06 October 2012
For Americans, Israel is a tough subject to have a serious discussion about. Israel is a democracy that finds itself in opposition to radical Islamists – like we do. It is only natural and right and the United States and Israel should see eye-to-eye on critical issues.
But in the carnival world of apology tours and you're-not-building-that, it is no surprise that President Obama’s nuanced, soft-power approach to Middle Eastern affairs (read: no ground invasions) has been simplistically perceived by the American right as utter treachery – especially because they so, so desperately want it to be true. Mitt Romney’s line through his entire campaign: President Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus.”
The misunderstanding – commonly reported, and rarely refuted in detail – is a direct result of the American right’s tendency to be distracted by superficiality, conflating diplomatic posturing for betrayal. Where can you even begin to unpack such inanity?
Well, let’s start with Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister – he would probably know if he had been thrown under the bus. He said earlier this summer, that “President Obama is doing in regard to our security more than anything that I can remember in the past.” This certainly isn’t the first time he has expressed this sentiment. He said last year that the Obama administration is committing to Israel’s defense “in a way that could hardly be compared to any previous administration”.
And Ehud Barak is hardly a liberal peacenik. Nor is President Shimon Peres, who recently had nothing but profuse thanks for President Obama’s leadership vis-à-vis Iran, specifically his building the international coalition that is tightening Tehran’s noose with crippling sanctions. It is no wonder Peres said earlier this year that security relations between the U.S. and Israel were “the best we’ve ever had”. That’s right, the best. Ever. I suspect these two men may be aware of President Obama’s request for more foreign aid to Israel than has ever been given to another country.
Netanyahu is Wrong
Of course, there is certainly some daylight between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. By all accounts their relationship is at best cordial and at worst remote.
But diplomacy is a two-way street. What about the possibility Netanyahu is responsible for some, if not most of this coldness? His attitude has not always been the most tasteful. Trying to drag the United States into a war with a country of eighty million is one thing. To air these grievances – publicly – during an election season is another. And doing this, knowing full well that a not-insubstantial chunk of the United States is constantly looking to validate their belief the President is a secret Muslim Kenyan? To throw that part of the electorate a hint that Obama may abandon Israel goes beyond burning bridges.
And yet Netanyahu still seems to understand the difference between disagreement and perfidy. When asked about the Romney “bus” theory on Meet the Press, he responded: “You’re trying to draw me into something that is simply not the case. There is no bus, and we’re not going to get into that discussion.”
Netanyahu, for all his rhetoric, knows that American support for Israel is virtually bottomless, even under President Obama, who has unquestionably shown his readiness to stick his neck out for Israel, particularly when it has been dangerous or unpopular.
Though critical of Netanyahu’s stance on West Bank settlements, the Obama administration issued its first UN veto to block a Security Council resolution condemning them. The U.S. was the only dissenter. America also led the effort to block Palestinian statehood at the United Nations last year. President Obama personally gave the case.
And then in some cases, President Obama sticking his neck out for Israel is just plain weird: the United States is no longer funding UNESCO, the organization whose mission is to create peace through mutual understanding and cooperation on science, culture, and education. Why? They recently admitted Palestine as a member. (The Palestinian attempt to gain statehood outside of negotiations was not necessarily a good idea. But the Obama administration was willing to take a stand with Israel in opposition to almost the entire world, and harm other interests in the process.)
It is also worth mentioning the dramatic evacuation of the Israeli civilians from its Cairo embassy – an evacuation that happened safely as a direct result of President Obama’s intervention.
The list of support goes on. During the controversial Mavi Marmara affair two summers ago, the United States expressed regret over the loss of life and mostly stayed out of the whole thing, even when a UN fact-finding mission said that a U.S. citizen had been killed “execution-style”. Had a U.S. citizen been killed “execution-style” by the armed forces of any other Middle Eastern country – even justifiably – you can bet that the United States would have expressed stronger sentiment. But in this case, the United States’ position was much warmer, as expressed by Vice President Joe Biden: "You can argue whether Israel should have dropped people onto that ship or not, [but Israel] has a right to know whether or not arms are being smuggled in."
Given how evident it is that, as Netanyahu says, there is no bus, what could this indefatigable myth be based in? The answer: Superficialities and distortions, leaving out obvious but key points that make all the difference in the world.
The most popular meme is that President Obama brutally undercut the Israeli position on its own borders, insisting on forcing Israel into the “indefensible” 1967 borders (that it successfully defended in the Six-Day War). This is, in fact, no change from previous U.S. policy, or for that matter, Israeli policy: The 1967 borders as a starting point for later swaps has been the basis for negotiations for decades, including under the Bush administration. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s opposition leader, backed the plan right away. Is she ready to throw Israel under the bus?
If she is, then Netanyahu must be too, since he has agreed to the same position. Maybe that’s because the Obama framework is specific on a slow and gradual a withdrawal from the West Bank, and not on specific borders Washington might draw. Compare that to Romney’s private position on the matter that even a two-state solution is impossible – which, unlike other accusations of Obama’s secret views on the matter, is documented, and is at odds with his prior, public positions.
There are other memes of course, but they’re far weaker. Did Obama try to take Jerusalem and Israel out of the party platform? No, he put them back in. The right and Netanyahu both dislike what they perceive as restraint on Obama’s part (or pro-Iranian sympathy). Never mind the crippling sanctions President Obama’s put in place, and the repeated assurances that the military option is not off the table. There’s currently an international naval flotilla parked right off Iran’s shores.
It is obvious: this angle of criticism says more about the ease at which the American right would approach a massive regional war than Obama’s reluctance to support Israel. I do not believe Netanyahu approaches the prospect with such ease, but it is pretty clear the American neoconservative establishment (and its cavalier approach to world war) are both of use to Netanyahu’s policy aims.
If you get beyond the American right’s mindlessness on the issue though, there is some daylight between Obama and Netanyahu on policy prescriptions. But it’s not a chasm as some might say. Ehud Barak has a blunt assessment: “We basically agree on the diagnosis. We don’t agree on the prognosis on some of the issues." Even Mitt Romney agrees that President Obama has the “same red line” on Iran that he does, just a different strategy.
How that admission can be squared with “throwing someone under the bus” is beyond my comprehension. The only explanation is that one statement is intended for the low-information voter, and that the other is intended to assuage concerns that Mitt Romney is a total neophyte on foreign policy. After this summer’s three-country “insult tour” in which he insinuated that Palestinian culture is the cause of their economic woes, it’s even more imperative that the Romney camp show the candidate is less bankrupt on foreign policy than George W. Bush.
It is reasonable is to debate whether or not Obama’s disagreements with Netanyahu have been beneficial to our relationship. There is a case to be made that the Obama administration should see it Netanyahu’s way. But that’s not the debate we are having, and until the nonsense settles down, we won’t have it. It shouldn’t be a matter of contention is whether President Obama is pro- or anti-Israel, because the answer should be emphatically obvious to anyone paying attention. To speak of “throwing Israel under the bus” conjures up memories of 1938 Czechoslovakia, or the idea of “Western betrayal”. It implies that if Netanyahu’s worst fears were realized, that President Obama’s reaction would be indifference, or worse.
Such rhetoric just is not borne out by the facts. We need to get back to reality.
Steve Keller is Chief Editor at the geostrategic consultancy firm, Wikistrat, and a freelance columnist. A graduate of Vassar College, he specializes in American politics and the history and legacy of imperialism. He is currently working on developing an international relations simulation game for the social media age.
U.S. Department of Defense photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley.