The crisis between the United States and Israel has been manufactured by the Obama administration. Building a crisis up or down is well within the administration’s power, and it has chosen to build it up. Why? Three reasons: to damage and defeat Netanyahu (whom Obama has always disliked simply because he is on the right while Obama is on the left) in his election campaign, to prevent Israel from affecting the Iran policy debate in the United States, and worst of all to diminish Israel’s popularity in the United States and especially among Democrats.
Suppose for a moment that the Netanyahu speech before Congress is a mistake, a breach of protocol, a campaign maneuver, indeed all the bad things the White House is calling it. Grant all of that for a moment for the sake of argument and the behavior of the Obama administration is still inexplicable. Clearly more is behind its conduct than mere pique over the speech.
First comes the personal relationship and the desire to see Netanyahu lose the election. Recall that Obama became president before Netanyahu became prime minister, and it is obvious that the dislike was both personal and political before Netanyahu had done anything. Obama does not like people on the right, period—Americans, Israelis, Australians, you name it. Obama also decided immediately on taking office to pick a fight with Israel and make construction in settlements and in Jerusalem the central issue in U.S.-Israeli relations. Remember that he appointed George Mitchell as his special negotiator one day after assuming the presidency, and Mitchell was the father of the demand that construction—including even construction to accommodate what Mitchell called “natural growth” of families in settlement populations—be stopped dead. A confrontation was inevitable, and was desired by the White House.
Obama has overplayed his hand, in the sense that in poll after poll Israelis say that they do not support his Middle East policies. Historically, an Israeli prime minister loses domestic support when he cannot manage relations with Washington. This year may be the exception, the time when Israelis want a prime minister to oppose U.S. policies they view as dangerous. They may also believe that the Obama administration is simply so hostile that no prime minister could avoid confrontations.
I well remember how we in the Bush White House handled the poor personal relations between the president and French president Jacques Chirac. In 2004-2005 especially, the two men did not get along (arguing mostly about Iraq and just plain disliking each other as well) but we wanted to prevent their poor personal chemistry from damaging bilateral relations. So National Security Advisor Condi Rice in 2004, and then her successor Steve Hadley in 2005, set up a work-around. The French National Security Advisor Maurice Gourdault-Montagne traveled to Washington almost every month and came to the White House. There the French ambassador to the U.S., Jean-David Levitte, joined him for meetings with key NSC, DOD, and State Department officials. In 2005, Secretary of State Rice would come over from State to join Hadley and several of us on the NSC staff, and in the course of a half-day we would review every issue facing the United States and France. It was a serious time commitment for the American and French officials, but that is because we were determined to quarantine bad personal chemistry and prevent it from infecting the entire relationship—a goal set by President Bush himself.
Quite obviously, President Obama has no such goal. Israeli officials have complained to me for several years about the lack of contacts and communications with the White House. Susan Rice has determined that her job is to make bilateral relations worse, and has established no relationship with her Israeli counterpart Yossi Cohen. So the problem is not just bad chemistry at the top; it is an administration that has decided to create a tense and negative relationship from the top down.