Last week, the Obama White House finally clarified its Middle East policy. It’s détente with Iran and a cold war with Israel.
To the administration, Israel isn’t worth the trouble its prime minister causes. As one anonymous Obama official put it to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, what good is Benjamin Netanyahu if he won’t make peace with the Palestinians? Bibi doesn’t have the nerve of Begin, Rabin, or Sharon, said the unnamed source. The current leader of this longstanding U.S. ally, he added, is “a chickens—t.”
It’s hardly surprising that the Obama White House is crudely badmouthing Netanyahu; it has tried to undercut him from the beginning. But this isn’t just about the administration’s petulance and pettiness. There seems to be a strategic purpose to heckling Israel’s prime minister. With a possible deal over Iran’s nuclear weapons program in sight, the White House wants to weaken Netanyahu’s ability to challenge an Iran agreement.
Another unnamed Obama official told Goldberg that Netanyahu is all bluster when it comes to the Islamic Republic. The Israeli leader calls the clerical regime’s nuclear weapons program an existential threat, but he’s done nothing about it. And now, said the official, “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”
In other words, the White House is openly boasting that it bought the Iranians enough time to get across the finish line. Obama has insisted for five years that his policy is to prevent a nuclear Iran from emerging. In reality, his policy all along was to deter Israel from striking Iranian nuclear facilities. The way Obama sees it, an Iranian bomb may not be desirable, but it’s clearly preferable to an Israeli attack. Not only would an Israeli strike unleash a wave of Iranian terror throughout the region—and perhaps across Europe and the United States as well—it would also alienate what the White House sees as a potential partner.
The negotiations with Iran were only the most obvious part of the administration’s policy of pressuring Israel. The White House knew the Israelis would have difficulty striking Iranian nuclear facilities so long as there was a chance of a deal. Jerusalem couldn’t risk making itself the enemy of peace and an international pariah. All Netanyahu could do was warn against the bad deal Obama was intent on making.
The White House used plenty of other tools to pressure Jerusalem. For instance, leaks. Virtually every time Israel struck an Iranian arms depot in Syria or a convoy destined for Hezbollah, an administration official leaked it to the press. The White House understood that publicizing these strikes would embarrass Bashar al-Assad or Hassan Nasrallah and thereby push them to retaliate against Israel. That was the point of the leaks: to keep Israel tentative and afraid of taking matters into its own hands.
Another instrument of pressure was military and security cooperation between Israel and the White House—the strongest and closest the two countries have ever enjoyed, say Obama advocates. It allowed administration officials to keep even closer watch on what the Israelis were up to, while trying to make Jerusalem ever more dependent on the administration for its own security.
Don’t worry, Obama told Israel: I’ve got your back. I don’t bluff. The Iranians won’t get a bomb. And besides, the real problem in the region, the White House said time and again, is Israeli settlements. It’s the lack of progress between Jerusalem and Ramallah that destabilizes the region. As John Kerry said recently, the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process is what gave rise to the Islamic State.
From the White House’s perspective, then, Israel is the source of regional instability. Iran, on the other hand, is a force for stability. It is a rational actor, Obama has explained, pursuing its own interests. The White House, moreover, shares some of those interests—like rolling back the Islamic State.
The fact that Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani now calls the shots in four Arab capitals—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sanaa—makes him the Middle East’s indispensable man. Compared with the one-stop shopping Obama can do in Tehran to solve his Middle East problems, what can Israel offer?
The Obama administration’s Middle East policy, finally clarified last week, is premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Islamic Republic. The question is whether the White House has also misunderstood the character of a man, the prime minister of Israel, whose courage they mock.