Wednesday, March 17, 2010
The fake U.S.-Israel crisis: Obama's flawed response to an ally's gaffe
The word is that the decision to hammer Bibi Netanyahu on Friday for Israel’s settlements screwup last week came directly from President Obama.
He was apparently very upset at the seeming contempt the Israelis showed for the vice president and by extension for the president himself and his administration. In addition, Obama, like many of his top aides, felt that the Israeli action was undermining U.S. standing at a critical time in American efforts to both advance the "peace process" and to weave together tough, effective international sanctions on Iran.
Here's the problem: This is one of those diplomatic flareups that may trigger fire drills in the governments and polemic fireworks from pundits but which, upon analysis, is really much less than meets the eye. It's actually a fake crisis.
First, of all, on the face of it the Israeli action seems genuinely to have been much more of a screwup than a calculated affront. And if someone was trying to undercut the U.S.-Israel relationship, it seems certain they represented a fringe group and not the Netanyahu government. Subsequent statements of defiance by Netanyahu regarding building within Jerusalem were more in response to U.S. efforts to make additional political hay out of the dustup than they were related to the initial misstep.
Second, there is no real "or else" backing up U.S. demands for a reversal, an inquiry and the offering of a meaningful olive branch to the Palestinians. Obama, with few foreign-policy accomplishments to point to thus far in his young presidency, needs the peace process at least as much if not more than Netanyahu does. Time and leverage are, for the near term at least, on Netanyahu's side ... which is one reason why the U.S. government is opportunistically trying to use this crisis as a pretext to gain concessions out of the Israelis in advance of talks with the Palestinians.
Further, the United States can't really turn its back on Israel and embrace the Palestinian side any more closely than it has because there is really no there there. And were the United States to ally itself more closely to the Palestinian position (as I believe some at high levels wish they could), the administration knows they would inevitably find the Palestinian authorities made gaffes of the magnitude of this most recent Israeli blunder on an uncomfortably frequent basis -- thanks to the fact that the Palestinian government is more defined by rifts than by meaningful accomplishments.
Finally, most importantly, the U.S. argument that the Israelis need to be seen to be more quietly cooperative with U.S. efforts or Obama won't be able to effectively stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program is undercut by the fact that the United States won't, in the end, actually stop the Iranian nuclear program. We just don't have the domestic will or the international support to do so. Just as each successive deadline for Iranian compliance with international cease and desist requirements has evaporated so too will the illusions that the U.S. can engineer anything like effective sanctions against the Iranians in an effort to penalize them for their noncompliance.
Containment is rapidly replacing engagement as the false hope on which the U.S.-Iranian relationship will be built. (Engagement was dependent on the other side wanting to engage back. Containment is dependent on the government or some other rational actor exercising effective control over all nuclear warheads. Neither precondition will, I'm afraid, prove to have been sufficiently certain to warrant betting our vital interests on it.) In any event, when the Iranians do ultimately go nuclear, the United States will want and need a strong relationship with Israel more not less.
This has created the current, almost bizarre, set of circumstances. Everyone, including the Israelis, agree Netanyahu's government made a big-league error last week. (In a way, it's a real breakthrough: finally something that everyone on all sides of the Israeli-Arab divide can agree on.) But the reaction of the United States, regardless of all the robust language and diplomatic dressing down of top Israeli officials, is indicative of weakness not of strength.
The bigger message that will be unintentionally have been delivered to the world at the end of all this is that the United States is willing to get fierce with its friend Israel over a perceived insult but that we are likely to remain ineffective in the face of self-declared Iranian enemies' efforts to destabilize the entire Middle East with nuclear weapons. This is not only a problem for the president because the outcome is so dangerous. It's also that "tough on your friends, weak with your enemies" is neither a common trait among great leaders nor is it a particularly good campaign bumper sticker.