Obama On Bibi: Make It Personal


Last summer, I had the opportunity to take my family on an extended visit to the United States. It was a wonderful trip, with the added bonus that my children did not have to spend any time in bomb-proof rooms like their peers and cousins back home in Israel.

Being in the U.S. during the Gaza war was a revelation. When it came up in conversation that I am visiting from Israel, my interlocutor would inevitably launch into a tirade against President Obama for pressuring Israel to end the war or for withholding weapons shipments (for some reason, the people I met at various synagogues tended to skew Republican).

My response was usually twofold: First, I would remind people that Obama funded the Iron Dome system, which greatly diminished the human cost of Hamas rockets. No doubt, his motives were not altruistic; after all, states have interests, not friends. Nevertheless, credit must be given where it is due.

To the accusation that Obama is pressuring Israel, I would respond: “So what?” By then, Obama’s handling of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya, had alienated his allies in the region, especially the Gulf States. If Israel wants to be the sole country to take Obama’s tough talk seriously, then shame on Israel.

The recent UN Security Council vote on Palestinian statehood demonstrates that Israel need not rely on U.S. patronage as much as it once did. In the face of doubts about continued U.S. willingness to use its veto on Israel’s behalf, Nigeria, Rwanda and Lithuania cast votes in Israel’s favor, rendering the veto question moot and highlighting (for those paying attention) Israel’s improved ties with Eastern Europe and non-Muslim Africa.

Of course, the question of Israel’s standing among the nations is a big part of the “Anyone but Bibi” campaign that Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog are running in the campaign for the March 17 national elections against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There is no doubt that U.S.-Israeli relations have been increasingly strained in recent years. The question — a key question in Israel’s upcoming election — is the extent to which that strain originates in the White House and not in Jerusalem. Team Bibi would have us believe that Obama is the problem, while the Livni-Herzog camp blame Bibi.

In that sense, House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress was a godsend for the incumbent. It will be the third time that Netanyahu addresses a joint session; the only other foreign leader to do so three times was Netanyahu’s hero, Winston Churchill. The address will take place a mere two weeks before Israeli elections, and the message to Israeli voters is clear: The U.S.-Israel relationship is strong and in good hands with Netanyahu and in spite of Obama.

For Netanyahu, the speech is also an opportunity to restore some credibility to U.S. negotiations with Iran. Obama’s attempts to speak softly to Iran can only be effective if he carries a big stick, and thus far he has failed to project U.S. power. Iran’s leadership has surely noticed the multiple U.S. failures in the Middle East, the unchecked tide of Russian irredentism, and the impunity with which China is systematically undermining the freedom of Hong Kong’s citizens. They are not afraid of U.S. sticks.

In Iran’s case, however, negotiations with the U.S. were conducted in the shadow of the threat of an Israeli military strike. So when an unnamed White House official suggested that Netanyahu is too cowardly to attack Iran by comparing him to a type of avian feces, it was not merely an insult; it harmed Israel’s deterrence. By threatening new economic sanctions and recognizing Netanyahu as an important player in the attempt to prevent Iran from going nuclear, Congress is trying to show that it can restore that deterrence. That it gives Netanyahu an opportunity to retaliate for the “chickenshit” wisecrack is just gravy.

It is telling that the unnamed (as always) White House responses to the maneuver by Boehner and Netanyahu have not addressed policy at all. They have called Netanyahu’s behavior a “slap in the face,” “disgraceful” and even “barbaric.” It is almost as though the administration is willfully ignoring all of the implications of Congress and a staunch ally going over the president’s head on a key foreign policy issue. In the White House narrative, Netanyahu is an ingrate, constantly asking the White House for help and then subjecting the president to the indignity of learning from television that Netanyahu will be addressing a joint session. The issue is personal.

Netanyahu’s breach of protocol may have been a childish retaliation for being called a coward. It was certainly not statesmanlike. Overall, though, his maneuver is easily explained in terms of his foreign policy and as an answer to his fiercest critics on the eve of elections.

There is no such explanation for the White House’s treatment of the issue as a purely personal matter. One cannot help but get the impression that this response is an attempt to divert attention from the president’s foreign policy failures and alienation of key allies by complaining about a man who has suffered indignity at the administration’s hands more than once. Such complaints ought to ring hollow.

Elli Fischer, a writer and Hebrew-to-English translator, contributes frequently to these pages.