(Elliott Abrams, Newsweek)
In his lengthy interview with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, President Obama makes many statements about Israel’s security and how the proposed deal with Iran enhances it. These words from the interview are key:
“I have to respect the fears that the Israeli people have,” he added, “and I understand that Prime Minister Netanyahu is expressing the deep-rooted concerns that a lot of the Israeli population feel about this, but what I can say to them is: Number one, this is our best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, and number two, what we will be doing even as we enter into this deal is sending a very clear message to the Iranians and to the entire region that if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there.”
What does “messes with Israel” mean? No one has the slightest idea. The president unfortunately uses this kind of diction too often, dumbing down his rhetoric for some reason and leaving listeners confused.
Today, Iran is sending arms and money to Hamas in Gaza, and has done so for years. Is that “messing with Israel?” Iran has tried to blow up several Israeli embassies, repeating the successful attack it made on Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992. Fortunately Israel has foiled the more recent plots, but is attempting to bomb Israeli embassies “messing with Israel?”
Iranian Revolutionary Guards, along with Hezbollah troops, are in southern Syria now near the Golan. Is that “messing with Israel?” And what does the president mean by “America will be there?” With arms? With bandages? With the diplomatic protection his administration is now considering removing at the United Nations?
Later in the interview, the president says this:
Now, what you might hear from Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, which I respect, is the notion, “Look, Israel is more vulnerable. We don’t have the luxury of testing these propositions the way you do,” and I completely understand that. And further, I completely understand Israel’s belief that given the tragic history of the Jewish people, they can’t be dependent solely on us for their own security.
But what I would say to them is that not only am I absolutely committed to making sure that they maintain their qualitative military edge, and that they can deter any potential future attacks, but what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them.
And that, I think, should be … sufficient to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table….
This is not much help. For one thing, the president says “attacked by any state,” presumably leaving out Hamas and Hezbollah and for that matter ISIS and Al-Qaeda. One has to assume he means “attacked by Iran,” but what does “we would stand by them” mean? It doesn’t add much to “America will be there.”
There will be no conventional war between Israel and any Arab state in the foreseeable future, so Hezbollah is the most likely problem and is presumably excluded from the president’s formulation. What Israel worries about today is a nuclear attack by Iran or a terrorist group like Hezbollah to which Iran has given the bomb.
No doubt that qualifies as “messing with Israel,” but, were that to occur, what exactly would “America will be there” and “stand by them” mean? Take in refugees from the destroyed state of Israel after the nuclear attack on it?
The president’s language about “commitments” suggests that he may envision a formal defense commitment by the United States to Israel. Israel has not wanted such a treaty because it has always said it wants to defend itself, not have Americans dying to defend it.
That position has served the U.S.-Israel relationship well for 67 years. Should it really be changed now, and would that really help Israel? What would the value of such a commitment be? To ask the question another way, are not Poles and Estonians wondering right now about the value of their membership in NATO, if Mr. Putin “messes” with them?
There were other problems in the interview, such as this language:
“There has to be the ability for me to disagree with a policy on settlements, for example, without being viewed as … opposing Israel. There has to be a way for Prime Minister Netanyahu to disagree with me on policy without being viewed as anti-Democrat, and I think the right way to do it is to recognize that as many commonalities as we have, there are going to be strategic differences. And I think that it is important for each side to respect the debate that takes place in the other country and not try to work just with one side. …
“But this has been as hard as anything I do because of the deep affinities that I feel for the Israeli people and for the Jewish people. It’s been a hard period.” You take it personally? [Friedman] asked. “It has been personally difficult for me to hear … expressions that somehow … this administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest—and the suggestion that when we have very serious policy differences, that that’s not in the context of a deep and abiding friendship and concern and understanding of the threats that the Jewish people have faced historically and continue to face.”
“Respect the debate?” “Personally difficult?” This is the White House whose high officials called the prime minister of Israel a “chicken” and a “coward,” in interviews meant to be published—not off the record. And the officials who said those things remain in place; no effort was ever made to identify and discipline them.
But the deeper problem is that the reassurances the president is offering to Israel…are simply not reassuring. Iran is already, right now, while under sanctions that are badly hurting its economy, spending vast amounts of money and effort to “mess with Israel.” This administration’s reaction has been to seek a nuclear deal that will give Iran more economic resources to dedicate to its hatred and violence against Israel, but will in no way whatsoever limit Iran’s conventional weapons and its support for terrorism.
Several times in this interview the president went out of his to suggest that he fully understands Israel’s security problems, but the full text suggests that he does not—because he believes that his statements that “if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there” and would “stand by them” actually solve any of those problems.
Time alone undermines the value of those statements, because he will not be president in 22 months. The words he used are sufficiently vague to undermine their value as well. It is hard to believe that many Israelis will be reassured by the interview, especially not if they read the Iranian press and see what, in their own interviews, Iranian officials are claiming they got out of the new nuclear agreement.