Under Barack Obama, America's relationship with Israel has taken on the character of a petulant teenager dealing with a parent.
Early on January 2, 2011, Israel's liberal newspaper, Haaretz, reported that U.S. President Barack H. Obama and Secretary of State Hilary R. Clinton were furious with Israel's Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. Apparently Barak did not deliver on his promise to convince Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to agree to the proposed three-month extension of the building moratorium for East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Not twenty-four hours later, Israel's centrist paper, The Jerusalem Post, reported a denial of the first story on the part of the State Department's Spokesman, P.J. Crowley. The Jerusalem Post story informs us that the author of the Haaretz story, writer Barak Ravid, stated that he had five independent sources for his story and that "Even after the publication of the story, and during my conversation with P.J. Crowley, I received e-mails from different sources in Washington saying the complete opposite of what was being said by the State Department spokesman."
Anyone conversant with the standard operating procedure of governments in general and Foggy Bottom in particular knows that denial of a potentially embarrassing news leak is totally expected. However, what this story demonstrates most graphically is the current American government's inability to conduct a reasonable foreign policy. That America and Israel may disagree about the right of Israel to undertake construction in all of Jerusalem (its reunified capital), as well as in the West Bank, is to be expected. That the United States would try to influence Israel to accept a position closer to America's is also to be expected -- that's international politics, like it or not. But for the current administration to negotiate with a defense minister rather than the prime minister or his designated foreign minister, with the purpose of having the defense minister convince the prime minister to accept the U.S. position in spite of the known position of the prime minister to the contrary, is -- in short -- insanity! It's not only insanity, but it's foolish and childish as well. A child tries to circumnavigate a parent who refuses a request by going to the other parent and requesting help in convincing the first parent to change his position. But for a sovereign state to act like a spoiled child and pull this end-run game is nothing short of ineptitude, and in this case, a delusion.
It is a fairly well-accepted belief that the Obama administration, finding Bibi's coalition too conservative, would prefer a more liberal government in Jerusalem. The story in The Jerusalem Post reveals the current ridiculous American diplomatic tactic of attempting end-runs around those whom it doesn't like when it stated, "One US official said in response to the story that Washington would not freeze Barak out of the diplomatic discussion because he is 'the foreign minister to the US.' The official said Washington does not 'have a close relationship' with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman." To the same effect, the follow-up article of Haaretz reported that indeed, the U.S. administration counted on Ehud Barak being able to influence Netanyahu. What makes this case particularly galling is that further research shows that Netanyahu didn't reject the American offer. No less prestigious a news source than the Wall Street Journal reported on November 14, 2010, that Netanyahu was amenable to presenting the freeze extension to his cabinet1. It turns out -- as reported on December 7 by the Jerusalem Post -- that the United States was the party that scratched the deal, because -- as it turns out -- the U.S. administration refused to commit the entire deal agreement with Israel to writing. As Laura Rozen reported in her Politico column "On Foreign Policy":
Washington Middle East hands said the Obama administration has only itself to blame if it expected Barak to deliver his right wing prime minister given both their ideological differences and their long track records with Washington. "Sure it is true that Barak overstated his ability to persuade Bibi," one veteran Washington Middle East hand said Sunday on condition of anonymity. "Quite frankly, that was apparent months ago. Nobody on our side should be surprised. Ultimately we only have ourselves to blame." ...
"The Secretary [Hillary Clinton], Dennis [Ross], and Rahm [Emanuel] before he left are all veterans of dealing with Barak, Bibi and most important Israeli politics," former American diplomat Aaron Miller commented. "They know Bibi's the big cheese; that Barak is one of the most unpopular politicians in Israel; and that at the end of the day trying to influence the Prime Minister's positions on final status through Barak was at best a very long shot."
When a government fails to deal with a particular official in an ally's administration because it finds him/her disagreeable or unfriendly, that government is failing to fulfill its responsibility to promote the best interests of the nation and act responsibly to maintain the integrity of the relationship with the ally. Talking only with those we like is the behavior pattern of a teenager; when our State Department personnel act this way, its time to call for a reform of the Foreign Service. That our chief executive would allow such behavior is appalling enough; that he would think that such behavior would actually accomplish its goal of end-running the Israeli Foreign Ministry of Avigdor Lieberman and Danny Ayalon, as well as around Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is evidence of the vacuous nature of our commander-in-chief and his foreign policy advisors. It's time for the current administration to reform itself and act responsibly; in parliamentary democracies, the opposition would call for a vote of no confidence and topple the government.
The current Israeli government is being most gracious for not lodging a complaint. Although the fractious Israeli Labor Party leadership is looking to exploit this situation to its favor against Prime Minister Netanyahu, it's the faces of Obama and Clinton -- and, to a lesser extent, of Ehud Barak -- that are dripping the egg. The building freeze ploy was ridiculous from the beginning; it's time to fling it to the dustbin of history, where it belongs.
The administration and the Arabist State Department should finally look at the big picture and realize that Israel is the only true bulwark against the Islamist jihad agenda in the region and that until the Palestinians are willing to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, there is no chance for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, or any other Islamic state that refuses to recognize Israel's legitimacy. Only a policy that recognizes that basic fact has any chance of success, difficult and far off as that may be.
1 See also Hazel Ward, "Israel Awaits US letter outlining settlement freeze terms," AFP, November 15, 2010. Rabbi Dr. Daniel M. Zucker is founder and chairman of the Board of Americans for Democracy in the Middle-East.