UPDATE: Turns out, President Obama has, in fact, used the phrase "closest ally" to describe Israel. See my followup/mea culpa here.
I noted a few days ago that Republicans were attacking President Obama’s use of the word “noise” in discussing the Iranian nuclear issue and Israel during his “60 Minutes” interview. I also noted that the White House had its own interpretation of his word choice (which some didn’t find persuasive).
But Obama’s critics are also attacking a second Israel-related utterance by the president from his “60 Minutes” interview. Obama referred to Israel as “one of our closest allies in the region.” His critics (among them House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Rush Limbaugh and the Zionist Organization of America) suggested that this phrasing reflected a downgrading of the U.S.-Israeli alliance. They asked: Isn’t Israel America’s single closest ally in the region?
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded to a question on the issue by saying: “I think you’ve heard the President say numerous times that Israel is our closest ally in the region. We have an unshakeable bond with Israel. We have a commitment to Israel and to Israel’s security that is profound and unique. And that is demonstrated by the policies of this administration as well as the policies of the President’s predecessors.”
But has Obama, as president, actually used the phrase “closest ally in the region” or an equivalent to refer to Israel? I cannot find an instance of him having done so.
That does not mean, of course, that he hasn’t used this phrase, just that I haven’t found it. (Readers, please let me know in the comments if you have seen something that I didn’t; I also haven’t checked to see whether any other U.S. presidents have used such a phrase but would be interested to know if they have.) But it does show that it’s not part of Obama’s boilerplate on Israel. Indeed, Obama did not use such a phrase in either of his speeches as president to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, nor in his two earlier speeches to the group as a candidate. (Romney, for his part, recently referred to the Israelis as “our closest allies in the Middle East.”)
Obama has repeatedly used words like “unshakeable,” “unbreakable” and “unwavering” to describe the U.S.-Israel relationship. And in an address to the Union for Reform Judaism, he referred to the “special bonds” between the U.S. and Israel. In a press conference earlier this year with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama called Israel “one of our greatest allies” (presumably not just in the region but in the world).
In any case, President Obama has said that he wants his commitment to Israel judged not by words but by deeds, as he told AIPAC earlier this year:
There is no shortage of speeches on the friendship between the United States and Israel. But I’m also mindful of the proverb, “A man is judged by his deeds, not his words.” So if you want to know where my heart lies, look no further than what I have done – to stand up for Israel; to secure both of our countries and to see that the rough waters of our time lead to a peaceful and prosperous shore.
(Incidentally, when it comes to appraising allies in words, Obama has come in for some teasing over his propensity for suggesting that various smaller European countries have “punched above their weight.”)
Republicans, of course, have lately been attacking Democrats over their choice of words in describing the U.S. relationship with Israel. Earlier this month there was the controversy over the new Democratic platform’s initial omission (and then reinsertion) of language affirming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But Republicans were quick to note that this wasn’t the only Israel-related omission from the 2012 platform. The 2008 platform referred to “our special relationship with Israel” and called the country “our strongest ally in the region” – language that was absent from the 2012 platform.
Does all of this add up to anything? It’s unclear. But the the former U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller has suggested that Obama “would like to see a U.S.-Israeli relationship that is not just less exclusive, but somewhat less special as well.” (Miller himself has also argued that “this special relationship with the Israelis, which can serve U.S. interests, has become an exclusive one that does not.”)