Two stories broke last night that, combined, indicate that U.S.-Israeli relations have moved just a bit outside the normal contours of the warm bilateral relationship..
First, the Wall Street Journal reports on how the United States appears to be tacitly and not-so-tacitly coordinating with Iran across a range of Greater Middle East issues:
The Obama administration and Iran, engaged in direct nuclear negotiations and facing a common threat from Islamic State militants, have moved into an effective state of détente over the past year, according to senior U.S. and Arab officials….
recent months have ushered in a change as the two countries have grown into alignment on a spectrum of causes, chief among them promoting peaceful political transitions in Baghdad and Kabul and pursuing military operations against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to these officials.
The Obama administration also has markedly softened its confrontational stance toward Iran’s most important nonstate allies, the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese militant and political organization, Hezbollah. American diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, negotiated with Hamas leaders through Turkish and Qatari intermediaries during cease-fire talks in July that were aimed at ending the Palestinian group’s rocket attacks on Israel, according to senior U.S. officials.
U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly tipped off Lebanese law-enforcement bodies close to Hezbollah about threats posed to Beirut’s government by Sunni extremist groups, including al Qaeda and its affiliate Nusra Front in Syria, Lebanese and U.S. officials said.
None of this is going to make Israel happy. One could chalk it up to simple realpolitik that will erode once the Islamic State is contained. But then there’s the second story: Jeffrey Goldberg’s bombshell column in the Atlantic, in which myriad U.S. officials anonymously vent their true feelings toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
[R]elations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments have moved toward a full-blown crisis. The relationship between these two administrations — dual guarantors of the putatively “unbreakable” bond between the U.S. and Israel — is now the worst it’s ever been, and it stands to get significantly worse after the November midterm elections. By next year, the Obama administration may actually withdraw diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations, but even before that, both sides are expecting a showdown over Iran, should an agreement be reached about the future of its nuclear program.
The fault for this breakdown in relations can be assigned in good part to the junior partner in the relationship, Netanyahu, and in particular, to the behavior of his cabinet. Netanyahu has told several people I’ve spoken to in recent days that he has “written off” the Obama administration, and plans to speak directly to Congress and to the American people should an Iran nuclear deal be reached. For their part, Obama administration officials express, in the words of one official, a “red-hot anger” at Netanyahu for pursuing settlement policies on the West Bank, and building policies in Jerusalem, that they believe have fatally undermined Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process.
Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.” (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.) But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a “chickens**t.”
One could dismiss this as senior officials venting about an ally that has been incredibly rude to this White House again and again. The thing is, this comes on the heels of the Obama administration’s less-than-anonymous dissing of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Also, using Goldberg as the venue for the Airing of Grievances changes things. Goldberg has excellent sources in both governments; it is unlikely that a U.S. official would vent to him without the express purpose of having the other side hear about it. No, there’s a reason that Goldberg’s column is now serving the same function as Key & Peele’s Luther.
And let’s face it, this is a cowardly move by whomever spoke to Goldberg. Even if one grants that the Netanyahu government has behaved pretty badly towards the Obama administration, this kind of response is sophomoric. Great powers are supposed to be the grown-ups in the green rooms. Even if Netanyahu fits the description in Goldberg’s column — and everything I have heard about him suggests that this is true — one doesn’t say this in print. Or, as Matt Duss tweeted last night:
Sure, Bibi and Company richly deserve the smack, but also a little sad to see US admin lower themselves to his level.
— Matt Duss (@mattduss) October 29, 2014
So what’s going on? Is there a rational reason for this kind of talk? I think there might be, but let me stress at the outset that I’m spitballing here. I have no inside information to suggest it’s true, and it may very well be that Goldberg simply liquored up the right White House senior official.
The one thing this kind of trash-talking does is send a signal to Iran about the U.S. commitment to a nuclear deal. Bear in mind that in recent weeks the administration has made it cleat that it won’t be going to Congress to get approval for the permanent lifting of any Iran sanctions. But this raises the question for both Iranian negotiators and Iranian hardliners of just how much they can trust their American interlocutors to implement such a deal. Furthermore, Netanyahu’s persistent and bellicose rhetoric towards Tehran would also have to be a source of concern for the Iranians. If they cut a nuclear deal, they want it to be implemented and they want the shadow of military action lifted.
Calling out Netanyahu serves both functions for the Obama administration. The way one signals credibility in a world of uncertainty is to take a costly action. Since congressional approval is now off the table, dissing America’s closest ally in the region serves as an imperfect substitute. It’s costly, so it sends a signal of serious intent.
Furthermore, this section from Goldberg is key:
In 2010, and again in 2012, administration officials were convinced that Netanyahu and his then-defense minister, the cowboyish ex-commando Ehud Barak, were readying a strike on Iran. To be sure, the Obama administration used the threat of an Israeli strike in a calculated way to convince its allies (and some of its adversaries) to line up behind what turned out to be an effective sanctions regime. But the fear inside the White House of a preemptive attack (or preventative attack, to put it more accurately) was real and palpable—as was the fear of dissenters inside Netanyahu’s Cabinet, and at Israel Defense Forces headquarters. At U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, analysts kept careful track of weather patterns and of the waxing and waning moon over Iran, trying to predict the exact night of the coming Israeli attack.
Today, there are few such fears. “The feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing,” this second official said. “He’s not Begin at Osirak,” the official added, referring to the successful 1981 Israeli Air Force raid ordered by the ex-prime minister on Iraq’s nuclear reactor.
Now these observations are partly intended to tell Netanyahu that this gambit won’t constrain U.S. negotiators. In part, however, they might also serve to tell Iran that any fears they have of an Israeli strike are exaggerated. And if that has been holding the Iranians back, it would potentially eliminate this as a roadblock to further negotiations.
Is the Obama administration genuinely frustrated with the Netanyahu government? Hell yes. But that doesn’t explain the timing and the conduit of these particular complaints. I think this is their way of communicating with Iran. Whether it works or not is another question altogether.
What do you think?