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August 1, 2014 1:29 pm

Can Obama Pressure Israel Effectively?

avatar by Yoram Ettinger


President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House. Photo: Screenshot.

Contrary to the position adopted by U.S. President Barack Obama and all U.S. presidents since 1948, Congress has displayed systematic and sweeping bipartisan support for the Jewish state, constituting one of the very few bipartisan consensus topics on an otherwise highly polarized Capitol Hill. In fact, since the conclusion of the 1993 Oslo Accords — when Israel ceded the Gaza Strip and 40 percent of Judea and Samaria to the PLO — many U.S. legislators have taken more hawkish positions on Israel than many Israeli prime ministers.

Under the U.S. political system of limited government and checks and balances — and unlike all other democracies — the executive branch (the president) is balanced by the legislative branch (the Congress), which is independent of the president, possessing the power of the purse and the muscle (but not always the will) to amend and suspend presidential policies, as well as to initiate its own domestic, foreign and national security policy.

Congress has demonstrated its foreign policy and national security muscle — in defiance of presidential policies — by ending the U.S. military involvements in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia (the Eagleton, Cooper and Church Amendments), Angola (the Clark Amendment) and Nicaragua (the Boland Amendment); forcing the USSR to open its gates to free emigration (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment); suspending the supply of airborne warning and control systems to Iran on the eve of the Khomeini revolution; refusing to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; upgrading U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation in a significant manner; providing Israel with advanced military systems; and forcing the Obama administration to prevent a U.N. Security Council condemnation of Israel in February 2011.

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Obama would like to resolve the Palestinian issue by squeezing Israel into the 9- to 15-mile pre-1967 sliver along the Mediterranean, including the repartitioning of Jerusalem. However, he does not consider the Palestinian issue to be as much of a priority as are the debt ceiling, Medicare, entitlements, immigration/amnesty, gun and energy reforms, the appointment of Supreme and Federal Court judges, and so on, which require the support of all Democratic legislators, most of whom have been systematic supporters of Israel. Obama will not sacrifice the cooperation of his fellow Democrats on the altar of the Palestinian issue.

Moreover, U.S.-Israel relations do not revolve around the Palestinian issue. U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation is flourishing despite the disagreement between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue. Furthermore, the much deeper gap between Israeli and American leaders between 1948 and 1992 did not prevent the dramatic expansion of commercial and military cooperation. America’s national security and economic interests — and its bilateral ties with Israel — transcend the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue, which has never been a top Arab priority, and whose limited impact on regional developments is illustrated by the Arab Tsunami, which is completely independent of the Palestinian issue.

The anti-U.S. Arab Tsunami (gullibly dubbed the “Arab Spring”) on the one hand, and the U.S.’s shrinking power-projection on the other hand, have underscored Israel’s unique role as the U.S.’s only stable, predictable, reliable, capable, democratic and unconditional ally in the Middle East. Israel’s growing contribution to vital U.S. interests has transformed U.S.-Israel ties into a mutually beneficial, win-win, two-way street.

For example, while the U.S. generously assists Israel’s procurement of Iron Dome batteries, Israel has shared with the U.S. the Israeli-developed Iron Dome technology, which is a cutting edge, short-range missile defense technology, enhancing U.S. national security. In addition, the U.S. is manufacturing an increasing share of Iron Dome and will be the sole exporter of that unique system. Israel has become the battle-tested laboratory of the U.S. defense industries, sharing with U.S. defense contractors thousands of operational, maintenance and repair lessons, which have upgraded the quality of U.S. defense systems (fighter jets, tanks, armed personnel carriers, robots, UAVs), expanding U.S. employment, enhancing U.S. research and development and increasing U.S. exports to the tune of billions of dollars.

Even if Obama had the power to pressure Israel effectively, he would not do so before the November 2014 mid-term “itch” election, which traditionally does not bode well for second-term presidents, who are historically weaker than during their first term. Being perceived as hostile to Israel — at a time when Israel enjoys the support of most Americans, while Obama’s approval rating is trending downward — would undermine the campaigns of House and Senate Democrats and jeopardize the chance of sustaining the fragile Senate Democratic majority. The loss of the Senate majority would turn Obama into a lame-duck president until January 2017.

All Israeli prime ministers, from David Ben-Gurion (1948) through Yitzhak Shamir (1992), defied severe American pressure — which dwarfed the current tension between Obama and Netanyahu — while possessing slimmer military, economic, demographic and diplomatic assets. Their steadfastness and defiance triggered short-term tension, but produced long-term strategic respect toward Israel’s posture of deterrence, tenacity and conviction-driven leadership. On a rainy day, the U.S. is better off with a defiant, rather than a feeble, ally.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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