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Israel’s Growing Isolation—and America’s Decreasing Regional Power

3:35 PM, Sep 8, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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The Israeli press is still trying to figure out what to make of Robert Gates’s parting shot at Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to Jeffrey Goldberg’s column earlier this the week, Gates thinks that Netanyahu is “ungrateful.”

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Gates is upset because, while the White House has provided the Israelis with “access to top-quality weapons, assistance developing missile-defense systems, high-level intelligence sharing,” the administration hasn’t gotten what it really wants in exchange—movement on the peace process, according to Goldberg. Of course, the Israelis haven’t gotten what they really want either—action on Iran—and the Pentagon’s munificence is partly intended to deter the Israelis from taking matters into their own hands.

Yedioth Ahronoth adds some more details to the story behind the rift, suggesting that Gates’s animosity was first stoked last summer when U.S. officials were briefing Netanyahu on the $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Apparently, Netanyahu came to the meeting unprepared and started lecturing Gates and others on the dangers facing the Jewish state, a performance that left Gates outraged.

However, it appears that Gates’s anger was growing even before that meeting last summer. According to Goldberg’s sources, Gates was flummoxed when new housing units in Jerusalem were announced during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel last March. Had he been in Biden’s shoes, “he would have returned to Washington immediately and”—said Gates, rehashing former Secretary of State Jim Baker’s famous quip —“told the prime minister to call Obama when he was serious about negotiations.”

Of course, the Obama administration has had little sympathy for Netanyahu. But Gates, who regularly met with delegations of Israeli military and security officials, was seen as something of an exception, or at least as the point man for what has become the strongest aspect of the alliance, a security relationship “unprecedented in scope and depth.” Thus, according to the Jerusalem Post, Gates was perfectly suited to deliver the anti-Bibi message—he’s a Bush appointee, and he’s left government service. That is, the Obama administration gets to take a shot at Netanyahu that won’t be tallied up on a scorecard that may be starting to alienate some Jewish support.

Moreover, the White House wants credit for its willingness to go to bat for Israel when it vetoes the proposed U.N. resolution this month declaring Palestinian statehood. The administration will oppose the resolution, as Goldberg helpfully spells out, “in spite of Netanyahu, not to help him.” The fact is, a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state is as much of a problem for Washington as it is for Netanyahu and Israel—and it is not Bibi who is to blame for the predicament that the White House finds itself in, but Obama himself.

A unilateral declaration by the Palestinians is anathema to the longstanding American policy of brokering a negotiated settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. For U.S. policymakers, the significance of the peace process is not only in getting treaties signed—like the deals with Egypt and Jordan—but it is also the power and prestige that come as a consequence of presiding over negotiations. If the Arabs can get what they want without Washington exercising its leverage on Israel, then the U.S. loses its role as regional power broker. The Obama administration has to veto the resolution not because of Israel, or because of Jewish voters, but because it is an assault on American regional strategy.

Perhaps Obama can lay the blame for the current crisis at the feet of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was the first U.S. president to call explicitly for the creation of a Palestinian state. It seems that, for some policymakers and analysts, this suggested that achieving a Palestinian state was a key U.S. policy goal. However, the mere fact of a Palestinian state as such is not an American interest, unless it is the result of a negotiated settlement.

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