Did Obama 'abandon' Israel? If so, he's not alone among US presidents.(Read article summary)
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, has launched a broadside against the Obama administration.
Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor/File
Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the US from 2009 to 2013, wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal that is withering in its assessment of President Barack Obama and his engagement with the Jewish state.
Mr. Oren, who grew up in New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s, emigrated to Israel as a young man, and is intimately familiar with US-Israeli history, was hardly diplomatic. In Oren's telling, Obama made "deliberate" mistakes in dealing with Israel's blustery Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and abandoned "the two core principles of Israel’s alliance with America."
What were these supposed principles? The first: "'No daylight.' The US and Israel always could disagree but never openly. Doing so would encourage common enemies and render Israel vulnerable," writes Oren.
'No surprises.' President Obama discarded it in his first meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, in May 2009, by abruptly demanding a settlement freeze and Israeli acceptance of the two-state solution. The following month the president traveled to the Middle East, pointedly skipping Israel and addressing the Muslim world from Cairo.
Israeli leaders typically received advance copies of major American policy statements on the Middle East and could submit their comments. But Mr. Obama delivered his Cairo speech, with its unprecedented support for the Palestinians and its recognition of Iran’s right to nuclear power, without consulting Israel.
Setting aside the question of whether Oren's two principles serve US interests, is he correct that they were in place? To the first, the answer is clearly no.
Consider 1981, when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin personally lobbied Congress to try to scuttle a deal to sell advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia that was being championed by President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was furious at that, and what he felt were accusations of anti-Semitism against his administration from Mr. Begin's government. Earlier that year, Reagan had instructed US diplomats at the UN to condemn Israel's raid on Iraq's nuclear facility at Osirak.
In 1982, after Congress found that Israel had used US-supplied cluster bombs in civilian areas in Lebanon, Reagan imposed a ban on supplying the weapons to Israel that lasted six years. In 1983, Reagan announced he was blocking the sales of US F-16 warplanes until Israel withdrew from Lebanon.
Reagan is far from an outlier.
In 1990, Israel asked for a $10 billion loan guarantee from President George H.W. Bush, who delayed granting it, telling Israel the money would only be released if Israel stopped settlement expansion in the occupied territories. The money was released after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin promised to suspend settlement construction (a promise that was never delivered on).
In 2004 and 2009, President George W. Bush ordered the US to abstain from a UN Security Council votes on Israel, instead of providing the usual veto. And on the so-called peace process, there's not much daylight between America's last president and its current one.
Oren doesn't see it that way, writing: "Mr. Obama also voided President George W. Bush’s commitment to include the major settlement blocs and Jewish Jerusalem within Israel’s borders in any peace agreement. Instead, he insisted on a total freeze of Israeli construction in those areas—'not a single brick,' I later heard he ordered Mr. Netanyahu—while making no substantive demands of the Palestinians."
In 2011, Obama said that "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps." That's been US policy since the early 1990s. When President H.W. Bush backed much the same thing in 1992, Mr. Netanyahu, then an aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, called the borders that prevailed before the 1967 war (which left Israel in de facto control of Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem), "the borders of Auschwitz."
President George W. Bush apparently made the commitment that Oren says Obama violated in 2004. What did he say then?
In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion," President Bush wrote to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April of 2004. "It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities."
Bush was also no fan of settlement construction. A spokesman for his State Department told reporters in 2003: "Our policy continues to be that Israel should freeze settlement construction."
Oren is also upset about Obama's efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, and his administration's efforts to head off any unilateral Israel military action against the Islamic Republic. He's particularly irked that Obama has tried to keep nuclear bargaining positions and negotiations secret from Israel. But why should an American president give a foreign state – one that is heavily reliant on American largess – a seat at the table, particularly when its leaders see their interests as so different from those of the United States?
The fact that Israel has persistently sought to spy on the effort, and used information gleaned to lobby US politicians and the public against Obama's policies, hasn't helped build an atmosphere of trust. Mr. Netanyahu is opposed to the possible deal, as is Oren. But Israeli views on the issue are from monolithic. The Israeli military appears to think the deal could be good for Israeli security.
Finally, what of the charges of "abandonment"?
Under Obama, US military aid to Israel has soared to record highs. The country has received $20.5 billion in US military aid since 2009, more than any other country. Obama's White House proudly touts its votes against 18 UN resolutions it says were "biased against Israel," and five "no" votes against measures deemed anti-Israel by the UN Human Rights Council. It also points to the $140 million the US has spent in the past six years helping people migrate to Israel, and subsidies to help Israel build its Iron Dome missile defense system.