Jerusalem—Jeffrey Goldberg reported last week that former defense secretary Robert Gates thinks that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “ungrateful” for all that Washington has done for Israel. The purpose of the story, leaked by senior administration officials, is to blame Netanyahu for the rift in U.S.-Israel relations.
Gates was well suited to deliver that message. First, he was a holdover from the previous—Republican—and famously Israel-friendly administration. Moreover, in the Obama White House, he was seen as the keystone of an enhanced security and military relationship with Jerusalem, providing the Israelis with “access to top- quality weapons, assistance developing missile-defense systems, high-level intelligence sharing.” So if Gates has a problem with Israel, it can only be Netanyahu’s fault.
Not so, writes Elliott Abrams. According to the deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration, “Secretary Gates expressed essentially similar views” when Ehud Olmert was prime minister of Israel.
In the spring and summer of 2007, Abrams recalls, Israeli and U.S. officials met frequently to discuss what should be done “about the then recently discovered Syrian nuclear reactor.” Gates, writes Abrams, “had been firmly in favor of the diplomatic option. The question of course arose in those discussions what we should do if Israel disagreed—as in the end it did. Secretary Gates was firm, as I recall him: Israel was ungrateful and its policies were at times risking our own interests. We needed to be tough as nails and tell them our interests came first and their action would threaten the U.S.-Israeli relationship.”
In other words, there’s nothing new about Gates’s stance on Israel. What is different is that, unlike the Bush White House, the Obama administration has sought to exploit it. Some Israeli officials believe that the leak was designed to get back at the Israelis for not apologizing to Turkey for killing nine terrorists aboard the Mavi Marmara last year. Instead of asking for Israel to express its regrets, the White House might more profitably have acted on a rational principle of self-interest; after all, the Turkish-sponsored boat that took part in a Gaza aid flotilla was loaded with terrorists intending to run a legal maritime blockade. Turning the Israelis into the villains is a bad precedent that may come back and hurt American interests.
In the meantime, the Turks themselves made good use of the Gates story. “Israel is ungrateful,” said Turkish president Abdullah Gul, who must have savored the opportunity to echo Gates’s words for his own purposes, on Thursday.
What the White House might have merely intended as an information campaign against Bibi ended up being interpreted differently in the Middle East. If the Obama administration had imagined that its targeting was precise and would only affect a politician they despise, it was wrong—the damage will be greater, afflicting not only Netanyahu and Israel as a whole but American regional interests. These are signals that the Americans are lifting their protective wing and making an ally vulnerable.
For Turkey, of course, it’s not just about Bibi. Rather, Gul’s remarks are part of a larger anti-Israel campaign that will gather steam as the Turkish opposition competes with Prime Minister Reccip Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party to see whose anti-Israel rhetoric is more compelling.
Given Turkey’s regional ambitions and self-image, as well as its limited ability to project “soft-power,” Ankara might believe that it’s in its interest to test the Israelis even more. Already Erdogan plans to dispatch the Turkish navy to escort aid ships to Gaza, and maybe Erdogan will find other opportunities to project power and prove that he’s in full control of a military whose top brass resigned en masse in July. Neither he nor any other regional leader has much to lose by enhancing his own prestige at the expense of Israel—a fact that the Obama administration, intentionally or not, made clear with the Gates story.