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How Obama Abandoned Israel

Netanyahu and the president both made mistakes, but only one purposely damaged U.S.-Israel relations.

ED-AT755_oren_J_20150615173437By Michael B. Oren

‘Nobody has a monopoly on making mistakes.” When I was Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to the end of 2013, that was my standard response to reporters asking who bore the greatest responsibility—President Barack Obama or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—for the crisis in U.S.-Israel relations.

I never felt like I was lying when I said it. But, in truth, while neither leader monopolized mistakes, only one leader made them deliberately.

Israel blundered in how it announced the expansion of Jewish neighborhoods and communities in Jerusalem over the border lines that existed before the Six Day War in 1967. On two occasions, the news came out during Mr. Netanyahu’s meetings with Vice President Joe Biden. A solid friend of Israel, Mr. Biden understandably took offense. Even when the White House stood by Israel, blocking hostile resolutions in the United Nations, settlement expansion often continued.

In a May 2011 Oval Office meeting, Mr. Netanyahu purportedly “lectured” Obama about the peace process. Later that year, he was reported to be backing Republican contender Mitt Romney in the presidential elections. This spring, the prime minister criticized Mr. Obama’s Iran policy before a joint meeting of Congress that was arranged without even informing the president.

Yet many of Israel’s bungles were not committed by Mr. Netanyahu personally. In both episodes with Mr. Biden, for example, the announcements were issued by midlevel officials who also caught the prime minister off-guard. Nevertheless, he personally apologized to the vice president.

Mr. Netanyahu’s only premeditated misstep was his speech to Congress, which I recommended against. Even that decision, though, came in reaction to a calculated mistake by President Obama. From the moment he entered office, Mr. Obama promoted an agenda of championing the Palestinian cause and achieving a nuclear accord with Iran. Such policies would have put him at odds with any Israeli leader. But Mr. Obama posed an even more fundamental challenge by abandoning the two core principles of Israel’s alliance with America.

The first principle was “no daylight.” The U.S. and Israel always could disagree but never openly. Doing so would encourage common enemies and render Israel vulnerable. Contrary to many of his detractors, Mr. Obama was never anti-Israel and, to his credit, he significantly strengthened security cooperation with the Jewish state. He rushed to help Israel in 2011 when the Carmel forest was devastated by fire. And yet, immediately after his first inauguration, Mr. Obama put daylight between Israel and America.

“When there is no daylight,” the president told American Jewish leaders in 2009, “Israel just sits on the sidelines and that erodes our credibility with the Arabs.” The explanation ignored Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and its two previous offers of Palestinian statehood in Gaza, almost the entire West Bank and half of Jerusalem—both offers rejected by the Palestinians.

Mr. Obama also voided President George W. Bush’s commitment to include the major settlement blocs and Jewish Jerusalem within Israel’s borders in any peace agreement. Instead, he insisted on a total freeze of Israeli construction in those areas—“not a single brick,” I later heard he ordered Mr. Netanyahu—while making no substantive demands of the Palestinians.

Consequently, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas boycotted negotiations, reconciled with Hamas and sought statehood in the U.N.—all in violation of his commitments to the U.S.—but he never paid a price. By contrast, the White House routinely condemned Mr. Netanyahu for building in areas that even Palestinian negotiators had agreed would remain part of Israel.

The other core principle was “no surprises.” President Obama discarded it in his first meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, in May 2009, by abruptly demanding a settlement freeze and Israeli acceptance of the two-state solution. The following month the president traveled to the Middle East, pointedly skipping Israel and addressing the Muslim world from Cairo.

Israeli leaders typically received advance copies of major American policy statements on the Middle East and could submit their comments. But Mr. Obama delivered his Cairo speech, with its unprecedented support for the Palestinians and its recognition of Iran’s right to nuclear power, without consulting Israel.

Similarly, in May 2011, the president altered 40 years of U.S. policy by endorsing the 1967 lines with land swaps—formerly the Palestinian position—as the basis for peace-making. If Mr. Netanyahu appeared to lecture the president the following day, it was because he had been assured by the White House, through me, that no such change would happen.

Israel was also stunned to learn that Mr. Obama offered to sponsor a U.N. Security Council investigation of the settlements and to back Egyptian and Turkish efforts to force Israel to reveal its alleged nuclear capabilities. Mr. Netanyahu eventually agreed to a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction—the first such moratorium since 1967—and backed the creation of a Palestinian state. He was taken aback, however, when he received little credit for these concessions from Mr. Obama, who more than once publicly snubbed him.

The abandonment of the “no daylight” and “no surprises” principles climaxed over the Iranian nuclear program. Throughout my years in Washington, I participated in intimate and frank discussions with U.S. officials on the Iranian program. But parallel to the talks came administration statements and leaks—for example, each time Israeli warplanes reportedly struck Hezbollah-bound arms convoys in Syria—intended to deter Israel from striking Iran pre-emptively.


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