Mark Silberstein

Small Ball and Obama

I always worry about the day US and Israeli interests will move in different directions. At first glance this appears to be the case with the recent “full blown crisis” between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama’s administration.

However, when we take a step back, differing interests are the last thing driving these two administrations apart. On the contrary, it could be argued that at no point in their 66 year history have the common interests and threats facing both the US and Israel aligned so closely. Iran’s bomb and growing Shia influence throughout the Middle East threaten the West just as much, if not more than Israel. Sunni extremists are threatening US interests throughout the Middle East and ISIS has established itself not to counter Israel, but Western Civilization as a whole.

The opportunity for the US to lead the western world (including Israel) and join the Moderate Arab Sunni bloc to combat these threats seemed all to clear 12 months ago. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and various Gulf States all shared the same threats as the US and Israel. Iran was isolated and economically vulnerable after years of sanctions. After the dramatic turmoil in the Arab world, the threats and newfound alliances started to crystalize, waiting for the US to take the lead.

How did we get to the point where the Obama Administration is now calling the Prime Minister of Israel “chicken sh$t” while at the same time making concessions to Iran with seemingly no leverage or Plan B what so ever?

The current crisis is not due to differing interests, but rather driven by other factors.

The first factor derives from the soured relationship between the two leaders. Bibi certainly hasn’t furthered Israel’s interest by the manner in which he has managed US-Israel relations. The “original sin” was crossing the line during the last presidential election and publically supporting the Republican candidate Mitt Romey. This was shortsighted and arrogant. Going on to repeatedly state his intention to go around the President and take his case to “allies” in Congress and directly to the American people was also incredibly counter productive on Bibi’s part. Despite Israel’s wide spread support in the US, it’s ill advised for a foreign leader to play Americans off against one another, especially when one is the President of the United States.

While this behavior is narrow minded, I still don’t believe it’s entirely responsible for the current situation. The connection between Israel and the US is undeniable. These two countries not only share common interests but common values, culture, economics and religion. All of these bind these two societies and nations together. Being the only democracy in the Middle East, there is no greater ally or society in the world more closely connected to the US than Israel, regardless of the Prime Minister’s relationship with the US President. Israel and the US’s fate are inextricably linked. As Israel goes, so will the US and the western world.

However, the actions of the Obama Administration indicate a lack of understanding or disagreement with this fact. The lack of a personal connection between leaders is not without precedent. President Bush (41) had his differences with Israel and it’s widely acknowledged that President Obama doesn’t have close relations with several other world leaders.

What makes this “crisis” with Israel so damaging is President Obama’s issues with Prime Minister Netanyahu appear to be seeping over to issues with Israel as a whole. President Obama is using his distaste for Bibi to not only damage the Prime Minister of Israel, but also the State of Israel. The US administration appears to be consumed with teaching Bibi a lesson and putting Israel in Her place. In carrying out this “small ball” petty politics, the Obama Administration is damaging Israel and US interests throughout the Middle East. It gives the impression President Obama not only has an issue with Prime Minister Netanyahu, but also with Israel. This divisiveness not only has the opposite effect of increasing domestic political support for Bibi, but also isolates Israel even further internationally.

This “small ball” politics was on full display during Bibi’s last trip to the White House. From Israel’s standpoint, the meeting was intended to demonstrate “business as usual” between the two leaders. However, the Obama Administration chose to latch onto a report by the far left wing Israeli organization Peace Now claiming additional settlement building. While new settlements continue to be a deeply damaging issue for Israel, watching the US administration embrace a far left wing Israeli report in order to damage the Prime Minister of Israel during the last day of his visit to the US indicated a deeper issue.

The current US administration is consumed with embarrassing and damaging the Prime Minister of Israel. By doing this, they are overlooking two fundamental things. Damaging the Prime Minister of Israel actually damages US interests. Second, “small ball” politics reduces US stature at a time when it is already sinking. To go out of your way to publically shun the Israeli Defense Minister or rebuke the Israeli press for criticizing Jon Kerry’s ill advised cease fire negotiation strategy is beneath the prestige of the United States. The US is the most powerful indispensible country on earth. To engage and acknowledge the criticism of the Israeli Defense Minster, with all due respect, is like Mohamed Ali worrying about a college boxer. I can’t recall the last time I saw the US State Department or White House Press Secretary address a quote by the UK, Canadian or German Defense Minister supporting or criticizing the US. This Administration’s obsession with damaging Israel is coming at it’s own expense. Prime Minister Netanyahu will enjoy higher polls as a result and everyone will be right back in the same place afterwards, with the exception of our common enemies who are emboldened because of it.

Creating such daylight between the US and Israel only increases the chances for diplomatic, political or even military attacks on Israel. This is destabilizing for the Middle East and hurts US interests.   What must Iran be thinking watching the US consumed with attacking Israel’s Prime Minister? Of course Abu Mazen will give hate filled, consequence free, Anti-Israel speeches at the UN when he knows the US administration doesn’t fully support Israel.

The second and perhaps more important reason for this recent crisis is a fundamental disparity between Israel and America’s understanding of the current state of affairs in the Middle East, specifically regarding Iran.

The US seems to want a deal more than Iran does. A deal affording Iran economic freedom combined with break out nuclear capability will change the face of the Middle East for generations. Consummating a “bad” deal with Iran will lead to the empowering of Hezbollah and Hamas as well as the further destabilization of various other countries under deep Iranian influence. Iran will be in a position to “run the table” in the Middle East, making ISIS a distant memory and the entire neighborhood seeking nuclear weapons. Ironically, Israel’s concerns are shared by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and various other Gulf States who are just as, if not more, threatened by a powerful nuclear Iran.

I have no doubt that confronting the daunting challenges in the Middle East will be much more palatable if the US and Israel take a step back from “small ball” politics and realize they can’t escape the fundamental common interests and values they share.

Small ball isn’t going to get anyone very far in todays Middle East.

About the Author
Mark Silberstein was born in Cape Town, South Africa and currently resides in Zichron Ya'acov, Israel . He studied at Tel Aviv University and worked as a Public Relations Director at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles 1999/2000.