A Deepening Crisis Between U.S., Israel

Passover is an unfortunate time to be asking what has gone wrong between America and Israel. Is today's strenuous disagreement over Israel's West Bank housing policy the real problem, or is this controversy merely a symptom of deeper, more profound differences?

Partly because of the extraordinary secrecy surrounding Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent White House meeting with President Obama, much remains hidden from public view. Nonetheless, after 14 months in office, Obama has made clear he sees the U.S.-Israeli relationship very differently than any of his predecessors.

Consider, for example, Obama's September 2009 U.N. General Assembly speech, profoundly anti-Israeli, and to a body where Israel is perennially even more isolated than the United States. There, among other things, Obama called for a "Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967."

After 14 months in office, Obama has made clear he sees the U.S.-Israeli relationship very differently than any of his predecessors.

That, of course, is the Palestinian position. No wonder they are "outraged" at every subsequent Israeli construction project outside the 1967 borders. No wonder Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told an Arab League summit on Saturday he would not negotiate with Israel until all settlement activity ceases. They see Obama delivering Israel into their hands, and they will simply insist on their optimal position while they measure how well he succeeds.

More fundamentally, Obama assumes, as do many Europeans, that solving or at least making substantial progress on Arab-Israeli issues is key to many other Middle East problems. In particular, he believes there will be no progress against Iran's nuclear weapons program until there is proof that Israel's commanding position has been reduced.

For Obama, therefore, every bump in the Arab-Israeli "peace process," caused repeatedly in his estimation by Israeli intransigence, has consequences far beyond its actual dimensions.

In fact, the idea that Israel's recalcitrance, personified by pugnacious Bibi Netanyahu, is the central obstacle to peace is exactly backward, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

There are many unresolved Middle Eastern problems, but if Obama could only focus on one, Iran is clearly the most dangerous threat to peace in the region. Not only does Iran's rapidly progressing nuclear weapons program threaten global peace and security, but it is the world's central banker of terrorism, directed against both the West and against fellow Muslims who don't pass muster according to Iran's ruling military theocracy.

The president could far more usefully pressure Iran's dangerous and belligerent regime, than publicly humiliate a close ally like Israel. Instead, Obama has done everything but plead with Iran to come to the negotiating table, and failing that has so far pursued a weak and ultimately doomed policy of trying to significantly increase economic sanctions against Tehran.

The president's weakness on Iran mirrors a similarly halting, inconclusive policy against North Korea's nuclear threat, and his overall indecisiveness in the war on terrorism.

The misplaced emphasis on pressuring Israel rather than Iran is more than a little ironic, because it is precisely the Muslim-Arab states Obama has been so assiduously courting who want America to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program. Arab governments friendly to the United States may dislike Israel in varying degrees, but they fear and distrust a nuclear-capable, terror-supporting Iran. They would welcome Israel (or the United States) destroying Iran's nuclear program, although they will never say so publicly, and will likely vigorously condemn Israel if it strikes.

Thus, Obama's signature foreign policy--pressure your friends and beseech your adversaries--will, here again, produce results precisely contrary to American national interests. We can only hope that the Netanyahu government, pursing Israel's interests, vindicates our own before Obama's hostility brings down Netanyahu's governing coalition.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: Randall Niles/Flickr/Creative Commons

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John R.
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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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