Michael Gottsegen

What’s Up With That? Or, Why is the Obama Administration Giving Bibi Such a Hard Time?

I find myself increasingly perplexed by the Obama administration’s continuing frontal attacks on Netanyahu. Did Bibi say hateful and troubling things in his election campaign? Yes. Did he try afterwards to undo some of the damage? Yes.

Typically, close allies try to minimize the daylight between their positions. Typically, gaffes and disappointments get papered over, for the sake of the relationship. Especially when divorce is not a possibility, both parties try to maintain a public appearance of relative comity.

So why then is the Obama administration keeping Bibi on the hot seat and continuing to dress him down in public? Is it because the administration believes that this is the way Bibi treated the White House last month when he came to Washington and attacked the administration’s Iran policy? Is it then just a game of nasty tit-for-tat?

Or is it — and this has been my sneaking suspicion since the attacks began and continued — an effort by the administration to create a dynamic in Israel that would undermine Bibi’s ability to form a government? According to this scenario, either the US pressure would lead Bibi to say things, or to act in ways, that would undermine the support of his right-of-center potential coalition partners, or the ginned up crisis in US-Israel relations would create a political crisis in Israel that would create an unprecedented situation where President Reuven Rivlin would not ask Bibi to form a government, or would be able to force Bibi into a national unity government as a condition of Bibi’s ability to form any government at all. Or, alternatively, the crisis in US-Israel relations itself might suffice to lead Bibi himself to seek to form a national unity government at a moment when the country is “under attack.” (Some might suggest that even Bibi has an interest in this outcome since it would permit him to form a government without the burden of Bennett and Lieberman)

A third alternative that now seems to me to be the most likely of all, is that the Obama administration is doing all of this to put Bibi on notice that the US is prepared to use its leverage against Israel and against Netanyahu himself if he dares to criticize the administration’s deal with Iran when it is completed and presented to the public. Yesterday’s decision to take a week off from negotiations is curious in this respect. Could it be that the administration decided it wanted another few weeks to be on the offensive against Bibi before it found itself on the defensive again on account of its Iran policy?

Just dare to criticize the Iran deal, the administration seems to be saying, and we will make your political life so hard that you will rue the day you ever dared to cross us publicly.

Whatever the nature of the game that the White House is playing, it is doing real and significant damage not just to Bibi, but to the alliance with Israel itself. The administration’s words may also help to spur the beginning of a third intifada. Of course if this happens, Bibi’s own words during the election will be largely responsible for having lit the match, as it were. But the Obama administration will also be responsible for having poured fuel on the fire and for tossing more than a few grenades into the area after saturating it with gasoline. And the administration’s words are undoubtedly heard in Ramallah as a green light for pressing hard against Israel at the UN, the ICC and in foreign capitals.

One can also imagine that the remarks of Obama and his administration since the Israeli election have also filled the sails of the BDS movement with fresh air and a strong wind. Obviously Bibi himself is responsible for this as well, but once again the US administration is acting to make matters worse for Israel diplomatically and politically rather than acting to lower the temperature, as one might expect an ally to do.

And, finally, there is the possibility that the US has decided to pull out the stops in its public attacks on Netanyahu and his policies because it sincerely believes that only tough love might work with a misguided and recalcitrant Israel. Thus, like Jim Baker going after Yitzhak Shamir publicly in 1992, Obama might be doing this with love in his heart and because he believes that proceeding in this way is the only way to possibly deter Israel from a course which he, and many Israelis and friends of Israel, regard as potentially ruinous to the country. By this logic, unless Israel swerves from the course it is on, the dystopian nightmare of a one state solution is coming quicker than anyone imagines, which will surely mark the end of a Jewish and democratic Israel. And if this is the explanation for why the Obama administration is still ratcheting up rather than toning down its criticism of Bibi, the harsh and unrelenting character of the administration’s criticism would be a reflection of its sincere concern for Israel’s future well-being and of its fears that unless Bibi is taken to the woodshed, he and his right-wing government are likely to take irreversible steps that will produce a disaster for Israel down the road. Stop now, Obama would be saying, while you still can, and before it is too late.

So which of these explanations of the Obama administration’s behavior is most likely? My guess is that what started as pique, progressed to tit-for-tat, increased in volume when some thought it might possibly change the Israeli election outcome after the fact, and, finally, has become a way of putting Bibi on notice that he better keep his mouth shut when the US-Iran deal sees the light of day. Or else.

About the Author
Trained as a political theorist at Columbia University and in Religious Studies at Harvard, Michael Gottsegen (Ph.D., 1989) has worked in and out of academia since the early 1990s, having taught at Columbia and Brandeis before coming to Brown. A book based on his thesis, "The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt," was published in 1994.
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