Obama and Israel: Time for a reset

Ed Ross Contributor
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Is a U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) briefing team from Gen. David Petraeus, rather than Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and Vice President Joe Biden’s embarrassment in Israel, at the heart of the current rift in U.S.-Israel relations, or is it just an excuse?

According to a March 13 post by Mark Perry in “The Middle East Channel” on the Foreign Policy Web site on Jan. 16, senior military officers from CENTCOM briefed Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen on General Petraeus’ growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict issue.

Perry says “The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing ‘stunned’ Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM’s mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that [Middle East Special Envoy George] Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) ‘too old, too slow…and too late.’”

Mullen reportedly took this information to the White House, which, according to Perry, landed “like a bombshell,” and “the Obama administration decided it would redouble its efforts—pressing Israel once again on the settlements issue, sending Mitchell on a visit to a number of Arab capitals and dispatching Mullen for a carefully arranged meeting with the chief of the Israeli General Staff, Lt. General Gabi Ashkenazi.” Surely, Israel would understand how all this impacted America’s status in the region?

Again, according to Perry, the Israelis didn’t, and when they announced they would build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem while Biden was in Israel, Biden had a heated private exchange with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden reportedly told Netanyahu; “What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.” The not-so-subtle implication was that Israel’s intransigence is costing American lives.

President Obama, I’m sure, reinforced this during Netanyahu’s recent visit to the White House where the Israeli prime minister’s reception was cold to say the least. Netanyahu returned to Israel like a child that had been sent to his room without dinner to think about his bad behavior.

I don’t doubt reports about the substance of the CENTCOM briefing or General Petraeus’ concerns. However, I doubt it stunned Mullen, and I question Perry’s assessment that it hit the White House like a bombshell. More likely, it was received as welcome news, providing President Obama with a pretext for getting tougher with Israel.

Admiral Mullen travels in the Middle East and meets regularly with Arab leaders. He’s heard the same complaints Petraeus has heard many times, and Mullin, like Petraeus, isn’t easily “stunned.” Arab leader’s dissatisfaction with U.S. Israel policy is nothing new to either of them or to the White House.

More important, however, it’s not Israeli settlements that have brought Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to a halt, but Obama’s insistence that even “natural growth” in East Jerusalem had to stop. Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have taken place while Israeli construction was ongoing in the past. The Obama administration decided long before the CENTCOM brief to turn up the heat on Israel and make stopping construction a condition for talks.

As Charles Krauthammer pointed out last June in the Washington Post after Obama’s Cairo speech, “Blaming Israel and picking a fight over ‘natural growth’ may curry favor with the Muslim ‘street.’ But it will only induce the Arab states to do like [Mahmoud] Abbas: sit and wait for America to deliver Israel on a platter.”

Not surprisingly, the Obama administration’s attempt to force Israel to stop new construction in disputed areas as a prerequisite for talks has been a failure. Rather than admit that it had made a mistake, however, it appears the Obama administration has decided to continue turning up the heat, and the CENTCOM briefing provided it an excuse.

That’s not to say that Netanyahu isn’t a problem. He had previously called U.S.-backed peace talks “a waste of time,” and until a speech in June 2009, he refused to commit to the same two-state solution as had other Israeli leaders. President Obama, no doubt, believes that the Netanyahu government is an obstacle to peace.

As The Atlantic columnist Jeffery Goldberg points out, Obama’s goal is to “force a rupture in the governing coalition that will make it necessary for Netanyahu to take into his government [Tzipi] Livni‘s centrist Kadima Party (he has already tried to do this, but too much on his terms) and form a broad, 68-seat majority in the Knesset that does not have to rely on gangsters, messianists and medievalists for votes.”

And then there’s Iran and its nuclear program. President Obama has to worry about Netanyahu ordering an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Tense relations between the U.S. and Israel might make it more difficult for Netanyahu to do that, providing the Obama administration another reason to get tough.

Is getting tough with Israel, however, and in the ham-handed manner the White House has done it, the right strategy? A crisis in U.S.-Israel relations only weakens Israel, and weakening Israel, even when its government pursues policies Washington doesn’t like, emboldens Israel’s enemies and heightens its sense of insecurity. That doesn’t advance the cause of peace, the security of Israel, or U.S. interests in the Middle East or the Islamic world.

The Obama administration is big on “resets.” It needs to reset the U.S.-Israel relationship quickly. Washington has ample means behind the curtain to influence the Israeli government. Perhaps if President Obama spent an evening with former presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush they could enlighten him.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace.