There have been more than a few moments during the past two weeks when watching the disturbingly public spat between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu has felt uncomfortably like watching Rocky VI (or whatever number they’re up to). The two combatants, bloodied but not bowed, keep coming at each other, each daring the other to deliver a knockout blow, but neither quite able to do so.
The big difference, of course, is that this disagreement is happening very much in real time, not in a Hollywood production, and the stakes could not be higher. Israel’s relationship with America is the only one it has with a major world power that actually approximates a true friendship. And America’s relationship with Israel, over and above whatever sense of post-Holocaust obligation America might feel, is grounded in the reality of Israel being the only democracy, and genuinely dependable ally of America, in what is arguably the most volatile region in the world today. For now, the two parties are essentially playing a game of thrust and parry with each other. But what is only verbal fireworks now could all too easily escalate into actions that might fundamentally alter the “rock-solid friendship” between the two countries. That is a thought that I find profoundly distressing, and anyone who cares about Israel’s security and wellbeing now and in the future should be similarly troubled.
Those of us who are passionate about Israel are understandably both vexed and perplexed by the profane characterization of Prime Minister Netanyahu by a “senior White House official” to journalist J.J. Goldberg. Senior White House officials rarely say things to journalists that they don’t want quoted. Their conversation was not off the record, and said official had to know that whatever he/she said would wind up in The Atlantic, the prestigious magazine for which Mr. Goldberg writes. The White House official was sending a signal. Yes, it was a coarse, crude, and harsh signal, but a signal nonetheless, one that said “OK, you want to play hardball, we can play hardball too.”
Vocal supporters of Israel, myself very much included, can quickly recite all the reasons why Israel’s Prime Minister is within his rights, and his obligations, to be extremely cautious when it comes to making concessions of any kind to the Palestinian Authority. Withdrawing from Gaza led to the establishment of “Hamastan,” and with Hezbollah perched menacingly on the northern border, Egypt favorably inclined but unstable, Syria a chaotic and threatening mess, Jordan overrun by refugees from Syria and feeling increasingly upset about disturbances on the Temple Mount, and Iran trying ever so hard to evade Western sanctions and build a nuclear weapon, Israel’s geopolitical situation is exquisitely precarious. An Israeli Prime Minister would be derelict in his responsibilities were he/she not to be reluctant to move forward with concessions. I get it. We all get it.
But it seems to me disingenuous, and inexcusably arrogant, to pretend that the comments by the White House official were, no matter how unwise, undiplomatic and impolitic, uttered in a vacuum.
Senior ministers in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and numerous others, have consistently and publicly uttered extraordinarily undiplomatic pronouncements about President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and American diplomacy in general. PM Netanyahu’s lecturing of President Obama at a joint appearance at the White House left the American administration seething, and the insults hurled at Secretary Kerry during his recent diplomatic initiative were inexcusably hostile, no matter how sincerely they were felt, or what truth they might have represented. Announcing new housing starts in East Jerusalem during Vice-President Biden’s visit to Israel some years ago enraged both the Vice-President (a great friend of Israel) and America, and even now, that Prime Minister Netanyahu has again announced new housing starts in the midst of the current difficult climate has come across as gratuitously provocative.
Of course Israel has the right to build in Jerusalem, its capital, as PM Netanyahu has said. Of course it has the right. But it does not have the obligation to announce new plans to do so in the midst of the worst crisis in Israeli-American relations in anyone’s memory. Having the right to do something does not obligate a person to do it. This can only be interpreted as an “in your face” kind of gesture on Israel’s part. Is that really the message that Israel wants to be sending to America right now? Just months after America’s commitment to the Iron Dome anti-missile system saved countless lives in Israel’s major population centers, and European countries are moving slowly but inexorably towards recognizing a Palestinian state, and anti-Semitism is resurgent around the world… is this the time to exacerbate what is already a contentious relationship with the only real friend Israel has?
With America’s mid-term elections now behind us and Republicans having emerged from them triumphant, Prime Minister Netanyahu may be more inclined than ever before to simply “wait out” the Obama administration and deal with what he trusts will be a friendlier (read Republican) American administration after 2016. But after this week’s elections, President Obama is the lamest of lame ducks, and he has two long years to leave his imprint on both domestic and foreign affairs. We have not yet seen the full extent to which America is willing to make its point to Israel.
I think that the aforementioned senior White House official had it all wrong. Prime Minister Netanyahu is not a coward. A man who served in Sayeret Matkal, the most elite of Israel’s elite special forces, is no one’s coward. And more to the point, what Netanyahu suffers from is the very opposite of cowardice: an excess of self-confidence, and arrogant bravado. He would do well to cultivate a healthier sense of when taking a step back from the brink is more appropriate than charging full speed ahead. With Israel’s precarious situation being what it is, he has every right, and obligation, to be cautious. But taunting the American administration seems to me more foolhardy than cautious, and more irresponsible than courageous. The stakes are simply too high for such gambits.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.