Asset or burden?
With Obama returning to office, Israelis are jittery that Tel Aviv’s strategic importance to the US might wane, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Yaakov Ahmir, a leading talk show host on Israeli Channel 1, could not believe his ears when Republican Senator Rand Paul was talking to him and other Israeli reporters at a hotel in occupied Jerusalem at the end of last week. Paul, visiting Israel for the first time, surprised reporters of whom many previously worked as correspondents for Israeli media in Washington, when he started his address by emphasising the need to reduce US aid to Israel.
Amidst the surprise of his audience, Paul continued to defend his position calmly. “The US borrows $50,000 every second from China to address the budget,” he explained. “It doesn’t make sense that a country borrows money to lend it to another country. It doesn’t make sense.”
The surprise was not only because these were comments made by a US senator, but also because Paul is an avid supporter of Israel in the Republican Party. Israelis are realising that the financial crisis in the US is critical and sooner or later the US will cut annual assistance that amounts to $3 billion, although the vast majority in Congress did not hesitate recently to vote for supporting annual assistance to Israel.
Although Israel advocates in Congress and Jewish groups spearheaded a campaign against President Barak Obama’s decision to appoint Chuck Hagel as US secretary of defense, Israelis believe the appointment is primarily based on agreement between Obama and Hagel that cuts need to be made in the security budget and foreign aid. But this is not necessarily because Hagel is hostile towards Israel.
Nonetheless, there is much concern in decision making circles in Tel Aviv after Obama insisted on appointing Hagel, who in the past expressed opinions contradictory to Israel’s interests. He previously objected to imposing sanctions against Iran and called for dialogue with Hamas.
Amir Oren, a political commentator at Haaretz newspaper, said that one source of concern that decision makers in Tel Aviv don’t want to publicly talk about is the fact that Obama is no longer worried about taking steps that contradict the predominant trend in Congress on the issue. Oren said that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu believes Obama’s insistence on appointment Hagel despite objections by Republicans and Jewish groups is evidence of a decline in the deterrence power of Obama’s opponents whom Netanyahu relies on in his open confrontation with the incumbent administration.
Like most Israeli commentators, Oren believes there is personal hostility behind Obama’s recent steps towards Israel, most notably towards Netanyahu, because of the latter’s flagrant support of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the last presidential race. Oren believes that Netanyahu’s outright support of Romney made Obama want to directly interfere in Israeli elections by making unprecedented criticisms of Netanyahu.
Obama allowed US Jewish American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg to leak criticism of Netanyahu in a closed meeting about the Israeli government’s decision to build the E-1 settlement project that is planned in the suburbs of occupied Jerusalem. The project would end any possibility of creating a contiguous Palestinian state in the future. Goldberg quoted Obama as saying: “Netanyahu is leading Israel to self-destruction as well as international isolation.”
Haaretz also quoted Goldberg as saying that Obama attacked Netanyahu by saying, “He simply doesn’t know what Israel’s best interests are, and his actions will lead to a decline in Israel’s international standing.” The reporter drew a bleak picture about the White House’s disappointment and frustration over Netanyahu and his policies. Goldberg reported that Obama said: “On matters related to the Palestinians, Netanyahu is a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise with the Palestinians. If Netanyahu’s policies continue in this manner, Israel will not continue to exist in this part of the world.”
Goldberg continued: Obama believes that Netanyahu “is hostage to the settler lobby in the Knesset and cabinet, and accordingly is not interested in putting forward a vision of a solution with the Palestinians. This makes any political action by the US at this moment unwise.”
Obama also issued a direct threat to Netanyahu, saying that diplomatic support by the US to Israel in the UN, international forums and in the face of European initiatives against Israel will cease. Israel will soon find a big change, especially in voting, in international organisations, he added. “Israel will soon find itself in even more isolation.”
Israeli writer Nadav Eyal said that Netanyahu has gone far in antagonising Obama, not only by hosting Romney but also by having his close friend, Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson, donate $100 million to Romney’s election campaign. “Obama’s intention to leak his criticism of Netanyahu was not to influence the Likud’s chances of winning,” argued Eyal, “but because he wants to modify the considerations that govern US politicians’ efforts to gain the trust of the US public on the eve of congressional and presidential elections.”
He continued that in his second term, Obama wants to demonstrate to US politicians that they can strongly criticise Israeli decision makers without fearing losing the elections. Eyal warned of the backlash of losing Obama’s support, because “he is the president of the country that gives us considerable and critical financial and political support; a country does not hesitate to use its veto power to block any draft resolution that affects Israel in the Security Council.”
In Israel, they believe Obama would not have dared to leak his criticism of Netanyahu if he did not have a strong sense there is debate in the US about whether Israel is an asset or burden for the US. Israeli elites are listening to the ongoing debate in the US about Israel’s contribution to protecting US interests. More people are saying that Israel is a burden and some in Israel are warning against relying too much on Israel supporters in the US. In fact, some believe that blind support of Israel by Jewish groups and many in both the Democrat and Republican parties often harms Israel.
Oren states that US politicians who encouraged Israel to reject political settlement plans in the early 1970s caused former Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat to launch the 1973 war, which killed 3,000 Israeli soldiers. He added that if at the time Washington had pressured the government of Golda Meir to accept settlement, this large number of Israeli soldiers would not have been killed in the war.
But there is another reason why Israelis should be worried about future relations with the US, namely that Obama recently announced that within years the US will be exporting oil and gas and no longer rely on Middle East oil. The key concern is that Israel always presents itself as “a steadfast vessel” to serve US interests in the region, as former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once said. Thus, if the US dispenses with oil from the region it would decrease strategic interest in Israel and grounds for continued US support to Israel.
A long report by Netta Ahituv in Haaretz newspaper drew a bleak picture of relations with the US in the future, with the prediction that China will replace the US in the region with all the implications and repercussions that would entail.
Many in Israel believe the US will stop participating in battles that Israel should be fighting alone, such as confronting Islamist-leaning Arab regimes that reached power after the Arab Spring, and extremist Islamist groups. At the same time, the US will not be eager to pressure Turkey to once again normalise relations with Israel.
In short, Israeli politicians are not only worried that the majority of Americans are realising Israel is a burden to the US, but also that the US administration will act on this realisation