About the hostility of the Obama administration to Israel there is no longer room for honest doubt. A few weeks back, President Obama commiserated “privately” (albeit via an open mike) with French President Sarkozy about the tribulations of dealing with a “liar” like Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Obama one-upped Sarkozy with the plaint, “I have to deal with him every day.” And over the last two weeks, senior administration officials have been taking their own private musings public.
Most significantly, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dismissed the idea that the instability confronting Israel on every border makes it impossible for Israel to contemplate further territorial concessions at present. The time is always right for Israeli withdrawals, Panetta implied, urging Israel “to get back to the _____ bargaining table.” In the same speech, Panetta did everything possible to assure the Iranian leadership that the United States will never employ military force to stop the Iranian nuclear program.
Next up, Howard Gutman, U.S. ambassador to Belgium and a major Obama fundraiser, insisted that one must distinguish between historical anti-Semitism (bad) and the hatred of Israel shared by Muslims around the globe (fully understandable.)
Finally, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton got into the act. In a private gathering at the Saban Center, she worried aloud about the anti-democratic trends in Israeli society and the increasing segregation of Israeli women, which, she said, put her in mind of Iran.
NO LESS ALARMING THAN THE hostility towards Israel that underlies these remarks was the ignorance and stupidity exposed. The Obama administration came into power firmly in the so-called “realist” camp of foreign policy of whom some of the leading avatars are Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zgbiniew Brzezenski, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. (The latter two are the authors of the infamous The Israel Lobby.) Chief among the fixed verities of the “realist” school is that Israel lies at the heart of most of the world’s problems, and certainly those of the Middle East, and that America’s interests lie in drawing closer to the Muslim world.
No amount of empirical observance, it would seem, could ever force a reexamination of that axiom. For if there is one thing that Arab Spring — whose initial promise (for some) has now given way to a dark Arab Winter — demonstrates it is that the deformities and backwardness of the Muslim Middle East have nothing to do with Israel. That backwardness pervaded the Middle East before Israel came into being, and would continue to plague the Middle East if Israel were to disappear tomorrow. The overthrow of the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and the threatened end of the forty plus year rule of the Assads in Syria has nothing to do with Israel. The uprisings in each of those countries revealed the extent of the internal grievances of subject Muslim populations and the magnitude of the fissures in Arab society.
Yet for the realists, the subject never changes; it is always Israel. No matter how topsy-turvy the region, no matter how hostile the states and semi-states on Israel’s borders, it is always the perfect “time for Israel to take bold action and to move towards a negotiated two-state solution,” as Panetta put it in his speech at the Saban Center for the Study of the Middle East at the Brookings Institute. He did not even allude to the fact that Israel has expressed its eagerness for two-party talks, without pre-conditions, since the onset of Obama presidency, and imposed a ten-month moratorium on building in Judea and Samaria and even parts of Jerusalem beyond the 1949 armistice lines in order to induce the Palestinian Authority to return to the bargaining table. The Palestinians have unequivocally refused, most recently this past Sunday, when Foreign Minister Saab Erekat rejected direct two-party talks. But, in Panetta’s mind, the onus is always on Israel.
Another of the realist school’s failures to comprehend reality is its inability to take seriously the power of religious sentiments. Thus the Obama administration has recently pressured the ruling Egyptian junta to turn over power to the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged as the largest party in the recent elections. It is blithely sanguine about the Muslim Brotherhood to which Hamas proudly traces its descent. The lessons of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran or the 2006 elections in Gaza have failed to make the slightest dent in the administration’s thinking.
Nor does the Obama administration recognize that Turkey under Erdogan is hardly a status quo power. Erdogan seeks to reassert historical Turkish dominance of the region in the form of a new Ottoman caliphate. The transformation of Turkey from a staunch ally of Israel to declared enemy is not the result of some diplomatic misunderstandings, but rather of Erdogan’s Islamist ambitions. Relations with Turkey are not within Israel’s power to mend, as Turkey’s failure to accept the findings of the U.N. commission on the Gaza flotilla make clear. Erdogan severed those relations to position himself within the Muslim world.
Panetta described Israel’s “isolation from its traditional security partners [i.e., Turkey] in the region,” and called upon upon Israel to mend those breaches. As veteran Middle East analyst Barry Rubin of the Gloria Center put it, he might as well have been Neville Chamberlain in 1938 advising Czechoslovakia to mend relations with “traditional security partners” and to reach out to those who share an interest in regional stability.
LESS SIGNIFICANT but even more jaw-dropping were the remarks of the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, to the European Jewish Conference. Gutman, who is the son of a Holocaust survivor, blamed Israel for the hatred of Jews in Europe today, and insisted on the distinction between traditional Jew hatred and contemporary Arab hatred of Jews. In his words, “every new settlement announced in Israel” and “every retaliatory military strike,” provides a setback “for those fighting hatred and bigotry in Europe.”
If Israel must absorb 8,000 rockets fired at its civilian population between 2000 and 2008 to forestall “hatred and bigotry in Europe,” I would suggest that those qualities are already well-ensconced. To deny Israel alone among nations the right to defend its citizens from attack is itself an expression of anti-Semitism, not its cause.
If Gutman believes that the settlements are the source of Arab anti-Semitism, he should read Paul Berman’s The Flight of the Intellectuals on the intellectual antecedents of Tariq Ramadan, a European Muslim academic and grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Those antecedents include the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who found a comfortable mesh between Islam and Nazism as a Nazi propagandist during the Holocaust. Arab anti-Semitism, even in its modern garb, preceded the state of Israel by decades, and in some respects by over a millennia. Islam’s rejection of foreign sovereignty on any speck of land that was once under Islamic sovereignty is not of recent derivation. Neither are the hadiths of Mohammed that feature prominently on Palestinian TV today, in which inanimate objects beckon faithful Muslims to come and kill the Jew hiding behind them at the end of time. To be sure there are other strands in Islam with respect to Jews, but modern Muslim anti-Semitism has a rich lode of material upon which to draw.
FOR ITS SHEER GRATUITOUSNESS, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s musing at the Saban Center about anti-democratic trends in Israeli society and its treatment of women, which puts her in mind of Teheran, take the cake. I doubt that she knew much or cared a fiddle about the supposedly anti-democratic laws proposed in the Knesset. One, for instance, would move Israel’s method of judicial selection slightly closer to the American model and away from Israel’s anomalous process of judicial selection, in which sitting justices pick their successors or future colleagues. And my own suspicion is that if European Union or individual European governments were providing much or most of the funding for American non-profits calling for the overthrow of the United States government, that the administration would take umbrage, and move to limit the funding activities of government actors, or, at the very least, ensure that they were fully transparent.
Clinton’s comments on the status of women in Israel were equally uninformed and equally wide of the mark. She fretted that women in Israel are being marginalized because some religious soldiers walked out of a performance by a female choral group. But, even from her point of view, that is nonsense. Female singers in the IDF will continue. The real issue is one of religious accommodation to the beliefs of religious male soldiers: Will religious soldiers be forced to listen to performances of female singers completely unrelated to any military duty or resign from the IDF?
The Secretary of State professed to also be dismayed about sexually segregated buses in Israel. I happen to think that the issue of segregated Egged buses is an unnecessary waste of time and energy. I would prefer to see the government permit private chareidi companies to provide segregated buses for those who desire them. But to suggest that such buses tell us anything about the status of women in Israel is a bit of a stretch. Few non-chareidi women ever ride on such a bus. Even on the direct lines between Bnei Brak and Jerusalem not all lines are segregated.
From a feminist point of view, the status of women in Israel is far in advance of America. As Mrs. Clinton well knows, Israel had a woman prime minister forty years ago; America has yet to elect its first. And for better or worse, the overwhelming majority of Israeli women serve in the IDF. Even the briefest stroll down the street in Israel would be sufficient to convince Mrs. Clinton that the dress codes of Teheran are not about to be imminently applied in Israel.
THE ABOVE EXAMPLES GO FAR in revealing the attitudes of the Obama administration to Israel, as well as the weaknesses of its conceptual framework for dealing with the Middle East. But the most worrisome recent development. or non-development if you will, has been the total lack of urgency displayed by the Obama administration about the Iranian nuclear program. In the above mentioned speech, Panetta effectively signaled to Teheran that the United States would never employ military means to foil its plans. As Secretary of Defense, he allowed, it would be a dereliction of duty not to have some military options in the pipeline, but in the main he continued to insist on the efficacy of sanctions and diplomacy, both of which have demonstrably failed to deter the Iranians so far.
To understand the extent of the administration’s apathy, it is useful to watch Senator Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.) berate the hapless State Department and Treasury officials sent to Capitol Hill to lobby against a Senate amendment that would close the United States financial system to foreign financial institutions that deal with Iran’s Central Bank. Such a step would make it much more difficult for Iran to sell its oil. Yet the administration lobbied hard for inclusion of two presidential waivers in the amendment. And even then, the administration continued to oppose the amendment, which eventually passed the Senate without a single opposing vote.
Senator Menendez, a faithful liberal Democrat, went ballistic over the administration’s opposition, after he and Senator Mark Kirk (R.-Ill.) agreed to include in the amendment two waiver provisions, if the president either finds that there will be a series shortage of oil as a consequence of imposition of sanctions or a threat to national security.
That waiver suggests that President Obama fears a rise in world oil prices, and its impact on his re-election chances, more than a nuclear Iran. Yet the impact of an embargo of Iranian oil would have far less of an impact on world oil prices, than would a nuclear Iran able to control the 25% of world oil that flows through the Straits of Hormuz, or an Israeli military strike at Iranian nuclear sites. The ayatollahs can be forgiven for sensing that President Obama would repeatedly exercise his waiver, and thus take one of the most effective possible sanctions out of his quiver.
The question is no longer what the Obamites think about Israel. The only question is why do they continue to reveal their attitude so openly in an election year in which the Jewish vote will be essential if the President is to win re-election.
Originally published in Yated Ne’eman.