Just when you think that the Obama administration hasn’t annoyed the American Jewish community quite enough or publicly insulted our democratic ally Israel sufficiently, along comes an administration figure willing to stick his finger in the eye of the Jewish state. On Friday, that task fell to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Speaking at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, Panetta mouthed some nice words about the two countries’ relationship. Platitudes were not in short supply: “[I]n this time of understandable anxiety, I would like to underscore one thing that has stayed constant over the past three years of this administration: the determination of the United States to safeguard Israel’s security. And that commitment will not change.” He continued, “I want to be clear that Israel can count on three enduring pillars in U.S. policy in the region, all of which contribute directly to the safety and prosperity of the Israeli people. First, our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security. Second, our broader commitment to regional stability. And third, our determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
But then it was time to deliver a to-do list to Israel:
For example, Israel can reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability — countries like Turkey and Egypt, as well as Jordan. This is an important time to be able to develop and restore those key relationships in this crucial area. This is not impossible. If gestures are rebuked, the world will see those rebukes for what they are. That is exactly why Israel should pursue them.
Like all of you, I’ve been deeply troubled by the direction of the Turkish-Israeli relationship. Turkey is a key NATO ally and has proven to be a real partner in our effort to support democratic change and stand against authoritarian regimes that use violence against their own people. It is in Israel’s interest, Turkey’s interest and U.S. interest for Israel to reconcile with Turkey. And both Turkey and Israel need to do more to put their relationship back on the right track. That’s a message I’ve taken to Jerusalem, and it’s a message I’ll be taking to Ankara later this month.
Meanwhile, even as turmoil continues to rock the region, Egypt’s current leaders, along with Jordan, have made very clear to me privately and publicly that they are committed to their peace treaties with Israel. We have been clear to all parties in Egypt that sustaining a peace treaty with Israel is in the critical interests of the United States. While we share Israel’s legitimate concerns about instability in the Sinai Peninsula and the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, the best way to address these concerns is through increasing communication and cooperation — increasing communication and cooperation with Egyptian authorities, not by stepping away from it.
Israel’s isolated, you see, and it’s Israel’s fault, according to the Obama administration’s world view. (Umm, didn’t the United Nations point to Turkey’s responsibility in the flotilla incident? Is Israel to blame for a growing anti-Western bent in Turkey and the rise in anti-Semitism in Egypt? I’m sure it took great self-control for him not to castigate Israel for the state of Israeli-Syrian relations.)
As for those stalled peace talks, according to Panetta, Israel needs to get cracking. He hectored Israel: “Now is the time for Israel to take bold action and to move towards a negotiated two-state solution.” Like offer a 10-month housing moratorium, commit to a two-state solution and show willingness to sit down without preconditions? Oh, but Israel’s done that while the Palestinians have run to the United Nations to override their international obligations.
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense for Democracies wasn’t all that surprised by another round of heavy-handed public lecturing from the Obama team. He told me, “The complete lack of progress in Middle East diplomacy has been a black eye for this administration. They need movement, and they know they can’t prod Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] to do a thing. He is intransigent and belligerent, but the administration needs him to counter Hamas. With no leverage to push the Palestinians, coupled with an apparent lack of interest to push them, the fallback is to squeeze the Israelis.” Moreover, Panetta once again confirmed how distorted is the lens by which the Obama team views events in the region. Schanzer explained, “The notion that the Israelis must bear the responsibility for a failure to generate results at the negotiating table amidst an Iranian nuclear drive and a rash of new Islamist governments on Israel’s doorstep, particularly while Abu Mazen spurns the U.S.-led Oslo process by going unilateral at the U.N., reveals a severe and ongoing analytical deficit on the part of this administration.” Or simply bad faith.
But that was not the only troubling part of Panetta’s speech. His words on Iran justify the suspicion by many in the United States and Israel that a military option is only a rhetorical device, not a U.S. guarantee if other measures don’t succeed in stopping the mullahs’ nuclear weapons program. Panetta said, “Our approach to countering the threat posed by Iran is focused on diplomacy, including organizing unprecedented sanctions and strengthening our security partnerships with key partners in the Gulf and in the broader Middle East. Last September I met in New York with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to underscore the importance of those partnerships. Iran must ultimately realize that its quest for nuclear weapons will make it less, not more, secure. These efforts are increasing Tehran’s isolation, and I continue to believe that pressure — economic pressure, diplomatic pressure — and strengthened collective defenses are the right approach. Still, it is my department’s responsibility to plan for all contingencies and to provide the president with a wide range of military options should they become necessary. “
You’d think sanctions had actually worked. You’d think Iran hadn’t increased it sponsorship of terror and tried to assassinate a Saudi official on U.S. territory. Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser, was at the speech. He told me, “Secretary Panetta’s speech contributed to the sense in Jerusalem that we don’t really mean ‘all options are on the table’ and worse yet contributed to that view in Tehran. How can that possibly advance U.S. interests? His real message was that Israel is largely to blame for what he called its ‘isolation’ and that a strike on Iran would be catastrophic. Does anyone wonder why Israelis don’t trust this administration to guard their security?”
Actually fewer and fewer pro-Israel Americans do these days. Longtime Democrat and pro-Israel activist Josh Block didn’t like what he heard either. He appreciated the recitation about the military option being on the table, but via e-mail to me chided Panetta for his Swiss-cheese memory. “He should be well aware that Israel has been seeking direct bilateral negotiations the entire time President Obama has been in office. It is the Palestinian leadership who has consistently refused to even be in the same room as Israel, taking the process back to a pre-1991 status, rejecting U.S., European and Quartet calls to come back to the table immediately and without precondition. It this lack of clarity, and failure to clearly blame the appropriate party — the Palestinians — for refusing to ‘come back to the damn table’ [a previous Panetta admonition] that reinforces concern about the administration’s approach to these issues and the U.S.-Israel relationship.” Despite whatever spinners the White House deploys and no matter how many times Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (Fla.), the Democratic National Committee chief, scolds Republicans to stop talking about Israel, the administration can’t help but reveal its preference for public confrontation with the Jewish state. Block notes, “The administration’s steadfast unwillingness to publicly pressure the Palestinians to ‘get back to the damn table,’ lies at the heart of the breakdown and stands in marked contrast to their strong-armed approach to Israel over the past three years, which undermined trust and further eroded any incentive on the part of the Palestinians to compromise for peace.”
That Panetta’s latest finger-wagging comes at the same time as Obama’s ambassador to Belgium utters his theory of anti-Semitism. At a European conference on anti-Semitism (that’s already a formula for trouble), Howard Gutman declared, “A distinction should be made between traditional anti-Semitism, which should be condemned and Muslim hatred for Jews, which stems from the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” Blame the Jews. They deserve it. Mind you this is the American envoy, not the Saudi or the Jordanian. Because his statement and further argument that such nasty feelings will be extinguished if a peace treaty is signed are so starkly vile and ignorant, he’ll like get canned.
But Obama, Panetta and the rest of the foreign policy team blunder on, fuming (albeit more politely than Gutman) that Israel is the problem. (As the Post’s Charles Krauthammer put it last year, this is once again those “troublesome Jews, 6 million -- that number again -- hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide.”)
You can understand with why Wasserman-Schultz wants to ban the topic of Israel from domestic political debate. (She feels about the topic the way Newt Gingrich does about infidelity.) She’d be more productive both here and abroad if she instructed Obama officials to keep their traps shut. Come to think of it, Democratic candidates and lawmakers nervous about their association with the administration’s Israel policy probably would be very relieved if they did just that, starting with Panetta.