Why Israel Still Can’t Trust That Obama Has Its Back
By Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic, March 7, 2012 -
When the President of the United States repeatedly says he’s got your back, and in precisely those words, what more can you ask for?
Yet as I read Obama’s interview with Jeff Goldberg in The Atlantic, then his speech to the AIPAC convention, and finally reports of his meeting with Netanyahu, I felt increasingly uneasy. True, Obama went farther than he ever has in reassuring Israel of his commitment to stopping a nuclear Iran. He explicitly mentioned the military option. He upheld Israel’s right to defend itself. He articulated the reasons why a nuclear Iran would be disastrous—from an accelerated nuclear arms race in the Middle East to the threat of a nuclear suitcase in the hands of terrorists. He affirmed, in other words, what we in Israel have been warning about for years.
Why, then, the unease? Because Obama wasn’t speaking primarily to Iran but to Israel. Even when he seemed to be warning Tehran, he was really warning Jerusalem. His goal these last days hasn’t been so much to deter them but us. The headlines got it right: Cool down the war talk. Give sanctions—and diplomacy—a chance.
If this were, say, two years ago, that would be a reasonable request. But it has taken Obama the better part of his first term to finally put in place serious sanctions—and at this late date, the sanctions may still not be strong enough to work. Speaking to AIPAC, Netanyahu implicitly responded to Obama: We gave diplomacy a chance for a decade, and sanctions for the last six years. If you’re asking for more time—when we are now looking at Iran achieving nuclear capacity in months rather than years—the sanctions had better be tougher.
Writing in The New York Times on Friday, Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies suggested one scenario for effective sanctions: “a complete United Nations-imposed oil embargo enforced by a naval blockade, as well as total diplomatic isolation.” And, he added, the West must unambiguously warn Iran that it is “willing to inflict devastating harm.”
Obama’s main argument for why Israel and its American friends should trust him on Iran is because he has been Israel’s most dependable ally all along. Look at my record, he’s argued. I believe Obama is a friend—but a problematic friend. True, security cooperation with Israel has been excellent, which is at least partly a result of George W. Bush’s agreement with Israel to enhance military cooperation over this decade – though Obama went farther than Bush in one crucial respect, providing Israel with bunker busters, which Bush withheld.
Still, in recalling his record, Obama omitted some crucial details. Israelis still recall with disbelief how Obama refused to honor Bush’s written commitment to Ariel Sharon—that the U.S. would support settlement blocs being incorporated into Israel proper. And never has an American president treated an Israeli prime minister with such shabbiness as Obama has treated Netanyahu. Indeed one gets the impression that of all the world’s leaders, Obama most detests the prime minister of Israel.
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