundingly, a Pew poll recorded that Democrats were evenly divided on whether Israel or Hamas was to blame for the war.
Pro-Israel Democrats don’t simply have an ‘Obama problem.’ The president did not create Israel’s status as a wedge issue for his party. He has only exploited it.
Certainly, the supportive voting record of Democratic members of Congress acts as an important check on the rougher treatment Israel would receive from an unfiltered expression of the party’s activist base. But it also masks the anti-Zionist populism so prevalent on college campuses and among leftist political pressure groups, and the anti-Israel sentiments expressed by many black and Latino activists as well.
That filter can’t catch everything, even in this age of scripted politics. During the 2012 Democratic National Convention, it was revealed that references to God and to Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel had been removed from the Democratic Party’s platform. Party officials moved to add the language back in, which required a voice vote from the Democratic Party delegates in the hall. The motion to restore the references was soundly defeated.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was emceeing the proceedings, was visibly shocked. He asked for a re-vote. The motion lost again, with the crowd growing more agitated. Villaraigosa looked off stage for direction. He turned back to the audience, held one more vote, and, amid a hail of boos, declared the motion passed—despite its obvious and raucous defeat for the third time in a row.
The incident was important not only because it showed that the party’s delegates were opposed to traditional pro-Israel language in the party’s platform, but also because that language had been removed in the first place either at the behest or approval of the Obama campaign. Obama’s two presidential campaigns have been notable for their ability to tap into the zeitgeist of the party’s core supporters.
“Obviously, this is much bigger than two men,” CNN’s Dana Bash said on March 1, two days before Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Indeed it is. And it puts American Jews in a bind. American Jews still care deeply about Israel—and still vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Recent polls show a subtle rightward shift, but it is far too early to tell if that shift will stay in place in 2016 and beyond. (Jimmy Carter hemorrhaged Jewish votes in 1980; in 1984, Walter Mondale won most of them back.) Nonetheless, the Democrats are expected to nominate Hillary Clinton, who served as Obama’s secretary of state and has had her own share of dustups with Netanyahu. And veterans of the Obama administration will no doubt staff future Democratic White Houses. Is this, then, the shape of things to come? If the answer is to be no, Jewish Democrats are going to have to do more than find presidential nominees who paper over this internal divide with platitudes.
They will have to address the growing conflict between American Zionism and American liberalism. They will need not happy talk but confrontation of hard truths. That will require recognizing that the momentum is with the Occupy Wall Street protesters’ adopting the Palestinian cause as their own, with the American professoriate shaping higher-education curricula along with the minds and worldviews of their students, and with the progressive activists who fill the arena at presidential nominating conventions and seek to remake the Democratic Party platform in their image.
It means American Jewish organizations are going to have to recognize that it will become more and more difficult to square the circle. AIPAC tried just that in 2014, when it acquiesced to Democratic pressure and did not send out its 10,000-strong team of citizen activists to lobby members of Congress to support new sanctions.
AIPAC was caught between a rock and a hard place, but its leaders surely know they made a terrible error in 2014—and have changed their tune this year. Seen from one perspective, the failure to push sanctions decreased the administration’s leverage at the negotiating table; from the other, it gave Obama the freedom to acquiesce to Iran’s own demands.
On Capitol Hill, opposition to a nuclear Iran has always been as bipartisan as support for Israel. Obama is making every effort to turn it into a partisan issue so that he can peel off enough Democrats to sustain a veto of legislation that would block a bad deal. Netanyahu’s triumph before Congress made his job harder. Israel’s prime minister did what he set out to do—to lay before Congress and the American people the nature of the threat and the danger of such a deal.
Americans who care about Israel, and American Jews who care not only about the Jewish state but also the condition of the Jewish soul in the United States, must now follow his example. We cannot relent in our efforts to fight against those who seek to drive a wedge between Israel and America—on campuses, in the media, within elite institutions, and within both the Democratic and Republican parties. The impending end of Obama’s political career should make it easier for Israel’s government to make its case against appeasement in both 2015 and 2016 as well as shore up wavering American Jewish support. The manufactured crisis Barack Obama began in 2009 is not yet a full-bore crisis either within the Democratic Party or within the American body politic. But it will become one—if this existential threat, this spiritual existential threat to American Jewry, is not dismantled.
1 The salient facts are these: First, the Obama administration agreed to Tehran’s demand that the United States ease sanctions on Iran in advance of any confirmed nuclear agreement. Second, the administration recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium to 5 percent despite the fact that all Iranian enrichment is prohibited by the United Nations Security Council. Third, Iran has ignored negotiation deadlines to win reported concessions that would render the deal pointless. These include the right to 5,000–6,000 working centrifuges, enough to fuel a nuclear bomb within a year. The administration has also reportedly included a “sunset clause,” which could free the Iranians from the strictures of a deal within 10 years.