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March 4, 2015 11:23 am

Obama is the Problem in US-Israeli Relations

avatar by Morton A. Klein and Daniel Mandel


President Barack Obama. Photo: White House.

In an interview on the PBS television ‘Charlie Rose’ program, President Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress on the issue of Iran’s looming nuclear threat had “injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate, I think it’s destructive of the fabric of the [U.S./Israeli] relationship.”

Nothing can further from the truth: it’s Obama’s partisanship that has produced a crisis in relations between the White House and Jerusalem, not Netanyahu’s – and the record shows it.

Obama doesn’t mind foreign leaders speaking to Congress – as long as they support his policies. That’s why he was happy for British Prime Minister David Cameron to do just that. But he deeply objected to Mr. Netanyahu critiquing his Iran policy to Members of Congress. It is not hard to see why: Netanyahu demolished the Obama claim that negotiations with Iran are going to lead to a deal that stops Iran going nuclear.

Yet, in truth, even that isn’t the reason Obama has refused to meet Netanyahu during his visit. People forget that, without any upcoming speech to Congress to rationalize his pique, Obama also declined to meet Netanyahu during his September 2012 visit to the U.S.  Yes, there were tensions back then, too – Obama was pressing Israel not to militarily strike Iran, to which Netanyahu acceded – but this only shows that policy, not merely personalities, is driving the friction between them.

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Indeed, Obama has elevated to crises disagreements that previous administrations tamped down.  Obama has continually criticized and even “condemned” as anti-peace Israel merely announcing the building of homes in Jewish neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem – a bipartisan Israeli policy – that would remain Israeli under any conceivable peace agreement.

Conversely, there has been no condemnation of the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas for incitement to hatred and murder – though the Obama Administration  said it would hold it accountable. Last week, a U.S. federal court held the PLO and Abbas’ PA are liable for six terrorist attacks in Israel that killed and wounded Americans more than a decade ago – but Obama has been silent about this.

The record of six years shows a president who has often spoiled for a spat with Israel over policy disagreements, involving refusal of photos ops; Netanyahu being compelled to exit the White House by a side entrancehaving to cool his heels while Obama took dinner without him; an unidentified aide (never fired or reprimanded) calling Netanyahu a “chickenshit” and “coward” – for acceding to Obama’s demand that Israel not strike Iran, of all things –  and other petty indignities which seem to be the hallmark of Obama’s meta-language towards insufficiently pliant allies.

Similarly, recall former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, of the United Kingdom, who in March 2009 received  no White House dinner, no family get-together, and an impromptu media conference, instead of the traditional joint press conference. Worse, in September 2009, Brown’s five requests for a private meeting with Obama were humiliatingly turned down.

The current problem therefore does not lie in Netanyahu accepting an invitation from the House Speaker to address Congress. Rather, it goes to the heart of Western security, which is why Congress was entitled to seek and hear the views of the prime minister of the country that stands to be most drastically affected by Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state.

Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, a liberal Democrat who twice campaigned for Obama, put it well last week in the Wall Street Journal: “Congress has every right to invite, even over the president’s strong objection, any world leader or international expert who can assist its members in formulating appropriate responses to the current deal being considered with Iran regarding its nuclear-weapons program … [it] is in the highest tradition of our democratic system of separation of powers and checks and balances.”

That’s why Obama’s overwrought efforts to cast Mr. Netanyahu’s acceptance of the invitation to address Congress as a partisan slap in the face ring hollow. The issue is entirely a product of President Obama’s policy on Iran, which engenders bipartisan concern in Israel. Put simply, President Obama seems willing to tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapons threshold capacity – but Israel is not.  Thus, veteran Israeli analyst, Ehud Yaari, an Israeli Labor Party supporter, actually urged Israeli Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog to accompany Netanyahu to Congress.

Moreover, the Israeli Prime Minister is scarcely alone in finding Obama’s approach deeply troubling. A McLaughlin poll only the other day found that 59% of Americans supported Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, while only 23% opposed. The sheer hollowness of the Obama Administration’s criticism of the Netanyahu speech is admirably laid bare when one recalls Obama’s homilies on the duties of honesty and forthrightness that allies owe to each other over policy differences.

Has not Obama said that allies sometimes have the obligation to speak out, even when their advice is uncomfortable? Did he not tell Jewish leaders that “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel might be necessary? This would seem to be such a moment. It’s just that President Obama only ever imagined himself advising Israel, not Israel advising him.

Morton A. Klein is National President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Dr. Daniel Mandel is author of H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel (London: Routledge, 2004) and  Director of the ZOA’s Center for Middle East Policy.

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